Diplomat despaired at lack of understanding


Reports prepared by a British diplomat detailing social and religious differences in Northern Ireland in 1968 often despaired at the lack of understanding between the two traditions and laid the blame for allegations of discrimination in housing at the door of the local authorities.

However, three sets of cabinet papers covered by the 30-year rule, which were due for release at the Public Record Office in London yesterday, were held back by the British government. One dossier referred to a report on the IRA in 1968 and two separate reports contained in a file marked "Ireland 19671968" were "removed and destroyed," according to a note signed by an official in the Prime Minister's office last year (1998).

Writing in February 1968, Peter Carter, a counsellor at the British embassy in Dublin, had just returned from a visit to the North. He found the people "frankly rather contemptuous of their Southern neighbours for their indolence and propensity to waste their money on betting and drinking (they claim moderation in this respect)."

He told London that discrimination was found particularly in housing, "for which the local authorities have prime responsibility". There was gerrymandering in the siting of new housing developments, so as not to upset the balance of voting power in favour of Protestant householders.

Catholic to Protestant representation on local councils was about one to six because of the British government's "insistence" that only householders should have the right to vote in local elections. According to Carter this concept was "outmoded" and designed to maintain a "reasonably secure" Protestant balance.

The major threat to internal security in the North in 1968 was not, according to Carter, the IRA or its "lunatic fringe" but the Paisleyites. In 1967 Carter had believed that Mr Paisley's star had fallen after the Northern Ireland Prime Minister, Capt Terence O'Neill, had fought off a challenge by his deputy, Brian Faulkner.

By February 1968 he had changed his mind. Mr Paisley's churches in Belfast were crowded, while the Church of Ireland was steadily losing its congregation, and he also drew support, not just from the "wee Free" (Free Presbyterians) but members of the Orange Order.

"Every politician, or ambitious young man desirous of entering politics should, of course, be a member of an Orange Lodge," he wrote.

It was only when the two traditions in the North met at university or higher education level that there was any sign of ecumenism. And in a wry observation on Northern attitudes he wrote: "At the university the Catholics in particular go through a somewhat traumatic experience when they begin to realise that their Protestant brethren are, after all, human."