NICRA was formed by trade unionists, socialists, members of the Northern Ireland Labour and Liberal parties and campaigners for a united Ireland to protest against anti-Catholic discrimination. The words nationalist and republican, and loyalist and unionist, were barely spoken back then – it was overtly a case of Protestants discriminating against Catholics.
WHAT TRIGGERED THE MARCH?
NICRA had become involved in the case of two Catholic families who were forcibly evicted from the council house in Dungannon which they had been squatting. In June, The National told the story of how that eviction, involving Austin Currie MP, played out in front of the television cameras and shone a light on the murky practices of local authorities in Ulster.
NICRA decided to capitalise on the publicity which, for the first time ever, was highlighting the discrimination against Catholics. They decided specifically to protest against housing discrimination in Tyrone and a march was organised between the towns of Coalisland and nearby Dungannon. The march was perfectly legal but it enraged one man in particular – Reverend Ian Paisley. He had mobilised a group called the Ulster Protestant Volunteers whose task, as they saw it, was to combat Irish Republicanism and, by extension, any attempts by the minority Catholic community to assert the civil rights enjoyed by people of all religions across the UK except for Northern Ireland.
Paisley, on hearing of the march that was set for August 24, 1968, quickly organised his volunteers to mount a counter demonstration in Dungannon. It was because of that tactic that the Royal Ulster Constabulary stepped in to stop the march ending in a rally in Dungannon’s main square. Otherwise the march was peaceful.
WHAT DID THE MARCH ACHIEVE?
THE march was important for several reasons.
It effectively kick-started the civil rights movement, because it showed the Catholic community and left of centre politicians and trade unionists would not be cowed, but it also showed that Paisley and his followers would defend Protestant supremacy ostensibly to preserve the Union which at that time was under no threat at all.