Desmond Greaves & the Origins of the Civil Rights Movement in Northern Ireland

by Sean Redmond

The main text of this pamphlet is based on a lecture delivered by the author to audiences in both Dublin and Belfast in 1997, prior to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. These Desmond Greaves memorial lectures were conducted under the auspices of the Desmond Greaves Summer School. Below is a brief account of this side of Greaves’ work. 1997 marked the 30th anniversary of the formation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, an event of considerable importance, which Greaves influenced. Accordingly, a crucial period in the recent history of Ireland is examined.

Desmond Greaves – Politician

Desmond Greaves is widely known as a distinguished historian, in particular by his biographies of James Connolly and Liam Mellows. This lecture deals with another side of him – the politician, and his effectiveness as such, both theoretical and practical. This was expressed mainly through his leadership of the Connolly Association in Britain and his editorship of the Association’s paper, The Irish Democrat.

1997 also marks the 30th anniversary of the formation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association and it will be shown that the work of Desmond Greaves and the Connolly Association influenced this important event.

The Connolly Association – a new stage

In 1955, the Connolly Association adopted a new constitution, after having gone through a lean period. The Cold War had inflicted damage on organisations of the left. In addition, the passing of the 1949 Ireland Act, by the British Labour Government had resulted in disillusionment within the Irish community in Britain. They had turned inwards. There was a need for the Association to take a new direction.

The new Constitution expressed two aims:

  1. to win support in Britain for a united independent Ireland
  2. to stand for equal treatment for the Irish in Britain.

Socialism was referred to in the constitution, in that the methods to achieve the objectives included:

“publishing or distributing or otherwise making known the teachings of the great representatives of Irish democratic republicanism, especially of the socialist James Connolly.”

In this constitution, an important political principle was asserted. The Association was not demanding socialism in Ireland. This was the task of those living there. The Association operated in Britain. Accordingly, its members, both Irish and British, had the responsibility of working to end British involvement in Ireland, thereby assisting the Irish people in deciding their future for themselves.

There was at that time large emigration from Ireland to Britain, and the Association had to be broad based and outward looking to appeal to them. It also had to be an active organisation. Campaigning against the abuses of civil rights in the north of Ireland was to be the dominant issue.

The politics of civil rights

These were demands which could be understood and campaigned for. But there was a political aspect to this campaign. Achieving democracy in the north would unlock the situation that had prevailed for over thirty years. The nationalist population would have the restraints removed from them, thereby becoming politically more effective. In reverse, the unionist monolith could be ended. The nature of the six-county state could be exposed and this would place a question mark over its very existence.

Additionally, by raising the civil rights demands in Britain, and by directing these demands at the British government, the overall responsibility of Britain for the north was placed to the fore. This would inevitably bring into question the 1920 Westminster government of Ireland Act, which set up partition.

This was the strategy of Desmond Greaves, and he later explained it in his pamphlet The Irish Question and the British People, published in 1963:

“The most important thing required in Britain is to place a question mark over the Government of Ireland Act once more. Evidence has been advanced for the view that it may already have been subjected to scrutiny behind closed doors. But this is not satisfactory. If Britain’s Irish policy is being reconsidered, the British people are entitled to know with what in mind. The examination must be conducted in the full light of day. The only way to ensure this is an open public enquiry into the functioning of the Government of Ireland Act in all its aspects. To press for this is one of the first duties of those who want a democratic settlement of the Irish question.”

Civil rights campaign launched

The first major campaign launched by the Connolly Association was connected to the Mallon and Talbot trial in 1958. Two republicans, Kevin Mallon and Francis Talbot, had been accused of murdering a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary in Tyrone. They both alleged that they had been beaten to obtain confessions. There were three trials and the Association sent John Hostettler from London to observe them.

Hostettler was an London lawyer, who had never been in Ireland before. He covered the trials, in which the accused were found not guilty of murder, as the confessions did not stand up.

On his return, he spoke at meetings all over Britain, and wrote a pamphlet, which was widely distributed. Hostettler included in his pamphlet, the first time it had been done for many years, an analysis of the Special Powers Acts, showing how they infringed international human rights conventions.

The Special Powers Act, (note 2) enacted by the north of Ireland parliament at Stormont, was then in use. Under the Act, nearly 2OO persons were interned in the six-counties, imprisoned without charge or trial. In London in 1959, the Connolly Association launched a campaign demanding the release of the internees.

A vital element of this campaign was the involvement of British trade unions.

A member of the Association, Chris Sullivan, travelled to Belfast and ascertained that some of the internees were members of trade unions, with headquarters in Britain.

Members of the Association and supporters then tabled motions at branches of these unions, requesting the national executive of each union to enquire from the British Government why their named member was imprisoned in Belfast without charge or trial.

By this means, the motions went through district and regional committees, before reaching the national executives. The Unions also forwarded the motions to their sponsored Labour MPs.

By December 1960, half the parliamentary Labour Party and a million and a half trade unionists had demanded the release of the internees and before the end of 1963, they were all freed.

At an early stage, campaigning on civil rights demands was meeting with success. The spotlight was beginning to shine on the misdeeds of the unionists. It was also during this campaign that an attempt was made, in 1960, to set up a civil rights organisation in Belfast. The secretary, Sean Caughey, addressed meetings in Britain,organised by the Connolly Association.

How the association worked

The Association operated on three levels:

1. In the Irish Community

2. Through the Labour movement in Britain, the trade unions and political parties of the left. It also obtained support from some Liberal Party groups and from Welsh and Scottish nationalists

3. In broad-based organisations, two in particular — the Movement for Colonial Freedom (now Liberation) and the National Council for Civil Liberties (now Liberty)

The Movement for Colonial Freedom (MCF) had been founded by Labour MP Fenner Brockway.(note 3) In the early 1960s, colonialism was still widespread, and the MCF was a significant organisation. It was supported by many Labour MPs and trade unions.

Initially. the Association had difficulty affiliating to it, as it was not generally accepted that the Northern Ireland question was colonial. However, after winning the support of the London Region of MCF, the Association’s affiliation was accepted. Through MCF, access was gained to MPs, Labour Party branches and trade unions.

The National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL) was especially important as the civil rights campaign developed. It was an influential organisation, reported on by the serious press. It had a parliamentary group, supported by MPs from the three main parties at Westminster.

The NCCL was exclusively concerned with civil liberties and when the Association affiliated, it naturally confined its activities in the organisation to civil rights issues. In this, it was particularly effective. Over the next few years, the NCCL was to play a vital role in the civil-rights struggle in the north, which can be attributed to the pioneering work of the Connolly Association.

Obviously, the civil liberty issues had to be presented in a British context. As Northern Ireland was part of the United Kingdom, the standard of human rights should be no less than in the rest of the United Kingdom – and it was the responsibility of the british government to ensure that this was so.

While Desmond Greaves continued to provide the political leadership and to edit the Irish Democrat, the author commenced working full time with the Association in 1962. On being elected to the executive committees of both MCF and the NCCL, he was able to devote time to developing the Irish policy of both organisations.

Civil rights and national unity

There were, or course, serious political problems to be resolved. Among the Irish, we were accused by some of ignoring partition. We therefore had to show the connection between national unity and civil rights. In the early 1960s, the Association began to hold an annual rally in Trafalgar Square, and while the demands made at these rallies were concerned with civil rights, they were always held close to June 20th and the event was called Wolfe Tone Sunday.

The wall of silence

A further problem was breaking the ‘’wall of silence’; that was drawn around the north of Ireland. The British media did not want to know, but this, obviously, was not due entirely to indifference. Media control was in operation, and it must be said, still is.

Then there was the problem of getting issues relating to the north of Ireland before the parliament at Westminster. The Stormont parliament was responsible for internal matters and these matters could not be raised at Westminster. Successive British governments maintained this convention. It was their way of keeping the troublesome ‘Irish question’ out of British politics, a policy which was to have dire consequences.

Sympathetic MPs could ask question or table motions, but they were never answered or debated. Gerry Fitt later complained that at Westminster, he could talk about Birmingham or Blackpool but not about Belfast! Nevertheless, MPs persisted.

In 1962, Labour MP Marcus Lipton was in Belfast with Desmond Greaves observing the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Unionist signing of the Covenant. He observed a banner being carried in the parade, which referred to the Westminster parliament. On his return, he tabled a question as to the legality of the reference to parliament on a Unionist banner. Naturally, he received no replay, but this small incident demonstrated the determination of some Labour MPs to raise the issue.

Breaking the convention

Sympathetic lawyers, such as D.N.Pritt and John Platts Mills, were consulted as to how to break the convention. However, it was Desmond Greaves who came up with an idea. He went back to the 1920 Government of Ireland Act, and in particular, to section 75. This read: “Notwithstanding the establishment of the Parliament of Northern Ireland or anything contained in this Act, the supreme authority of the Parliament of the United Kingdom shall remain unaffected and undiminished over all persons matters and things in Northern Ireland and every part thereof.”

Based on this clear constitutional position, it was argued that the Westminster parliament, as distinct from the government, could concern itself with the north of Ireland. But even with this, the British government still maintained that internal matters were the responsibility of the Stormont parliament.

Greaves then had another idea. The 1920 Act, which partitioned Ireland, had as its intention that of providing ‘better government’ in Ireland. Clearly it had failed, as there was anything but ‘good government’; in Northern Ireland.

The Connolly Association then launched a campaign, demanding that the parliament of Westminster, as distinct from the British government, should examine the working of the 1920 Government of Ireland Act, as clearly it had failed in its intention. Thousands of signatures were obtained to a petition calling for this, and many Westminster MPs signed a House of Commons motion.

There was no enquiry, but it was all chipping away at a political situation which had been frozen solid for years.

Stepping up the campaign

Having achieved success in raising the issues and winning support, the Association launched a large scale campaign in 1962. Three members, Desmond Greaves, Tom Redmond and Sean Redmond spent a week in the north of Ireland, where they were joined by Anthony Coughlan. The purpose was to conduct a comprehensive survey of the civil rights abuses. Former internees were interviewed, details of how the elections were gerrymandered, especially in Derry, were obtained, the facts relating to religious discrimination in employment and housing were documented.

Greaves and Sean Redmond visited Enniskillen, where Redmond photographed the appalling housing conditions of many Catholics. New houses were being allocated to members of the Protestant community, by the minority Unionist council, in power through an unfair electoral system. One abuse fed another.

At this time in Britain, marches were a popular form of political activity, such as the Aldermaston marches, and the march to Holy Loch, the site of the polaris missile. In 1961, the Connolly Association had organised two marches, the first from London to Birmingham, and later from Manchester to Huddersfield. The four reporters, on their return from the north of Ireland, were met at Liverpool by other members of the Association, and thus began the two week long Irish Freedom March, from Liverpool to London.

The information obtained had been quickly printed in the Irish Democrat, and it was distributed on the march. Meetings were held in every town the march passed through, especially with trade unions and Labour Party branches. Overnight accommodation was provided, by the Irish community and the local Labour movement. Although the ‘wall of silence’ was still largely maintained by national newspapers, local newspapers reported extensively on the march and its purpose.

These marches also reinforced the position of the Connolly Association, as the leading Irish political organisation in Britain.

Extending the cooperation

Alongside this high level of activity, the Association continued to promote civil rights issues within the National Council for Civil Liberties.

In 1959, the Council had called for an inquiry into the continued violations of human rights in Northern Ireland and, in 1962, produced a seven point programme for civil liberties in the North. These included the repeal of the Special Powers Acts and electoral reform.

As a result of this activity, which was reported on in the Irish media, the Association was by now cooperating with parties and groups in the North. These included the Nationalist Party, which still existed.(note 3)

Desmond Greaves maintained a regular correspondence with Cahir Healy MP, the veteran of the Nationalist Party, whom he had met on the 1962 visit. On 30th January 1964, the Nationalist Party Stormont MPs, visited London. Fenner Brockway MP hosted a meeting for them in the House of Commons, with the Association having undertaken the preparatory work. They also met Jo Grimond MP, the leader of the Liberal Party.

Also in 1964, the Campaign for Justice was formed in Dungannon, Co.Tyrone, by the McCluskeys. They produced a constant flow of material on the abuses in the North, which they circulated worldwide, but especially in Britain. This greatly helped to reinforce the work being done by the Connolly Association.

The culmination of this work was the conference organised in London by the NCCL on 13th March 1965, which was to prove significant. In addition to the Council’s wide range of affiliates, the conference was attended by all political groups in the North of Ireland. These included the Northern Ireland Labour Party, the Nationalist Party, the republicans, the Liberal Party, and the unionists.

The latter were represented by John Taylor, then on the progressive wing of the Unionist Party. Also present was Betty Sinclair, secretary of the Belfast Trades Council, and the McCluskeys. Everyone, except Taylor, agreed that serious abuses existed and that action to correct them was needed.

Soon after, there was another useful development. The author had been invited to address a meeting of the Streatham Labour Party in south London, which contained a number of Irish people, some of whom were members of the Association. He suggested the setting up of a support group within the Labour Party, and immediately the Campaign for Democracy (CDU) was launched, led by MPs, Paul Rose and Brockway. They soon received the sponsorship of seventy of their Parliamentary colleagues.

The Northern Ireland Labour Party

At this stage, we must consider the role of the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP), which then had four MPs at Stormont.(note 5) Although not part of the British Labour Party, fraternal links existed.

The NILP was half-hearted on the civil rights abuses, and was prepared to support reforms of the electoral system only. Wide-ranging abuses were directed at the nationalist and Catholic community, but the undemocratic voting system affected both communities, although in respect of the Protestant community, to a lesser degree.

Accordingly, the NIPL played a negative role by trying to limit the demands and dampening down activity. This was like ‘manna from heaven’ to the British Labour Party leadership.

The NILP also tried to persuade the NCCL to limit its demands to reform of the electoral system, and linked with this, there was talk within the NCCL of setting up a branch in Belfast.

The author was aware of this, through his membership of the NCCL executive committee. This was strongly opposed by the Connolly Association, who insisted that any civil rights organisation in the north should not be imported from Britain. It should be set up and run from within.

Belfast conference

This was discussed with Betty Sinclair, and the result was the convening, by the Belfast Trades Union Council, of the historic conference in Belfast on 8th May 1965, in the hall of the Amalgamated Transport & General Workers Union.

Attended by republicans, NILP, Communist Party, CSJ, and significantly by trade union delegates, its importance was that it cut across the sectarian divide. Coming within a few months of the NCCL London conference, the campaigns in Britain and the north were beginning to move in tandem.

However, the initiative taken at the Belfast conference was not followed up, due to the NILP. Their delegates at the conference requested time to consult with their Committee. This was a device to do nothing, as time dragged on and the Steering Committee appointed at the conference fell away.

Greaves later described this as a disaster. Terence O’Neill had replaced Brookeborough as prime minster at Stormont, and O’Neill recognised the need for reform. A Labour Government was in power in London, and it had encouraged talks between the Dublin government and Stormont. The first of these, between Taoiseach Sean Lemass and O’Neill, had taken place in Stormont in January 1965.

On the other hand, there were hardliners within the Unionist Party, such as Craig. The Paisleyites were gathering strength, and the UVF had become active again.

However, the O’Neill reformers were in control, supported by the British. In this situation, a cross-community civil rights movement, led by the Belfast Trades Council, and with the involvement of other trade unions, could have secured concessions and made political progress. But it was not to be.

The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association

Despite the failure to follow up on the Belfast conference, the campaign for civil rights continued. In February 1966, fifty-five MPs tabled a motion at Westminster, calling for an inquiry into the working of the Government of Ireland Act. The campaign received a further boost, when in the 1966 general election, Gerry Fitt was returned to Westminster from West Belfast, on an independent Republican Labour platform.

The Nationalist community pressed ahead. They were the main victims of the abuses and were determined to secure their rights. The result was the formation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) in January 1967, modelled on the NCCL. In a later publication, NICRA described the background to its formation:

“Although the civil rights movement did not formally begin until 1967, the preceding years of the decade saw several attempt to get it off the ground. A meeting was sponsored by Irish emigrant organisations on the subject of discrimination in London during 1962. The following year, the CSJ began its thorough task of proving statistically the abuses in housing allocation and so on. By 1965, the National Council for Civil Liberties had decided that action was required in Northern Ireland and, after a conference here, produced a report on the state of the franchise. This was followed the next year by a comprehensive survey of infringements of civil rights issued by the Belfast Trades Council.”

The meeting in London in 1962 was a Connolly Association function, and also the involvement of the NCCL in the north was begun before 1965. Nevertheless this statement demonstrates the importance of the work that had taken place in Britain, led by the Association, which encouraged the formation of NICRA.

While NICRA’s membership extended beyond the nationalist community, the founding conference was not as broad-based as the 1965 conference. This is not in any way to fault NICRA. Rather it is a condemnation of those in the labour and trade union movement who were faint-hearted about civil rights and who, at a crucial time, held back their support for the initiative of the Belfast Trades Council.

Powder Keg

The north of Ireland in 1968 was later described as a powder keg. Those suffering oppression were determined to end it. O’Neill was weak, whereas home secretary Craig was the opposite. He was intent on suppressing the civil rights movement. And at Westminster, the Labour government of Wilson refused to intervene. The convention of non-involvement had to be maintained, irrespective of the consequences.

Following a civil rights march in Dungannon, to protest against the discriminatory system of allocating houses, NICRA planned a march in Derry on October 5th 1968. The Apprentice Boys announced an counter demonstration and home secretary Craig decided to ban all parades in certain areas of the city. NICRA decided to proceed with the civil rights parade.

Despite it being peaceful, the civil-rights parade was attacked by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and many, including Gerry Fitt, were injured. These events were shown on TV screens throughout the world, and the police brutality, especially the sight of Fitt, a Westminster MP, with blood pouring from a head wound, shocked many. In the words of Desmond Greaves: “the events in Dungannon and Derry opened a new age of tumult in the crisis of unionism.”

The author was at the British Labour Party conference in Scarborough in the days before October 5th. He persuaded three Labour MPs to visit Derry to observe the events – Russell Kerr, Anne Kerr and John Ryan. On their return, they reported, including to the government, on what they had witnessed.

Earlier that year, Russell Kerr had been in Chicago, and had observed the manner in which the police had used violence against anti-Vietnam war protestors at the Democratic Party convention. The author recalls asking him how the RUC compared with the Chicago police, whose behaviour had shocked many Americans. His reply was ” they both play in the same league”.

British government intervention

On Sunday 6th October, the day after the Derry march, the Connolly Association and other Irish groups paraded to Downing Street, where a demand for intervention was delivered to prime minister Harold Wilson.

Two weeks later (2Oth October) the Movement for Colonial Freedom organised a parade and rally in Trafalgar Square, the first time in fifty years that a British organisation had taken such an initiative. The speakers at the rally were Belfast Trades Council secretary Betty Sinclair, Gerry Fitt MP, three British Labour MPs, including John Ryan, who had been in Derry on October 5th, and the author.

The rally was also addressed by representatives of the United Ireland Association and the republican movement Clann na hEireann. Other Irish organisations were being brought into working with progressives forces in Britain.

Speaking of the success of the rally, the secretary of MCF stated that “most of the credit was due to the work of the Connolly Association”.

The British government could no longer sit on the fence. On 4th November, O’Neill, Craig and Faulkner were summoned to Downing Street. The next day, Prime Minister Wilson announced to the House of Commons that he had requested a report on the events in Derry and had pressed O’Neill to introduce reforms.

Within the Civil Rights movement there was a new determination. A huge rally was organised in Derry on 16th November, which won cross community support.

On 22nd November, O’Neill announced a package of reforms. Opinions differed as to how to react. It was perhaps a time to reflect on what had been gained and where the civil rights movement was heading. However, it was decided to proceed with a civil rights rally planned for Armagh on 30th November.

During the night, Paisley and his supporters, armed with clubs and iron bars, occupied the city, prepared to stop the parade by force. True to form, it was the civil rights protestors who were attacked by the police.

Splits appear

NICRA then decided not to organise any more marches until mid-January, but there were others who did not agree with this strategy. Peoples Democracy had been set up, mainly among the students in Queens University and they decided to march from Belfast to Derry, commencing on January 1st. They were subjected to brutal attacks, especially at Burntollet Bridge, by non-uniformed B.Specials and unionist extremists.

Peoples Democracy also had a political agenda different from NICRA. Their demands went beyond civil rights into ‘class politics’, in line with the vogue among student movements at the time. The civil rights movement, having made some progress, suffered a split, precisely when it was facing a ferocious unionist onslaught.

Unionist reaction

Within the unionist camp, hardliners were gaining the upper hand. In the February 1969 Stormont elections, O’Neill was challenged in his own constituency by Paisley, and came within 1404 votes of losing the seat. Later that month he resigned and Chichester-Clark only succeeded in defeating Faulkner for the prime minister post by one vote.

The civil rights marches continued, invariably suffering attacks from the RUC. July 12th 1969 was the powder keg, into which the match was thrown by the unionists. They assembled in Derry in strength and insisted on marching at will throughout the mainly nationalist city.

Some skirmishes followed, but the response of the police was to attack the nationalists and thus began ‘the battle of the Bogside’. On 15th August, the violence spread to Belfast and Catholic areas were subjected to attacks from a combined force of RUC, B.Specials and unionist extremists. Ten people were killed, dozens wounded and 15O Catholic homes were burned to the ground.

The Scarman Tribunal, which investigated the events of August 1969, listed six occasions of RUC involvement. These included the incursion of the RUC Reserve force, the B.Specials (note 6), into nationalist areas in Derry on 12th August and the use of Browning machine guns in Belfast on 14th and 15th August. In one such attack on the Divis flats a nine-year old boy was shot dead as he slept.

The gun was back in north of Ireland politics, brought there by the unionists, in an attempt to suppress a peaceful movement for civil rights.

Politically, the situation was changing. Heath’s Tory government came into office in 197O, and quickly abandoned any pretence of a political settlement. They introduced a Criminal Justice Act, which included mandatory prison sentences for rioters.

In the same year, Sinn Fein and the IRA split. The Provisional IRA emerged, in a large measure due to the violent reaction of unionism to the civil rights movement. As unionist control of the six counties was based on suppressing the nationalist community, any lessening of that suppression had to be opposed. Hence their determination not to concede on human rights.

In March 1971, Chichester-Clark had been replaced by Faulkner and in August of that year, internment was introduced. Predictably, republicans and nationalist were the only ones to be imprisoned without trial. This led to further violence.

Still seeking a political solution

Throughout these difficult years, the Irish community in Britain, led by the Connolly Association, were still arguing for a political settlement. In August 1968, the Association had written to Wilson, requesting the enactment at Westminster of a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights. The request was ignored.

The Association then circulated a petition in Britain, making this demand, to which nearly 100,000 signatures were obtained. In September 197l, the annual conference of the British Trades Union Congress (TUC) adopted the demand for a Bill of Rights as their policy, endorsing a motion moved by Belfast trade unionist Andy Barr, who was later to become president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. This was a month after the introduction of internment.

While the British Government refused to enact a Bill of Rights, individual Parliamentarians agreed to introduce one. But what bill? One did not exist in legal form, as at this stage it was only a demand, and when it came to be discussed, some of the parliamentarians thought drafting a bill would be impossible.

The Northern Ireland Bill of Rights

The author recalls being at a meeting in London with Desmond Greaves, at which this matter was discussed with Fenner Brockway MP and Geoffrey Bing, QC. The latter, when a Labour MP, had been involved with the “Friends of Ireland” group within the British Labour Party in the late 1940s. Brockway and Bing proposed that a bill be tabled limited to legislating for proportional representation in elections in the North. Lord Longford had drafted such a bill. Greaves opposed this, seeing in it the hand of the NILP. The only answer, was to draft a bill himself, and when he produced it, friendly Labour parliamentarians readily agreed to promote it.

Labour MP Arthur Latham, who was excellent on Irish issues, had won the right to introduce a private members bill, and on 12th May 1971, he introduced the Northern Ireland Bill of Rights in the Commons. On the same day, Fenner Brockway, now Lord Brockway, introduced it in the Lords. The Tory Government defeated it, but 135 MPs voted for Latham’s motion.

A Remarkable Document

The Greaves Bill of Rights was a remarkable document. It was written in suitable parliamentary form, which would normally be the task of a trained parliamentary draftsperson. A comprehensive document, it was described as:
“A bill to amend the powers of the Parliament and Government of Northern Ireland in order to give relief to the grievances of religious and political minorities.”

It provided for the extension of the Race Relations Act to Northern Ireland, and the inclusion in it of religious discrimination. Proportional representation would apply in all elections. The Special Powers Acts would be abolished by preventing the Stormont parliament from legislating on such matters. It would have made lawful the display of flags or emblems of countries “in friendly relations with Her Majesty,” the requirement on public employees to take an oath of allegiance would have been illegal, and the Bill also provided that it would not be an offence in Northern Ireland to work or advocate in accordance with the law for the establishment of a single parliament for the whole of Ireland.

Looking beyond civil rights for a political settlement, the final clause in the Greaves Bill read:

“With a view to the eventual establishment of a Parliament for the whole of Ireland, and so as to promote co-operation between Parliaments and Governments in Ireland, and to encourage mutual intercourse in relations to matters affecting the whole of Ireland, and providing for the co-operation of services which can with advantage be operated uniformly throughout Ireland, the Parliament and Government of Northern Ireland shall be empowered to enter into direct discussions with the Government of the Republic of Ireland on all matters which it is agreed are of common concern, and to make proposals regarding such matters notwithstanding that they may be “excepted matters” under Section 4 of the Government of Ireland Act 1920”

An Opportune Time

It is important to note the timing of the Bill of Rights initiative at Westminster, May 1971. In August came internment and the violence that it unleashed. The British government rejected the Bill of Rights, or any programme of reform, and instead, in alliance with the unionists at Stormont, chose the path of oppression, with dreadful consequences. It was they, and not the republicans, who relentlessly sought a military solution.

There was another reason why the Connolly Association pressed for a Bill of Rights. Around this time, the notion of abolishing or suspending Stormont was being promoted. This was supported by some groups in good faith, such as the Campaign for Democracy in Ulster. One of the three motions on Ireland tabled for the 1971 British Labour Party conference called on the Government to suspend Stormont and substitute in its place direct rule from Westminster. Given the record of the unionists in Stormont, it is hardly surprising that their removal was being urged.

The Association was opposed to this. It was imagined that if Stormont went, all the repressive legislation and practices would vanish and UK rights would automatically apply. Those calling for the suspension of Stormont failed to see that the legislation enacted by Stormont, such as the Special Powers Act and the gerrymandered elections, would continue. Our alternative was to retain Stormont, but with civil rights imposed and maintained by a Westminster enacted Bill of Rights. In March 1972, after the Bloody Sunday killings in Derry, Stormont was suspended and for the last twenty-five years, Irish republicans and nationalists have tied to diminish British control of the North.

On the other hand, by suspending Stormont over the heads of the unionists, the British government demonstrated who ruled the North. Gone were all the years of posturing over non-interference in the North’s internal affairs. For so long as the local administration could do a job for Westminster, they could stay. When they could no longer perform, they were ruthlessly removed.

Politics in the New Situation

The 1972 Annual Conference of the Connolly Association took place in this new situation and it is interesting to look back at the main conference resolution. It showed the fertile mind of Greaves at work. After setting out the political background, the resolution stated that:

“At present the ending of partition and the evacuation of all the forces of imperialism, thought an inescapable necessity, is not an immediate subject for discussion among those with the power to achieve it. We therefore call on the Westminster government to make a declaration of intent, and adapt its future policy to the purpose of making a complete military and administrative withdrawal from Irish soil, encouraging the reunification and independence of Ireland, and thus abandoning its present purpose of maintaining Ireland in a divided and subordinate condition. The new policy should be pressed with all the speed circumstances allow.

Whereas it is generally agreed that it will take time to solve all the problems caused by fifty years of partition, the Westminster government has under consideration immediate changes, which will decide the conditions under which the struggle for independence proceeds in the coming period. These changes must include the ending of ‘direct rule’ and the establishment of democratic representative government. ‘Direct rule’ has proved a costly failure as the Connolly Association said it would.

In this connection we reject the concept that a referendum of the minority of Irish people who live in the six counties can under any conditions bind the nation. The great and immediate need is for the establishment of civil rights in the six counties, and the establishment of representative government in a form that will facilitate the reconciliation of the estranged communities, and the united struggle of the working people for the attainment of their common interests. Civil rights cannot be bartered against the right to national independence and unity. Civil rights are what the name implies, rights, and as rights they are fought for.”

The resolution then called for the ending of internment, and an end to harassment by the British army, and the immediate enactment of a Bill of Rights. It proposed the opening of discussions on the implementation of the declaration of intent, with the participation of the trade union, socialist and republican organisations in the six counties, to seek solutions to the problem of the reunification of Ireland by consent and the form of democracy in the six counties most appropriate to achieve that purpose.

Although the resolution concluded by reaffirming that the aim of the Association “was the establishment of a united independent Ireland, in which the people were free to make the social changes necessary to their welfare without interference from without,” it recognised that consent was necessary, but equally the resolution rejected what is now called the “unionist veto”.

Twenty-eight years ago, the Association laid out a far-sighted policy. Realities were faced up, the concept of consent was accepted, but stated also was the right of the national majority to unification. Accordingly, the “great and immediate need” was for the introduction of civil rights in the six counties and “for the establishment of representative government in a form that will facilitate the reconciliation of the estranged communities.”
The author returned to live in Ireland in 1973, and thus ended direct involvement with the Connolly Association in Britain. However, over the following years, he spoke at meetings in Britain of the Association and the labour movement and frequently shared a platform with Desmond Greaves. Greaves remained politically active until his death in 1988, while on a train returning from a Connolly Association meeting in Glasgow.

Period of Achievement?

The period under review was one of strife, dominated by the appalling loss of life and suffering that occurred. This must not be glossed over, especially as it is a testament to the political failure of successive British governments, who put British and party interests before peace and political progress in Ireland.

Nevertheless, important advances were made. In particular, the main civil rights demands were achieved, including:-

  • The B-Special Police force was abolished as were the Special Powers Acts
  • The Flags and Emblems Act went, as did the Oath of allegiance for public employment
  • Anti-discrimination legislation was introduced
  • A points system for the allocation of housing was put in place
  • The electoral system was reformed. The effect of this can be seen in the composition of Belfast and Derry City councils, and other local administrations, now controlled by nationalists, republicans and their allies.

The nationalist population was freed from overt unionist oppression, while still being coerced into living in a state not of their choice. Hence their opposition to offensive sectarian marches, which they had to accept in the past. Other gains were the placing of the Irish question back into British politics, after fifty years of insisting that it had been resolved.

In the Republic of Ireland, the majority of the people had their eyes opened to the situation in the North. For many it was an uncomfortable experience. Internationally, the problem in the North of Ireland was publicised. And in Britain, sympathetic support was won in the British Labour and trade union movement, much of which still remains.

Lost Opportunity

Could the civil rights campaign have been developed on different lines? Obviously yes. If a Bill of Rights had been introduced when Stormont still existed, this would have presented a new political situation. With a fair electoral system, large areas of the North would have come under nationalist control, as has now happened. The NILP, nationalists and republicans, and the forces thrown up by the civil rights movement, could have formed a united group in Stormont on certain issues, possibly faced with a split unionist party. In this situation, cross-community politics might have begun to operate.

The unionist violence against the civil rights movement would still have occurred, but presumably, a British government determined to press ahead with civil rights and political reform, could have dealt with this. Successive British governments share the blame, but the failure of Wilson’s Labour government stands out. One can speculate that Britain’s interests at the time, with the Cold War in full spate, did not per it of too much loosening of the strings binding the North to Britain.

When the Conservatives came back into power in 1970, they were determined that a popular movement in “these islands” must not succeed. They also seemed to have been convinced that they could defeat the IRA, which history has shown to be a stupid and costly delusion. Stormont also had to go, as in a “gloves off” situation, it was too unstable. Whereas, a programme of civil rights, together with constitutional changes, to meet the aspirations of the nationalist population, would have seen the IRA become redundant. The oppressed turn to violence when their demands are met with violence and they are not presented with any political way forward. This is what the 1972 Connolly Association resolution sought to express.

Lessons To Be Learnt

We can leanr lessons from looking back over this period, but we must remember that 1997 is not 1967. Thirty years ago, NICRA, a mass movement of the nationalist people of the North could concern itself exclusively with civil rights demands, and the Irish in Britain could likewise limit their demands. The “constitutional question” was for another day. This is not possible in 1997. The “constitutional question” is now the central one, even if only to the extent of demanding that in any future arrangement for running the North, the Dublin government must have a legislative role. There can be no settlement unless Strand Two is addressed.
Nevertheless, it might still be possible to generate cross-community activity on specific issues, such as the administration of justice, the rights of prisoners and the widespread social deprivation in both communities. And perhaps the dispute over parades and marches could be made a democratic issue, on the basis of recognising parity of esteem for the two communities.

The current cessation of military activities presents a new opportunity, but only if the unionists and the British government respond positively. The failure of the last Tory government to respond to the previous ceasefire led to it coming to an end. And no doubt, republicans, looking back at the work of NICRA and that of the Irish in Britain, as described above, and the impact all this had on the Irish people as a whole, will appreciate the advances that were made through political struggle.

In conclusion, we must come back to Desmond Greaves. In addition to being an important labour and republican historian, he played a significant part in a crucial period in Irish history, through his ideas and activities. He influenced many people, some of whom are still carrying on his work. He was always an optimist and this too is what he should be remembered for.


The establishment of a power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland and the all-Ireland bodies in November 1999 is a vindication of the policy for uniting Ireland advocated by the Connolly Association for over 40 years.

That policy, worked out by the late C. Desmond Greaves when he was editor of the Irish Democrat, was based on the recognition that there are only two ways of ending partition: physical force or by obtaining majority northern consent to a united Ireland.

The physical force option involved taking up the IRA’s guerrilla struggle suspended at the time of the 1921 truce in the Anglo-Irish war. But physical force cannot succeed unless one has more force than one’s enemy. The Provisionals’ offensive against the British Army in 1970 meant taking on NATO at the height of the Cold War, for whom retaining bases in Ireland were a key element in Alliance defence, as well as the British state. The IRA was never strong enough to win.

It kept up an extraordinary armed struggle for a quarter-century, helping to unite unionism in the process. It could have kept going indefinitely, but could never get beyond military stalemate.

The alternative – to get majority northern consent for reunification – was through intelligent politics and by dividing unionism through the establishment off a regime based on equality in the North.

Unionism would be eroded, over time, because the rational basis of the unionism of most unionists is the desire to be top-dog over Catholics. Bigotry based on ignorance. Make inequality based on bigotry impossible in the six counties and unionism will erode in a generation, causing liberal unionists or ex-unionists to unite with nationalists as they discover the political implications of their common Irishness.

That was what the 1960s civil rights movement set out to do, dividing unionism between Paisleyites and O’Neillites. Unfortunately, under the pressures of 1970, the IRA reverted to physical force. Now, after 30 years of bloody conflict and lost opportunity, we are back to a situation with remarkable parallels to the late 1960s. Equality of treatment, parity of esteem, powersharing between nationalist and unionists in a devolved Stormont are effectively the continuation of the civil rights approach.

The Connolly Asociation, like the Civil Rights Association which it influenced, opposed the abolition of Stormont in 1972. Not through love of unionism, but because a forum was necessary where nationalists could exploit unionists divisions. The CA saw that direct rule from London would make this hugely harder by removing all the key issues to Westminster.

‘Direct rule’ was first called for by The People’s Democracy – some of whom are still around today as well-known journalistic snipers at the peace process. It was then taken up by the newly formed Provisionals, swept like wildfire through the British Parliamentary Labour Party being being implemented by Tory premier Ted Heath.
One can only speculate how much closer to a united Ireland we would be if the political approach of civil rights had continued uninterrupted.

History has moved on. The Cold War is over. The cohesion of the British State itself is weakening. The Republic has become prosperous. The EU now takes the key political and economic decisions for its member states. The united Ireland that is now inevitable in a generation or so will not be “independent” unless the latter issue is tackled.
The task ahead for all those in Britain, and internationally, who wish to see a united Ireland is to develop a solidarity movement with those pushing the equality agenda in Northern Ireland, and to press the British government to bring home to unionists that their political and economic future lies with their nationalist fellow-countrymen and that their love affair with the UK is an anachronism.

(December 1999)


  1. The main text of this pamphlet is based on a lecture delivered by the author to audiences in both Dublin and Belfast in 1997, prior to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. These Desmond Greaves memorial lectures were conducted under the auspices of the Desmond Greaves Summer School.
  2. The Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act was introduced by the Northern Ireland government at Stormont in 1922. It was extremely draconian, and gave widespread powers to the authorities, including internment without trial. The British government’s Cameron Report into the “disturbances in Northern Ireland” in 1968/69, confirmed that certain provisions of the Act were in conflict with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
  3. Fenner Brockway was a Labour MP at Westminster for many years and later a member of the House of Lords. A life-long opponent of colonialism, he was a supporter of Irish unity. As a pacificist, he was jailed during the First World War in Lincoln gaol, where he met De Valera.
  4. The Nationalist Party derived from the old Irish Parliamentary Party at Westminster. It was the main anti-unionist party in the north of Ireland, until it was overtaken by the civil rights movement and the formation of the SDLP, which drew away many of its supporters and members.
  5. The Northern Ireland Labour Party was formed in 1924, and had links with the British Labour Party. At one time, it had four seats in the Stormont parliament, but that was the extent of its support. It ceased to exist in the early 1980s.
  6. The Ulster Special Constabulary, or B-Specials, were an armed part-time police force, recruited entirely from the unionist population. It was in effect a sectarian political force, whose function was to suppress the nationalist community. The British government insisted on the abolition of the USC and it was stood down in April 1970.