The Struggle for Civil Rights In Ireland During the 20th Century

The Irish civil rights movement began in the 1960s mainly in response to British oppression in Northern Ireland. Ever since the country split into the Republic and the North, the North had been thrown into turmoil with consistent conflict against the British. Violence between the Irish Republican Army and the British stagnated any forward movement during such a progressive time period for other countries. In the legacy of earlier successful civil rights movements, specifically those in India and the United States, Irish civil leaders attempted to transplant non-violent methods to their own fight for rights.

To trace the origins of non-violent protest is to look at the first major movement of its type, led by Mohandas Gandhi. Gandhi was striving to gain independence for his home country, India, from the colonial rule of England. Eventually, India did win its independence in 1947 after years of hard work from Gandhi and his supporters. It is important to understand that it was also not easily won. Gandhi had been developing a peaceful process of active resistance for decades, mainly through a trial and error basis. His ultimate goal was that of Satyagraha, or, peace through love. He came to understand that to affect one's opponent, one must first appeal to their heart, and change from within could lead to change on a massive scale.

By 1906, Gandhi had been able to fully develop his peace process. He had spent three years in England training to become a barrister, which exposed him to many different ideas and which helped him understand English law and behavior. He then traveled to South Africa, where he quickly became aware of unjust oppression of the Indian population there. When he was kicked off a train for refusing to ride third class, he had made up his mind to try and fight against the widespread oppression of the British.

Gandhi refined his concept of Satyagraha into a three-step process. First, he understood that the side fighting for a cause must try to in the words of James Madison University Professor Dr. Sushil Mittal,  "persuade their opponent through reason and dialogue, allowing both accommodation and compromise." This is the obvious starting point, and relies upon reason and not irrational emotion, which he viewed as a very dangerous thing. Labels like "patriotism" and "terrorism" are born out of emotional arguments, and he knew this was dangerous. He also understood that one must never try to identify the inherent evil within an individual, but that that evil could be traced to blind hatred perpetrated by outside sources more powerful than them.

If this first step of conciliation between parties failed, he would look to his second step - that of persuasion through suffering. Even though it seems odd, he understood that it was effective in dramatizing the issues at stake. Therefore, the attention of a wider community could be gained. Through this, eventually the conflict at hand would gain the sympathy of this community and the pressure of conciliation would be transferred to the opposing party. In turn, they would also be made to feel guilty, because eventually their actions would be exaggerated in the suffering of their opponent. As he explained it, his "anger against the guilty parties subsided and gave place to the purest pity for them" (Gandhi, 343). Gandhi's most infamous and effective method of suffering was that of fasting. It was perhaps the easiest and most efficient way to draw attention to one-self. No resources are needed, and it becomes a matter of life and death if considered on a serious level. This method would be adopted later in Ireland by Bobby Sands and the hunger strikers in 1980. Even though these men were terrorists, they began starving themselves in order to gain status as prisoners of war and not of criminals. The symbolic difference between these distinctions could grant them better standings as prisoners not under the British government.

The third step, if all else failed, was that of non-violent coercion, or civil disobedience, as it is commonly known. Gandhi first learned of this method through one of his most important influences, Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau went to jail when he refused to pay taxes because he did not support the Mexican-American War. When his friend asked him why he was in jail for that, Thoreau responded, "Why aren't you?" Gandhi was greatly influenced by this and used it in his efforts of seeking independence. For example, he led his famous Salt March to demonstrate that even though Britain had a monopoly on salt production in India, Indians could still produce for themselves. When the British moved to arrest the Indians, they did not resist. Gandhi also encouraged his followers to weave their own clothes and led a demonstration in which hundreds of his followers burned all of their English textiles. By not engaging in active violence like guerilla warfare but rather non-violent demonstrations and protests against the British, Gandhi illustrated that substantial gains could be made without mass death or chaos on either side of a conflict.

Gandhi's three-step Satyagraha process only because his followers stuck to it. It was not an infallible method for achieving peace and he understood that. It is possible that non-violence can always turn into violence, or that, as Dr. Mittal explains, "the opposing parties could be so estranged that agreement cannot be reached. In these situations, there is a lack of moral clarity, a lack of disciplined actors, or an absence of an opponent with a sense of fair play." For example, it is likely that Satyagraha could never be used against a tyrant such as Hitler. It would rather work more effectively against a government, as demonstrated in India and the US.

Gandhi's methods were used quite effectively in the United States during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was greatly influenced by the teachings and practices of Gandhi. He had already realized that there was going to be no reasonable way to appeal to the US government for equal rights aside from drastic action. As race relations were coming to a head during this time, King believed it was necessary to peacefully attempt a new system of equality before radical groups turned to violence and the chance was lost. Of course, many whites had already turned to violence by bombing black churches and homes, lynching people, and generally conforming to Jim Crowe laws that had been ingrained in the US consciousness for decades. Using techniques like bus boycotts and lunch-counter sit-ins, King was able to utilize Gandhi's method of civil disobedience to its fullest extent. When the US saw blacks being beaten and sprayed with water hoses on television, support in favor of them steadily gained momentum. King was successfully able to lead a movement that would eventually lead to desegregation throughout the US through a non-violent campaign, just as Gandhi had to gain his nation's independence.

Since the efforts of King and especially Gandhi had been so effective, it is no wonder that civil rights leaders in Ireland strove to duplicate the feats of these heroes in an effort to alleviate British oppression from them-selves. The Irish civil rights movement only came into being around the late-60s and early 70s, obviously influenced by the successful movement in the US and India earlier in the century. Ireland, however, was in quite a different situation from that of the US or India. First of all, India's movement coincided in their quest for independence. As Gandhi and his followers won their right in small but constant victories over the British that would lead to a push for independence, in the US King was forging the way by gaining the sympathies of a nation that was ready for a change.

Ireland's independence, or at least partial independence, had come much earlier in the century during a 1916 revolution. The Republic of Ireland was released from British control, while Northern Ireland remained under it. This dichotomy of a country could not logically ever come together to fight for a wholly independent Ireland. Besides, those in North were further divided between loyalists and nationalists, which would not be conducive to independence. To further complicate matters, non-violence could never be achieved with the underlying presence of the Irish Republican Army. Violence, being synonymous with the IRA, was prevalent even during the civil rights movement because the IRA had long since been established as an organization aligned against the British in order to win independence through whatever means necessary. Obviously discouraged by the oppression of a much larger and powerful country, the IRA would constantly turn to violence and guerilla tactics, usually bombing, as a way to get a point across. Such a prevalent force in the history of Ireland would not soon vanish, and thus striving for a purely non-violent movement would not be possible. The IRA would continue operations, usually provoking retaliation from British forces, leaving civil rights leaders hopelessly frustrated and lost on what to do.

One of the best examples of this would probably be the events that occurred during Bloody Sunday in 1972. The march was being led to protest internment of prisoners, put in place by the British just a year earlier. The march was deemed illegal by the British government and the British Army's 1st Parachute Regiment was sent in to the march's location of Bogside, Derry. Still disputed in exactly what happened, but during the march, confusion broke out and the regiment opened fire and killed thirteen Irish civilians. The British government placed blame on the IRA, while the protestors blamed the British. As James Nesbit says, playing civil rights leader Ivan Cooper in Paul Greengrass's film Bloody Sunday, "I just want to say this to the British Government... You know what you've just done, don't you? You've destroyed the civil rights movement, and you've given the IRA the biggest victory it will ever have. All over this city tonight, young men... boys will be joining the IRA, and you will reap a whirlwind."

The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, which was formed in 1967, had relatively simple demands. According to Workers' Solidarity #30 from 1989, they were as follows: "one man - one vote; allocation of housing on a points system; redrawing of gerrymandered electoral boundaries; repeal of the Special Powers Act; abolition of the B Specials; and laws against discrimination in local government." Leaders like Ivan Cooper knew that these demands could not be achieved through bombing and violence. In fact, violence would only lead to a loss of more rights. An example of this would be the Special Powers Act, which the British government put in place only after bombings perpetrated by the IRA.

Regardless of the civil rights movement, incessant violence would continue to cast a negative light on the North's fight for rights. Another example would be the Guilford Four, all of whom were wrongfully imprisoned after being accused of bombing an English restaurant. The four friends, as well as members of their families, even young children, were thrown in prison simply as scapegoats. As portrayed in Jim Sheridan's 1993 film In the Name of the Father, they were subjected to brutal treatment and psychological torture and were not allowed a fair or accurate trial. Only later were they finally exonerated, after losing years of their lives in prison for no reason. Instances like these were not uncommon, as Britain usually had laws in place, which allowed the government to exercise "emergency" powers whenever necessary.

Unfortunately for the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, peace was never a completely realistic goal. With the IRA still looming in the shadows and loyalties split between nationalists and loyalists, a cohesive structure of independence, or at least increased rights could never fully be realized. Gandhi originally in India and King in the US had proven that to fight for the betterment of a people, they must be a singular unit with a purpose in mind and be willing to go to the bitter end. This could not be achieved through rampant violence, especially against a much larger enemy. The people must gain support of a much larger community outside of themselves, like citizens of other countries and their governments. Ireland could never effectively do this because there was a reputation of violence and they never took it upon themselves to fully resist the British on a purely non-violent level. They did not suffer as Gandhi and King did, they were merely frustrated and impatient. This violent legacy still persists to this day, though gains are slowly being made.

Works Cited

Bloody Sunday. Dir. Paul Greengrass. Perf. James Nesbitt. DVD. Paramount Classics, 1992.
Gandhi, Mohandas. The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Boston: Beacon P, 1957.

In the Name of the Father. Dir. Jim Sheridan. Perf. Daniel Day-Lewis. DVD. Universal Pictures, 1993.