The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), an organisation that campaigns for civil rights in Northern Ireland during the late 1960s and early 1970s, is formed in Belfast on April 9, 1967. The civil rights campaign attempts to achieve reform by publicising, documenting, and lobbying for an end to discrimination in areas such as elections (which are subject to gerrymandering and property requirements), discrimination in employment, in public housing and alleged abuses of the Special Powers Act.
Since Northern Ireland’s creation in 1922, the Catholic minority suffers from varying degrees of discrimination from the Protestant and Unionist majority. Many nationalist historians regard the ethos of Northern Ireland as unambiguously sectarian, however, academic and author Senia Paseta posits that discrimination was never as calculated as republicans maintained nor as fictional as unionists claimed. In fact, laws against religious discrimination are enshrined in the Government of Ireland Act 1920, Northern Ireland’s constitution. No government of Northern Ireland, even if they want to, can create laws which overtly discriminated against any religious body of peoples.
The genesis of NICRA lay in a meeting in Maghera in August 1966 between the Wolfe Tone Societies which is attended by Cathal Goulding, then chief of staff of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). During its formation, NICRA’s membership extends to trade unionists, communists, liberals, socialists, with republicans eventually constituting five of the thirteen members of its executive council. The organisation initially also has some unionists, with Young Unionist Robin Cole taking a position on its executive council. Official Sinn Féin and Official Irish Republican Army influence over NICRA grows in later years, but only as the latter’s importance declines, when violence escalated between late 1969 until 1972, when NICRA ceased its work.
Events escalate in Northern Ireland until August 1969, when the annual Apprentice Boys of Derry march is attacked as it marches through the city’s walls and past a perimeter with the nationalist Bogside. Initially some loyalist supporters throw pennies down from the walls onto Catholics in the Bogside. Catholics then throw nails and stones at loyalists leading to an intense confrontation. The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) intervenes, and a three-day riot known as the Battle of the Bogside ensues. Rioting quickly spreads throughout nationalist areas in Northern Ireland, where at least seven are killed and hundreds wounded. Thousands of Catholics are driven from their homes by loyalists. These events are often seen as the start of the Troubles.
In a subsequent official inquiry, Lord Leslie Scarman concludes, “We are satisfied that the spread of the disturbances [in Derry in August 1969] owed much to a deliberate decision of some minority groups to relieve police pressure on the rioters in Londonderry. Amongst these groups must be included NICRA, whose executive decided to organise demonstrators in the Province so as to prevent reinforcement of the police in Londonderry.” In December 1969 and January 1970, both Sinn Féin and the IRA split into “Official” and “Provisional” wings, with the “Official” wings retaining influence in NICRA.
The British government introduces internment on August 9, 1971 at the request of Northern Ireland Prime Minister Brian Faulkner. The British Army, in co-operation with the RUC, intern 342 people. One hundred sixteen of those interned are innocent of involvement with the IRA and are quickly released.
The introduction of internment is not a closely guarded secret, with newspaper editorials appearing and discussion on television. The IRA goes underground or flees across the border. As a result, fewer than 100 arrests are from the IRA. By this stage, support for NICRA begins to wane, however NICRA continues to organise anti-internment marches. In Derry on January 30, 1972 NICRA takes part in a mass anti-internment march which had also been banned. Fourteen unarmed demonstrators are shot and killed by British troops during the march which becomes known as Bloody Sunday.