Yet whatever specific grievances, real or perceived, Northern Ireland Roman Catholics held towards the Stormont administration, such grievances still served to hide the underlying reality of the problem — that the narrow gap between the Roman Catholic and Protestant working classes in Northern Ireland was much less significant than the gap between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, where on many indicators — such as housing conditions and unemployment — the citizens of Northern Ireland were much worse off.
Worries of Protestant working-class discontent also featured in ‘Big House’ Unionist thinking, so that, as part of a political strategy, Roman Catholics in general were portrayed as a continuing threat to the Union which only Protestant unity could fend off. For, as Richard Rose has observed, there had always been, because of their greater numbers, “more poor Protestants than poor Catholics” in Northern Ireland. At the same time those who claimed to represent the socialist vanguard and the academic elite in Britain and Ireland remained trapped in nationalist ideologies, with the result that the British and Irish media, and through them the World media, were generally unsympathetic to the Unionist position.
The growing advantages of the British Welfare State and an improvement in the job mobility of the increasing Roman Catholic population within Northern Ireland led to an ambivalent atitude towards the IRA. Indeed, the IRA leadership openly acknowledged the lack of popular support for the border campaign of 1956-62 in their cease-fire statement: “Foremost among the factors motivating this course of action has been the attitude of the general public whose minds have been deliberately distracted from the supreme issue facing the Irish people — the unity and freedom of Ireland.”
But paradoxically the improved social and political climate in the early Sixties encouraged middle-class Roman Catholics to press for a more dominant role within their society, and this seemed to be supported by the Northern Ireland Prime Minister Terence O’Neill, from a Unionist landed family of ancient Ulster lineage, who was considered to be more pragmatic than his predecessors, and sought to build bridges with the Roman Catholic section of the community.
However, O’Neill’s approaches to the minority, tentative and poorly formulated as they were, alarmed a significant section of the Unionist community, while the newly-emergent Roman Catholic leadership, impatient with Unionist hesitation, took their grievances on to the streets through the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement, skilfully manipulated by the Republican movement. Unless Irish history was about to break with the patterns of the past, confrontation was now inevitable. Disturbances at a banned Civil Rights march through Londonderry on 5 October 1968 initiated the latest, and most tragic, period of the ‘Troubles’.
When the militant student leader Bernadette Devlin was caught up in the confrontation during that 5 October march, her description of the violence, while graphic in its detail, is more revealing through her assessment of its significance, and as such highlights the deep sense of minority estrangement which had been festering below the surface: “Arms and legs were flying everywhere, but what horrified me was the evil delight the police were showing as they beat people down, then beat them again to prevent them from getting up, then trailed them up and threw them on for somebody else to give them a thrashing. It was as though they had been waiting to do it for fifty years.”
With the beginning of this new phase of conflict in Northern Ireland many deep-seated fears were re-awakened within the community. Each section of the community’s stereotyped image of the other now assumed reality proportions, and previously-held suspicions and doubts received apparent confirmation. The catalogue of death and destruction which beset Northern Ireland over the next two decades has been extensively analysed by the world media and professional historians alike. During this time the security services made mistakes, some of them serious. But overall they behaved with a restraint unknown outside the United Kingdom. 302 police men and women were murdered: the RUC killed 52 persons (20 of whom were acknowledged combatants). The British Army (including the reserves) lost 709: they killed 315 persons (131 of whom were acknowledged combatants).
As the community plunged into a nightmare of murder, revenge murder and relentless destruction, with ethnic cleansing of Protestants from the Border areas, similar to that which had happened in the Republic, it seemed impossible that bridges could have been built. Yet among ordinary people, and through a variety of community groups, inter-community contacts were maintained in the face of all the violence, some of these attempts at community understanding containing more dialogue in one day’s effort than had been undertaken by the various political parties over several months.
Yet even to those who strove to build something positive within the mayhem, the violence at times was of such an intensity that it repeatedly threatened to destroy any realistic hopes for dialogue and compromise. The violence perpetrated by all sides to the conflict bewildered the ordinary citizen, not just because of its unremitting nature, but because of the deep hatreds displayed by the combatants. After two elderly Protestants were gunned down by the IRA in 1988 for engaging in repair work to a police station, a local newspaper columnist wrote: “Someone said that Irish nationalism consists not of love of one’s country but of hatred of someone else’s. ‘Their moving spirit,’ he said, ‘is not love of Ireland, but hatred of Britain.’
If this is so, it may go some way towards explaining the frightfulness of the IRA onslaught on the citizens of this part of the island. The depth of the hatred they feel must be so intense as to suppress the normal instinct of revulsion which would restrain other people, however motivated, from firing 150 automatic bullets into two blameless and defenceless men as they made their way home after a hard day’s work in County Fermanagh.”
If, indeed, it was the opposing interpretations of Irish history which lay behind the violence, or at least offered one of its main justifications, then much of the blame for preceding events must be laid squarely at the door of those who had used history for their own narrow ends, or those who had been strangely reticent in correcting the gross misinterpretations which had become so deeply entrenched in the popular imagination they seemed impossible to dislodge.
In the Republic, right from the foundation of the State, a Gaelic Nationalist myth was purveyed which sought to establish a solid pedigree for a Roman Catholic/Celtic/Irish identity. Other contributions to this island’s heritage were downgraded, if not completely ignored. Although it was obviously realised from the outset that such a self-image was fundamentally flawed, it seemed better to maintain silence rather than risk upsetting this newly-found identity. How else could one account for the fact that for 80 years after the foundation of the Gaelic League there did not exist a complete textbook of early Irish history and academics, so-called “serious scholars”, continued to promote the completely fabricated dynasty of the “Northern Ui Neill” and to downgrade the history of the Cruthin, the native British Pretani? In the South the time had come, as Bob Quinn suggested, when the Irish people “must develop the confidence to dismantle the unitary myth that has served its honourable purpose and replace it with the diverse richness that lies within.”
In Northern Ireland, a dislike of anything ‘Irish’, and a subservience to ‘English’ history within the schools, had left the Protestant community there not only unaware of most aspects of Irish history, but, more significantly, without any real understanding of the history of their own country. Yet Ulster’s historical and cultural heritage was not only extremely rich and varied, but contained within it the proof of the common identity of the Northerners, indeed of all the people of the British Isles, the Isles of the Pretani. Slowly, as contemporary flawed history was called into question and a new awareness emerged to challenge the Academic Suppression, the facts of their history, for once, rather than dividing them, offered the hope of uniting the Ulster People at last.