Dungannon: the Start of The Troubles

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From its very genesis in 1922, Northern Ireland was dominated by one singular issue: whether it should stay part of the United Kingdom or join the Irish Republic. Since the province was formed from the six counties which initially opposed Irish independence, there was an inbuilt majority for one side of the debate. This pro-British faction was represented by the Unionist Party, which dominated the province’s politics, democratically, in its first few years. This allowed it to embed a pro-protestant, pro-British bias within the state’s function. Elections were carefully gerrymandered to maintain this Protestant majority. However, discontent was simmering within the Catholic minority, and future confrontation was always likely.

By the 1960s, the growing Catholic minority were starting to challenge Protestant orthodoxy. They were particularly incensed by their lack of electoral representation, both regionally and nationally. In the city of (London)Derry, for example, the Catholic population of about 14,000 held only 8 of the 20 seats, the other 12 held by representatives of the 9,000 Protestants thanks to gerrymandering.

Local government agencies were similarly geared towards Protestant interests. In County Fermanagh, where Protestants were in the minority, employment discrimination was prevalent, as seen in the fact that only 7 of 75 bus drivers were Catholics. In the town of Dungannon, County Tyrone, the principal concern was housing discrimination, and the local dispute which this caused in 1963 would contribute to the spiral into province-wide rioting and the outbreak of the Troubles six years later.

In January 1964, Patricia McClusky and her husband Conn, a local GP, founded the Campaign for Social Justice (CSJ), an organisation which hoped to counter anti-Catholic discrimination and counted among its members a number of those affected by housing discrimination in Dungannon. Several Catholics had been allocated houses by the council which were unfit for purpose, rather than being allowed to move to larger, more modern, vacant, previously Protestant-owned, houses. The precise motive for this decision was unclear, it could have been an effort to maintain a Protestant majority in a certain electoral area, a simple case of dislike towards the Catholics, or something else entirely, but what was certain was that the decision constituted anti-Catholic discrimination.

The CSJ continued its activism, both in Tyrone and other counties, against this backdrop of increasing disquiet from the Catholic community about how they were being treated. The limited reforms of Prime Minister Terence O’Neill failed to placate the Catholic minority whilst also infuriating Protestant extremists.

In April 1967, the CSJ reformed itself into the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA). The new group continued to agitate for further reform and, in the summer of 1968 scheduled the first civil rights march to take place on 28 August.

Ian Paisley, Presbyterian Minister, ardent Loyalist, and future First Minister, was bitterly opposed to this and worked to disrupt the protesting. He scheduled a counter-demonstration for the same day, forcing the NICRA to modify their chosen route to avoid breaking a police barricade. Although this march occurred without incident, they would not be so lucky again.

More hard-line members of the NICRA strongly objected to the decision to halt at the Dungannon police barricades, and scheduled a second march for 5 October in Derry. The route chosen, a traditional loyalist route through strongly Protestant areas, was highly inflammatory, and the Protestant Apprentice Boys of Derry announced their plan to march the same route at the same time, echoing Paisley’s tactics.

This caused Home Affairs Minister William Craig to ban the civil rights march, fearing an outbreak of violence, but it proceeded anyway. Due to its illegality, the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) fought back against the protesters with shocking violence. The Protestants then made their first excursion into the Catholic-dominated area of the Bogside, sparking confrontations between Catholics and the police. Rather than back down, the civil rights campaign used such affronts as impetus. The New Year’s Civil Rights march of 1969, from Belfast to Derry, was attacked by unionists, incited by Paisley and others, including a number of off-duty members of the Ulster Special Constabulary. Trust between the Catholic community and law enforcement had collapsed.

Tensions continued to simmer, with O’Neill being forced out by the Unionists and replaced with the more extreme James Chichester-Clark. On 12 August 1969, the Apprentice Boys annual march occurred, taking its usual route along the edge of the Bogside. This was no usual year, however. The march was stoned by disgruntled Catholics, who had seen so many of their marches disrupted over the previous year, and when the RUC responded by storming the Bogside for a second time, rioting broke out.

Unlike previous riots, however, these ones spread. Not only in Derry, but also in Belfast and across the six provinces, Catholics rose up against the RUC. Order was only restored by British troops, starting a 29 year long occupation of the province and an armed response from the secessionist Irish Republican Army. What had been a civil rights campaign became one to remove the province from British control, in the hope that this would finally provide protection for the Catholic minority. Both the Army and Loyalist Paramilitaries, like the UDF (Ulster Defence Force), responded to the IRA’s taking up of arms in kind, provoking the Troubles – a violent conflict between secessionists and unionists. What had begun as a localised housing dispute had escalated into a war for the very future of Northern Ireland.

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Kennedy-Pipe, C., 1997. The Origins of the Present Troubles in Northern Ireland. Longman.

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