N. Ireland and the U.S.: A Shared Civil Rights Struggle

In observance of St. Patrick's Day, we decided to take a look at the connections between the Civil Rights Movement in the United States and in Northern Ireland in the 1960s.

We spoke with noted journalist, author and activist Eamonn McCann, about the influence that the Civil Rights Movement in America had in Northern Ireland.

McCann personally witnessed the beating of protesters in Derry in 1969, as well the notorious Bloody Sunday in 1972, where 26 civil rights protesters were shot by British paratroopers.

Check out our interview with McCann (click the player):

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We also spoke with Brian Dooley, author of Black and Green: The Fight for Civil Rights in Northern Ireland and Black America. Here's some of what he said:

"As early as 1963, civil rights protesters in Northern Ireland had compared themselves to blacks in Alabama and Little Rock, and identified themselves as the 'Negroes' of Northern Ireland. They sang 'We Shall Overcome' at their marches and in early 1969 deliberately modeled a protest march on the lines of the Selma-Montgomery march. Oddly, perhaps, the Northern Ireland protesters identified more with black American protests than the myriad of protests in Europe that year — in Paris, Prague, Berlin, Rome and London. They saw their struggle as closer to that of African Americans in the U.S."

Read the rest of our Q&A with Dooley after the jump.

News & Views: Brian, could you describe the social climate in Northern Ireland in 1968. What similarities were there with the challenges faced by African-Americans in the U.S. at that time?

Brian Dooley: There was a widespread dissatisfaction with voting systems, discrimination against Catholics by local government in job and especially housing allocations, and a general sense that after centuries of grievance, things were happening elsewhere in the world and that this might be an opportunity or era when change was possible.

N & V: What kind of solidarity did the people of Northern Ireland have with the African-American civil rights movement in the U.S.? Was it overt or was it more of a subtext?

BD: It was overt. As early as 1963, civil rights protesters in Northern Ireland had compared themselves to blacks in Alabama and Little Rock, and identified themselves as the 'Negroes' of Northern Ireland. They sang 'We Shall Overcome' at their marches and in early 1969 deliberately modeled a protest march on the lines of the Selma-Montgomery march. Oddly, perhaps, the Northern Ireland protesters identified more with black American protests than the myriad of protests in Europe that year — in Paris, Prague, Berlin, Rome and London. They saw their struggle as closer to that of African Americans in the U.S.

N & V: Does Ian Paisley's stepping down from power symbolize the end of the civil rights struggle in Northern Ireland? Although the battle for equality in America is far from over, why do you think African Americans gained rights more quickly than people in Northern Ireland?

BD: The battle for equality is far form over in Northern Ireland too. Although anti-Catholic discrimination has been outlawed, and many of the initial demands of the civil rights movement have been won, inequality along class lines still exists. Poverty and other human rights are now the issue, much as they are for many people in the U.S.

N & V: Some people in Northern Ireland feel that the city was still segregated. After all, the wall is still up, and the emotional walls are certainly still there. How long will it take fore the city to re-integrate and heal these wounds of segregation?

BD: Generations. Although workplaces might be integrated, people still socialize separately. I'm not sure it matters so much that you don't visit each other's houses or party together. As long as you're not fighting each other it's a big plus.

N & V: Why do you think the civil rights movement in America did not become as violent as "The Troubles"?

BD: There was, ultimately, a legal recourse in the U.S. Britain had and has no written constitution, so there was nowhere Catholics could point to a legal right that was being denied. In Ireland too the issue was complicated by a nationalist issue with a tradition of physical force. It wasn't as though black people in Alabama were trying to reclaim the state from the U.S. government. American civil rights protesters wanted a fair deal inside the system, whereas for many in Ireland they wanted to overthrow the system.

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Just shows how the world is connected.

Sent by Ellen | 2:23 PM | 3-17-2008

Hi I would just like to say that this site was a great help to me when looking up info about Northern Ireland. I am Irish so it is cool to see the contrasts between Ireland and America.Thanks again.

Sent by Ciara | 4:18 PM | 3-31-2008

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