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• Ann Hope, former NICRA secretary
• Eamon McCann, former civil rights leader, explains gerrymandering
• Mina Wardle, Director Shankill Stress Centre

Civil RightsCivil Rights

Civil rights march, January 1969

The Northern Ireland civil rights movement developed as the Catholic community, benefitting from changes in education that helped many of its young people, recognised that it could use campaign techniques already seen in the United States to further its cause for equality.

The civil rights movement in the US had brought the case of segregation and institutionalised racism and discrimination to international attention. Catholics in Northern Ireland hoped that they could do the same.

In the half century of Northern Ireland's existence, the Catholic minority had been subject to various kinds of discrimination as Unionists took steps to protect their power - most notably by manipulating public housing.

Only ratepayers or householders were eligible to vote and successive unionist politicians were reluctant to build houses that would grant suffrage.

Some of the most obvious examples of "gerrymandering" was found in Londonderry where in the mid 1960s the shape of the council wards deliberately divided the Catholic population to massively exagerate the political representation of the Protestant community.

In the late 1960s a group of nationalists began to work for change, focusing initially on housing. In June 1968 the young nationalist politician, Austin Currie, staged the first direct-action protest with a sit-in at a council house that had been unfairly allocated to an unmarried Protestant woman when there were Catholic families who had been waiting longer.

The story was reported around the world - but the media had already started to investigate conditions in Northern Ireland.

One of the most significant and early investigations came in 1967 from The Times, long considered a bastion of the British establishment. It concluded that the Stormont government was treating the Catholic community as "second class citizens" in their own homes.

The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association went on to catalogue discrimination and demanded equal rights. Imitating the American civil rights movement, they also moved their protests onto the streets.

One of its early protest marches took place in Londonderry on 5 October 1968. The Northern Ireland government at Stormont banned the march. When the group marched in defiance of the ban, some of the police surrounded demonstrators and repeatedly charged them with batons. Among those injured in the clash were Belfast MP Gerry Fitt and three Westminster MPs who had been invited to Derry.

The violence was captured by television cameras and drew world-wide attention to the looming crisis to come.

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