Why did the campaign for civil rights in Northern Ireland lead to a political crisis for the state

Conflict… the disturbances… the troubles…. each of these are synonymous, euphemised and cliched phrases used in conjunction with Northern Ireland. Yet in saying this I am not attempting to launch an attack on the vocabulary skills of the numerous writers and texts which have been produced on this subject matter. Instead I wish to underline that these phrases are inadequate, and to understand the full scale of these” troubles” we must multiply our conception of trouble or conflict at least tenfold.

Northern Ireland has had deep historical divisions for centuries and in this piece I will be looking at the relatively more recent side of the conflict as it has unravelled over the last forty years. This piece will be primarily concerned with the build up to the civil rights campaigns in Northern Ireland and there effect on the political stability of the state. Firstly I intend on looking at the existence of any inequalities at this time and how these in turn may have initiated the civil rights campaigns. Following this I will look at the formation, requests and expansion of the campaign throughout the province of Ulster.

To coincide with this section of this article I will then view the unionist government and unionist peoples’ response to these organisations. This article also deals with the violence that fractured off these civil rights groups and the effect of this on the people of Northern Ireland. This will ultimately lead to the concluding part of this piece. As stated previously, to merely regard Northern Ireland as an area of religious conflict would lead to grave misunderstanding. This was not a holy war however for ease of explanation; the principle parties are referred to as Catholics and Protestants. In order to understand the effect the civil rights movement had on the political process of the state, it is first necessary to look at its reason for emerging.

Discrimination in Northern Ireland had long been alleged in the areas of employment, public housing and the electoral system. Firstly we can look at employment in Northern Ireland around the 1950s and early 1960s. At this period almost one-third of the Catholics were unskilled thus twice as likely as Protestants to be unskilled. 2 It also appeared that even a catholic with equal work-ability circumstances3 as a protestant were twice as likely to be unemployed.

However how would things be any different considering that Northern Ireland Prime Minister at the time Basil Brooke openly encouraged Protestants “to employ protestant lads and lassies”5. The next aspect of alleged discrimination in Northern Ireland was the allocations of houses. In an area in Fermanagh here Catholics were a majority, out of the 1,048 houses built 82% of them were allocated Protestants. This was not a unique scenario to just Fermanagh, similarly in Dungannon, out of the 194 houses built 100% of them were allocated to protestants6.

The third sector in which this discrimination was alleged to be dominant was in the political system where the unionists appeared to have the province neatly sliced to their own favour. The conditions and regulations regarding voting in the province at the time would mirror more those conditions in medieval times than those of 1960s Europe. These were that one must have a house or business premise to vote. On the unionist side, they claimed that this was equal in its discrimination against the same circumstance protestants in the province.

However after considering the difficulty that a catholic had in obtaining a job or a house due to the discriminations explained above, this electoral system served them no purpose whatsoever7. Other schemes and conditions were also set up to reaffirm Protestants as the political victors, yet it was the process of gerrymandering on behalf of the unionist government, which showed its truly discriminatory nature. This was exercised by unionist electoral councils who simply mathematically calculated the ideal formula to perpetuate their re-election by simply re-drawing electoral boundaries.

This maximised the amount of seats, which could be taken by as little unionist votes as possible and on the other hand minimising the amount of seats that could be won in areas where Catholics held obvious majorities. This was shown to yield ridiculous results in areas such as Derry, Dungannon and Omagh whereby catholic majorities were well known and unionists were claiming atleast 75%8 of the constituency seats, even though they only held a 66% majority in the province. Now it is time to look at the core aspect of this article-the civil rights campaign.

This had a rather snowballed birth as the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association9 sprung from various smaller organisations set up on a battle against the various discriminations throughout the province. These consisted predominantly of the Derry Housing Action Committee10 and the Dungannon based Campaign for Social Justice11. These various campaigns realised they were campaigning for essentially the same thing i. e. fundamental civil rights. As a result under the NICRA banner the organisation set out a list of demands.