Prelude to Terror
Opinion as to when the atrocities started in Northern Ireland is very much governed by which “side” gives the opinion. The state was born in violence and was governed and politically structured both to resist violence and promote violence as an instrument of establishment policy.
Both the ruling Unionists and the opposition Nationalists seemed determined on keeping the population divided along politico-religious lines. The latter refused to co-operate with the state institutions and those who controlled those institutions totally reflected the repeated clarion of succeeding Prime Ministers that Northern Ireland had “a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people”.
In 1922, soon after the inception of the northern state, the Unionist government introduced the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act. It was ludicrously draconian, a complete totalitarian’s do-it-yourself kit which allowed “the Authority” to declare
something not covered by the Act but deemed by Authority to be contrary to the Act to be unlawful, and provided for the power of the Authority to be delegatable to any of its servants. Effectively, then, a reserve constable in the exclusively Protestant “B” Special Constabulary could become an on-the-spot lawmaker and law-enforcer. The Act, which became part of the permanent law of the state in 1928, was frequently used to imprison opponents of the government without charge or trial but, mercifully, most of its other quite terrifying provisions were never used.
Inevitably, Nationalists made political capital out of the Act (a basically similar Act was introduced in the Irish Free State but was only activated during emergencies) especially when the architect of South Africa’s apartheid, responded to criticism by the British government, by saying he would give up the whole of his enabling legislation for a single clause of the Northern Ireland Special Powers Act. The London government was embarrassed. Engrossed in its own problems, however, it did not follow the advice of some of its members who urged a closer scrutiny of Britain’s Northern Ireland creation.
The Unionist justification for the Special Powers Act was the activities of the IRA; on the other hand, the Nationalists justified the IRA on the basis of the Special Powers Act. In 1921 when the state was established there was communal violence and the Unionist government made only minimal efforts to curb the sectarian bloodlust of its supporters. By 1923, the government had largely stamped out all violent opposition.
There were to be further troubles and IRA scares but the IRA was more fictional than threatening — for example, during most of the wartime Forties, when the IRA was supposed to be taking advantage of “England’s difficulty”, there was seldom more than a dozen active IRA volunteers in Belfast. This was, of course, before the intransigence of the landowners, industrialists and prosperous lawyers who made up the Unionist government had prepared history for the birth of the Provisionals.
The government did nothing to win the reluctant hearts and minds of its non-cooperating minority. It not only made permanent the sinister Special Powers Act, it structured the franchise and engineered electoral boundaries not simply to ensure that it remained in power but to see to it that the political influence of its constitutional opponents was zero. Unemployment and low pay were endemic but, there again, the government, from the Prime Minister down, overtly encouraged discrimination against the minority.
Despite the facts of the situation, the benefits of the “Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people” were, effectively, more illusionary’ than real. As far as the working class was concerned, it is true that those labelled “Protestant” were more likely to find a job (which, of course, they desperately needed) than were Catholics. The latter also suffered discrimination in housing but, ironically, in the areas where Unionism was most violently vociferous and in areas where Catholics mulled their anger against Unionism, there was a marked identically of slums and mean living.
In 1945 the various schemes of social welfare outlined in the wartime all-party Beveridge Report were introduced in Westminster. The Unionist overlords opposed the extension of these provisions to Northern Ireland but, despite this, the ensuing legislation did cover the province.
Welfare capitalism had no direct impact on discrimination which was institutionalised in both in law and custom. It did, however, have dramatic indirect effects: social security payments may not have produced jobs and houses but, given the very real poverty of most Protestant workers, the general living standards of Catholics and Protestant members of the working class — employed and unemployed — were brought into closer proximity.
Allied to the 1944 Education Act, welfare payments and family allowances allowed greater numbers of young Catholics to remain at school rather than emigrating and this, in turn, began to throw up within the Nationalist community a young and articulate element that saw politics as the ending of discriminatory forms rather than the mythical gold at the end of an all-Ireland rainbow. This was clearly demonstrated in 1956 when a re-organised IRA launched a border campaign. After a few brief skirmishes, the “Campaign” lapsed into a war of press statements until, in 1962, the IRA acknowledged defeat and blamed it on the northern Nationalists whom, they said, had sold their heritage for the benefits of the welfare state. It was a watershed that official Unionism and the Orange bigots who bolstered their rule seemed oblivious of.
But, if the dream of a united Ireland was to be jettisoned, then the northern Nationalists insisted that they should be integrated into the system and that the structures that barred them from full participation should be dismantled. Unfortunately, while Unionism could give way on such demands as “One person, One vote”, the demand for jobs and homes were not within the power of northern capitalism to grant.
The minority, initially with significant Protestant working-class support, choose the methods that had been used successfully in the campaign of Martin Luther King in the United States. The demonstration and protest march. Unfortunately, the people leading the campaign wholly failed to recognise the real nature of the problem.
The pseudo-socialist, Gerry Fitt (now Lord Fitt) and aspiring respectable Nationalists like John Hume, argued that the social problems extant in Northern Ireland were caused by Unionism — as if poverty, slums and unemployment, together with the political rigging of these evils for electoral advantage, were not features of capitalism elsewhere, including the Republic of Ireland.
Certainly, Unionism maintained its power-base among working-class Protestants by an uneven distribution of these ills of capitalism along religious lines but, as we warned at the time, to base the demand for Civil Rights on the effects of the Unionist Party’s manipulation of the inadequacies of capitalism, rather than on capitalism itself, could be, and was, construed as a threat to every employed Protestant home occupier.
If capitalism’s poverty had been “fairly” distributed, it was likely that fewer Protestants and more Catholics would have had homes and jobs but, for an organisation allegedly campaigning for “civil rights” to offer the idea of a redistribution of poverty rather than an end to the economic system that created that poverty, clearly demonstrated not only the very limited thinking of the Civil Rights movement but the inherent sectarianism of the movement itself.
Tragically, the Civil Rights campaign, itself non-violent, offered a golden opportunity to fascist-type bigots like Paisley and Craig to provoke sectarian warfare. In the wings along with Paisley and others of his ilk were the dinosaurs of Irish republicanism, breathing the same wretched hatreds and nationalistic racism as their loyalist opponents.
The ensuing slaughter is history and we are tempted to think how different it might have been if the Civil Rights people had based their demands on class instead of creed, exposing the physical and intellectual poverty of the working class in Northern Ireland and not simply the “Catholic” segment of that class.