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Ulster for Beginners – Part VII

[My apologies for the large gap in installments. Holidays, ingrained sloth etc. Anyway, back to the grind, and this time we have a cracker…]

Civil Rights

The civil rights campaign was the single most important factor in shaping Ulster’s recent history. Its allegations [ugh] provided the pretext for IRA violence, the belief amongst many that Ulster is all about nice Catholics and nasty Protestants and the belief in government circles that in Ulster, at least, democracy does not work.

But were the allegations true? If they were, were they evidence of a corrupt state or merely the odd corrupt official?

Here are some of the more famous accusations of injustice:

Londonderry gerrymandering

This is one of the most oft-repeated Stormont scandals. The charge is that Stormont arranged Londonderry’s electoral boundaries in such a way as to ensure that a city with a Catholic majority returned a Unionist-dominated council. This assumes that Nationalists used to get more votes than Unionists. The truth is that we will never know as in the years between 1936 and 1968 there was not a single occasion when Nationalists and Unionists fought each other in a City Council election. There is a second assumption: that the boundaries were drawn up for the sole purpose of ensuring a Unionist majority. Once again we may never know the facts because the boundaries were drawn up in 1936, long before the Civil Rights Era. What we do know is that the Nationalists of the day did not propose an alternative. It is a peculiar variety of grave injustice that is not worth complaining about. Even when the boundaries were changed in 1973, nationalists still failed to get a majority of the votes.

Housing Policy

The charge is that Unionist councillors discriminated in favour of Protestant tenants when handing out council properties. This does not correspond with the facts. In the late sixties, according to surveys taken at the time, 40.9% of Catholic families lived in public sector housing, compared to 32.6% of Protestant families. Of course, this says nothing about the quality of the housing; it could just be that the Protestants had all the nicest houses, or about the proportions of the two communities who would have been eligible for public sector housing. As it happens, in Londonderry the Protestants did occupy slightly better houses, but their Catholic neighbours occupied considerably better properties than Protestants in Belfast, or for that matter Protestants living in the Fountain estate near the Bogside.

[For that matter, housing in the (unionist) Fountain estate is still clearly in a worse state than housing in the (nationalist) Creggan.]

Employment Statistics

Professor Richard Rose’s 1968 study Governing without Consensus found that there was “…a limited tendency for Protestants to have a higher occupational class than Catholics.” Much of this could be explained by reference to geography: the Catholics tended to live in the West [of the province] and the jobs tended to be in the East. After 24 years of direct rule from Westminster things have changed slightly, but even now Catholics are twice as likely to be unemployed as Protestants. There are two possibilities: either the British are as bad as Stormont, or Stormont was not half as bad as is claimed. In explaining differing rates of unemployment it is important to bear in mind the existence of other factors.

[It occurs to me that this is a rather bizarre argument. Why would people continue to live in a place where there is little work?]

Treatment of Catholics

Much is made of the recruitment, or lack of it, of Catholics into the Stormont government and other industries. That discrimination happened is undeniable and regrettable, but there are a number of mitigating factors and Catholics must take some of the blame for the fate that befell them.

[Regrettable. Really? Why employ people who are opposed to your very existence? Or might be.]

Catholic Attitudes

Much is made of the way the state treated Catholics, but just as important was the way Catholics treated the state. Throughout its existence the Catholic church and the Nationalist parties refused to accept the legitimacy of Stormont (or, for that matter, that Northern Ireland was a part of the United Kingdom). They discouraged Catholics from joining the police and civil service and for most of Stormont’s history the Nationalist party boycotted Stormont. Patrick Shea, a Catholic who did join the civil service, described how the Catholic community’s view of him and those like him was that “we had joined the enemy; we were lost souls.”

Education provides another example of how Catholics tended to distance themselves from the state. Initially, the Northern Ireland government had wanted to create a non-denominational school system. The Catholic church made it plain that it wanted Catholic children taught in Catholic Church schools and not state schools. This provided the Unionist government with two headaches. Firstly, under the Government of Ireland Act [1921] it was illegal for the government to “endow any religion”. Secondly, by funding Catholic schools it would be creating an anomalous situation where public funds would be being used to subsidise private assets ie. Catholic schools. Eventually, a compromise was reached where Catholic schools were funded, but at a lower rate. All said and done, lower funding did nothing to improve the educational prospects of Catholics.

A further self-inflicted disadvantage was the tendency for Catholics to have larger families than Protestants. This had two effects on employment. Firstly, unemployment tends to be highest amongst the young. If a group has a higher birth rate it will have more young people among its population and therefore higher unemployment. Secondly, mass surveys have shown that the more children there are in a family the poorer the educational attainment. None of this had anything to do with discrimination.

What people often forget about the situation prior to 1969 was that the system had safeguards. The Stormont government could not just do as it pleased. The safeguards were written into the Government of Ireland Act 1920 which included clauses outlawing discrimination by the government on the grounds of religion. These clauses were never used to launch a legal action against the Stormont government. One can only conclude that civil rights campaigners knew that their evidence was flimsy and that allegations of discrimination were used to promote a united Ireland rather than to right wrongs.

Even if the claims were correct and even if the system could never have been made to work this is hardly relevant now. Ulster has had direct rule from Westminster for a quarter of a century. Whatever, the vices of Ulster’s English governors may have been, sectarianism cannot be numbered among them. The period since 1972 has seen an enormous growth of laws, agencies and funds aimed at eliminating discrimination. Ulster has a Fair Employment Act and a Fair Employment Commission to ensure that employers do not discriminate on religious grounds. The Community Relations Council promotes cross-community understanding [Ha!]. Housing has been taken out of local government control and put in the hands of the Housing Executive. The Standing Commission on Human Rights monitors Ulster’s human rights record.

Part VI

9 comments to Ulster for Beginners – Part VII

  • Julie near Chicago

    Patrick, do mean you’ve taken to sleeping hanging upside-down from a tree-branch?

    Seems a little extreme to me.

    .

    Seriously, thanks so much for the History of Ulster that you’ve been giving us. I confess that it’s been not only Greek but Gaelic as well to me, so I’ve been reading rather than confirming my ignorance via pixellated* comments, but much appreciated. :>)

    *[sic]

  • Runcie Balspune

    I suggest you put links back to the other parts?

    These are great, by the way.

  • Mr Ed

    Funnily enough, only the other day in Glasgow, near the Rangers ground (the ‘Protestant’ football [soccer] club) there was some ‘sectarian’ violence where the situation in Northern Ireland has bizarrely replicated itself with ongoing strife between (presumably) the descendants of Irish immigrants and Scots. There was, for reasons that are not clear, an ‘Irish Unity’ march in Glasgow, that was met by a protest from (presumably ‘Rangers fans’) some not content (to put it mildly) with the situation.

    The reaction of the (SNP) City Council seems rather ominous:

    “Over the past year, Glasgow City Council has pushed the law as far as we can on this, to the extent of being taken to court. And it may well be that we have to do this again.”

    I note that a former Labour ‘First Minister’ for Scotland (now a ‘Lord’) said

    “Part of the problem that we are seeing in football grounds and on the streets with increasing sectarian behaviour and incidents is that there hasn’t been strong national leadership.
    “Spending money is the easy part of government. It’s easy to pick up a budget and give organisations some money.
    “The real challenge is in bringing people together and getting them to commit and then act on the changes that are required.”

    What is this ‘strong national leadership‘? It sounds like the sort of thing that people marched about for in the 1920s and 1930s.

  • Sam Duncan

    The best installment yet, not least because it highlights a few truths that are never talked about, and probably come as a surprise to most mainlanders. Much was made, for example, at the time the PSNI was established, of its constitutional commitment to equal employment from both sides of the divide. How wonderfully Modern, Blairite, and egalitarian. Why didn’t those bigoted 20th Century British Imperialsts think of that?

    They did. The RUC had the same commitment. The trouble was that the IRA had a tendency to shoot any Roman Catholics who joined it.

    There’s no doubt that there was (and remains) prejudice among the general population, on both sides. Even here in Glasgow, which is almost like a little Ulster enclave on the mainland, there’s an old joke that the first question in any job interview used to be, “What school did you go to?” Given that the majority of employers in Ulster in the mid-20th Century were Protestant, if the first word that came out of your mouth was “Saint”, your chances were severely diminshed.

    It’s notable that, on both sides of the Irish Sea, this problem could easily have been solved but for the determination of Roman Catholics themselves to educate their children separately. At least when I was young, the non-religious state schools in Scotland were known by Catholics as “protestant schools”, which is simply not the case. Of course they should be free to do so but, especially in such a volatile environment, the taxpayer shouldn’t be forced to pay for it, and, while it doesn’t excuse bigotry, they should hardly be surprised if it doesn’t result in the harmonious integrated society they claim to seek.

    I don’t believe for one moment that that kind of bigotry was universal, though. But it did exist, and it would be surprising if some of it didn’t spill over into the government of Northern Ireland as well. However, as you say, there were safeguards. Safeguards which, over the last 50 years, seem to have been forgotten.

    One thing I hope this series has made clear to Samizdatistas is that the situation isn’t simple.

  • Sam Duncan

    Mr. Ed, “part of the problem” was some idiot thinking that routing an Irish Republican march through Govan on the Friday night of an Old Firm weekend was a good idea. This wasn’t a bunch of Celtic fans who happened to run into their Rangers counterparts by accident, the sort of thing that might warrant the condemnatory responses you quote. The situation was clearly deliberately engineered by someone in a position of authority. I’d like to know who, and why.

    P.S.: Can’t the edit timer be cancelled once you start editing? I was just about to hit “Post” there, and everything disappeared.

  • Kieran

    The “Londonderry Gerrymandering” segment fights a straw man.

    The actual complaint was that there were two types of constituency:
    * “catholic sink” constituencies where only catholics lived
    * “unionist balanced” constituencies where unionists had a small majority

    To allow control, the local government controlled a disproportionate amount of housing.

    In order to maintain the balance, catholics couldn’t be housed in the “balanced” constituencies
    for fear of flipping the balance. But the catholic birth rate meant that the “sink” constituencies
    were overcrowded.

    After 30 years of discriminatory housing policy, it is completely believable that “fair” constituencies
    would not flip the balance.

  • Rich Rostrom

    When constituencies are sufficiently lopsided, voting is usually substantially depressed, as many voters see no need to turn out for a predetermined outcome. This was clearly the case in the Jim Crow American South, and has been the case in majority-black urban US House districts for many years.

    Thus, the vote in the gerrymandered constituencies of Londonderry would not reflect the actual aggregate potential vote.

  • I do love this series. Of course, as a citizen of the US and resident of California it is mostly academic to me, but I try to find insights in the history. I hope that such insights that can be leveraged on troubles both local as well as distant but looming . Example: immigration without acculturation, especially those from Islamic countries, but also my own California.

  • Paul Marks

    In the old days, before “the troubles”, their were Roman Catholic mayors of Protestant towns – and senior army and police officers were Roman Catholics.

    What is taught about Northern Ireland in (say) the 1950s reminds me of the old Russian saying “First they smash your face in – then they say you were always ugly” – the left control the “mainstream” media and the education system (the schools and universities) and they are giving a picture of what Northern Ireland was like that just is-not-true.

    The proof of the pudding is in the eating – if Roman Catholics were so horribly treated in Northern Ireland why did they not leave? Most Protestants in the South left – because they really were often horribly treated (although not always – the wealthy Protestants in nice areas of Dublin tended to be left alone).

    One incident of Sectarianism in Northern Ireland does stick in my mind – myself and a friend were dropping off a car and a “park and ride” in Belfast and went for a bus – I went to buy a ticket and the driver said “We are full”, the bus was half empty so I tried again and got “WE ARE FULL” as a reply, and the bus drove off.

    I asked my friend what that was all about – and he said “it is your English accent” and when I questioned further I got the further information “the driver was clearly from the Nationalist Community”.

    So there you are – my own “Rosa Parks” moment, accept that the lady was told to sit at the back of the bus, whereas I was not allowed on the bus at all.

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