Did civil inequality merit triggering the Troubles?
OPINION:With the benefit of clear perspective, we must reflect on what started the terrible tragedy of Northern Ireland, writes HENRY KELLY
‘UNIONIST politicians clashed over the causes of the Troubles during a debate on a proposed Bill of rights for Northern Ireland yesterday.” This was how Gerry Moriarty, Northern Editor, began a recent report in this newspaper. He quoted Progressive Unionist Party leader Dawn Purvis as asking: “What came first: stinking, polluted politics or bloody awful violence?” He went on to note that Purvis said what she called mainstream unionism has a blinkered view of the causes of the conflict.
Did I ever, when beginning to report Northern Ireland in 1969, think I would live to read that a Protestant unionist would say the following: “They (mainstream unionists) deny discrimination existed. They deny that all working-class people but mostly Catholics endured in slums, squalor, poverty and unemployment in order to preserve the power of the political elite . . . You continue to deny working-class children, Protestants, the right to a decent education by holding on and wanting to hold on to academic selection . . . I have to say to you, you are living in denial and have to start looking at what caused the conflict here...”
I was impressed and it made me think and remember how young reporters like myself who started their careers in Northern Ireland reacted in our first few months. Many of us from Dublin-based newspapers, and from RTÉ, went to Belfast, Derry and, for obvious reasons, to other centres of conflict with a sort of in-built notion that the guilt was on one side, the innocence on the other.
The basic shorthand was that Ulster Protestant unionism had suppressed the Catholic minority wherever they could, particularly in Catholic Derry and other Catholic areas west of the river Bann where gerrymandering in local elections was almost laughably corrupt. Housing allocation was another contentious issue.
By then John Hume, Austin Currie, the late Paddy Devlin, the late Paddy O’Hanlon and others were elected members of parliament at Stormont. The Social Democratic and Labour Party, the SDLP, had taken over from the old days of Eddie McAteer’s nationalists and we reporters had our work laid out quite simply: the unionist voice was that of the press offices at Stormont, the Catholic/nationalist voice came from Hume, Currie, Gerry Fitt et al.
Looking back now, does anyone remember the beginnings of the so-called Troubles?
The early civil rights movement in Northern Ireland was formed by Dr Con McCluskey and his wife with a pamphlet setting out what was wrong in the system. There was no hint in his words of taking to the streets, never mind violence.
I well remember the night in the Literary and Historical (LH) Society at University College Dublin when Dermot Gleeson, later to marry Darina McCluskey, the civil rights pioneers’ daughter, made an impassioned speech based on his future parents-in-laws’ pamphlet. To our shame, the LH gave Dermot but respectful silence. Maybe we middle-class semi-privileged students should have listened more intently. Then Austin Currie squatted in a house in Caledon in Tyrone which had been given to a single Protestant girl while Catholic families were waiting to be housed.
Now let us take Dawn Purvis’s words to Stormont. Consider them in the context of something I wrote in this newspaper which brought streams of abuse towards me. I asked whether there had “ever been anything in Northern Ireland so bad it was worth smacking a child for?”
A clumsy phrase I admit but what I was trying to ask was what now seems to be a valid question to be confronted more than 30 years on: was it all worth it?
I remember one evening sitting in the press gallery at Stormont when the unionist MP Desmond Boal, Ian Paisley’s political right-hand man, asked a question about the civil rights marches which Michael Farrell from People’s Democracy and John Hume among others led onto the streets. Was it responsible, Boal asked, to lead thousands of people, vulnerable people, onto the streets in such a volatile situation?
As young reporters, we thought this a rather provocative question and, apart from the report in this newspaper, Boal’s speech was largely ignored.
Remember too that the young men and women who were the leaders were all products of the British education reforms which had come in following the Butler Education Act in the late 1940s.
They were heady days in and around Queen’s University Belfast in the 1960s. There it was that the civil rights movement took off, but there too was the start of another great Irish literary spurt which gave us Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, Michael Longley and many others.
As time passed in Northern Ireland, we reporters began to realise, as Purvis underlined in her Stormont speech, that the two working classes were indeed either side of a sad coin. As we walked the Falls Road or the Shankill, we didn’t need two sets of eyes to see that the houses were the same, the shops the same, the children the same, the working men the same, the corner boys the same, the wrinkly-faced women the same. It made us stop and think until some new atrocity would swing us back into one camp or another.
The viciousness of the emerging IRA would make me wonder what they actually were trying to achieve. The next day, one of the Protestant paramilitaries would offer their reply and we were back to square one. Or even off the board altogether.
These thoughts have come to me reading Purvis’s speech. I do not know her, and for all I know she may have an agenda. I have read she is the leader of the party which has links to the UVF. We need to avoid the danger of political elitism whose cradle was violence, the idea very popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s that if the two main terrorist organisations could be brought together and parley for peace all would be well. This at a time when not a single one of their various organisations was even remotely democratically accountable to anyone.
Finally, let me pose a question: was the situation in Northern Ireland before 1968 so oppressive for the Catholic minority that they had no choice but to follow the road embarked upon by the civil rights movement later hijacked by the IRA?
And was the Protestant working class all that much better-off, with their mothers polishing their doorsteps in case the Queen Mother would pass down their street while their children were going to school in “mutton dummies” – Belfast home-made paper shoes?
Talk now is that some dissident republicans are chipping away at the peace process. There is even a suggestion that disaffected mainstream Sinn Féin/IRA people are “advising” them. Only time will tell and, personally, I doubt we could ever return to the bad old days.
Unless, however, we ask ourselves some serious questions about why what happened actually happened and whether we might not have been better led by our politicians, we might – just might – make the same mistakes again.
Dawn Purvis has started a debate. It is to be hoped, though I won’t hold my breath, that others might join that discussion. Is there, for example, a Catholic politician who might hold their hand up and suggest that mea culpa might be a couple of words that could wipe a slate clean?
Henry Kelly is a London-based broadcaster. He was an Irish Timesjournalist from 1968 to 1976. He reported from Northern Ireland in 1969 and 1970, and was Northern Editor from 1971 to 1974