Kevin McCorry, Belfast and Wexford

Belfastman Kevin McCorry was organiser of the Northern Ireland  Civil Rights Association (NICRA) from 1969 until 1975. He was on the lorry that fronted the civil rights march in Derry on “Bloody Sunday”, 30 January 1972, when the peaceful marchers were attacked by British paratroopers, leading to the deaths of 26 unarmed civilans.  A solicitor by profession, he has championed progressive causes in both parts of Ireland all his adult life. He and the three colleagues to whom he pays tribute below were key people in the Campaign for Democracy in Northern Ireland which sought to advance a pogressive solution to the Northern “Troubles” throughout the late 1970s and 1980s. He is currently Director of the annual Desmond Greaves Weekend Summer School in Dublin. 

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While I only met Desmond Greaves personally on a few occasions, my closest colleagues when I was organiser of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association from the end of 1969 to 1975 were John McClelland, Joe Deighan and Bobby Heatley. This trio had been active in the Connolly Association when they lived in England for some years before returning to Ireland. Photographs show John McClelland and Joe Deighan taking part in the Irish civil rights marches across England that Desmond Greaves organised and participated in in 1962. In another photograph Bobby Heatley is seen waiting to speak at a Connolly Association meeting that appears to be in Trafalgar Square, London.

John McClelland came from a Northern Protestant working-class background. His father was active in the trade union movement, and one of John’s first political memories was as a child attending a massive rally with his father in the Grosvenor Hall, Belfast, in support of Soviet Russia some time towards the end of World War 2. On his return to the North John worked for Gallahers in York Street, then one of the biggest tobacco factories in the world. But his increasingly public identification with civil rights activity in the late 1960s brought him to the attention of a hard-line Loyalist clique in the factory, and while the management were quite tolerant, he was ultimately forced to leave Gallahers for his own safety. He then started a very successful business.

Joe Deighan was a pharmacist by profession and a Socialist Republican in politics. A promising soccer player as a young man, he might have gone on to play at professional level had he stayed in the North. Before emigrating to England in the early 1950s he had been involved with other Irish language activists in setting up Cumann Chluain Árd to promote the language in an actively non-sectarian and inclusive environment. Cumann Chluain Árd still proudly carries on this work in the same premises in Hawthorn Street, Belfast, that Joe Deighan and his colleagues used many years ago. Joe was the leading figure in the Manchester branch of the Connolly Association in the 1950s and 1960s and was prominent in Manchester Labour circles. He was President of the Connolly Association before he returned to live in Belfast in the mid-1960s together with his wife Dorothy. 

Bobby Heatley was also of Protestant working-class East Belfast background. He was a committed Socialist Republican from his youth. Before going to England he was involved with a group of young people who regularly met in the Continential Café on the fringe of West Belfast to discuss politics and the issues of the day. He used to tell us about an older Protestant workmate who on his way to work called each morning at his regular newsagent to pick up a copy of the “Irish Press”. On returning to Belfast Bobby enrolled as a mature student to study economics at Queen’s University, Belfast, and in due time became a College lecturer.

1970/71 were pivotal years in the North. The British Government was presented with a crucial policy choice: either to introduce a programme of civil rights reform, over the heads of a recalcitrant local Unionist administration if need be, or increasingly to use the British army as a counter-insurgency instrument to subdue the ever increasing frustration and anger of the Nationalist/Catholic population. The Tory Government under Premier Edward Heath which replaced Harold Wilson’s Labour administration in June 1970 chose the latter course.

The presence of British troops on the streets in policing mode has never been either inherently reactionary or progressive; it all depends on the political context of the moment. In August 1969 the Northern Nationalist population had welcomed British troops because they saw them as a counterforce to the rampaging RUC and B-Specials who had facilitated the burning of hundreds of Nationalist/Catholic homes and the expulsion of several thousand people during that traumatic month.  But following the unexpected Conservative election victory  in the summer of 1970 the hardline Stormont Unionists were able to get a more favourable hearing at Westminster again. From then on the British army adopted a significantly more heavy-handed policy in Nationalist/Catholic areas. NICRA spoke for all democratic opinion in the North when it condemned the military repression and its voice was still heard in Britain and further afield. The problem at the time was how to force the new Tory Government to row back from its  ever greater reliance on a military response.

Since August 1969 it had been progressively more difficult, if not impossible, for British Governments to contend that the civil rights situation in Northern Ireland was just an internal affair for the Unionist administration at Stormont. With British troops patrolling Northern streets, the British and Northern Prime Ministers had met in London in that month and after re-affirming that Northern Ireland was part of the United Kingdom, they acknowledged the obvious: that the situation in Northern Ireland was the full responsibility of the UK Government. They issued a joint declaration which stated that citizens, regardless of their political views or religion, had rights to the same equality of treatment and freedom from discrimination in the legislation and executive decisions of government as obtained in the rest of the UK. 

A series of reforms based on these principles was also agreed: the structure of policing and the B-Specials was to be reviewed; there was to be a reform of local government incorporating universal adult suffrage; an independent commission responsible for drawing fair electoral boundaries was to be set up; and equality of opportunity in public employment and fairness in the allocation of public housing was to be guaranteed by the appointment of a parliamentary and local government ombudsman.  

It is often forgotten that the Northern Civil Rights Movement movement had made significant political advances by August/September 1969. But while the concessions were significant, the task of democrats was how to translate them into law and actal practice. This was a matter of political struggle and not of ‘armed struggle’.

There were crucial omissions in the so-called Reform Programme, notably as regards discrimination in private employment. Significant also was the fact that the basis of the programme was not the creation of legally enforceable rights, but the setting up of new institutions and agencies which might well drag their feet.

As the implementation of the reforms dragged on through 1970 it became ever more obvious that the local Unionist Government at Stormont would not push through reforms that would be any more than token gestures. Tensions rose and the situation progressively deteriorated when the Conservatives replaced Labour at Westminster that June. 

In the following months NICRA was inundated with reports of maltreatment of Nationalists/Catholics by the police and army.  These culminated in the Lower Falls curfew of July 1970 and the internment and interrogation operation of August 1971, with its appalling accompanying abuses.

In September 1971 a number of leading Nationalists/Catholics issued a statement following the introduction of internment that questioned whether any Unionist administration could be trusted to implement a genuine reform programme. The answer was clearly No.

This is where the genius of the Bill of Rights concept that Desmond Greaves pioneered comes in.

By late 1970 rising levels of violence and military repression made mass political activity more and more difficult. The British authorities were having more and more domestic and international success for their claim that they needed to pursue a hard-line repressive policy in the interest of peace and stability. Some erstwhile civil rights supporters came to believe that the civil rights goals were both an obstacle to and a diversion from the ‘real’ struggle,  which was for ‘national rights’ and a united Ireland.  Others looked to the newly formed SDLP to achieve the full civil rights programme.

As a result of these and related factors NICRA was gradually marginalised.  Although NICRA organised significant marches and demonstrations to highlight the failures of the ‘reform programme’ and the introduction of internment in the period 1970-1972, culminating in the Rent and Rates Strike of 1971 and the Bloody Sunday/Newry marches of early 1972, the organisation was never able to generate a serious mass campaign for the Bill of Rights. This had become NICRA policy from the 1970 Annual General Meeting held in January of that year.

Bobby Heatley, Joe Deighan and John McClelland were to the fore in pushing the Bill of Rights demand.  The Belfast Civil Rights Association held indoor and outdoor meetings, organised demonstrations and sought support for a 10,000 signature petition. Bobby Heatley wrote an excellent pamphlet putting the case for the Bill of Rights.

However, as the general security situation deteriorated throughout the period, a lot of organisational effort was of necessity diverted elsewhere, particularly into the campaign for an end to internment and the release of the internees.     

There were voices within NICRA that did not see the political relevance of the Bill of Rights policy. Supporters of the People’s Democracy (PD) group were already calling for ‘the suspension of Stormont’and  ‘direct rule’ from London.  Provisional Sinn Fein followed the PD lead in this.

This also became the official line in Washington. There were US Senate hearings in the run-up to the introduction of Direct Rule which followed ‘Bloody Sunday’. I  recall being invited to make a presentation on behalf of the NICRA, and Dublin fast-tracked my visa application so that I could attend – presumably on the mistaken assumption that that I would be ‘on message’ with the SDLP etc. in calling for ‘Direct Rule’.

I was already in Washington when a Senator discovered that I was going to try to set out the merits of the Bill of Rights as the progressive way forward instead of ‘Direct Rule’ from London. Vigorous efforts were made to get me to change the thrust of my presentation, and when these failed equally vigorous efforts were made to try to have my appearance before the Senate Committee cancelled.

Even politicians who were broadly sympathetic did not seem to understand the good-sense  and political relevance of the Bill of Right demand.  On one occasion Gerry Fitt MP, in what seemed to be a fit of mental panic before he went on the stage to address a large civil rights meeting in St Mary’s Hall, Belfast, asked Joe Deighan whether the appropriate demand was for a ‘Bill of Rights’ or a ‘Bill of Rights and Direct Rule’!  Of course it was for a Bill of Rights instead of Direct Rule.

Just as some of their key activists rejected the idea of campaigning for civil rights on the ground that such civil rights were ‘British’ rights,  the newly formed Provisional Sinn Fein and IRA could not see that there was nothing especially ‘British’ or regressive about demanding that the British Parliament introduce measures to impose a legislative straitjacket on the subordinate Unionist/British Stormont assembly that would at once outlaw discriminatory practices and guarantee civil rights and freedoms for Northern Nationalists; nor that such a measure had the potential of removing  in  due time the Loyalist sense of ‘top-doggery’ over Nationalists/Catholics which remains core to the mental outlook of a lot of Unionists.

The Republican leadership would later welcome the suspension of the Stormont Parliament and the introduction of direct rule from London, while rejecting the call for a Bill of Rights that would have required London to permit, and preferably encourage,  the devolved administration in the North to develop closer relations with the South.

The Civil Rights Movement led to bitter divisions within Unionism and these were on display throughout this period. The Bill of Rights concept was a brilliant initiative that offered a way to enable Nationalists to take advantage of these divisions within Unionism in a way that would have encouraged an alliance in a reformed Stormont between Nationalists and Liberal Unionists  – remember that the Alliance Party was launched in 1970  –  isolating the Unionist Right and opening up a way in time for the peaceful reunification of the country. It was an historical might-have-been that has some parallels to the later Good Friday Agreement. But if it had been introduced by London in 1969-70 the North’s history for the next half-century would almost certainly have been very different. 

Discrimination, repressive laws and institutions and unfair electoral practices had long been grievances for Nationalists and Catholics in the North. It was the genius of Desmond Greaves to formulate and drive forward a political demand in the form of the Bill of Rights that would have redressed those grievances while also enabling Northerners to advance politically towards the achievement of their national rights by way of an independent united country.  For that service alone he deserves the honour of all those who seek ‘Ireland her own, and all therein, from the sod to the sky’.