The 70th anniversary of the 1947 Education Act has lessons for the DUP

On a different tack the Bel Tel recently published a second article showing unionists in government in a more favourable light. This time it’s an article by Prof Graham  Walker of QUB  on the 70th anniversary of the the passage of the 1947 Education Act.  Would that today’s Stormont could agree on effective measures to replace that Act’s 11 plus and advance the cause of genuinely secular integrated education. But in its time the ’47 Act was a real advance and its legacy survives today. I among many was a real beneficiary of its early years. But Walker G ( no relation) stretches  the point.

The significance of the Act today might lie in how it relates to the conventional narrative of unionist rule in Northern Ireland.

The 1947 Act, in effect, subverts that narrative: it was socially progressive, fair and beneficial to the Catholic minority.

It is often remarked that the leaders of the civil rights movement in the 1960s – such as John Hume, Austin Currie and Bernadette Devlin – formed a new generation of political activists who had taken the opportunities of higher-level, university education.

It was, indeed, the discrepancy between such social improvements and the remaining petty, discriminatory and hide-bound attitudes and actions of unionists in control of some local authorities that strengthened the case for equal rights and opportunities for all citizens in whatever part of the UK they happened to reside.

The Act was not pushed through without difficulty or controversy. There was fierce Orange Order and populist Protestant opposition to the Act’s provisions to increase funding to the Catholic school sector (notwithstanding the Catholic Church’s refusal to allow state representation on the governing boards of their schools) and the Act’s outlawing of compulsory Bible-teaching in the non-denominational schools which were, in practice, attended almost exclusively by Protestants.

Again, the history of the 1947 legislation is notably at odds with the dominant narrative of a unionist government pandering to its extremist supporters.

The protests of the critics were faced down by Prime Minister Basil Brooke (later Lord Brookeborough) and his government, in spite of certain cabinet ministers being less than happy.

Brooke is a figure much traduced in broad-brush accounts of the political history of Northern Ireland.

It might be said that his long premiership was very much a ‘game of two halves’.

During the first decade – 1943 to 1953 – there were substantial achievements, many of them of a socially progressive kind.

Once again, there are messages for and about the DUP.

One of the consequences of the DUP’s political dominance of unionism today is the extent to which unionist history has been allowed to be forgotten or distorted. Quite simply, the DUP has never felt obliged to speak to that history, shaped as it has been by their UUP rival.

As it was being lambasted – and, indeed, misrepresented – by the British media in the course of reaching its deal with Theresa May’s Government, the DUP might have had cause to reflect on the damage that the neglect of history can do.

How many of those commentators, who relished the chance the DUP gave them to paint a picture of ‘Protestant Ulster’ as unremittingly reactionary, knew the slightest thing about the UUP’s legislative record – the positive as well as the discreditable?

More to the point, how many in the DUP itself knew?

Of course it’s right and proper to point out Unionist achievements. But these would hardly have come about had it not been for the GB precedents, notably those of the post war Labour  government.  Nor do they cancel out  the  corrupting effects of single party rule and discrimination well beyond “some local authorities,” nor the draconian law and order powers under whose weight the Unionist government later collapsed. The preceding peace time  narrative cannot eclipse the  disasters of the early and later Troubles even if  here too, blame has to be shared. Governments will always carry the bigger can.

Step by step was a survival strategy to keep NI in touch with broad British trends.  What lessons for today’s  peacetime  do the DUP take from it?


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  • Zeno

    I believe that here every action or protest by the DUP/SF are based on how many votes they will gain or lose. Basically the DUP or SF don’t have to take any risks that might lose them support because their vote is doing fine. Any that they do take are worked out on spreadsheets taking the plus and minus into account.

  • Hawk

    A one party state where the other ‘party’ left the scene. John Hume correctly lays the blame mostly with Unionists:

    Hume : ‘It must be said at once that the blame for the situation which prevails must lie principally at the door of the Unionist Government.’

    …however he goes on to explain Nationalists need to take their share of the blame too.

    Hume: ‘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… 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… 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.’

    For some reason airbrushed out of history.   Lest we forget Nationalist obstructionism at local councils is what gave rise to Gerrymandering in the first placed; the rebel councils couldn’t be governed. That gerrymandering unfortunately underpinned much of the discrimination that was later to take place.

    The draconian law and order policies didn’t exist in a vacuum either. Testimony to that is similar draconian law and order policies in the South of Ireland. The South did away with those policies largely as the IRA threat to their government disappeared; namely the IRA deciding there would be no military action against the Southern State. That threat was never lifted in the North, it was permanent, as a result so was the special powers act.

    You say that discrimination existed ‘well beyond “some local councils”. Define ‘well’? Discrimination of course did exist beyond local councils, but ‘well’ implies grandness of scale. If QUB walker is guilty of under egging it, you might guilty of over egging it. Whyte says:

    Whyte: ‘A more helpful classification might be geographical. A group of local authorities in the west of the province provide a startlingly high proportion of the total number of complaints. All the accusations of gerrymandering, practically all the complaints about housing and regional policy, and a disproportionate amount of the charges about public and private employment come from this area. The area- which consisted of Counties Tyrone and Fermanagh, Londonderry County Borough, and portions of Counties Londonderry and Armagh – had less than a quarter of the total population of Northern Ireland yet generated not far short of three-quarters of the complaints of discrimination.’

    …who are we to argue?

  • ted hagan

    Interesting. A pity there appear to be no personal accounts of how Brookeborough dealt with the revolt within his Cabinet and the challenge from the Orange Order. He seems to have been a closed book.The fact he replicated the socialist reforms of the day in Great Britain is remarkable in itself.

  • ted hagan

    The DUP have already taken a huge risk by backing Brexit.

  • ted hagan

    Love this little item:
    At a meeting in Derry to select candidates for the Corporation Mr. H. McLaughlin said that for the past forty-eight years since the foundation of his firm there had been only one Roman Catholic employed – and that was a case of mistaken identity.
    Mr. H. McLaughlin, Unionist Party, September 1946
    Reported in: Derry People, 26 September 1946

  • Brian Walker

    Try Belfast corporation which was put into commission for several years in the 1930s. Two bigger points.. the bigger the welfare state, the more incompatible with clientelism and the greater the pressure for reform. .
    On the other hand, single party government produced a rigid majoritarianism that made reform difficult. And so when the pressure of a few months of demos mounted reform came in all of a rush in 1969 but too little too late and the whole system collapsed from its contradictions. It really did you know. From an apparent monolith to virtual disinte

  • Hawk

    Yes, there were bigots then, and there are still bigots today.

  • ted hagan

    How would direct rule from London worked out directly after partition, I wonder.

  • Zeno

    They got the sums right. Their vote increased.

  • ted hagan

    Yes but the consequences haven’t been felt yet. Any Brexit deal that sets the North apart from Great Britain will be a serious blow, and it looks inevitable. Dublin had the whip hand there.

  • Zeno

    Dublin need the trade with the UK more than the UK needs them. I don’t think they have any sort of whip hand.

  • ted hagan

    No one in Europe is going to buy the idea of a hard border and Donaldson’s hi-tech border surveillance plans are pure bullshit.

  • Mr Caseydog

    Well done Brian for advocating effective measures to replace that 1947 Act’s 11 plus and advance the cause of genuinely secular integrated education. It has seemed that the campaign to abolish the 11+ has foundered because of DUP intransigence.

    However it’s worth pointing out that in the last few years seven catholic grammar schools have transformed into all ability schools – and despite protestations from grammar advocates, their establishment has been largely welcomed in the communities that they serve.

    Perhaps the lesson to be learnt from this is that there is less support for 11+ selection/rejection than their supporters suggest.

  • Zeno

    So no hard border and no soft border? There has to be a border, it marks sovereignty. It can be hard or soft or something in between but it’s not going anywhere.

  • Hawk

    Brian, the ‘system’ did not collapse because of ‘contradictions’. I’m not even clear what that is supposed to mean. The reforms, although slow, didn’t cripple the government either, the vast majority of reforms were passed by 1972.

    The ‘system’ itself was similar to many other systems of governments found in other countries around the world. By and large that system functions just fine. If the system were at fault we would find repeated instances of failure and we don’t see that.

    The fault was with individuals, a society that gave national identity primacy in politics (then as now). That primacy of national identity in our politics meant Nationalists wouldn’t accept the legitimacy of Stormont and Unionists deciding they could rule with or without Nationalist’s consent. It takes at least two to tango.

    It is because of this political impasse that the system had to be tailored to accommodate for societies faults. Power sharing is a watered democracy, that exists to compensate for deep divisions present in society that cannot be easily reconciled by a normal ‘majority rule’ parliament.

    This is not even mentioning the deteriorating security condition.

  • Granni Trixie

    The system which produced a one Party state failed because the government was not representative of the population. In considering what prompted change you also have to take context into account in particular the impact of television. It brought the outside world into NI and a catalyst for action was that people could see models of action for dealing with grievances.

  • Hawk

    Granni, I disagree, for reasons I have made prior but have perhaps not well explained.

    When Nationalists actually did vote they elected politicians to NOT represent their interests at Stormont. Nationalist politicians didn’t turn up to Stormont for the best part of nearly 50 years. That vacating of the political stage is what helped produced a one party state. The John Hume quote in my first post is (in part) a commentary on this.

    The system in and off itself can do nothing, it did not produce a one party state, only peoples active participation, and equally inactivity, can produce a ‘one party state’. The fundamental cause was our societies fixation on national identity, and it gaining political primacy. It wasn’t a fault of the system, the government did end representing the makeup of the people in the country, for better or worse. A point I made in my second post.

  • NotNowJohnny

    There’s a rumour doing the rounds that it might be moving to the Irish Sea. Normally I’d say pay no attention to rumours but Sir Jeffrey seemed to get quite annoyed about it live on air so there may be some truth in it.

  • Dónall

    Trade deals are negotiated by the EU not by Dublin.

  • Granni Trixie

    You omit the impact on political culture of Unionists not seeing why they should allow Catholics to join the Party. For example, in 1959 two notable members were pilloried for suggesting to Young Unionists that they ought to leave the door open to Catholics. By 1962 a reforming Clifton/Review Group had formed in the UP. They wanted recognition of the ICTU and that Catholics to be recruited as members and candidates;their pleas for Catholics went unheard (members of this group formed APNI).

    From around the late 50s some Catholic leaders were calling on their peers to play a role in public life. Indeed in 60s when O’Neill took over two of them wrote to him offering to take up appointments on public bodies and only when they got no response did they publish that letter in newspapers.
    I hope I have said enough to explain why I do not think the system fostering the single party government can be explained away by non participation of Nationakists. I think it more useful to think not just in terms of system but of prevailing culture including attitudes.

  • Hawk

    Granni, this still has very little to do with the ‘system’. The system is the actual structure and means of delivering the government.

    The fault remains with individuals collectively voting the way they chose.. You are ignoring that individuals always had free choice over which parties they could vote for, that’s key.

    Nobody forced people to vote along the lines they did, in Northern Ireland there were alternatives parties. Both Unionist and Nationalist voters had the opportunity to vote for moderation and yet both sides largely continued voting along their same old ‘national identity lines’, the point I have continually made.

    The very fact that Unionism could and did split is proof that a ‘one party state’ was not inevitable. The very fact that the biggest party did in some elections poll less than 50% of the popular vote (1962) means changes was possible.

  • Oggins

    Not all of the voters who vote DUP or SF vote based policies. They vote to keep themuns out or for a border poll.

    Let’s not kid ourselves. We do not have 300,000 odd religious conservatives or 300,000 odd socialists.

  • Karl

    The EU position will be the NI stays in the customs union. That is the price to pay for a 2 year transitional period, so the border will be at the ports.
    Interesting to see if May will cross a DUP red line to protect British trade. I suspect we know the answer.

  • Zeno

    I’ve been saying that for years.

  • ted hagan

    and there’s a right of vetoon the final arrangements.

  • Zeno

    Ireland is part of the EU and will expect the EU not to act in a way that damages the Irish Economy.

  • Zeno

    Give us the lottery numbers while you’re at it.

  • Abucs

    When you say ‘progressive’ it needs to be with a capital ‘P’. Not everyone agrees that Progressivism is progress.

  • George

    The UK does more trade with Ireland than it does with China (5.6% of total trade). 20 odd billion a year is significant.

  • Zeno

    UK exports are at £550 billion a year. Their economy is 5th largest in the world. Ireland are not anywhere near that league. No one wants to lose trade but the UK can handle the losses if any better than Ireland.
    That’s why I say Dublin need the trade more.

  • George

    On the face of how things stand now before the new reality dawns, this could be true. However, we don’t know what the new post-Brexit reality will be like.

    Can Ireland make up for this loss of trade with the UK through continued membership of the EU better than the UK can as a stand alone nation with “third country” status on the edge of the world’s largest trading block?

    Ireland’s export growth since 2000 has been powered by services, not manufacturing. If services move from the UK post Brexit, which they can do much easier than factories, could Ireland snap up enough to bridge the gap?

    Services exports to the UK made up €24 billion in 2015 while all other merchandising and goods made up just €14 billion.

    Ireland needs trade with the UK but the reality is that it too can probably handle the losses. It has the advantage of being a smaller and accordingly more adaptable economy. Time will tell which economy suffers more but, one thing is for certain, the answer isn’t written in stone yet. Irish economic growth is predicted at 4.6% this year, 4.7% next year and 3.1% in 2019. Who knows, a sluggish UK market could even stop the Irish economy overheating in the short to medium term.

  • Zorin001

    There would have been those alive in 1962 who would have remembered the 1925 election and the swing against the UUP (11.9% against) which resulted in the PR being abolished and replaced with First Past the Post, which stifled the growth of the NI Labour party and others in the subsequent 1929 election.

    So you could forgive some for thinking that Big House Unionism could and would game the system to reinforce the “one party state”.

  • Karl

    If I had as many indicators on the lottery as the EU have given on the British position paper, Id have a better than evens chance of being a millionaire by the weekend.

  • Karl

    Ireland exports $19 BN to the UK (12%), slightly less important than our Belgian markets and takes in $21 BN worth of goods from the UK – 28% of imports.
    It depends on your viewpoint of who needs who more. The recipient or the supplier. In most cases the goods can be replaced at a relatively similar cost. For others they can not. It is too complicated to work out but suffice to say trade is good. Obstacles to trade are not and the UK position, as a country who built its wealth on trade, is to remove itself from a customs union with its closest neighbours and replace it with deals with the US, India, China and Australia. Nuts.

  • Zeno

    Ireland’s economy is 195 billion euro.
    The UK’s economy is 2.9 Trillion Dollars. It’s around 12 or 13 times the size.
    Even allowing for the exchange rate I know which one my money would be on to ride out the storm.
    The EU economy is not performing anywhere near the rest of the world developing countries, growth is flat while the developing countries grow at excellent rates.
    The EU will be damaged losing its 2nd biggest economy and 2nd biggest net contributor unless they play ball, but don’t worry, they will.

  • Karl

    EU economy is 13 trillion dollars without the UK.
    I suspect the EU is in a better position to cushion the effects of Brexit on a peripheral 220 billion dollar economy
    EU is playing for an unsuccessful Brexit. They cant allow anything else.
    The UK is now going to pay for its unwillingness to build relationships across the EU for the last 40 years. Its telling that its best and most effective friend in the EU after all this time is Ireland.

  • Hawk

    I take your point about the shift from PR hurting smaller parties, however it was generally pro-Union parties that bore the brunt with consolidation under ‘big house unionism’. It is not widely regarded to have been as a plot against nationalism which is often the contention; and if it were it did a poor job of it. Even under FPP, normal societies not hung up on ‘national identify’ politics find a way to muddle on through.

    My difficulty with the current narrative surrounding the Unionist government is threefold. First is the exaggeration of the offences that were actually committed by the government; secondly a misunderstanding in many cases about why some practises (such as Gerrymandering) were actioned in the first place; and thirdly the shirking of any responsibility by modern Nationalists for their failure to representing their own interests in government, or to provide effective opposition.

  • Steve

    Given that Northern Ireland was specifically carved out to deliver a comfortable unionist majority, the system itself cannot be ignored. NI was a sectarian construct from the start, which in turn impacted the systems of governance within it.

  • Steve

    Though back then the bigots were running the place, brazen and went unchallenged. The Troubles is the price that we all eventually paid for their unapologetic approach.

  • Zeno

    “Services exports to the UK made up €24 billion in 2015 while all other merchandising and goods made up just €14 billion.”

    What sort of services? Have you any examples?

  • Stephen Kelly

    Thank goodness you cleared all that up for me, so it really was all the fault of the catholic nationalists after all.

  • Zorin001

    Not a plot against Nationalism but perhaps against Socialism seeing how it did stifle the NI Labour Party who actually managed to increase their vote share in 1929 but lost two seats. That also ties in with some circumstantial anecdotes i’ve heard from relatives involved with the Civil Rights movement who thought the main concern of Stormont was actually Communist infiltration of the movement rather than Republicanism.

    I take your point around narratives, especially the further we travel from the original events. People do tend to reflect their own biases and modern visions and values onto events without considering all the historical backgrounds and movements that have built up said narratives. Look how much our impression of events can change when new evidence emerges, for instance the opening of historical government archives.

  • Zeno

    Interesting that the entire EU economy, all 27 Countries is just over 4 times of the UK.

  • Karl

    I had the UK economy as 2.6 trillion but youre correct, interestingly, the EU dwarfs the worlds fifth largest economy.

  • Zeno

    Yes indeed all 27 Countries added together are bigger than the lttle UK.

  • wild turkey


    thanks for this post. in particular the narrative that:-

    “During the first decade – 1943 to 1953 – there were substantial achievements, many of them of a socially progressive kind.”

    socially progressive achievements are about a gazillion time better than a lack of those achievements. this is widely known.

    and in view of Charlottesville, have started reading, Stamped from the Beginning.

    link below, hope it works (if not, somebody, anybody, please tell me how to drop links into posts? thanks)

    and the book is leading me to question the efficacy of occasional progressive achievements. AKA/acts of social justice Even abolitionists don’t emerge unscathed from a fearless, brilliant history of racist thinking spanning 500 years

    “There are passages in Stamped from the Beginning that could serve as an obituary to the myth of post-racial America; that fanciful and woefully ahistorical delusion that flowered, briefly, during the early months of Barack Obama’s first term. Ibram X Kendi’s new book, written during Obama’s second term, places that moment within a broad and sobering historical context.”

    ah, that’s all folks

  • Hawk

    Hi Stephen, I never said that Stephen. In fact I even said ‘John Hume correctly lays the blame mostly with Unionists’ – Stephen.

    Thanks for proving you didn’t read my first post Stephen. It means I don’t have to take you seriously.

  • Hawk

    I’ve noticed considerably less moderation from young people. They say it takes a generation or so to forget the mistakes of the past,
    let us hope that is not true for Northern Ireland.

  • Hawk

    Countries with comfortable majorities of particular national groups is the norm not the exception. Just look to Europe.

    We must lay the blame with those who did the discriminating, not the system. A system such as the one we had isn’t sectarian, the sectarian character was given to it by the occupants.

    We must not blame an inanimate ‘system’ which has worked fine for many countries around the world, for the failings of people. The narrative some appear to be reaching for is a ‘failed sectarian statlet’ – and yet that statlet lives on.

  • Granni Trixie

    And you didn’t mention sectarianism in the mix once!