A Northern Catholic writes . . . John Hume in 1964

Michael Viney was so impressed with a 26-year-old Hume that the future SDLP leader was given a platform for two articles in The Irish Times

In the spring of 1964, the editor of The Irish Times, Douglas Gageby, asked me to travel through Northern Ireland and talk with people who might reflect something of new forces shaping its future. As an inquisitive settler from England, new to both Ireland and its journalism, my personal, outsider’s view might, perhaps, give the North some fresh reality for a readership long resigned to a national ritual of indifference and repetitious sloganeering.

For two weeks, I drifted about by bus and train, soon carried along through a sort of underground movement in Northern Ireland dedicated to subversion of the existing order. I am passed from one resistance worker to the next. The code-word is “goodwill”.

The loose and scattered movement was mainly young, middle class and peacefully idealistic, impatient of automatic equivalence of Catholicism and nationalism and resisting entrenched and politically rigid responses on both sides. Its Catholics were prepared to accept the North’s constitutional position in return for a representative share in local administration – a position mocked and undermined by the nationalist political machine.

Among the many young teachers actively involved in cross-cultural approaches was the 26-year-old John Hume, a Derry man educated partly at Maynooth. When I met him, he was founding a housing association in Derry, along with a credit union. We watched together a documentary film he had just made with a fellow teacher, Terence McDonald.

A City Solitary, shown by the BBC, traced the “two great traditions” of Londonderry with empathy, even urging a more ready future acceptance of the city’s official name. Such warming encounters were set against the sour and discouraging tenor of many more established views on both sides.

I returned to Dublin to write Journey North: a series relating “one of the most depressing experiences I have known”. Yet John Hume’s outlook and vigour made me want to share his promise with Douglas Gageby, who straightaway gave him his first platform in this newspaper (see below) and engaged with him thereafter in the struggle towards peace and powersharing. – MICHAEL VINEY

Michael Viney’s Journey North series (May 4th-9th, 1964) has spotlighted among other things the great political frustration that exists among the Catholic community there. It is hardly the great united complaining force the Northern correspondents of the Dublin newspapers mirror it to be. The crux of the matter for the younger generation is the continued existence, particularly among the Catholic community, of great social problems of housing, unemployment and emigration. It is the struggle for priority in their minds between such problems and the ideal of a united Ireland with which they have been bred that has produced the frustration and the large number of political wanderers that Michael Viney met on his tour.

It may be that the present generation of younger Catholics in the North are more materialistic than their fathers but there is little doubt their thinking is principally geared towards the solution of social and economic problems. This has led to a deep questioning of traditional nationalist attitudes.

It must be said the blame for the situation which prevails must lie principally at the door of the unionist government. But the present Nationalist Political Party must bear a share of it. Good government depends as much on the opposition as on the party in power. Weak opposition leads to corrupt government.

Nationalists in opposition have been in no way constructive. They have quite rightly been loud in their demands for rights, but they have remained silent and inactive about their duties. In 40 years of opposition, they have not produced one constructive contribution on either the social or economic plane to the development of Northern Ireland which is, after all, a substantial part of the United Ireland for which they strive.

Leadership has been the comfortable leadership of flags and slogans. Easy, no doubt, but irresponsible. There has been no attempt to be positive, to encourage the Catholic community to develop the resources, which they have in plenty, to make a positive contribution in terms of community service. Unemployment and emigration, chiefly of Catholics, remains heavy, much of it no doubt due to the skilful placing of industry by the Northern government, but the only constructive suggestion from the nationalist side would appear to be that a removal of discrimination will be the panacea for all our ills.

It is this lack of positive contribution and the apparent lack of interest in the general welfare of Northern Ireland that has led many Protestants to believe the Northern Catholic is politically irresponsible and immature and therefore unfit to rule.

Bigotry and a fixation about religious divisions are the first thing that strike any visitor to the North. The nationalist line of the past 40 years has made its contribution to this situation. Catholics of all shades of political thought are expected to band together under the unconstructive banner of nationalism.

This dangerous equation of nationalism and Catholicism has simply contributed to the postponement of the emergence of normal politics in the area and has made the task of the unionist ascendancy simpler. Worse, it has poisoned the Catholic social climate to the extent that it has become extremely difficult for a Catholic to express publicly any point of view which does not coincide with the narrow nationalist line.

Disagreement with, or, criticism of, the nationalist approach or lack of it inevitably brings down upon one’s head a torrent of abuse. “Obsequious”, “crawling”, “castle Catholic”, “west Briton”, are samples of the terms used.

The result has been that many Catholics have been unwilling to speak their minds for fear of recrimination. The nationalist press are the chief perpetrators of this situation.

When one adds this climatic censorship to a similar one on the unionist side, one becomes clearly aware of how little freedom of thought or expression exists in Northern Ireland and of the tremendous obstacles in the way of the emergence of a third force. One of the greatest contributions, therefore, that the Catholic in Northern Ireland can make to a liberalising of the political atmosphere would be the removal of the equation between nationalists and Catholics.

Apart from being factual, it ought also to be made fashionable that the Catholic Church does not impose upon its members any one form of political belief. In recent times, some church leaders, realising the danger to religion in the religio-political equation, have been pointing this out.

Another positive step towards easing community tensions and towards removing what bigotry exists among Catholics would be to recognise that the Protestant tradition in the North is as strong and as legitimate as our own.

Such recognition is our first step towards better relations. We must be prepared to accept this and to realise that the fact that a man wishes Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom does not necessarily make him a bigot or a discriminator. Which leads me to the constitutional question.

Apart from providing the Unionist Party with valuable ammunition in the emotional times of an election, their attitude to the Constitutional position has lost the Nationalist Party the sympathy of liberal Protestants and has prevented themselves and their followers from playing a fuller part in the development of the Northern community.

What’s more, it has too often been an excuse for inactivity. Their present attitude to the question has been vague. While they will on the one hand attend at the unrecognised parliament of Stormont and accept a salary for so doing, they will refuse to be present at a function in Derry City held to bestow civic honour on an industrialist who had given substantial employment to their fellow Catholics.

The position should be immediately clarified by an acceptance of the constitutional position. There is nothing inconsistent with such acceptance and a belief that a 32-county republic is best for Ireland. In fact, if we are to pursue a policy of non-recognition, the only logical policy is that of Sinn Féin. If one wishes to create a united Ireland by constitutional means, then one must accept the constitutional position.

Stumbling block

Such a change would remove what has been a great stumbling block to the development of normal politics in the North. Catholics could then throw themselves fully into the solution of Northern problems without fear of recrimination. Such an attitude too, admits the realistic fact that a united Ireland, if it is to come, and if violence, rightly, is to be discounted, must come about by evolution, ie by the will of the Northern majority.

It is clear also that this is the only way in which a truly united Ireland (with the Northern Protestant integrated) can be achieved. Who can conceive a prosperous North attached to either London or Dublin without the Northern Protestant? If the whole Northern community gets seriously to work on its problems, the unionists’ bogeys about Catholics and a republic will, through better understanding, disappear. It will, of course, take a long time.

On the party political front, the need for a complete revitalisation of the Nationalist Party has long been felt. The head without a body type of party in existence up to the present would have been bound to have led to future political immaturity among Catholics. The necessity for a fully organised democratic party which can freely attract and draw upon the talents of the nationally-minded community is obvious. It is to be hoped the new Nationalist Political Front will create such an organisation so we shall never in future be embarrassed by one of our political representatives declaring on television that he was not an encyclopaedia when asked to produce figures to substantiate his charges of discrimination.

In fairness to some of the Nationalist political leaders, it must be said they have given indications of their awareness of the shortcomings of their approach.

Eddie McAteer, in particular since his assumption of the leadership of the (Nationalist) Party, has given several. The only Nationalist MP with a constituency organisation behind him, he it was who flew the first kite of conciliation which led to the orange-green talks. Although in one sense a failure, they did catch the public imagination and have made a considerable contribution towards the change in climate. His St Patrick’s Day speech in Derry and the eagerness with which the Maghery opportunity was grasped show a realisation of the need for change.

Mr (Patrick) Gormley, too, as his interview with Michael Viney showed, has a realistic attitude. His activities among farmers and a recent speech on the need for a party secretariat confirm his realism. Unfortunately, the public is slow to accept a change of image from their representatives without accusing them of insincerity. Nationalist politicians are prisoners of an image built up over 40 years.

The need for action on a non-political front, however, is probably greater. Most people feel little can really be achieved politically in the existing political stalemate. There exists in the North at the moment a greater wealth of talent – young businessmen, professional men and graduates than ever before and there is a growing desire among them to get together to pool these talents and to tackle community problems. Happily, this type of activity is already under way, and spreading in such movements as Kingdom of Mourne Development Association, Northern Counties Co-op, and the spread of Junior Chambers of Commerce.

Such community activity, in which all sections play their part can do nothing but create mutual respect and above all, build the country with our own hands. It will also water down the deep prejudice which is at the root of discrimination.

Discrimination, or rather complaints about it, has long formed the main plank of the policy of the Nationalist Political Party. One gets the impression sometimes that the deep human problems which underlie the statistics are sometimes forgotten. Otherwise, perhaps a more sustained and intelligent attempt would have, been made to remove it.

Blatant discrimination

There are few people in Northern Ireland today who seriously deny the existence of blatant discrimination. But neither are there many who deny the existence of the deep prejudice which is its cause. It is at its point-of-origin prejudice that discrimination should be tackled.

Many Protestants firmly believe the Catholic is a social inferior. There also exists among them a real fear of Rome rule. Without discussing the obvious irrationality of this prejudice, the very fact it exists and produces discrimination on a widespread scale places the duty on all Catholics to do all in their power to remove it and so remove the disabilities under which their fellow Catholics suffer as a result.

It must be pointed out that people who discriminate through prejudice believe they are justified. Catholics can contribute to a lessening of prejudice by playing a fuller part in public life as some of our religious leaders have been urging. Undoubtedly, in the beginning they will be neither wanted nor welcome in many spheres of public life in Northern Ireland. But public life means more than service on statutory or local government committees. It means the encouragement and participation in community enterprises such as those already mentioned, designed to develop the resources of the community and done in conjunction with all those in the community who are willing to co-operate.

At this point, it is well to point out the considerable heart-searching and sincere self-examination going on among Catholics in the North at the moment does not absolve the Unionist Party from certain obligations if they are sincere about their concern for the future of the North. To date, none of their leaders has shown any response to repeated statements of Catholic willingness to get together.

Unionists must realise that if they turn their backs on the present goodwill there can only be a considerable hardening of Catholic opinion, only this time it will be supported by liberal Protestants who will have lost faith in Glengall Street.

If they are to accept the olive branch, there are certain points which they must clarify.

Firstly, that discrimination, whether religious or political, is unjust and must be removed and the blatant plan in operation in the North at the moment must cease. As a proof of this, public invitations should be issued to Catholics to accept membership of statutory bodies where they are unrepresented or underrepresented already.

Secondly, they must accept that nationalism in Ireland is an acceptable political belief and that nationally minded people are entitled to put forward their views constitutionally without prejudice to their right to any position which they may seek.

Thirdly, they should realise the vast majority of Catholics in Northern Ireland are responsible people, anxious for an improvement in community relations and for the future of the Northern Ireland in which they live and rear their children.

It is only perhaps when many of the above suggestions are in operation throughout the Northern community that religion will begin to make its exit from politics and that socially it will no longer be necessary to forewarn about the presence of those who “dig with the other foot”. In the waiting, the fear is that frustration may force one to leave the North. It is little wonder that many do.

The above article by John Hume first appeared in The Irish Times in two parts on May 18th and May 19th, 1964