In 1937 de Valera was thus able to produce a new Constitution which was in essence a documentation of contemporary Roman Catholic social theory. Not unnaturally it had its attractions for the Catholics of Northern Ireland, especially since Craigavon, the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, who had “turned Ulster into a nation”, had announced three years previously: “all I boast is that we are a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant state”. A bitter debate had arisen in the Parliament of Northern Ireland on 24 April 1934 on the rights of the minority (the minority in Northern Ireland being Nationalist supporters, who were mostly Catholic), itemising how these had generally deteriorated since 1921. Craigavon denied the assertions at length, ending with: “Since we took up office we have tried to be absolutely fair towards all the citizens of Northern Ireland. Actually, on an Orange platform, I, myself, laid down the principle, to which I still adhere, that I was Prime Minister not of one section of the community but of all, and that as far as I possibly could I was going to see that fair play was meted out to all classes and creeds without any favour whatever on my part.”
George Leeke then retorted: “What about your Protestant Parliament?”, to which Craigavon replied: “The hon. Member must remember that in the South they boasted of a Catholic State. They still boast of Southern Ireland being a Catholic State. All I boast of is that we are a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant State. It would be rather interesting for historians of the future to compare a Catholic State launched in the South with a Protestant State launched in the North and to see which gets on the better and prospers the more. It is most interesting for me at the moment to watch how they are progressing. I am doing my best always to top the bill and to be ahead of the South.”
Similar phrases he used were “That is my whole object in carrying on a Protestant Government for a Protestant people”. The correct phrase was quoted by Jonathan Bardon, and Professor Ronan Fanning, but the common misquotation of “A Protestant Parliament for a Protestant People” has been relayed by eminent historians such as Diarmaid Ferriter, Seán Cronin, Patrick Buckland and Mark Tierney, to the extent that this phrase has now become very widely accepted as the actual quotation. In 1967, the then prime minister, Terence O’Neill also attributed the phrase itself to his predecessor, but strongly argued that it was no longer representative of the present spirit of Ulster Unionism. Newspapers continued to use the term in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly in relation to the former Stormont Parliament.
Yet from the outset Carson had pleaded that the Catholic minority should have nothing to fear from the Protestant majority: “Let us take care to win all that is best among those who have been opposed to us in the past. While maintaining intact our own religion let us give the same rights to the religion of our neighbours.” That this reconciliation was not achieved was due to faults on both sides. It is a tragedy of Irish history that the men who now dominated Northern Ireland were far removed in their vision from those radical ancestors who in their own day had shown that the North could be the most enlightened part of the island. On both sides of the ‘Partition’ the political and religious establishments entrenched themselves behind ultra-conservative and rigid mentalities, and within Northern Ireland the two communities became beleaguered, each by the other.
To be continued