Derry and the Civil Rights Movement


1912:  Formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force, a Unionist paramilitary group dedicated to opposing the Third Home Rule Bill

1914-1919:  World War I; more than 80,000 UVF forces volunteer for military service on the continent

1920:  Government of Ireland Act creates two distinct administrative units with the United Kingdom – one covering the 26 counties where Catholics were the majority and one covering the 6 counties where Protestants were the majority

1922:  Anglo-Irish Treaty formalizes partition, creating the Irish Free State out of the 26 counties

1937:  Constitution of Ireland takes effect in the former Irish Free State; the Constitution claims that “the national territory consists of the whole island of Ireland, its islands and the territorial seas”.  The Constitution promises liberty of conscience to Protestants and Jews, but also asserts that the Roman Catholic Church occupies a “special position” within the nation by virtue of  the fact that it is “professed by the great majority of the citizens”.  Specific articles within the Constitution prohibit divorce, allow state funding for parochial education, and assert broad policing powers over media in defense of “public order or morality or the authority of the State”.

1921-1972:  Parliament of Northern Ireland met at Stormont outside of Belfast.  Thanks to gerrymandered districts and manipulation of polls, Stormont maintained a Unionist majority until its dissolution in 1972.  The Unionist-dominated body consistently underfunded social services to Catholic working class communities and resisted calls to equalize access to education and employment opportunities.

1956-1962:  Irish Republican Army border campaign targets customs and border checkpoints.  Coordinated response by Ireland and the UK wipes out the movement, crippling the leadership of the “Old” IRA.

1964:  Campaign for Social Justice (CSJ) forms in County Tyrone to protest discriminatory policies towards Roman Catholic applicants for public housing.

1966:  Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) forms to coordinate civil rights protests.  As a coalition organization, NICRA welcomed local activists, CSJ members, Republican activists, and anti-nuclear and anti-imperial campaigners from throughout the British Isles.

1968:  Derry Housing Action Committee (DHAC) forms to protest discriminatory policies towards Roman Catholic applicants for public housing.  People’s Democracy forms at Queen’s University Belfast as a student group lobbying for various New Left causes, including the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland.

5 October 1968:   Police Brutality in Derry.  DHAC march in Derry banned by Stormont as subversive of public order; when order is ignored by DHAC, Royal Ulster Constabulary police forces violently subdue the march.

1-4 January 1969:  The Belfast to Derry March.  People’s Democracy stages a protest march against police brutality in Derry.  Drawing on the American civil rights movement, the PD march from Belfast to Derry is disrupted by an attack by off duty police officers and Unionist paramilitaries at Burntollet Bridge.

July-August 1969:  NICRA demands that Stormont ban Orange Order and Apprentice Boys marches through Roman Catholic neighborhood as subversive of public order.  When Stormont refuses, Derry Republicans organize the Derry Citizens’ Defense Association (DCDA) with strong Irish Republican Army ties.

12-16 August 1969:  Battle of the Bogside in Derry erupts as DCDA erects barricades to prevent Unionist marches in the Bogside.  Royal Ulster Constabulary police, under orders from Stormont, attempt to destroy barricades and fighting begins.  After four days of skirmishes, the British government intervenes, sending regular army troops to Northern Ireland for policing functions.  The Bogside, now rechristened “Free Derry” remains sealed to Unionists, police, and the army.

Late August 1969:  Unionist paramilitaries begin attacking Catholic homes and neighborhoods in Belfast.  The IRA coordinates the formation of self defense forces and creates “no go” areas in West Belfast.

December 1969:  A group of younger IRA members associated with the Catholic self defense movement breaks from the “Old” IRA to create the Provisional Irish Republican Army (aka “Provos).  The Provos become the main Republican paramilitary force through the 1990s.

1969-1972:  Provos assassinate British soldiers and Royal Ulster Constabulary police officers, engage in defense operations in West Belfast and Derry, and bombings of British military targets in Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Great Britain.

9-10 August 1971:  Internment.  British government introduces Internment, arresting suspected Provos during a series of overnight sweeps.   Claiming broad policing powers, the British government detained suspects without trial and subjected them to physical duress, sleep and food deprivation, and psychological manipulation (in 1976, the European Commission on Human Rights identified these techniques as torture; in 1978, the European Court of Human Rights declared the techniques to be inhuman and degrading treatment”, but resisted the torture label).  Of the 342 detained, few had Provo connections.  Between August 1971 and the end of Internment in December 1975, 1,981 individuals were arrest and held without trial (1,874 were held on suspicion of planning or conducting attacks for the Provos and other Republican paramilitary organizations; 107 were held on suspicion of planning or conducting attacks for Unionist paramilitary organizations).

August 1971:  Violence by Provos and Unionist paramilitaries follow Internment sweeps.  Violence was concentrated on religiously-diverse neighborhoods in Belfast, Derry and other urban centers and resulted in the permanent displacement of more than 10,000 families.

30 January 1972:  Bloody Sunday in Derry.  A large NICRA march against Internment is broken up by British paratroopers tasked with arresting suspected  Provos.  Using live round ammunition, the paratroopers fired into crowds of civilians near Free Derry Corner, killing 13 men (1 additional marcher died of his wounds several days later).

April 1972:  Despite an absence of credible evidence, the British government inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday (the Widgery Report) asserts that the paratrooper came under fire and exonerates them of any blame for the deaths.  Several passages in the report suggest that the dead (several of whom were shot in the back) may have been holding weapons.


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