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?

 

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London