Civil Rights Movement 1968-69

In 1968 the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement became international news.

In October 1968, when television pictures of RUC officers baton-charging a civil rights demonstration in Derry were shown around the world, the Northern Ireland civil rights movement became international news.

This push for civil rights was backed by a wide range of political and social activists. It was influenced by television coverage of the black civil rights protests in America and the student protest movement across Europe. The main areas where reforms were sought were: the allocation of public housing, a "one man, one vote" electoral system, fair employment practices in the public service and a restructuring of the RUC. With the population of Northern Ireland divided two-thirds Protestant and one-third Catholic, it was the minority who felt the brunt of discrimination. Public housing was granted by local government authorities, and there was much evidence of discrimination against the Catholic population by local councils in the allocation of houses. Prior to 1969, elections were not held on a "one person, one vote" basis, and gerrymandering was used to secure unionist majorities on local councils.

Gerrymandering is the practice of manipulating geographic boundaries in order to gain political advantage and influence a desired electoral result.

In 1963, Terence O'Neill became Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. Seen as a moderate unionist, he set about reforming the economy. He also expressed a desire to improve community relations in Northern Ireland and create a better rapport with the government in Dublin, hoping this would address the sense of alienation felt by Catholics towards the political system in Northern Ireland. However, reforms were too slow in coming for the minority Catholic population, and O'Neill's meeting with the Taoiseach, Seán Lemass, in 1965 raised the ire of loyalists led by the Reverend Ian Paisley. Within his own Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), O'Neill also met with opposition from William Craig and Brian Faulkner.

From the autumn of 1968 onward, a wide range of activists marched behind the civil rights banner, adopting civil disobedience in an attempt to secure their goals. Housing activists, socialists, nationalists, unionists, republicans, students, trade unionists and political representatives came together across the North. Many of the protesters were bright young university educated Catholics, who had been able to avail of the free education brought in by the 1947 Education Act. This movement attempted to bring a new dynamic to Northern Ireland politics. The demand for basic civil rights from the Northern Ireland government was an effort to move the traditional fault-lines away from the familiar Catholic-Protestant, nationalist-unionist, republican-loyalist and Irish-British divides by demanding basic rights for all citizens of Britain. However, as the civil rights campaign gained momentum, so too did loyalist opposition. Heightened sectarian tension became more difficult to control, and civil disobedience events began to descend into occasions of civil disorder.

This exhibition offers the chance to look at and listen to RTÉ radio and television coverage of the civil rights movement between the summer of 1968 and the spring of 1969. It also shows the reaction to the Cameron Report, which was commissioned to investigate events leading up to the Derry civil rights march of 5 October 1968 and the subsequent unrest. The archive footage displayed here represents the bulk of RTÉ's coverage of the main civil rights events of 1968 and the spring of 1969. Some of the television news clips have no audio because they would have been filmed mute, and would have been voiced by a reporter as they were broadcast.

The accompanying image of the civil rights logo was provided courtesy of the artist Sheila McClean and the Civil Rights Commemorative Committee.