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NORTHERN IRELAND DURING THE 1960s

The 1960s started as the decade of hope in Northern Ireland. The retirement in 1963 of the Prime Minister, Lord Brookeborough, who was to many Catholics the personification of right-wing Unionist opinion and his replacement by Captain Terence O'Neill, seemed to be a victory for moderation.

The policies of the new Prime Minister encouraged this view. In 1964, O'Neill declared "My principal aims are to make Northern Ireland prosperous and to build bridges between the two traditions". The same year saw an important step in facilitating both aims. The southern connections of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, to which most Northern workers were affiliated , had ensured its non-recognition by the Brookeborough administration. In 1964 a compromise was reached when the Congress was recognised by the Stormont parliament in return for greater independence being granted to its Northern Ireland Committee. The most significant gestures towards reconciliation were the exchange visits between Terence O'Neill and the southern prime minister, Seán Lemass, in 1965. As a direct result of the visit, the Nationalist party in Northern Ireland agreed to become the official opposition party in Stormont.

Such developments persuaded many contemporaries and even recent observers to regard the 1960s as an era of tolerance reminiscent of the 1780s and 1790s. Like the earlier epoch, there were many warning signals, remembered in retrospect but underrated in the exuberant optimism of the 1960s, that fundamental attitudes had not altered significantly. The traditional values which would have been threatened by reconciliation, may have been in temporary hiding but soon emerged with banners flying. Indeed, the flying of an Irish tricolour in west Belfast and an attempt to remove it provoked a riot in 1964.

Ian Paisley played a leading role in demanding the removal of the flag. In the 1960s, he emerged as a leader for Unionists and Protestants opposed to political reconciliation and religious ecumenism. The extreme attitudes expressed by Paisley, head of the Free Presbyterian Church and the Protestant Unionist Party were atavistic. He ensured a continuation of the classic duel between liberal and right-wing Presbyterianism which had been fought between Cooke and Montgomery in the 1820s. The Presbyterian General Assembly was attacked and picketed in 1966 by Paisley. Over thirty years later, Paisley and his party today continue to make the same contribution to political and religious reconciliation in Ireland.

In 1966 the murder of a Catholic in the Malvern Arms public house and the apprehension of the murderers revealed the existence of the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) which saw itself as the loyalist equivalent of the IRA. The pressures for change in Northern Ireland society had produced defenders of the status quo.

The changes which they were resisting seemed less substantial to some Catholics. The failure of the O'Neill administration to translate its intentions into practice caused considerable frustration and resentment. A series of measures-notably the closure of the main rail link to Derry, the decision to establish a new university at Coleraine instead of Derry where a university college was already operating, and the establishment of a new growth centre at Craigavon- were seen by both Catholics and Protestants in counties Tyrone and Derry as blatant discrimination against the disadvantaged west.

In March 1967, the Republican Clubs which represented an attempt by Republicans to find a legitimate method of political expression, were declared illegal by the government, a move which seemed narrow and repressive to many people who did not share republican views. As late as 1969, the failure of Louis Boyle, a Catholic, to secure the Unionist nomination as a parliamentary candidate led to his resignation from the party. In his resignation speech, Boyle said:

"One of my main hopes and guiding aims as a member of the party, has been to work towards a newly structured Unionist Party in which Protestants and Catholics could play a part as equal partners in pursuing a common political end. Now I know this is not possible...The Unionist Party arose out of, and is still essentially based on a sectarian foundation, and only a reconstitution of the party away from its sectarian foundations could make Catholic membership a real possibility."

Other Catholics too had realised that reform would not come without pressure, believing that, whether Terence O'Neill wanted reform or not, the conservatism of his party would sabotage any changes, Housing allocation provided the issue for this pressure, and the success of the Civil Rights campaign in America suggested non-violent protest as the means. The Campaign for Social Justice in Northern Ireland, formed in Dungannon in 1964, developed through Housing Action committees in many areas. IN 1967, the broader based Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) was formed. Its campaign, followed with increasing interest by international news media, was to make the Northern Ireland problem an international issue, and ushered in the most dynamic years in the history of Northern Ireland.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Civil Rights campaigns of 1968 was their success in forcing through some reforms. After two marches, to Dungannon in August and to Derry in October, the O'Neill administration agreed to replace Derry City Council with a Development Commission, to establish an Ombudsman and to abolish the unfair company vote. Complaints remained, notably about the Special Powers act and remaining inequalities in the franchise (one man, one vote), but promises were given that the schemes for allocating state owned houses would be clarified and the Special Powers act reviewed.

These promised reforms split the Civil Rights movement. Those, like the People's Democracy (PD) who were moving towards a more radical position, believed that it would be foolish to abandon a successful campaign before it had achieved all its objectives. Others felt that both the reforms and the dismissal from office in December of William Craig, the Minister of Home Affairs, demonstrated the government's good intentions, and that a suspension on marches should be agreed to enable the passing of further reforms.

The decision by the People's Democracy unilaterally to march from Belfast to Derry in January 1969, and the violent opposition to the marchers at Burntollet Bridge, destroyed any hopes of non-violent protest. Many Protestants and Catholics who had participated in the early campaigns now drifted out. The campaign became more radical during 1969, a seminal year in Irish history.

Based on the chapter The Historical Background which appears in the Appletree Press publication, Northern Ireland The Background to the Conflict.

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