Earlier this year, when she took her seat in the British Parliament, twenty-one-year-old Bernadette Devlin from Northern Ireland electrified the House of Commons in making a maiden speech two hours after her arrival. One of her many forcefully expressed remarks was that the Englishman had not been born who could understand Irish affairs. Miss Devlin was probably expressing a view that would command a rare unanimity among her fellow islanders, whether they came from North or South, whether they were Catholics or Protestants. This harmless piece of Celtic vanity is perhaps carried further in Andre Maurois’s statement: “If in the eyes of an Irishman there is any one being more ridiculous than an Englishman, it is an Englishman who loves Ireland.” An ineffable scorn, not to be confused with xenophobia, is the portion of all but the native born who express themselves on any aspect of the Emerald Isle’s affairs. In thus making myself vulnerable I have one negative virtue: I am not English. I am a Scot of Irish descent, a Protestant neither tinged with Red sympathies nor in the pay of the World Council of Churches.

My task here is not so much to comment on recent developments in Northern Ireland (these appear from time to time in this journal’s News section) as to try to fill in some of the background, in the hope of making current reports on the subject more meaningful.

Something must first be said, however sketchily, about the modern history of undivided Ireland. We begin with the year 1690, though any comprehensive treatment would go further back. The last of the Stuart kings, the Roman Catholic James II, in a last-ditch stand at the Boyne, lost to the Protestant William III, who had superseded him as ruler of the United Kingdom. To the modern Ulsterman, this is no forgotten far-off thing but a victory jubilantly celebrated every Twelfth of July.

A century passed. The bulk of the country, in area a little smaller than the state of Maine, was Roman Catholic. Then came a rebellion by the nationalists in the south, with some help from revolutionary France. This alarmed both the British government and the Irish ruling class, and led to the abolition of the Dublin-based Irish parliament. In the legislative union that ensued, Ireland was to be represented in the London parliament by 100 members in the Commons, 32 peers in the Lords.

Some decades passed. The Protestants, largely concentrated in the north, were apprehensive when in the British parliament the question of home rule for Ireland began to be raised more frequently. This, they felt, would inevitably involve their submission to the Roman Catholic majority. In 1843 they organized a petition in Belfast, its purpose to ensure that if home rule was achieved, the north (Ulster) would be given a parliament of its own. Feeling ran high, and the latter part of the century saw six outbreaks of sectarian rioting in Ulster.

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Relations between the British government and the southern nationalists continued to worsen, and the latter during World War I tried to take advantage of Britain’s plight to further their own ends. Finally in 1920, the Government of Ireland Act divided the country into Northern and Southern sections (the latter five times the size of the former), with each having its own parliament—the Northern in Belfast, the Southern in Dublin. A Council of Ireland was to provide a link between them in dealing with matters of common interest, perhaps in the hope that in time a single parliament for the whole of Ireland could be established. Each section was to send representatives to the British parliament.

The North accepted the scheme and opened its parliament in 1921. The South was much less sold on the plan, refused to convene its proposed parliament, and late that year arranged with the British government to become a self-governing dominion (i.e., having the same status as Canada), to be known as the Irish Free State. The name “Eire” (Ireland) was substituted in the 1937 constitution. Under the agreement, Northern Ireland was to be given the option of retaining its status under the Government of Ireland Act, and it exercised that option, continuing its connection with the United Kingdom. Had it not done so it would have come under the control of the Catholic South (in 1969 more than 90 per cent Catholic in a population of just under three million).

A few words more about the South, for its position is vital to a proper understanding of Northern Ireland today. Its link with London was further weakened when in 1937 the position of governor-general (the king’s representative) was abolished and in his place was installed a president elected by the people of the country. The first to hold the office for the seven-year term was Douglas Hyde, renowned Celtic scholar and—perhaps surprisingly—a Protestant, son of a clergyman.

In World War II, Eire was neutral, and, indeed, regarded in some quarters as sympathetic to the Germans. Winston Churchill was furious because Dublin denied to the Allies the use of its ports and bases. In 1949 Eire seceded from the British Commonwealth (as South Africa was later to do, and as Rhodesia is now doing) and became a republic. To deal with the problems posed, the United Kingdom Parliament passed the Ireland Act (1949), which declared that the North would never be detached from the United Kingdom without the consent of the Northern Ireland Parliament. Results of general elections in the North that year had shown a large majority in favor of retaining the British constitution, much to the chagrin of the southern nationalists.

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We turn now exclusively to the affairs of Northern Ireland. It comprises the northeastern part of the island: Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry, and Tyrone (known generally as the Six Counties), plus the county boroughs of Belfast and Londonderry. Here we have the greater portion of the historic province of Ulster (which included also Cavan, Donegal, and Monaghan), a name that is popularly if loosely applied to Northern Ireland today. It is not a large unit—only a little bigger than the state of Connecticut. In a population of 1.5 million, Protestants outnumber Catholics two to one.

Northern Ireland sends twelve members to the United Kingdom Parliament; currently ten are Unionists, one is Republican Labour, and the other is the Independent and redoubtable Bernadette Devlin mentioned above. In addition, Northern Ireland has its own parliament, composed of two houses: a senate with twenty-six members, and a Commons of fifty-two (Unionists have a substantial majority). It legislates in all local matters not reserved to the United Kingdom Parliament and is explicitly prohibited from making laws that interfere with religious equality.

Unionist members, in both the Belfast and the London parliament, are Protestants, and here we encounter a significant feature: broadly speaking, a man’s politics in Ulster are determined by his religion, and vice versa. The cleavage between the two religious groups is accentuated by the Catholic policy of separate schools. In a country where the religious persuasion of a job applicant is an important factor, it is not necessary to ask a direct question on the subject: one merely asks what school he attended. In the 1961 municipal elections in Belfast, according to the Sunday Independent, the Unionist association in one ward issued a pamphlet stating that its three candidates “employ over seventy People and have NEVER employed A ROMAN CATHOLIC.” This is probably not typical of the party as a whole.

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In the census taken that same year (no religious question was asked at the 1966 census), the following statistics emerge for the major denominations. For purposes of comparison, I give also the 1926 and 1951 figures, all of which are culled from the 1969 Ulster Year Book:

The category “Others” includes those who profess no religion; their proportion has risen from 0.2 per cent in 1926, to 0.4 per cent in 1951, to 2.0 per cent in 1961.

The chief and all-pervading division is, of course, into Catholic and Protestant. Some of those who say they are one or the other could more accurately describe themselves as anti-Protestant or anti-Catholic. Many so-called Protestants, alas (for they ought to know better), seem more concerned with defending rather than with practicing Reformation principles. An elderly relative of my own, brought up in Londonderry (second city of Ulster) and with no noticeable religious convictions at all, has hated Roman Catholics all her life with a profound and unreasoning hatred.

Ulster’s Catholics, on the other hand, are susceptible to all the influences of their international body. Not just from Rome—or Dublin—either. In the past, Catholic Irish Americans have financed anti-British terrorist activities in Ulster and England, the result of which has been not to forward the cause of a united Ireland but to increase hatred and suspicion. Earlier this year, Senator Edward Kennedy was misguided enough to send an emotionally charged telegram of support to one of the factions, largely Catholic, that has been involved in the troubles that continue to disrupt the province. The Catholic G. K. Chesterton’s words still apply to Ireland some decades later: this is still “the land of broken hearts and … broken heads.”

One gets the impression that the North of Ireland is inexorably caught up in a tragedy, with each side playing an allotted and inescapable role. An Orangeman (the name coming from the ancestral house of William III), while urged to resist the ascendancy of the church of Rome, is advised to abstain “from all uncharitable words, actions, or sentiments, towards his Roman Catholic brethren.” He is often too busy doing the first to think about the second. Tolerance in Ulster is a bad word, a sign of weakness. Each side is afraid to give an inch for fear of what might happen. As John Knox put it: “Give the devil entry with his finger and straightway he will shoot forth his whole arm.” For those particularly who live in the drab sections of Ulster’s two largest cities, there is a great psychological boost in feeling that one is fighting for a cause.

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Both Belfast and Londonderry have Protestant and Catholic sections, something like the Greek and Turkish sections of Nicosia in Cyprus. In two of the Belfast wards—Falls and Smithfield—the Catholics form well over 90 per cent of the population; in other parts of the capital the situation is reversed. In the town of Newry, Catholics number some 80 per cent and control the Urban Council; in Londonderry, on the other hand, the Corporation is under Unionist control although Catholics are in the majority. Unionists have been accused of gerrymandering; both sides have charged the other with job discrimination. An investigation into the affairs of the province under the chairmanship of a Scottish judge has just been completed (the results have not so far been made known) and it is hoped the findings will help to right the injustices which, not limited to either side, bedevil the affairs of the province. Evangelicals by their testimony could do much to remove the Catholic’s idea of his gospel as an uplifted club (a Baptist minister’s sorrowful description).

The nationalist dream of a united Ireland is fading; that two countries should not share an island is a fallacy that has been exploded (Haiti and the Dominican Republic do it in an area smaller than Ireland). And Catholics are more cooperative since the Vatican Council.

Yet an outsider who watches the formidable sight of 100,000 banner-carrying, sash-wearing, drum-beating Protestants marching in Northern Ireland on July 12 is not likely to underestimate the problem. Many of the marchers would fervently drink to the nineteenth-century Orange toast quoted by Arthur Bryant in The Age of Elegance:

To the glorious, pious and Immortal Memory of King William III, who saved us from Rogues and Roguery, Slaves and Slavery, Knaves and Knavery, Popes and Popery, from brass money and wooden shoes; and who ever denies this Toast may he be slammed, crammed and jammed into the muzzle of the great gun of Athlone, and the gun fired into the Pope’s Belly, and the Pope into the Devil’s Belly, and the Devil into Hell, and the door locked and the key in an Orangeman’s pocket.…

One wonders how much this sort of attitude is really upholding either the Protestant Reformation or the British constitution.

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