Imagining the moments when Northern Ireland might have avoided the Troubles. If Unionists had conceded freely what they were later forced to do under pressure.

After returning to the real world in my last post, I can’t resist entering the dream world again to accept Malachi’ O Doherty’s invitation to imagine a world without the Troubles. I do so more or less off the top of my head, recalling my own teenage memories of the 1960s when it seemed to coin a phrase, “ things could only get better “. I use the terms Catholic and Protestant, the social signifiers more generally used at the time.

Even Catholics couldn’t deny that the North though lagging behind GB, was miles better off that the subsidence farmers of the south.  Developments like the welfare state,  free education for most ( but not  entirely free yet for Catholics  who still insisted  on staying outside full state oversight),  shiny new synthetic fibre plants to replace fast declining  linen, and a considerable amount  of house building –  ( remember  the subsidy bungalow?). They added up to an improving normal.  It even began to be doubted if the welfare state could be effectively managed on a sectarian basis. The alternative attempted we will come to later.

The unionist state was my normal and  although very much less than the ideal, it was the normal Catholics had to put up with too.  Endless calling for an end to partition was no answer to structural discrimination when unionists enjoyed a comfortable two thirds majority.  The state had emerged victorious from the IRA’s border campaign of late 1950s to 62.  RUC and B Special border patrolling and internment south of the border strangled cross border incursions. But the decisive factor in defeat lay in its rejection by the Catholic community as a whole. This was a lesson badly misapplied a decade later.

I now make three big generalisations. First the Troubles came as a tremendous shock. Yes indeed their origins  can easily be traced to structural discrimination and permanent majority government summed up  in that  brilliant Sunday Times headline,  “ John Bull’s Political  Slum.”  But the near total collapse of order was not foreseen.

The second is that despite the degree of control the IRA later won over working class districts a big majority of Catholics held consistently moderate views. As they do today.  This might be prudent self protection but their nationalism  fell well short of a united Ireland or nothing.  What mattered far more at the time was the attainment of equal – British – rights.

The third is that all unionists had to do to retain their constitutional position was to behave decently and fairly. That probably still holds true today. Why didn’t they?   Each side  has always believed the other side’s propaganda, unionists still believing in the threat of a united Ireland  fifty years after partition, where none existed beyond the rhetorical.  Then  the anti discrimination case made so strongly and rightly on behalf of  Catholics  meant unionists losing out in the zero sum game  that obsesses  both sides.  The case should have been translated into a policy of inequality which applied to poor Protestants as well. The effort was made in the temporary rise of the NI Labour Party, the recognition of the NI committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and even the Communist party in the shipyard. But they were not enough. The sectarian culture proved overwhelming.

And yet there was undeniably an atmosphere of cautious hope of progress.   Vatican 2 the great council called by the reforming Pope John XX111 in 1963 produced ideas for social action which required cooperation with Protestants under the label of ecumenism.  But for many Protestants ecumenism glossed over too many differences of belief which underscored   the Catholic Church’s control over education and social attitudes to sex and the family. It’s ironic to reflect that self same criticisms levelled at the Church which were regarded as Protestant bigotry then, are orthodox today.

Did reform ever stand a chance? O’Neill’s government believed in reform by stealth, in economic planning  then in vogue such as the Matthew Plan and Thomas Wilson’s for economic development 

The Macrory report and created fewer councils stripped of most powers such as housing allocation.  Four area boards each for health and education were eventually set up and were to be accountable to Stormont as “ the grand county council.” Although political reform was outside the brief, a consultative role  was envisaged for non unionist politicians, Macrory was accompanied  by fair employment legislation.  These reforms would  surely have developed. Equal rights were unstoppable.

But none of this was sexy. And it happened in 1970 when the Stormont system was already collapsing. The gerrymandered Londonderry Corporation would  have been scrapped by Macrory but was abolished  under pressure early  in response to the upheaval caused after the police batoning of 5th October  demonstration in Derry.  Yet if we assume no Troubles, here we have the nucleus of consensual reform.

Bright Catholics’ attention lay elsewhere.  In Queen’s, inspired by the American example, a civil rights movement developed a critique best described in Michael Farrell’s the Orange State. A wing that seemed militant at the time, the People’s Democracy, held out for repeated marches that challenged the state and exposed its weaknesses.  Militant Protestants took note and the notorious backlash was born. The bright young things had given  a sectarian critique of a sectarian state. Had there been a critique based on cross community reform and a government willing to respond like LBJ’s it might have succeeded.  A Northern Ireland Martin Luther King was too much to hope for .  King’s  great achievement, operating on a much wider canvas, was to champion the cause of black  freedom without  attempting to overthrow the state.

Terence O’Neill’s great mistake in February 1969 was in attempting to keep his party together at a time even when reformist O’Neill unionist candidates were standing against the party he led. He should have thrown caution to the winds and taken his liberal unionists to offer a grand coalition. He just might have had the numbers. On the Catholic side the talented group who decimated the old Nationalist Party who became the SDLP remained within sectarian constraints with a progressive vocabulary. Their mistake – a point the late Austin Currie agreed with – was to withdraw from Stormont because of the security situation in June 1971, to reject Brian Faulkner’s offer of consultative committees, and give up on parliamentary government. But  the inevitable  phrase springs to mind; it  was all too little and too late.

But imagine street violence contained in 1969 and a common interest created.  The Unionist machine of local patronage and a political police force, swept away as in 1970 when the Troubles had already begun.

In the mid 1960s  the unionist party monolith was cracking, In minority areas especially they were fearful of surrendering any power but in 1970  they were obliged to do so. .In the east there were many unionist professionals who relied on government for a good job and remembered the old Ireland. They could even imagine a united Ireland over a late night glass of Bushmills. Mutual good will was starting to develop.   The Labour government elected with a majority of only 4 in 1964 were frankly hostile to 12 Unionists who denied them a more comfortable majority. Back  bench pressure began to rise to end the  ban  on  raising  Northern Ireland at Westminster.Full UK government weight would probably have been needed to achieve reform, as decades later it so proved.

The orthodox reformist speculation if that if the tough pragmatist Brian Faulkner had replaced the effete O’Neill even as late as 1969, he might have pulled it off.  He was certainly willing to agree to power sharing within only a year of the abolition of the old Stormont.  But to achieve it, it would have required a cross community agreement to resist the threat violence from wherever it came. Not enough came to drink at the Last Chance Saloon.

Many readers  who prefer stronger flavours will dismiss my account as pretty feeble stuff. But in the 1960s, and maybe still in the brink of the 70s, it would have taken much less to maintain enough stability able to progress to wider reform. It was also a time when “reform” was not automatically code for a united Ireland.

You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned Paisley. Let’s imagine a world where he flourishes within the precincts of the Martyrs’ Memorial Church,  just one of a whole flock of noisy pastors.




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