Internal Affairs in Northern Ireland

The two most pervasive problems of the new state of Northern Ireland were the continuing polarisation of the nationalist and unionist communities which occasionally flared into violence, and relations with its two closest neighbours, Britain and the southern part of Ireland.

The state of Northern Ireland was born amid bloodshed and communal disorder. J C Beckett's judgement that "between the early 1920s and the late 1960s Ireland enjoyed a longer period of freedom from major internal disturbance than it had known since the first half of the eighteenth century" is invalid if confined to the Northern state.

In 1922, 232 people were killed in violence and 1000 wounded. The nationalist minority refused to recognise the new state, the twelve anti-partitionist MPs refused to attend parliament; Catholic teachers shunned the educational system, refused salaries and submitted students for examinations in Dublin. At the time when the institutions of the new state were being established, a considerable number of its citizens refused to participate on committees or to perform any action which would lend support to the state's authority.

As time passed and the state remained, most nationalists decided on a reluctant acceptance of the need to come to some accommodation. In many cases, they found that the state institutions which had been established were arranged to exclude Catholics from power. Many institutions were heavily biased in favour of Unionists For example, the local government franchise which remained unreformed until 1969, reflected property and not population, excluding non-ratepayers and awarding many people with more than one property multiple votes. Housing allocation and the manipulation of constituency boundaries were actively used in many cases to maintain Unionist majorities. The membership of the police force was largely Protestant. As late as 1961 only 12% of the Royal Ulster Constabulary was Catholic and the B Specials were exclusively Protestant.

Education too was an area where Catholics felt bitterly that the system established by the Education Act NI of 1930 had been tailored by Protestant pressure, producing a state education system which was in fact Protestant, and forcing Catholic schools to find 50% of the cost of education. In the administration of justice, Catholics have alleged that the Special Powers Act which placed considerable powers in the hands of the Minister of Home Affairs was designed exclusively against the nationalist majority. Allegations were vindicated by the Cameron Report in 1969 about discrimination against Catholics in public employment. The most serious allegation in this field was that the Northern Irish government operated a policy of deliberate discrimination in counties Tyrone, Derry and Fermanagh, creating conditions which encouraged emigration to counter the higher Catholic birth rates in these areas.

Disputes about the extent of institutional discrimination, and about the reasons for it, have always been particularly bitter. One point is clear, instead of resolving inter communal fear and suspicion, the establishment of the state served to encourage alienation, fear and suspicion and acted to institutionalise discrimination.

The familiar relationship between economic recession and inter communal strife was bloodily revived in the depression of the 1930s. The dependency of Northern Ireland on exports made the state particularly vulnerable to world trends. The linen trade was severely restricted; in 1933 no ships were launched from Belfast shipyards for the first time in over 100 years. Between 1930 and 1939 the unemployment rates never fell below 25%. The bitter competition for too few jobs inevitably took a sectarian turn which was exacerbated by worsening relations between the United Kingdom and the Irish Free State.

The formation of the Ulster Protestant League in 1931 encouraged Protestants to employ other Protestants exclusively. This sentiment was endorsed by Basil Brooke, the Minister of Agriculture in Stormont and future Prime Minister of Northern Ireland.

The early 1930s were nervous and vituperative years. Widespread riots in 1931, some of which involved the IRA, resulted in 70 people being injured. There were riots in Belfast, Larne, Portadown and Ballymena during 1931. The troubles peaked in 1935 when twelve people were killed and six hundred wounded. The frequency of sectarian violence gradually faded as the employment situation improved but few believed that it had retreated far below the surface.

The comparative peacefulness of the next twenty years set the scene for the important changes which appeared to be taking place in the 1950s and 1960s. This period of communal peace, or rather absence of overt conflict, coincided with a growing and deliberate emphasis on economic expansion in Northern Ireland. Shipbuilding, engineering and aircraft production boomed; agricultural production increased and the economic expectations of the people rose accordingly.

The post-war years saw a determined attempt by the Northern Ireland government to attract foreign capital and industry, and its success was considerable. As a result of various incentive schemes, 150 new factories supplying 55 000 new jobs were established. Many of the new industries were branches of international companies which offered employment and sometimes promotion to middle class Catholics who had formerly found promotion prospects restricted.

An improvement in the prospects and conditions of Catholics was evident elsewhere. The post-war legislation which broadened the social benefits of the welfare state particularly benefited the poorer classes, and in Northern Ireland, this included a disproportionate number of Catholics. The Education Act in 1947 opened doors of educational opportunity by introducing free secondary education and the remarkable rise in the number of Catholics attending university was one measure of its impact. Although the extent of these changes is often debated, during the 1950s there was a growing tendency among Catholics to see their future in an Northern Ireland context rather than in an All Ireland state.

At a social studies conference at Garron Tower, G B Newe called for greater participation by Catholics in Northern Ireland affairs and Terence O'Neill, the future Prime Minister indicated that Catholic participation would be welcome. In 1959 the republican party, Sinn Féin, lost its two seats at Westminster, their percentage of the vote decreasing from 26 to 14. Just as significant was the attempt by some leading Unionists to suggest that Catholics might be permitted to join the party. The attempt was thwarted by the bigoted obduracy of the Orange Order, but that it had been made at all was seen as a sign of the changing times.

The most dramatic evidence of this change was the failure of the IRA violent offensive during 1952-1962. Its defeat owed more to apathy than to the efficiency of law enforcement which was acknowledged by the IRA in its statement ending the campaign. The decision taken by the IRA to abandon military methods and concentrate on socialist objectives through politics seemed to promise that the 1960s would be free from republican violence.