Fifty years ago, on the evening of August 24th, 1968, crowds began to gather in the square in Coalisland, Co Tyrone.
Men, women and children, they carried placards bearing slogans: “End discrimination”, “Justice for all” – and a single banner – “Civil rights”.
At half past seven, they began walking; their destination, the nearby town of Dungannon. Northern Ireland’s first civil rights march had begun.
A few weeks earlier, organiser Michael McLoughin had made his way to the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) barracks – then in town’s main square – to submit the application for the march.
He still keeps a copy. It contains a provision for 5,000 marchers and 20 bands. “Civil rights placards and banners will be carried,” it reads.
“It was a bit ambitious,” McLoughlin recalls, “but we did expect 2,000-3,000.
“We had prepared the civil rights ground very well over a period of five years, from 1963, so people were ready for it.
“They were going to come out, and they did come out.”
Among those credited with preparing that ground were the women of the Homeless Citizens League – a group of young mothers who, in 1963, paraded the streets of the town with their prams because they were unable to get a house for their young families.
The right to vote was linked to property ownership. Electorally, the town was split into three wards – but, even though the population of the town was evenly balanced between Catholics and Protestants, houses were built and allocated so as to ensure that two of the wards would always return unionist candidates, and hence a unionist majority on Dungannon Urban Council.
Most nationalist voters were crammed into the single remaining ward, which meant that many people, especially young families, were unable to get a house, and were living in overcrowded and often unsanitary conditions.
“We wrote out a protest and we took that up to the council offices,” remembers founder Angela McCrystal. “The Foster’s band led us up the street, all of us with our prams, and we handed in our petition.”
Michael McLoughlin was watching. “I remember standing there looking at the parade, the women with their prams, and thinking to myself, why am I standing here? Can I not do something about it?”
Following the example of the local doctor Conn McCluskey and his wife Patricia, who founded the Campaign for Social Justice in the town the following year, McLoughlin and others began researching the allocation of housing in Dungannon in order to challenge discrimination with facts.
The lesson of a successful squat by the Homeless Citizens League in 1964 had been “well learned”, as McLoughlin puts it. Squatting resumed – and in June 1968 hit the headlines when Austin Currie, a local Nationalist Party MP, and two others squatted in a house in the nearby village of Caledon to protest over the allocation of a house to an unmarried Protestant woman.
Taking his inspiration from the US civil rights campaign, Currie felt that a march was the obvious next step and – along with McLoughlin and others – persuaded the newly-formed Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) to support them. Stewards would be used to ensure the march was non-violent.
The organising team – Austin Currie, independent councillors Michael McLoughlin and John Donaghy, Labour councillor Jack Hassard, and members of the Republican Clubs Tom O’Connor and Brian Quinn – were in Currie’s house the night before the march when the police arrived.
“They told us there had been opposition to the march, that there was likely to be trouble because there was going to be a protest, and therefore it would be safer for everyone for it to be rerouted,” says Currie.
“We said immediately, no, this is a non-sectarian march, and we’re going to the centre of our town.
“The police said that was unfortunate, and gave us the order.”
Currie and McLoughlin were among those served under the Public Order Act.
The marchers would proceed. Among their number was a young student at Queen’s University, Belfast, Bernadette Devlin – now McAliskey.
“It was an opportunity to go and catch up with all your friends and not to work that Saturday,” she recalls. “That was my noble motive for going on the Coalisland march.”
The march changed her. Within less than a year, McAliskey would go on to become a founder member of the People’s Democracy movement and be elected as MP for Mid-Ulster.
“When you go to something like that, all the pieces click into place and you know why you’re there.
“Some people know they’ve made the wrong decision and they know they shouldn’t be there because you can feel where it’s going, you can sense it, there’s a power in it.
“But for me I thought, yep, it all makes sense to me. This is where I should be, and this is what we need.”
Now a member of Sinn Féin and the MP for Mid Ulster, Francie Molloy was then a 17-year-old steward. He becomes emotional as he recalls the sight of the marchers.
“It was magnificent. The crowds were out, they were two and three on the footpath, and they were singing We Shall Overcome.
“You felt we’d actually started off something new.”
But as they entered Dungannon, the marchers were stopped. In front of them was a rope barricade, and rows of police. Behind the police were loyalist counter-protesters.
The stewards did their job. They lined up, linking arms as the speeches began. “The line held,” Molloy remembers.
“The Young Socialists put out a statement the following day saying that we had been cowardly,” Currie recalls, “and we should have made a name for ourselves by going through the police into the crowd. My attitude was we might have been dead.”
‘We Shall Overcome’
The march ended – as would become the norm for civil rights marches – with We Shall Overcome.
“That made a good ending,” says Currie. “I think it was the first time there really was the civil rights anthem in Northern Ireland.”
“You were at the beginning of something,” says Molloy. “You were developing something, you were growing something, and you felt you were going to achieve civil rights.
“The very fact that people had come together and stood up for their rights, I felt things had moved in a great way.”
That evening, it was decided that Derry would be next. The march took place on October 5th; the images of the RUC attacking civil rights marchers in Duke Street brought the civil right movement to national and international prominence; it was followed by two days of rioting in Derry.
As early as that November the then prime minister of Northern Ireland, Terence O’Neill, would introduce a programme of reforms which included the allocation of housing on the basis of need, and some changes to voting legislation.
“In such a very short time most of the abuses were [got] rid of,” says Currie. “It was a remarkable victory.”
Yet the memory of Dungannon’s role in the start of the civil rights movement was already beginning to fade, eclipsed in part by the television footage from Derry and the growing tensions and increasing violence across Northern Ireland.
“The media, and in fact everybody I think, really missed the Dungannon march,” says Molloy. “To an extent it’s always forgotten about.
“But when you look at politics in this part of the world, everything started off in Coalisland and Dungannon.”