The Spirit of 1968 - Lessons from the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement


AS we continue to bear the brunt of the recession and our politicians stabilise the interests of the rich and fat cats, the 1960s provides us with an example in the necessity for struggle and social revolution. Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Labour Party, pillars of the establishment continue to squabble over the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement they all share one thing in common when it comes to defending the status-quo and attacks on workers rights and conditions.

Origins of the CRM

After World War Two, the 1950s and 1960s were marked by a world wide economic boom which ensured general high levels of employment and real improvements in the standard of living, together with the creation of the welfare state. In terms of health, there were improvements in vaccinations and the overall death rate and infant mortality rate began to fall.

There was also a post-war housing boom, which saw 103,000 houses built between 1944 and 1962. However, there also began a gradual decline of Northern Ireland's main industries including shipbuilding, textiles and linen.

As a result of economic changes, there was also the creation of a larger Catholic middle-class who would soon provide the conservative leadership of the NICRM. As the Cameron report (1969) into the eruption of social unrest noted,
“They were less ready to acquiesce in the situation of assumed inferiority and discrimination that was the case in the past.”

Historians Paul Bew and Henry Patterson offer a more complex interpretation of social change in term of the decline of skilled working class and secondary industry. In 1911 employment in these industries composed 58% of the population (52% of Catholics; 60% of Protestants). With their decline it was Catholics who were more likely to experience unemployment. They would later go on to provide the backbone of the NICRM and the basis of support for resurgent ‘armed struggle’.

It is now generally accepted that the Catholic population in the period 1922-1968 suffered discrimination at the hands of the Unionist government. Catholics were under-represented on statutory bodies and among the higher ranks of such bodies. The Campaign for Social Justice (1969) listed 22 public bodies, with a total membership of 332, of whom 49 or 15% were Catholics.

In the first election to the Stormont Parliament in 1921, Sinn Fein polled 100,000 votes to 60,000 for Nationalists but each party won six seats. In 1925 Nationalists won 10 seats to 2 for Republicans. However, republicans refused to contest further elections to the 'partitioned' parliament. Even if the minority chose to work within the institutions of the state they were not trusted thus. For example, of 608 Acts of Parliament in its first twenty years only one, The Wild Birds Act (1931), was successfully introduced by the opposition.

However, there still continues some debate as to the 'extensive' nature of sectarian discrimination. We should also remember that the ‘carnival of reaction’ (as republicans often throw up) in terms of sectarianism and discrimination pre-dated partition (i.e., Derry was gerrymandered to produce a Unionist majority in 1896, not 1922). In the absence of a vibrant revolutionary workers movement, it was almost inevitable that partition would occur due to the gradual emergence of ‘two national identities’ especially during the various Home Rule crises.

The Unionist Government only served to copper-fasten sectarianism and operated like all governments - those who supported the regime should benefit, rather than those who did not. It just so happens that this was decided on the basis of religion and national aspiration.

From an anarchist perspective this is the logic of state which serves to protect the interests of the minority over the majority, which is why we struggle for its overthrow.

It is, of course, quite reasonable to ask the question "why if things were so bad, did the catholic population tolerate them until the 1960s?"


One answer is the internal fractions within the ruling class, within unionism over how to deal with the threat. By the 1960s the NI Labour Party was beginning to represent a challenge to the hegemony of the Unionist Party and to meet this threat Brooke was replaced by O’Neill in March 1963. He reasserted the dominance of the Unionist Party by cleverly presenting an 'image' of a new radical 'liberal' policy such as the first cross-border meeting in 1965, while really changing as little as possible. In any case the demand for radical change could not be met, as Wilson points out:

“Rising anticipations, inspired by the advances already made, outpaced what could possibly be achieved and the disillusionment that follows may be more powerful than any feeling of appreciation for the gains that have been obtained.”

Quite simply O’Neill misunderstood the level of opposition within his party and the loyalist tendency represented by Ian Paisley which soon came to the fore. He simultaneously raised expectations of nationalists without delivering and increased unionist disunity.

O’Neill’s 5 point token reforms in 1968 including the abolishment of the Special Powers Act and reform of the voting system was too much for some and too little for others. Governments turn to overt violence to maintain its grip on power whenever consensus is impossible and there exists the rise of a mass movement.

The unionist government simply fell back on the rather simplistic argument that anyone who opposed the status quo had to be a supporter of militant republicanism or a tool of those who did, thus NICRA was simply an IRA front.

The flashpoint was housing which is still a burning issue today - an issue where a mass movement began to converge. Ironically, this was an area where enormous improvements had occurred, but inequalities were blatant, as Bob Purdue remarked in his study of these years:

“This overall expansion of housing did not mean that there was no scope for grievances. In fact it heightened them by making it possible for those not benefiting to compare themselves with those who were, and by creating new expectations, which some councils did not satisfy for some sections of their populations. Needless to say, these dissatisfied groups were mainly Catholics in the lower income brackets.”

Developments within nationalism

Due to failure of the 1956-62 Border Campaign, the republican movement was going through a period of reflection and stagnation. However, they appeared to be moving in a ‘leftward’ direction. Illegal Republican clubs and Wolfe Tone societies as well as the Derry Housing Action Committee provided the backbone of the emerging CRM.

There is no progress without struggle

The immediate international background to these events was also of critical importance. This was the era of the American Civil Rights campaigns, anti-Vietnam struggles, the Prague spring and the Paris rebellion. There was also a rise in unofficial strike action. Not only were these events taking place but they were being watched in almost every home. The question was inevitably asked ‘Why, if a Black American can protest for civil rights, cannot a Catholic in Ulster?’


The NICRM was officially formed in January 1967 in Belfast’s International Hotel. Over 100 people were present and a 12 person steering committee was elected to draw up a draft constitution and programme for campaign. There were participants from the Communist Party, Republican Clubs, Liberal Party and NGOs such as the Campaign for Social Justice.

The demands were modest, liberal and deliberately vague:
* To defend the basic freedoms of all citizens
* To protect the rights of the individual
* To highlight all possible abuses of power
* To demand guarantees for freedom of speech, assembly and association
* To inform the public of their lawful rights.

Quite simply they sought the same rights as other British citizens.

The Peoples Democracy later formed in Queens University Belfast as a radical offshoot from NICRM's willingness to compromise. The PD’s rejected O’Neill’s reforms and pushed for mass civil-disobedience. It subscribed to a broad socialist republican philosophy and also contained anarchists such as John McGuffin who was one of the few Protestants later interned. See the "Wee Black Book of Belfast Anarchism, (1867-1973)" for more information.

The PD’s were a minority within the NICRM but they had an influence out of all proportion to their numbers. According to Bernadette Devlin, “Our function in marching…was to break the truce, to relaunch the CRM as a mass movement and show the people that O’Neill was, in fact, offering them nothing. What we really wanted to do was pull the carpet off the floor to show the dirt that was under it.”

October 5th march

The famous Derry march organised by the Derry Housing Action Committee and supported by the NICRM is widely considered as the key trigger behind the outbreak of the troubles. Recently, there was a programme televised on BBC surrounding these events. The march was attacked by state forces and these events were televised sparking two days of rioting in Nationalist areas of Derry. However, it should be considered that this symbolic march was neither the first nor the last in terms of the struggle against discrimination.

From then onwards, to cut it short, there was cycle of overt state repression and resistance as well as the eruption of sectarian violence in mainly working-class communities. There was also a re-emergence of armed nationalism under the Provisional IRA. There was a popular insurrection in nationalist working-class areas such as the setting up of no-go areas such as Free Derry to the rent and rates strikes. Direct Rule was re-introduced as the Stormont administration was no longer able to maintain ‘law and order’. Internment without trial and curfews were re-imposed. By 1972 there were more than 21,000 British troops on the streets of Northern Ireland.

With the benefit of 40 years on, what lessons, if any can we learn today?

As is often the case, it was not depression, as NI saw in the 1930s, but the general improvement in the standard of living which when combined with resentment by one group created the conditions for conflict. Such a sense of injustice, is often imagined rather than real, but is difficult to pacify and tends to breed further resentment that reinforces existing divisions within society. In the North this tension and hostility is as relevant today as it was then. We only need to look at the loyalist riots in 2005 or the recent military march in Belfast.

The current political impass and political vacuum mixed in with the recession provides enormous opportunities for anarchists to get across our anti-sectarian revolutionary ideas. It goes without saying that it's at the coalface, in our streets, communities and workplaces where we can and will make the greatest political impact.

If anything, the history of the civil rights movement teaches us that their are no short-cuts to social revolution. It requires sustained organising and agitation. There is no substitution for being self-critical and analytical in our approach and vision. We must never lose sight of the bigger picture - the process of uprooting the state and capitalism.

It has been widely recognised by now that the campaign failed to build solidarity with a significant layer of the protestant working class despite the fact that many of these class issues highlighted by the CRM affected everyone but particular the ‘Catholic community’. The main reason for this failure being the fear and mistrust whipped up by the unionist junta to protect their own interests.

Whether we like it or not, given the involvement of republican organisations in the CRM, the emergence of class unity would prove to be difficult due to long and short-term reasons which is beyond the remit of this article and has been extensively covered in WSM literature.

This poses the strategic question of building alliances. Rather than the question of which political organisation(s) to align ourselves with (many of which we share little in common with politically), our primary concern in building alliances in campaigns should be based on ensuring the campaign is based on the anarchist principles of direct democracy and direct action. More importantly, the fundamental question is whether a campaign improves the lives of our class, builds confidence and unity. Ultimately, the process of bringing us closer towards social revolution.

The events in 1968 again expose the myth that social change is impossible, that will not be built on appealing and lobbying politicians and experts. The broad CRM won reforms through mass direct action on the streets. By conceding reforms the government also sought to pacify social discontent and channel demands along harmless routes via parliament. To some extent the state was very successful in their ‘carrot and stick’ approach.

Ironically, the same politicians today attempt to ‘morally blackmail’ us into submission to vote by suggesting that ‘oh, what about all those who struggled and died for universal suffrage’. The answer is: "Exactly! We can only win reforms through collective direct action including violence and social insurrection. Not by electing some donkey into power every four years."

Part of our job as anarchists is to encourage people to fight for whatever small reforms are possible at present and to improve our/their conditions. To make the link between so-called ‘single-issue campaigns’ and give people confidence in their ability to start taking control of their lives. To point out that there is a limit to whatever (sometimes temporary) gains capitalism will or can concede.

As Solidarity noted in their pamphlet:

"Meaningful action, for revolutionaries, is whatever increases the confidence, the autonomy, the initiative, the participation, the solidarity, the equalitarian tendencies and the self-activity of the masses and whatever assists in their demystification. Sterile and harmful action is whatever reinforces the passivity of the masses, their apathy, their cynicism, their differentiation through hierarchy, their alienation, their reliance on others to do things for them and the degree to which they can therefore be manipulated by others - even by those allegedly acting on their behalf."

Hence the necessity for revolutionary change as those who build half-revolutions dig their own graves because what the state concedes it eventually takes back such as the gradual erosion of the ‘free’ healthcare and education at the point of use which were won though struggle.

Errico Malatesta recognised this when he said:
"The oppressed either ask for and welcome improvements as a benefit graciously conceded, recognise the legitimacy of the power which is over them, and so do more harm than good by helping to slow down, or divert . . . the processes of emancipation. Or instead they demand and impose improvements by their action, and welcome them as partial victories over the class enemy, using them as a spur to greater achievements, and thus a valid help and a preparation to the total overthrow of privilege, that is, for the revolution."

At the time, there also lacked a clear coherent class struggle anarchist organisation that was non-sectarian and built on theoretical and tactical unity. Such an organisation could make the link between winning reforms and social revolution. No doubt the entrenchment of sectarian divisions and militarism had a negative impact on any form of anti-sectarian revolutionary alternative emerging up until recent years.

With the greatest respect to comrades and other organisations, the 'anarchist movement' in the North has been disorganised and scattered for far too long unprepared and often shying away from answering the big political questions of the day. At the end of the day 'there is no point building a house without firm foundations'.

Lacking in ambition, strategy and weak organisational structure resulting in what Nestor Makhno described as,
" Dispersion and scattering are ruinous; a close-knit union is a sign of life and development. This lack of social struggle applies as much to classes as to organisations......and can only be described as ‘chronic general disorganisation'.

The WSM is just one part of the 'jigsaw' but we have a vital role in the next couple of years and decades in co-operation with other like-minded individuals and groups in rebuilding the class struggle anarchist movement. The second successful Belfast Anarchist bookfair recently finished for another year, providing a forum of healthy debate and discussing the way forward is surely a sign of a positive future.

Finally, we must also recognise that superficially political landscape has radically changed since in terms of the so-called ‘peace process’. But the real war - the class war - still continues to rage. Sectarianism both overtly and covertly still continues to burn bolstered by a neo-colonial administration.

Anarchism as a revolutionary tool for working class emancipation is relevant now more than ever. Eradicating the root cause of the problem in the form capitalism and its protector, the state, will be lasting testament to the spirit of 68’.

Educate, Organise, Agitate!

Please click on the link below for a brief background to events

WSM pamphlet on 1968 Paris Uprising

Notes on poster:

Silk-screen poster, designed by John McGuffin, and using techniques picked up in Paris in May 1968. Produced during the serious disturbances of August 1969, it was the first poster to advocate the abolition of the Stormont parliament. Here a red hand, either the red hand of Ulster or the clenched fist of solidarity, smashes the neo-classical seat of Unionist government for the previous 50 years. Within the disparate radical alliance of the People’s Democracy, McGuffin was an anarchist and, accordingly, favoured smashing all states. As the Northern Ireland crisis deepened, the proposition had a particular local impact.