The Coleraine University Controversy

Powerpoint Presentation –

Taken from a Leaving Cert History blog posted by ‘Niamh’

What is the significance of the Coleraine University Controversy in the history of Northern Ireland in the 1960s and 1970s?

According to John Hume the decision to locate the University in Coleraine “electrified the nationalist side……and was the spark that ignited the civil rights movement” in Northern Ireland. It allowed for unrest to build up within the Nationalist communities which eventually spilled out into the Troubles.

Catholics had always felt alienated in what they considered a protestant state. They deeply resented the Special Powers Act and the B-specials. They felt completely let down by the Northern Ireland constitution, whether they were on welfare or in the public service.The location of the university was seen as biased in favour of a Protestant town. Yet another way of undermining the Nationalists was keeping the Belfast-Coleraine-Portadown triangle economically strong at the cost of catholic communities. As Hume said “to cause a migration from the west to east Ulster, redistributing and scattering the minority so that the Unionist Party will not only maintain but strengthen in position.”

John Hume was a leading figure in this controversy. He was part of the University for Derry Committee which was established after Coleraine had been decided upon. He organised a protest meeting with O’Neill and his Minister of Education. A protest rally to Stormont was arranged while in Derry, pubs and shops closed in protest. He was one of the newly emerging educated middle-class Catholics along with Austin Currie and Bernadette Devlin who founded the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) in 1967. They had five basic demands: one person one vote, end to gerrymandering, laws against discrimination, repeal of the Special Powers Act and an end to the B-Specials. No longer was there a demand for an end to partition; now Catholics insisted that if they were part of the UK, they should be afforded the same rights as all other citizens in the UK. They staged numerous civil rights marches to protest on housing allocation, accesses to employment and the West of the Bann Policy. The NICRA was mainly aimed at a local level, improving the city of Derry in a peaceful way. He became a founding member of the SDLP party in 1971 and succeeded Gerry Fitt as its leader.

O’Neill was the Northern Ireland PM throughout this controversy. It was said that “nameless, faceless men from Londonderry” had met O’Neill and Falk (min.of Ed) to advise them against Derry as the location for the university or indeed any further industrial or social development. Patrick Gormley, a Nationalist MP backed up this claim and said that these “faceless men” believed that such development in Derry might affect the Unionist control of the City Council. Division within the Unionist party developed with two members voting against their own party. O’Neill’s government won the vote to accept the Lockwood Report by 27 votes to 19. O’Neill now attempted to ease mounting tensions by introducing moderate reforms. Violent disturbances continued. An ambush at Burntollet in Jan 1969 led O’Neill to set up commission to enquire into the disturbances. A series of bomb attacks by loyalists aimed at provoking a government response against Republicans was too much for Unionist MPs and they forced him to resign. It was later said that he was “quite literally blown out of office”.

The University of Ulster, Coleraine, officially opened its doors in Oct 1968. By then the tensions between Nationalists and Unionists had dramatically escalated, leading to the outbreak of the troubles which would carry on through the 1970s and beyond. The marching season in July resulted in rioting by Protestant militants. In August the Apprentice Boys parade in Derry led to ferocious rioting by Catholics. The police began to use CS gas for the first time. They were assisted by the much hated B-Specials. This further angered Catholics. The British Army now entered Northern Ireland. The IRA split into the Official and Provisional IRA in 1970. The British Army became the focus of IRA aggression which was seen as defending Orangeism. Northern Ireland was now on its way to thirty years of violence.

Handout – The Coleraine Controversy

Major Article on the Coleraine Controversy entitled ‘Our Magee Problem: Stormont and the Second University’
Stormont and the Second University

Two documents relating to government discussions on the Lockwood Report

The Lockwood Report

The Lockwood Report

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