Irish civil rights activist in the 1960s with the courage
to stand up for justice in Northern Ireland
Constantine (Conn) McCluskey was born in February 1915, the elder of two sons, to John Montague McCluskey and his wife Anne (nee Hughes). Both parents originated from the Tyrone/Armagh border area and lived in Dungannon, before moving to Warrenpoint. He received primary education locally and secondary education at
St Colman’s College, Newry and Blackrock College, Dublin, before studying medicine at University College Dublin.
After graduation, he worked in the north of England, then Keady, before moving to
Dungannon, Co Tyrone where, on 17 January 1964, along with his wife Patricia, he established the Campaign for Social Justice(CSJ) with a committee of mainly catholic middle-class professionals, like Dr Peter Gormley who died in 2011. According to its founding statement, the CSJ was established for “the purpose of bringing the light of publicity to bear on the discrimination which exists in our community against the Catholic section of that community representing more than one-third of the total population“.
Its main approach was to try to publicise what it saw as injustices and discrimination in employment, housing, electoral practices, and public appointments. To draw attention to the issues the CSJ published five pamphlets: WhyJustice Cannot Be Done;
Londonderry. One Man, No Vote;
What the Papers Say;
Legal Aid to Oppose Discrimination – Not Likely!;
Northern Ireland. The Plain Truth; and a second edition of The Plain Truth. .
In January 1967 they helped to found the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA).
At a meeting in Maghera in August 1966 between
the Wolfe Tone Societies and the IRA. it was proposed that a civil rights campaign be started.
Where did this idea originate?
Desmond Greaves (1913-1988), leader of the Connolly Association,
was the intellectual pioneer of the 1960s civil rights campaign as the way to undermine Ulster unionism. At the beginning of the 1960s the Connolly Association in London published its pamphlet “Our Plan to End Partition” which pointed out that “the greatest obstacle to turning out the Brookeborough Government is the way it has barricaded itself at Stormont behind a mountain of anti-democratic legislation.” Greaves advanced the view that the way to a peaceful solution of the Irish problem
was to discredit Ulster unionism in Britain through exposing the discriminatory practices which occurred under the Stormont regime in Belfast, in the process winning sympathetic allies for the cause of Irish reunification in the country that had legislated partition into existence.
On 29 January 1967 the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was formed. The 13 man committee included Liam McMillan of the IRA as well as Fred Heatley and Jack Bennett from the Wolfe Tone Societies. You can access one of Bennet’s essays
The first Civil Rights march in Northern Ireland was held on 12th August 1968
when 2,000 people marched from Coalisland to Dungannon because of the history of discrimination in Dungannon and a housing squat by Austin Currie in nearby Caledon.
For the Mid Ulster by-election on 17 April 1969 Dr Conn McCluskey and his wife Patricia McCluskey, organised a Unity Convention
to select a single anti-Unionist candidate.
Bernadette Devlin (born 23 April 1947) became at twenty-one years of age the youngest ever female MP with the highest turnout in any Westminster by-election since universal suffrage (91.5% of the electorate voted).
Patricia McCluskey served for a time as an elected councillor in Dungannon, but the couple were not prominent in public life after the onset of the Troubles. In 1989 Conn published a memoir of their campaigning,
“Our first objective will be to collect comprehensive and accurate data on all injustices done against all creeds and political opinions, including details of discrimination in jobs and houses … A booklet will be published for the widest circulation in which we will feel no need to select or slant our facts for the best effect … We will make as full use as funds allow of newspaper, poster and leaflet publicity outside Ireland, availing of the services of an advertising consultant. In this way we will force all the disturbing details of life here to the attention of the British and American people so that it can never again be said that they were unaware of what was happening in Northern Ireland.”
The McCluskeys retired to Foxrock, Dublin, where Patricia died in 2010, aged 96. Conn died on 16th December 2013, and was buried in Burren, County Down.
Conn McCluskey, Up off their knees: a commentary on the Civil Rights Movement in Northern Ireland, Belfast, 1989.