July 05, 2016

The abstentionism of the Catholics from 20th Century Northern Ireland life


Newton Emerson wrote:
"For the first five decades of Northern Ireland’s existence, nationalism’s approach to Stormont was instinctively abstentionist. 
Is that instinct returning? The turnout in this week’s assembly election may be little different to last time’s 54 per cent but it masks a typical 3 per cent rise in unionist constituencies with an offsetting fall in nationalist constituencies."
In this post I wanted to consider the original abstentionist instinct. John Hume wrote in his famous 1964 letter to the Irish Times:

"It must be said at once that 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."     
More from Hume's letter below. But first. Eamonn McCann reflected on the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association:
"Our conscious if not unspoken strategy was to provoke the police into over-reaction and thus spark-off mass reaction against the authorities."
David Trimble said in 2012:
"We would have regarded in 1969/1970 the leading members of the SDLP as carrying a heavier responsibility than Paisley for the onset of the Troubles. I’m not sure I would hold that view now, but I’m telling you what I thought then."
Alex Kane said on BBC Talkback:
"Northern Ireland was a one-party state where non-unionists were seen as the enemy."
He wrote in the News Letter in November 2014:
"Between 1921 and 1972 Northern Ireland was, to all intents and purposes, a one-party state in which all Roman Catholics were regarded as, at best, second-class citizens and, at worst, as fifth columnists undermining the state. When the Stormont Parliament was prorogued most unionists assumed it was part of a wider plot involving the civil rights movement, the IRA, the ‘new nationalism’ of the SDLP and the spinelessness of Westminster. Similarly, those who wanted unity saw prorogation as a means of furthering their own agenda. And until 1998 those two party political/sectarian power blocs just circled each other: always suspicious of each other, always distrustful, always playing to their own galleries."
Alex Kane wrote the same in the Belfast Telegraph and the Irish News. Read Alex Kane here on the Seven Ages of Northern Ireland:
"The first was from 1921-63 and it can probably be described as the era of missed opportunities. 
The second era, 1964-72, is best remembered as the O'Neill era and, again, as a time when opportunities were missed. 
[The third era,] the 1973-95 era was the era of experiments, initiatives, processes and discussion papers. 
[The fourth era] was during that period that Sunningdale, the Convention and the "rolling devolution” of 1982-86 came and went; when the Anglo-Irish Agreement dealt a huge physical/political/psychological body blow to unionism. 
[The fifth era], the period 1996-98 was, albeit briefly, regarded as the "breakthrough era”." 
[The sixth] the 1999-2003 era ended the hope and expectation that some sort of middle ground of soft unionists and nationalists could gather a majority together and use the Executive and Assembly as a vehicle for progress. 
[The seventh era] and from 2004-7 that’s exactly what happened. The DUP and Sinn Fein let it be known that they were willing to conclude a deal together and to work together in a subsequent post-deal Executive if, as they both anticipated, they were the lead parties."
Dan Keenan wrote in the Irish Times in 2014 that John Hume’s famous ‘Irish Times’ articles (1964) helped redefine nationalist attitudes to Northern Ireland, Keenan wrote:
"Fifty years ago, The Irish Times published a strong challenge to the nationalist consensus on partition which laid foundations for a new approach to Northern Ireland. The author was John Hume, then a 27-year-old history teacher from Derry."
Keenan added:
"Hume appeared fresh and different and used his opportunity to write a withering critique of the Nationalist Party and of Sinn Féin and to set out a radical – if not entirely new – approach. He argued for an acceptance of the northern status quo by Catholics with a view to changing it, an acceptance of the legitimacy of unionism, and a recognition that Catholic non-participation in public life linked to unionist discrimination jointly fostered injustice… This was a tearing-up of the 40-year nationalist consensus on partition and it was a national public airing of the principle of consent, the basis of the Belfast Agreement 34 years later."
Irish Times writer Michael Viney who visited Northern Ireland in the 1960s was depressed by the people, he found he people downtrodden “but not by force of arms or imperialist domination”:
"They are oppressed by armchair, atrophied attitudes to life and politics which they themselves are tricked into sustaining: on the one hand by a Unionist Party whose public attachment to power and privilege is often mediaeval in its cynicism; on the other by a corps of nationalists who, with a few exceptions, encourage slogans as a substitute for thought." 
Chief Superintendent for the greater Belfast area Brian McCargo reflected on his three decades as a Catholic in the RUC:
"If I had to think of one thing that troubled me, it’s that there was always a tremendous threat against my family. 
My wife and I have raised our family as practising Catholics. We had to ensure our children attended church and went to Catholic schools and that was difficult, very difficult. 
When my eldest daughter went to grammar school on the Falls Road [a predominantly nationalist area], I was virtually precluded from going there such was the threat to me and her. 
Recently a Protestant colleague said: ‘With all the risks the rest of us had to face, no recognition has been given to the fact that the risks faced by Catholic officers and their families were always that much greater.' 
It’s true that if you get points for killing a police officer, you get double points for killing a Catholic police officer."
John Hume wrote in his first 1964 IT letter:
"It must be said at once that 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 forty years of opposition they have not produced one constructive contribution on either the social or economics 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, remain heavy, much of it no doubt due to the skillful 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 that 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 forty 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. Witness the bitterness of their attacks on people like Messrs. Campbell, McGuigan and Newe. 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 and Northern Ireland can make to a liberalizing 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, realizing the danger to religion in the religio-political equations have been pointing this out.         
Another positive step towards easing community tensions and towards removing what bigotry exists among Catholics would be to recognize 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 realize 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.   
(The Constitution) 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 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 unrecognized 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 thirty-two 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 Fein. If one wishes to create a United Ireland by constitutional means, then one must accept the constitutional position.”
The UUP report from 1968, ‘Northern Ireland, Fact and Falsehood - A frank look at the present and the past’, wrote:
"The first Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland was a Roman Catholic. So was the first head of the Ministry of Education, and so were many other officials appointed at that time to senior posts. One third of all places in the Royal Ulster Constabulary were to be reserved for Roman Catholics. 
By and large, however, Roman Catholics stood aloof, expressing their attitude through unwillingness to accept public duties, abstention from attendance at Parliament, and, at the worst, open attachment to organisations dedicated to the overthrow of the government and constitution. They insisted rigidly upon their own separate education system, making it largely Impossible for children to do otherwise than grow up in two separate camps. 
The Roman Catholic Church, too, through its official leaders, has tended to identify itself with this attitude of standing apart. While heads of Protestant churches make the customary courtesy calls upon the President of the Irish Republic, no Roman Catholic Primate of Ireland has ever made an official call upon either the Governor or the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, even though the Primatial See of Armagh is in Northern Ireland. And no Roman Catholic chaplain has ever been appointed to the Northern Ireland Parliament. 
The identification of religion with politics is well indicated by the fact that the controlling body of the Nationalist Party, which seeks the incorporation of Northern Ireland in the Republic, is the Catholic Voters’ Registration Committee. Constituency associations, as in the Unionist and Labour parties, do not exist among the Nationalists. 
Opinions, however, have softened since the early days. Many Roman Catholics now recognise the benefits that come to Northern Ireland through remaining British, though comparatively few are willing to acknowledge this publicly. Many responsible Roman Catholics have been invited to play and are usefully playing a full part in numerous civic and public activities."
The report continued:
"To appreciate the part played by the Nationalists, it has to be borne in mind that there are few parliaments anywhere in the world where there is as much opportunity as at Stormont for the ventilation of grievances. 
In the 52-member House of Commons, a member may, virtually without restriction, put a question to any Minister for oral answer on any day with the shortest possible notice. There is exceptional freedom to raise matters on the Adjournment; and there is ample Private Members’ time during which Private Members’ Bills or motions can be discussed. There are also facilities for the repeated raising of the same issue in only slightly altered terms during the same session in a way that would be quite impossible at Westminster. 
Yet Nationalism has contributed almost nothing of a positive character to the life of Parliament, and the columns of Ulster’s Hansard display repeated examples of its purely negative nature, mainly in the form of indiscriminate muck-raking, often in places where muck in the end is not discovered. Certain Nationalists, and members of fringe parties of an anti-partitionist character which are allied to them In opposition, make much use of the broad-ranging political "smear”. 
Thus in 1966, for example, on the insistence of a Republican Labour Member, Mr. H. Diamond, who had made a speech containing the gravest allegations against the police force, a public inquiry was held at a total cost of £35,000 from public funds. Six months later, Mr. W. F. Patton, Q.C., who conducted it, had to report, with respect to virtually all the allegations, that he found “no credible evidence” for them and that some were “a complete fabrication from beginning to end”. 
Again, Mr. Gerry Fitt, who seeks to create an all-Ireland Republic through his membership of two British Parliaments - Stormont and Westminster - has made numerous wide-ranging and damaging allegations, such as the existence of telephone tapping in Northern Ireland. This was officially denied, and Mr. Fitt was invited to produce a single shred of evidence. No more was then heard of the matter, for there was no evidence. 
Other Opposition members have made it their practice to pose as responsible parliamentarians at Stormont, but to threaten and, by implication, encourage civil disorder and civil disobedience outside. 
These attitudes are not justified by inflexibility on the part of Unionist Governments, whose legislation on a wide range of issues has been as progressive as any in Europe. It is not true that all changes sought by the Opposition are stubbornly denied by the Government. There have, for example, been major changes in relation to electoral law and electoral boundaries for the Stormont parliament Great importance was attached to such changes before the Government decided to make them. Now they are dismissed as trivial. 
Certain Opposition Members seek not merely to denigrate their political opponents - which is perhaps no abnormal practice in politics - but to place every aspect of life in Northern Ireland in the most unfavourable light. The normal loyalties of party to country are, for the most part, noticeably absent. 
For many years, although the largest Opposition party numerically, the Nationalists refused to be considered an official Opposition. For a brief period, from 1965 to 1968, they did accept this status. But even then the Nationalist leader, Mr. Eddie McAteer, was unable to bring himself to attend any Government function at which the toast of the Queen would be honoured or to attend such occasions as the state opening of Parliament at which the Governor, as the Queen’s representative, would be present. 
These may be only matters of form, but the observance of conventional courtesies could have done much to help in the creation of a more normal political and parliamentary climate. And in 1968 the Nationalist Party once more resigned its official Opposition role."
The report also said, echoing Chief Superintendent for the greater Belfast area Brian McCargo:
"In the beginning, one-third of all places in the Royal Ulster Constabulary were reserved for Roman Catholics, but applicants did not come forward to fill them. Similarly a low Roman Catholic entry into the Civil Service in the period before World War II has produced a rather lower proportion of Roman Catholics in the senior ranks of the public services."
Read my previous post here on catholic bigotry.
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