A Century of Women - 1960s


The 1960s was a time of global protest against injustice and discrimination – in the southern states of America, in South Africa, and in Northern Ireland, where the civil rights movement took its inspiration from the struggle against racial discrimination in America.  Protests against the Vietnam war and support for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) also took place, with Ann Hope and Madge Davison prominent in these movements. Women from working-class communities played a significant role in the civil rights movement as they fought for decent housing for their families and an end to discrimination against Catholics in employment and local government.  It was also the decade, which saw the advent of the pill, which was to make a decisive change to women’s lives, providing them with an opportunity to gain some control over their fertility. The conservative nature of Northern Ireland, and the sectarian divisions that prevented the Catholic minority from having any meaningful political engagement, meant that progressive change was resisted by both state and church and, as a consequence, was often hard fought for.

1969 saw the beginning of the end of Unionist control of the north as the government – which had been controlled by the Ulster Unionist Party for fifty years – countered civil rights protests with force, which, in turn, escalated into increasing violence. Serious rioting was followed by inter-communal clashes, sectarian attacks on homes and loss of life. Rioting in Derry ended with the arrival of British troops on 14th August 1969. Troops were on the streets of Belfast by 16th August, when several people died in a sectarian confrontation between Catholics and Protestants. The subsequent Cameron Commission report on the disturbances attributed much of the blame on the disturbances on the Stormont government and the RUC.


Discrimination in housing was a key issue that sparked protest and women were prominent in the campaign to highlight the fact that Catholic families with children were being denied local authority housing.  In the spring and summer of 1963, Angela McCrystal, together with some forty other young women, raised the issue of the lack of housing provision for working-class Catholics in the Dungannon area.  They drafted a petition to the council and began a series of protests, wheeling their prams to meetings of Dungannon Council to highlight the urgency of the situation.  They set up a Homeless Citizens League and were joined by Patricia McCluskey, the wife of a local GP.  When the council ignored their request for a meeting, the group organised a squat of prefabricated houses, which were then being vacated by Protestant families moving to a newly built council estate. Thirty-seven women and their families took part, supported in some cases by the vacating tenants, who handed over their keys to the protestors rather than council officials.  At the same time, Patricia and Conn McCluskey began to collect statistical evidence to support the allegations of discrimination. The outcome was that the council was forced to leave the squatters in possession of the houses and they also agreed to build a new council estate. In order to highlight ongoing examples of discrimination in housing and employment, the McCluskeys formed the Campaign for Social Justice (CSJ) in January 1964. Patricia McCluskey was one of four members of the CSJ elected to Dungannon Council the following May, when seven members ran on a platform of ‘Vote for Justice, Vote for the Team’. They began a publicity campaign and made contact with sympathetic figures in Britain. Patricia McCluskey presented their data to the National Council of Civil Liberties in London, March 1965. Across in Derry, women such as Brigid Bond were also active where the corporation had a particularly bad reputation for refusing to provide housing to Catholics and obstructing Catholics from moving beyond the gerrymandered constituencies, enabling a Unionist-dominated body to retain power in a majority nationalist city.

Campaigning such as this provided the inspiration for the formation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement, established in February 1967. Individuals involved in left-wing politics, including trade unionists, active republicans, members of the Connolly Association, the Northern Ireland Labour Party and the Communist Party, as well as a number of concerned liberals, were all involved.

  • The demands of the NI Civil Rights Association (NICRA) included:
  • One man, one vote’ (which would allow all people over the age of 18 to vote in local council elections and remove the multiple votes held by business owners)
  • An end to gerrymandering electoral wards to produce an artificial unionist majority
  • Prevention of discrimination in the allocation of government jobs
  • Prevention of discrimination in the allocation of council housing
  • The removal of the Special Powers Act
  • The disbandment of the ‘B’ Specials

These demands particularly that of ‘One Man One Vote’ were a reflection of the times, where there was the assumption that ‘man’ automatically included women. It would be another decade before feminists mobilised to challenge gender-blind politics.

The first NICRA march, in August 1968, was from Coalisland to Dungannon, given the history of discrimination in the Dungannon area. Attendance at civil rights marches quickly gathered momentum, particularly after international news footage of RUC brutality towards marchers in Derry on 5 October 1968. Betty Sinclair played a leading role as chair of NICRA until she, and three other members of the executive, resigned in 1969, following a dispute with younger radicals.  Young socialists formed their own organisation, People’s Democracy, because they wanted to go beyond NICRA’s goal of working to reform the ‘Orange State’.

Improvements regarding the provision of birth control were slow to occur and were little publicised, for fear of a hostile reaction. In 1951, the Belfast Women’s Welfare Clinic opened to offer birth control advice, but kept a low profile, as it feared opposition from religious leaders. A decade later, in 1961, a second clinic opened on the Newtownards Road in Belfast, followed by a clinic in Bangor. By the early 1970s, there were 19 such clinics in Northern Ireland, which, were gradually taken over by local health authorities. The Northern Ireland Family Planning Association was formed in 1964 and three years later, in 1967, it achieved recognition by being awarded a grant from the Ministry of Health.  A major shift in emphasis took place with the passing of the Health Services Amendment Act (Northern Ireland) in 1969, allowing for health authorities to provide family planning services on social as well as medical grounds. The Minister for Health and Social Services took care to explain that the change was based on a provision already in place in Great Britain and did not oblige anyone with a conscientious objection to make use of the service.  However, apart from this provision, the sexual revolution and gradual liberalisation of attitudes towards sexuality was not reflected in legislation emanating from Stormont. The provision of abortion in Northern Ireland remained governed by 19th-century legislation, as the 1967 Abortion Act was not extended to the north and homosexuality also remained illegal.

The biggest improvement in living conditions was reflected in the decrease in infant mortality, falling from 53 per 1,000 in 1946 to 26 per 1,000 by 1966. The birth rate was slower to decline, from 23.3 per 1,000 to 22.5 per 1,000, a factor of both continued difficulty in accessing contraception and expectations.  Family sizes continued to be large while housing provision continued to be inadequate to meet the needs of the population; particularly, given the discrimination against the Catholic section of the community. Northern Ireland remained the most economically disadvantaged part of the United Kingdom, with incomes 89% of the UK average.

In 1962, the Stormont government was advised by an economic working party under Sir Robert Hall to stop supporting declining industries like linen and bring in new multi-national industries. The British Enkalon factory opened in Antrim in 1963, enticed by a large grant from the Stormont administration. There would be a number of such factories in the next decade, all based in Protestant-dominated areas, and – in some cases – dubbed ‘fly by nights’ when it became clear that many had little interest in remaining once they had exhausted the original grant allocation. 

The 1960s saw little change in terms of women’s participation in the regional parliament at Stormont, with women winning only three out of fifty-two seats in the 1962 election. Two women represented the Ulster Unionist party and Sheelagh Murnaghan, a Liberal, was elected by the Queen’s University constituents. Florence McLaughlin, a member of the executive of the Ulster Women’s Unionist Council, sat at Westminster between 1955 and 1964. The 1969 disturbances saw an upset to the traditional system when People’s Democracy member, Bernadette Devlin, was elected to Westminster on a united nationalist platform.  She was the youngest person to be elected to Westminster until the election of SNP member Mhairi Black in 2015.

On the recreation front, the British Ladies Amateur Golf Championship was held at Royal County Down Golf Club in 1963, and in July 1968, Belfast Corporation voted for the opening of play centres on a Sunday, ending a long-held policy of Sunday closing.



  • Sheelagh Murnaghan is elected to Stormont for the Ulster Liberal Party in a by-election for Queen’s University.


  • Three women are elected to Stormont: Dinah McNabb (Unionist); Elizabeth McConachie (Unionist); Sheelagh Murnaghan (Liberal).


  • Sheelagh Murnaghan's private member’s bill to abolish capital punishment is defeated.
  • Angela McCrystal and other local women form the Homeless Citizens League in Dungannon organise 37 women and their families to begin a squatting campaign.


  • Campaign for Social Justice is formed by Patricia McCluskey and her husband Dr Conn McCluskey to collect statistics regarding discrimination.
  • Patricia McCluskey is elected to Dungannon Council.
  • Sheelagh Murnaghan makes the first of four attempts to introduce a Human Rights Bill. All defeated.


  • Three women are elected to Stormont: Dinah McNabb (Unionist); Elizabeth McConachie (Unionist); Sheelagh Murnaghan (Liberal).


  • Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association is formed on 1 February, chaired by Betty Sinclair.
  • The 1967 Abortion Act providing for abortion after consultation with two doctors is passed through Private Member’s Bill sponsored by Liberal MP David Steele. It is not extended to Northern Ireland, which is still governed by the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act.
  • Homosexuality is decriminalised in Britain but homosexual law reform is not extended to Northern Ireland, where homosexuality remains illegal.


  • Homeless Catholic families squatting in newly built council houses in Caledon, Co Tyrone, in protest at housing discrimination, are evicted. As a result, the Campaign for Social Justice holds a protest march from Coalisland to Dungannon, attended by 2,500. The civil rights campaign begins.
  • Derry Housing Action Committee is formed and Brigid Bond and other members begin a campaign against the discriminatory housing policy of Derry Corporation.
  • Civil Rights marchers in Derry are attacked by police on 5 October.
  • Student organisation, People’s Democracy, is formed on 9 October after protest march to Belfast City Hall is blocked by police. Bernadette Devlin, Patricia Drinan and Eilis McDermott are some of the leading female figures in the organisation.
  • Prime Minister O’Neill announces a series of reforms, including allocation of housing based on need and end of company vote in local government elections.


  • People’s Democracy march from Belfast to Derry is attacked by loyalists at Burntollet, the news leads to rioting in Belfast and Derry.
  • Cameron Commission to look into the causes of unrest is appointed.
  • Anne Dickson (Unionist) is elected to Stormont; Sheelagh Murnaghan is defeated in the general election.
  • Bernadette Devlin is elected to Westminster for Mid-Ulster constituency on a ‘Unity’ ticket, aged 21, the youngest MP of the time.
  • Bernadette Devlin raises £50,000 for relief in Northern Ireland while on a tour of America.
  • British Army is sent into Northern Ireland at the request of the Unionist government in response to the August riots.
  • November 1969 sees the introduction of the Electoral law Act NI that extends the local government franchise to all parliamentary elections and reduces the qualifying age to 18.
  • In December, a review body on local government is appointed. The McCrory Report, published in 1970, results in the allocation of housing being taken away from local councils.
  • In December, Bernadette Devlin is sentenced to six month’s imprisonment for riot and obstruction during the ‘Battle of the Bogside’ in August.
  • Bernadette Devlin publishes The Price of My Soul.


Jonathan Bardon, A History of Ulster (Belfast, Blackstaff Press, 1992).
Tara Keenan-Thomson, Irish Women and Street Politics 1956-1973 (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2010).
Maedhbh McNamara and Paschal Mooney, Women in Parliament Ireland: 1918-2000 (Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 2000).
Bernadette Devlin, The Price of My Soul (London: Pan Books, 1969).
Bernadette Devlin ‘A Peasant in the Halls of the Great’ in Michael Farrell (ed), Northern Ireland: Twenty Years On (Brandon Books, 1988).
Catherine B. Shannon, 'Women in Northern Ireland' in Mary O'Dowd & Sabina Wichert, Chattel, servant or citizen? (Belfast, 1993).
Constance Rynder, ‘Sheila Murnaghan and the struggle for human rights in Northern Ireland’, Irish Studies Review 14/4, 2006.