Mary Lou McDonald, the Leader of Sinn Fein in the South, was on radio yet again during the week. In another recent interview she stated that she believed the IRA campaign in Northern Ireland was justified and she was again asked about this. She didn’t deviate one iota and strongly maintained that it was indeed justified.
I was thirteen in 1969 when this modern iteration of civil strife in the North all began. What surprised me most in the years that followed was just how little British people knew or understood about it and indeed, just how disinterested they were in it. Technically Northern Ireland was a part of the UK in the same way Wales or Scotland were so it did appear very odd to this Southern Irish boy that British opinion didn’t give a hoot about Northern Ireland back then, (and maybe still don’t).
So for those who do not know, London decided back in 1922 to let most of Ireland be free but kept six of the nine counties of Ulster. This is the first point. If all nine counties had been taken, then the population split would have been 50/50. By leaving behind the three poorest and most Catholic counties the British Government were able to guarantee a two to one protestant majority in the six counties of Northern Ireland. Added to this was the fact that those six counties were the richest and most industrialised in all of Ireland, the rest of the country having been purposely denied the opportunity to take its part in the Industrial Revolution. As a result, the Republic of Ireland was a very poor agricultural country from its foundation.
Northern Ireland though was the opposite but the seeds of the problem were laid from the outset when Catholics were viewed and treated as second class citizens by the protestant government majority population up there. It was a self fulfilling prophecy too because by officially denying catholics any kind of meaningful employment, denying them entrance to third level education and by herding them into slum ghettos, the smug majority were able to joke that the catholics were thick, ignorant, lazy and dirty people who lived like pigs. With the winds of change in the sixties some educated catholics began to echo the demand for civil rights being heard all over the world. In any other civilised country, including mainland UK itself, this kind of protest would have been met by dialogue and an honest effort to properly address the legitimate concerns of a marginalised but sizeable minority.
But to Unionists in Northern Ireland, these peaceful protests was treated as an affront to their superiority. The very idea that a catholic would have the cheek and temerity to ask for equal access to jobs, housing and education appalled them and the demand for ‘one man, one vote’ was enough to bring the protestant mobs out onto the streets. It was these mobs, cheered on by the protestant police force who began to burn out whole catholic slums and thousands of people were beaten and driven from their homes. It was in the midst of this madness that the first IRA shots rang out in the night sky. The catholic communities were nightly under attack from vastly superior numbers and those first shots were fired over the heads of those attackers to drive them back. At that point, the whole of Southern Ireland, including this writer, were 100% behind those few IRA men and so Mary Lou was absolutely right at that point in time.
It’s what happened next is where she’s wrong. There is no doubt that Westminster could have done a lot more over the years to make the powers in Stormont treat all of their people fairly. The fact was that if the catholic minority had been able to access the same freedoms and opportunities that their protestant neighbours had, then thirty years of death and destruction would never have happened. I know from my catholic relatives all over Northern Ireland at the time, (1970), that they preferred living up there than down here and they were secretly proud and happy to be northerners. However, they were always ignored until they asked for civil rights and then all hell broke loose. In this sense, the ’troubles’ began as a sectarian problem. It was protestant versus catholic, played out as nightly rioting in urban centres across the north. The second problem was that the police force, (the RUC), was protestant also and very much against the catholic minority. As a result, this violence was lopsided in terms of numbers and arms and Irish opinion in both the Republic and the US began to sit up and take notice, so the British Government had no choice but to take action and send in the British Army to restore the peace.
In retrospect, even at that point, it might all have settled down again. Those first weeks, the Army ended up protecting the catholic areas from protestant attacks with the full support and gratitude of the catholic population living in them. At that time too, those half a million catholics living in the North were British citizens and content to be so. Sure, they would talk about their Irish dimension but their passports were blue and their money was sterling. It was the IRA itself who changed the emphasis and direction of the strife.
The original British plan was for the army to remain for a few weeks until the civil strife subsided and then they would return home to the UK. If Westminster had reined in Stormont at that point and driven through even some civil rights reforms for the minority then this would have happened and the war would have been avoided. Instead they left a political vacuum through inaction and the IRA filled that vacuum with talk of a British occupation and an armed struggle for freedom. It didn’t begin as that though. It was about civil rights and one man, one vote. The vicious unionist reaction to that protest was what made it so obviously sectarian and this was followed by the IRA seizing the initiative to make it about anti-Britishness and Irish nationalism. That was the perversion of Northern Ireland for me and in the years that followed it emerged that the IRA didn’t just want to overthrow the Government in Belfast, they wanted to overthrow the Dublin Government also and rule the whole island. A resolute British response prevented them from doing either but 3,000 people had to die unnecessarily in the process.
So for me, in the first days of the troubles, the few brave IRA men with ancient rifles were completely justified in defending their people and their homes against overwhelming odds. But the declaration of a war against the British State was not justified in my opinion and as soon as the first British soldier was killed by the IRA, all justification ended. In this way I believe the IRA hi-jacked justified civil rights claims to pursue their own agenda at everyone else’s expense. Equally I have no doubt that the Stormont regime was as evil as the apartheid regime in South Africa and should have been challenged and changed for the same reasons.
What a terrible and avoidable waste it all, was.