The first actions of the Civil Rights Movement in Northern Ireland took place in the year of 1968. In Caledon on 21 June a young Austin Currie, Nationalist MP occupied – in protest – a new home allocated to a young, unmarried Protestant girl …
(who just happened to be employed by a Unionist politician) in preference to several large families who were handicapped on account of being Catholic.
He with NICRA organised the first Civil Rights March on 24 August in Mid-Ulster : this was followed on 5 October by the next March in Derry, organised by among others, a very active Citizens Action Association, this protest gaining worldwide media attention.
The People’s Democracy had sprung up from the students of Queens University Belfast. It was they who arrived on 9 November 1968 in Newry to set up a Branch here.
The people of Newry wanted to take part and were little concerned as to who might lead them. Any reservations were assuaged by the presence of a number of their own among those very students, notably Kevin Boyle (whose brother Louis was the only Catholic Unionist that anyone knew of – but he too was rebuffed by his party on account of his religion when he attempted to win party nomination for a forthcoming election!).
People’s Democracy at the time too was undergoing a struggle for internal domination between a moderate wing, led by Kevin Boyle and Kieran McKeown (later of the Peace People) and a radical, extremist wing led by such figures as Michael Farrell and Cyril Toman of Armagh. A small bearded Belfast student who took up a position somewhere in between by the name of Fergus Woods attended the first Newry Meeting and would be soon pushed to the fore as worthy of representing South Down people at the Stormont Government in the election of Februarry 1969. He narrowly failed to unseat Nationalist MP Max Keogh. Newry PD’s PRO Paddy O’Hanlon was more successful in South Armagh, being elected as an Independent – in 1970 becoming a founder member of the SDLP.
Also present there was Paul Hoben, Newry PD Committee member and later a local leader of the soon-to-emerge Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). It was Paul Hoben who on our behalf researched the details of that first meeting in the Minor Town Hall on 9 November 1968 to set up a Branch there.
After the open-air meeting in Margaret Square (where most of the appointed speakers, including the girl pictured – Miss Eilish McDermott – were not local) the bulk of those assembled retired to the Minor Town Hall where one motion was passed deciding to set up a local Citizens Action Committee. Despite this the group that formed was, for some time hence to be known as People’s Democracy, though after the ill-fated Newry March of 11 January 1969 where police tenders were tipped into the Albert Basin and the GPO on Hill Street was broken into and occupied, locals broke their connection with the Belfast students. This was all in the future.
The new Committee’s officers included Tom Keane (Chairman), Margo Collins (Secretary), Paddy O’Hanlon PRO and Dan Moore. It was agreed they would organise Civil Rights Marches to highlight the need for such basic rights as the need to introduce a points system for housing allocation. One local radical student by the name of John McCullagh spoke on this very issue!
‘No new houses in Newry have been given on merit!’ He complained.
‘I propose that we take immediate action to remedy that situation’.
That easy, eh?
There were those present who wished to forward their own political agenda, mostly anti-partitionist. Eilish McDermott and Kevin Boyle struggled to concentrate minds on the six basic Civil Rights Issues : One man -one vote : Houses on need: jobs on merit: free speech: Fair electoral boundaries and finally Repeal of the Special Powers Act.
The latter exercised the minds mainly of Republicans who suffered most on account of it. They represented a considerable portion of the three hundred people present. Matt Patterson got little support when he complained openly that People’s Democracy was ‘only out for its own ends’. One small group of radicals wanted to adjourn to the adjoining main Town Hall, though the attendance would have looked much smaller there. Besides no permission had been granted, and eventually good sense prevailed.
‘Stormont has never tried to develop this area’, complained local Trades Union spokesman John O’Donnell. Billy McCambley accused the speaker of wanting to jump on the bandwagon. One speaker (anonymous) claiming to be a Protestant demanded that Newry Council be put in order before Stormont.
A very young looking Bernadette Devlin made an uncharacteristically moderate speech calling on the people of Newry to take their destiny into their own hands.
Pat Byrne, past President of the Ulster Farmers Union made an unashamed appeal for progress in developing a socialist movement to ‘forward the interests of everyone.’
Dan Moore, prominent Newry Republican, made no bones either about his stance!
‘This is for the benefit of the Special Branch down at the back there!
The Republicans should be allowed to have their Clubs.
(Bill Craig as Stormont Minister of Home Affairs had recently banned them).
I can inform those Special Branch men that the United Irishman is openly on sale in the Six Counties.’
An appeal by the organisers to desist from openly political statements went unheeded. One local QUB student, proclaiming he was not PD claimed that that organisation of ‘students and quasi-intellectuals could protest all they liked provided they didn’t pose a threat to existing society.’ He gave his name as Frank Patterson. PD member and local, Damian Curran appealed for tolerance and free speech ‘even for the Paisleyites’. This was met with a call of derision from the back.
‘I am interested in the welfare of the people of Newry,’ Mr Moore asserted (to this day by the way, he works for the welfare of the marginalised in our capital city).
A Mr Mallon complained about thugs in the RUC. A young man, again anonymously complained in turn about this remark but was shouted down. The Chairman Mr Peter Cush appealed for free speech in the hall. Mr Moore returned to the theme of the primacy of repealing the loathsome Special Powers Act.
Fergus Woods asserted that, ‘our only principle is non-violence’.
‘Even when our heads are being batoned?’ asked another speaker.
‘Yes’, Mr Woods replied.
Prospective Liberal candidate for the forthcoming general election alienated a section by demanding ‘the same rights as the people of ‘every other part of the United Kingdom”. He went on to exacerbate his error (in the eyes of the majority of those present! by claiming that ‘inteference by Mr Jack Lynch (Dublin Premier) and Minister Charles Blaney is to be deplored’.
When every viewpoint had been heard, the meeting eventually adjourned to the following evening for the purpose of electing officers to serve on the Committee. Tom Keane became Chairman.