Belfast Telegraph

In October 1968, there was hope of political reconciliation and peaceful change in NI ... 10 months later it was snuffed out in an orgy of violence

Efforts to develop a new politics in Londonderry flourished briefly in the late-1960s, but ultimately were doomed to failure, writes Brian M Walker

John Hume declared in April 1965: "In Derry there is absolutely no evidence of bigotry among ordinary citizens, who have learned to live in harmony in spite of differences."

At the same time, however, the people of Londonderry faced serious problems. Recent television programmes and newspaper articles on the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement have examined why the city was such a political powder keg.

Much of the coverage has been valuable, but some has been simplistic and even inaccurate. Other dimensions of the situation deserve attention. What happened in the city after October 5, 1968 is worth recalling.

Problems over housing, unemployment and unfair local government arrangements created a real crisis in the late-1960s.

By the mid-1960s there was a great shortage of new houses in the city. Nonetheless, we should note that this followed what the Cameron Commission described as a "vast programme" of new housing in Derry's predominantly Catholic south ward.

Between 1944 and 1968 over 4,000 houses and flats had been built in the city by the corporation, the independent NI Housing Trust and private enterprise. This included the Creggan estate in the 1950s and the Rossville Street redevelopment in the early-1960s.

In her autobiography Dana (Rosemary Brown) records how her family first lived in a new house in the Creggan estate and then moved in 1967 to the Rossville Street flats. She describes how these flats "were much admired when they were first built".

By the mid-1960s, however, new housing programmes had been largely curtailed because the corporation refused to extend the city boundaries, which would have upset unionist control.

Many families urgently needed new homes. In February 1968 the Derry Housing Action Committee was formed to protest at the situation.

By the late-1960s there was serious unemployment, but this had not always been the case. In the 1950s and early-1960s, Government efforts to bring employment to the city had been very successful.

In November 1955 the Press, including the Belfast Telegraph, noted that there was an "employment boom" and "abundant work" in the city.

Birmingham Sound Reproducers (BSR) and Du Pont were examples of firms which came at this time.

During the 1960s, however, the city witnessed growing unemployment. Critically, in 1966-67, BSR (by now called Monarch Electric) closed with the loss of nearly 2,000 jobs. The economic situation was compounded by the decision to locate the new university in Coleraine and not Derry. The main problem related to unfair local government arrangements. Recent claims that only property owners could vote are incorrect.

The franchise, however, was restricted to ratepayers and spouses and a small company vote.

More significant was the arrangement of ward boundaries for corporation elections. In 1967 Catholic voters numbered 14,429 and others 8,781. The Cameron Commission noted the "extraordinary situation" whereby unionists returned 12 members of the corporation, but nationalists only eight.

This gave unionists control of the corporation and, therefore, control of corporation housing allocation and jobs. Such an unfair situation caused strong criticism from the nationalist and Catholic community. Why did unionists support this system?

Many saw themselves facing a hostile Irish nationalism, both in the city and across the border. In Co Donegal Protestant numbers dropped from 21% of the population in 1911 to 14% in 1961, and a gerrymander of the Donegal seats in 1961 lost them their last independent TD.

On October 5, 1968, a civil rights march was held in the city to protest about the housing situation and to promote "one man, one vote".

Media coverage of the violent response of the police to the march served to draw great attention, local and international, to civil rights issues.

This event had major repercussions for the city and also Northern Ireland politics.

The Derry Citizens Action Committee (DCAC) was formed to organise protest on non-violent lines.

Other civil rights marches, such as a 15,000-strong event on November 16, marshalled by DCAC stewards, passed off peacefully.

Prime Minister Terence O'Neill, in spite of challenge from some cabinet members and other loyalists, in particular Ian Paisley, brought in reforms. On November 22 the Government agreed a new system of fair allocation of houses, a development commission to replace Londonderry Corporation and abolition of the company vote, but not yet "one man, one vote".

Faced with opposition to his policies, O'Neill called a general election for February 24, 1969. The contest revealed significant changes in the city's politics. In the Foyle division the sitting nationalist MP Eddie McAteer faced John Hume, who advocated a just society. Hume accepted there could be no change in the constitutional position of Northern Ireland without the consent of the people. Eamonn McCann stood as a Northern Ireland Labour Party candidate.

The result was a defeat for traditional nationalism, with Hume gaining 8,920 votes against 5,267 for McAteer. McCann lost his deposit.

Traditional unionism also faced significant challenge. In the City division, the sitting MP was Albert Anderson, who opposed O'Neill and the Government's reforms and who was supported by Bill Craig, a former minister, who ordered the October march ban and was later sacked by O'Neill.

He faced not only the liberal Claude Wilton, but also an independent unionist, Peter Campbell, who backed O'Neill. Over 300 unionists signed a petition in the Press supporting O'Neill and "the just cause to which he has committed himself". Hamilton called for a "tolerant Ulster" and urged support for O'Neill and his "progressive policies".

Anderson's vote fell from 9,122 at a 1968 by-election to 6,480. However, the opposition was split, with 4,181 votes for Campbell and 5,770 for Wilton. Anderson won, but clearly a significant number of unionist voters now accepted the need for change.

In the end, however, these efforts to develop new politics failed.

Events in the city in August 1969 created another major crisis.

They also caused the collapse of the challenge to traditional Orange and Green politics, which had prospered briefly in the city after October 1968.

Amid the violence of August 1969, the possibility of political reconciliation and peaceful change was lost.

Professor Emeritus Brian M Walker was a student at Magee College from 1966 to 1968

Belfast Telegraph

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