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50 years ago: Critical months for a Northern Ireland at the "crossroads"

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Fifty years ago, Northern Ireland Prime Minister Terence O’Neill said: “Ulster stands at a crossroads.” A civil rights movement seeking justice and equality had just begun. At a civil rights march in Derry on October 5, 1968, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) viciously attacked non-violent demonstrators. No one was killed, but many were injured and hospitalized. What followed in the wake of that march shaped Northern Ireland.

The civil rights movement expanded its numbers and grew in strength. The movement was countered by the Reverend Ian Paisley, founder of the fundamentalist Free Presbyterian Church. He led “counter-demonstrations” in which “Paisleyite” mobs assaulted non-violent protesters under the watchful but idle eye of the RUC. Paisley’s tactic made street clashes inevitable.

At a political level, attempts to implement reforms were undermined and thwarted. A majority of unionists did not believe that they lived in a discriminatory society. They treated moderation toward the minority community with disdain and embraced stridency. Some unionists felt extremism in the face of civil rights efforts was acceptable. These attitudes were reflected early the following year in Stormont elections. Those election results ended political careers for some, while others entered politics and began long-lasting and impactful careers.

After the October march, Prime Minister O’Neill, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, was summoned to London to meet with British Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Wilson pressured O’Neill into accepting some of the reforms sought by the civil rights movement, including a promise to end the Special Powers Act, develop a new system for the allocation of public housing, institute certain voting rights reforms, and appoint an ombudsman to investigate complaints about the provision of government services.

O’Neill announced the package of reforms in November. The package did not achieve everything civil rights activists sought. Significant changes like one person one vote and the abolishment of the B Specials, a Protestant militia, were missing. The proposal was a step in the right direction, but civil rights marchers continued to press for full reform.

The Derry Citizen Action Committee (CAC), headed by Ivan Cooper and John Hume, scheduled a protest march for November 16th that would take place along the same route as October’s march. Northern Ireland’s Home Affairs Minister William Craig banned it, but fifteen thousand peaceful marchers showed-up and took part. Hume invited Craig “to arrest the lot of us.”........

© IrishCentral