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Fintan O’Toole: Southern hostility to northerners was the hate that dared not speak its name

It is to be hoped prejudice concerning our northern brethren is a thing of the past — but anxiety about mayhem across the Border could return

Fifty years ago this weekend, the sociologist Mícheál Mac Gréil began the fieldwork for a pioneering study that would later be published as Prejudice and Tolerance in Ireland. One of its most startling results has a heavy bearing on the way we think about the Troubles, Irish identity and a united Ireland.

Mac Gréil’s work has its limitations, not least that all of the 2,300 people interviewed about their attitudes were living in Dublin, though about a third of them had migrated to the city from other parts of Ireland. But it is easily the best source we have for the underlying prejudices of people in the Republic half a century ago.

Much of what he found is grimly predictable. There were deep seams of racism: more than 75 per cent of people said they would not welcome “Coloureds, Negroes, Blacks” or “American Negroes” as members of their families.

Religious prejudice was pronounced, notably against Jews, though the most unwanted groups were atheists and agnostics. Travellers (referred to as Itinerants) were slightly more unpopular than “Criminals”. “Homosexuals” and “Communists” also triggered negative reactions.


All of this, nasty though it is, is pretty much what might be expected from Irish society at the time. What surprised and disturbed MacGréil, though, was the level of prejudice against another out-group: northerners.

Merely being from the North was enough to trigger this degree of prejudice

These interviews were done at a time when, ostensibly, southern opinion was deeply engaged on behalf of the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland. Just seven months before Mac Gréil started his project, the British embassy in Dublin was burned down in protest against the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry. The general view was that most Dubliners approved.

And yet, one in five of these Dubliners said they would not “marry or have as a member of my family” a person who was “Northern Irish”. Note: not unionist or Protestant — merely being from the North was enough to trigger this degree of prejudice.

To put this hostility in context, more people said they would not marry a northerner or admit one to their family than said the same about the English. Eighty-seven per cent were happy to have a Sassenach in the family; only 79 per cent afforded the same welcome to a Nordie.

One might well wonder whether this anti-northern feeling was merely a disguised antipathy to unionists. But even when the participants in the study were asked more specifically about different kinds of northerner, the prejudice remained.

Just 72 per cent said they would have a northern “Nationalist” in the family, and a mere 37 per cent felt the same about “Unionists”. Sectarian and political antagonism explained some of the hostility but by no means all of it.

What’s so interesting in all of this is that, in the same study, 64 per cent of people said they wanted a “32-country Republic with one central government”. A political shotgun wedding with unionists was fine — an actual marriage not so much. Kith were not kin.

Two perceptions help to explain these contradictions. One is that Mac Gréil’s Dubliners largely agreed that “Catholics in Northern Ireland have more in common with Northern Protestants than they have with Catholics in the Republic”. Even amid a vicious sectarian conflict, southerners believed that there was a northern identity that trumped even religious affinity.

The other prejudice was that over half of the respondents agreed with the proposition that “Northerners on all sides tend to be extreme and unreasonable”. In these perceptions, it is clear that for a majority of southerners, people in the North were much more Them than Us, a fractious lot “up there” — with whom, nonetheless, we desired to be united.

This is another example of the extraordinary Irish ability to be in two minds at the same time. There was an official ideology to which most people subscribed: the North was, as the Constitution then put it, an integral part of the “national territory” that was just waiting to be “reintegrated” with the 26 counties.

For a significant minority of southerners, it was more foreign than England

And, as in so many other areas, there was a set of unofficial, and often barely articulated attitudes: the North was its very own “extreme and unreasonable” territory. For a significant minority of southerners, it was more foreign than England.

This may be deplorable, and many Catholics in the North understood it as a betrayal and an abandonment. But it also had some basis in rationality. It was a response to hideous violence.

What happened in the early 1970s is that the majority in the South executed a mental and emotional evacuation from the North. They did so for the simple reason that they did not want the South to become like the North.

Because this psychological withdrawal was largely silent, and because it lacks the drama of conflict, it tends to be left out of the history of the Troubles. But that history is incomprehensible if we do not take it into account.

It had two profound and equally paradoxical effects. One was that the Provisional IRA was stuck in a vicious circle.

It could not win without the support of the southern population. But the more effective it was in causing mayhem in the North, the more the South retreated. Its tactical successes were strategic failures.

The other paradox is that the violence intended to bring about a united Ireland deeply disunited Ireland. It is generally accepted that the “armed struggle” further divided the two communities in the North.

Less remarked, though, is that it also heavily reinforced the mental border between North and South. The IRA’s campaign was, in its effects, deeply partitionist.

What does all this tell us about the current situation? In some respects, it is easy to say that it tells us nothing at all because everything has changed. The levels of prejudice against northerners that Mac Gréil found 50 years ago are surely impossible in a State that adopted Mary McAleese and Seamus Heaney as its figureheads.

But two truths remain. One is that the southern desire for a united Ireland can no more be taken entirely at face value in 2022 than in 1972.

The fear of violence had a profound effect on southern opinion

The gap between what people like to say and what they really feel has not disappeared. In any honest conversation about the future, that gap must be closed.

The other is that the fear of violence had a profound effect on southern opinion. One would hope that the ugly prejudices about northerners are gone for good — but the underlying anxiety about the spread of mayhem across the Border could easily return.

What Mac Gréil uncovered half a century ago was a sullenly separatist southern identity that dared not speak its name. These hidden layers of resentment and fear were seldom expressed in public, but they were there.

Do they still lie beneath our feet? Could they surface again if the necessary dialogue about the future of the island is rushed or botched or channelled into mere sloganeering?