Belfast Telegraph

Historical Ulster: The Sixties - images from Belfast Telegraph archives

The poet Philip Larkin commented wryly on the social revolution of the 1960s that "sexual intercourse began in 1963 (which was rather late for me), between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles' first LP''.

For Northern Ireland, add a couple more years. And that's how it was with much of this decade of revolution. With hindsight, it can be seen to have brought change on a scale never witnessed before. But that was not apparent at the time. Change came dropping slow.

Many of the things most associated with the Swinging Sixties -- miniskirts, mini cars, long-haired rock bands -- did not come into vogue until the middle of the decade and some trends forever associated with the Sixties, did not, in fact, arrive until the 1970s.

The Lady Chatterley case, to which Larkin refers, is indicative of how little things had changed by 1960 when Penguin Books were taken to court for distributing an obscene publication and a stream of worthies was called to the dock to support the only permissible defence, that DH Lawrence's novel, written in the 1920s, had literary merit.

Penguin won, resulting in a change in the law and great business for bookshops as every schoolboy in the land pored through Lawrence's impenetrable saga in search of four-letter words.

Piece by piece, the old order was crumbling. As Bob Dylan, the chronicler of the decade, told us, the times they were a-changing.

John F Kennedy brought Camelot to the White House. His vision of a new America cost him his life. Martin Luther King paid the same price. Robert Kennedy was next to fall to the assassin's bullet. But they didn't die in vain. Their sacrifices opened doors to a multi-racial society, the doors through which Barack Obama would enter the Oval Office 40 years later.

Kennedy and his beautiful wife Jacqueline dressed very much in the fashion of the Fifties, a style familiar to followers of the TV drama, Madmen. But that fashion was about to change.

Suddenly, and briefly, London became the fashion capital of the world with designs by Mary Quant and her acolytes filling the shops of Carnaby Street and spreading to department stores everywhere.

Suddenly, and briefly, Liverpool was the musical capital of the world, as the Beatles spawned a hundred imitations and any bunch of lads with guitars and a drum kit could dream of stardom.

Suddenly, and briefly, Northern Ireland was the world capital for street politics and civil rights protest.

There had been student riots in Paris, protests on the campuses of American universities, and the black civil rights movement in the US set a template for action, yet it all seemed very far away from the streets of Belfast and Derry.

But when it came, it came like a whirlwind and swept away the pillars of a society built since 1921.

There was no hint of political revolution when the decade dawned. Sir Basil Brooke was still Prime Minister. He fought his last general election in 1962, securing another comfortable majority for the Ulster Unionist Party.

Brooke retired the next year and was replaced by Terence O'Neill. From the start, he was under pressure from a generation of younger Catholics, such as Austin Currie and John Hume, who wanted a fairer deal in the distribution of jobs and housing, a halt to the gerrymandering of local government boundaries, and an end to the system that gave additional votes in council elections to ratepayers with more than one business address, while denying others even a single vote.

O'Neill could see the case for reforms and the need to implement them, as urged by Britain's new Prime Minister Harold Wilson, heading the first Labour government for 13 years. But he lacked the political skills to persuade a party that was totally unfamiliar with the art of compromise.

With a background of Eton, Sandhurst and the Irish Guards, O'Neill was hopelessly out of touch with ordinary people and their opinions.

In 1969, he told the Belfast Telegraph: "It is frightfully hard to explain to Protestants that if you give Roman Catholics a good job and a good house ... they will refuse to have 18 children. But if a Roman Catholic is jobless and lives in a most ghastly hovel, he will rear 18 children on National Assistance. If you treat Roman Catholics with due consideration and kindness, they will live like Protestants.''

Incredible though it now seems, O'Neill intended these remarks to be helpful, not offensive.

His greatest achievement was improving relations with the Republic, meeting Taoiseach Sean Lemass twice in 1965. The friendly gesture was generally well received but unpopular with hardliners in his own party and angrily opposed by a rising star on the political scene, Rev Ian Paisley, who would become O'Neill's most outspoken foe and play a key part in his downfall.

ismayed at the slow pace of reform, the civil rights movement took to the streets. Many of its marches were banned or re-routed. There was serious rioting in Derry after one such ban in March 1968. The RUC batoned protesters from the streets and the world watched in amazement as television showed a Westminster MP, Gerry Fitt, and a Stormont party leader, Eddie McAteer, bleeding and battered from blows delivered by a police force in the territory of the United Kingdom.

In an attempt to rally support, O'Neill called an election in February 1969. The outcome was inconclusive and did nothing to help his case. Paisley stood against him and ran the Prime Minister close in his own Bannside constituency, a result that fatally undermined O'Neill. He resigned two months later, to be replaced by his cousin, James Chichester-Clark.

In August, rioting again erupted in Derry, following an Apprentice Boys parade. After three days of fighting on the streets, the Battle of the Bogside ended when Harold Wilson sent in the British Army. By then the trouble had spread to Belfast with even more serious consequences. Five Catholics and two Protestants died and some 1,500 Catholics were expelled from their homes as Protestant mobs torched houses in Bombay Street and attacked other streets between the Shankill and the Falls. It was the violence that some had been awaiting with relish. Loyalist paramilitaries had already flexed their muscles with a number of murders and bombings. The IRA was not widely active but the writing was on the walls of nationalist Belfast where graffiti taunted: "IRA -- I Ran Away''.

Their guns would not be silent much longer. It was the start of the Troubles that would blight the next three decades.

Belfast Telegraph


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