Northern Ireland news

50 years on - Caledon Protest and the civil rights campaign

Patsy Gildernew, Austin Currie and Joe Campbell took part in the Caledon sit-in in protest at civil rights' abuses in 1968.
Seamus McKinney

In occupying a house in Caledon in 1968 for a few brief hours, former Stormont MP Austin Currie believes he helped change history.

While Dungannon GP, Con McCloskey and his wife, Patricia had been pioneering the civil rights’ campaign for a number of years, most accept the Caledon Protest on June 20 1968 moved the campaign onto a new level. The protest was in some ways the birth proper of the civil rights movement.

Housing was one of the key means of control used by the unionist state. By controlling housing, unionist leaders were able to ensure Catholic and nationalist votes were limited. By ensuring new housing was confined to certain wards, they were also able to gerrymander whole authorities.

Against that background, many Catholic families across Northern Ireland were forced to live in slums and abject poverty.

Read more: Nichola Mallon: Even half a century after Caledon inequality in housing is glaring

In October 1967, at her wits end, Mary Teresa Goodfellow, her husband Fran and children, Dawn and Brian, took possession of number 11 Kinnard Park in Caledon. They had hoped that Dungannon council would allocate one of the new houses to them as they were living in cramped conditions with her parents and six brothers at Brantry near Dungannon. But nearly all of the 15 new homes were allocated to Protestants.

A court fined the family for squatting but ordered they could remain in the house for six months in the hope that a new house would be allocated. However, on June 19 1968, bailiffs arrived to evict the family.

The day before the Caledon sit-in protest, the Goodfellow family were dragged from the home they had been living in for eight months.

Mrs Goodfellow’s sister-in-law, Geraldine Gildernew – mother of Sinn Féin MP, Michelle, Sinn Féin MLA, Colum and wife of Sinn Féin councillor, Phelim – was with her on the day of the eviction. Mrs Gildernew recalled Mrs Goodfellow’s mother was also in the house on the morning of the eviction.

“We’d gone to Currie (Austin) and asked him and he said we were right to move into the house in October and if they evicted us, he said he would squat in the house,” she told the Irish News.

Austin Currie spoke at a housing conference - Housing Then and Now - organised to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Caledon protest at the Junction in Dungannon. Picture by Bill Smyth.

On the day of the eviction, Mrs Gildernew recalled bailiffs using hatchets to break down the door.

“We were told that if we sat on the floor and let ourselves go loose, it would be hard to move us but they trailed me out by the feet onto the street and Teresa out the back door,” she recalled.

To make matters worse, the house next door, number 9, was let to a single 19-year-old Protestant woman, Emily Beatty.

Mrs Gildernew said that, with other family members, she went to the home of her local Stormont MP, Austin Currie and reminded him of his October promise.

The following day, Mr Currie was joined by Mrs Gildernew’s brother-in-law, Patsy and local farmer, Joe Campbell in what was to become the Caledon protest. A Nationalist Party MP and one of the young Turks of the civil rights’ movement, Mr Currie (78) told the Irish News he had pledged to support the Goodfellows.

“It seemed to me to be the most blatant of injustices; they were just thrown out on the street.”

With the aid of a poker, entry was gained to Number 11 Kinnard Park and Mr Currie, Mr Gildernew and Mr Campbell awaited their fate.

The former MP said: “The police arrived, a sergeant that I knew, but he said it was a civil matter and he would not get involved unless there was a breach of the law and so he left.

“But then after a few hours, a brother of Emily Beatty who was a policeman as well but was in plain clothes arrived and told us to get out. We told him it was a non-violent protest so he went off and got a sledge hammer and broke down the door.

“He tried to throw us out physically but we walked out to the waiting cameras and reporters. It was big news because an MP had taken part in the protest and WD Flecks from the television was there.”

Mr Currie said that through his efforts to bring about change at Stormont, he was aware that unionists would not change and the British government would ignore the injustices being visited on the Catholic population.

“I believed the only way to change things was to get the British government to put pressure on the unionists to change and that meant the media,” he said.

After the protest, Mr Currie said he worked with Doctor Mr McCloskey and his wife, Patricia – whom he described as his “political parents” – to build on the momentum created by the Caledon protest.

“We went to a meeting of the civil rights’ executive in Maghera and asked them to organise a march.”

That march, the first of the civil rights’ movement since partition, took place on August 24 from Coalisland to Dungannon. While it passed off without incident – despite a loyalist counter demonstration – two months later, on October 5, a similar civil rights march in Derry was beaten off the streets by police, a moment that most regard as the start of the Troubles.

Both Mr Currie and Mrs Gildernew are proud of what was achieved by the Caledon squat and protest.

Mrs Gildernew said: “I think there has come a lot of good things out of it. It is not perfect but it is better than it was. I am proud of my role in it.”

Her husband, Phelim is now the councillor for the seat once held by the unionist who allocated Number 11 Kinnard Park to Emily Beatty.

Mr Currie has no regrets over his role.

“It was the beginning of the civil rights campaign proper. In a very, very short time, we managed to have a successful resolution to many of the abuses. The Housing Executive was set up; gerrymandering was stopped with the introduction of PR voting and the B Specials were abolished.

“I believe it was a beginning and I believe I helped change history,” he said.

Mr Currie returned to Dungannon on Friday last to take part in a conference on housing organised by the SDLP to mark the 50th anniversary of his protest. He was joined by retired Ulster University professor, Paddy Gray, the university’s Professor Duncan Morrow and other leading experts in the field of housing.

Today, an exhibition focusing on the Caledon squat and protest will be held at the former courthouse in Caledon (1pm to 4.30pm).

Read more: Nichola Mallon: Even half a century after Caledon inequality in housing is glaring

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