Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Freedom Struggle of Northern Ireland

Charlotte O’Sullivan (April 4, 2018)

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, the leader of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s in America. But here in Ireland, Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy goes far beyond the improvements he brought to the lives of African American people in the US; for example, his actions and his words were taken up by nationalist civil rights campaigners in the North of Ireland.

These civil rights campaigners were not agitating for equal rights for people of different races, but for people of different creeds. In the North of Ireland, unlike the Republic of Ireland, there is a majority of Protestants. During the first half of the 20th century, many Protestants were afraid that the Catholic population would try to force ‘’Northern Ireland’’ to unify with the Republic of Ireland, and so efforts were made to make sure the Catholic citizens of the North remained in the political minority. This was done by gerrymandering electoral boundaries and limiting who was allowed to vote to ensure more Protestants were elected. The ‘’Northern Irish’’ government and local politicians were accused of discriminatory hiring and housing practices, as were the RUC, and now the PSNI accused of anti-Catholic bias.

As the civil rights campaigners in the North of Ireland were unable to change these problems from inside the government due to their political impotence, they looked elsewhere to see how other states were trying to force change through different means. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement in America was an inspiration for these campaigners. They encouraged nonviolent protests, aiming to force the ‘’Northern Irish’’ government to change their ways by large demonstrations of up to 15,000 people.

Although these peaceful protests did not last long, as the British Army chose to bring these marches to an abrupt and bloody end on the 30th January 1972, known as Bloody Sunday. There are still signs of Martin Luther King Jr.’s influence in the North of Ireland, in Derry in particular, King appears in many murals as a symbol of peaceful, nonviolent protest for civil rights. One mural includes the closing part of King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, which would have resonated strongly with the people of the North of Ireland:

“I have a dream… we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last!'”