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Holy War

When the Orange Order (in Belfast and elsewhere) and the Apprentice Boys (in Derry) commemorate the victories of 1690, as they do each year in elaborate ceremonies, the message they are conveying is that of their determination to hold for Protestants in Northern Ireland as much as possible of the privileged status which their ancestors won under William of Orange. These are not, as outside observers so easily suppose, comically archaic occasions. The symbols are historical, the iconography old-fashioned, but the message is for the here and now. The ritual is one of annual renewal of a stylized act of dominance: “We are your superiors: we know you hate this demonstration of that fact: we dare you to do something about it: if you don’t, you ratify your own inferior status.” That is what the drums say.

When these rituals can be performed without danger of disruption, Northern Ireland is quiet: the natives are deemed to accept their status. They have no means of changing it by ordinary democratic process. They are a minority—one third of the population—within Northern Ireland. By definition: since in 1920 the borders of that entity were drawn as a result of decisions taken by the Ulster Unionist leadership with the support of the English Tories, in such a way as to include the maximum territory containing an absolutely safe Protestant majority. The Catholics combine the disadvantage of minority status with the frightening qualities with which a suppressed majority is usually invested; for Catholics are in a large majority in the island of Ireland as a whole. They are also in a majority in certain parts of Northern Ireland itself, and notably in the second city of the area: Derry.5

Derry is of special importance. It was the principal center of Protestant resistance at the end of the seventeenth-century struggle. Its siege by King James’s Catholic army is symbolic of the Catholic siege which Ulster Protestant militants feel they are still withstanding. And it never fell. Derry’s “No Surrender” has become the slogan of Ulster Unionism. Derry is near the border: a majority of its population, being Catholic, are believed to be only too willing to surrender it to the Republic.6 So the Unionist government based in Stormont, using powers conferred on it by London, gerrymandered Derry in such a way that a city with a two-to-one Catholic majority has a City Council with a two-to-one Protestant majority. This council has consistently used its power to uphold the privileged position of Protestants in jobs, in housing, in relations with the police, and in other ways. Catholics in Northern Ireland generally are a depressed minority. The Apprentice Boys,7 on their annual triumphal circuit on the walls of the city, toss pennies down from the walls into the poverty of Derry’s great Bogside ghetto.

In August, the Bogsiders, by disrupting that ceremony, and by successfully resisting police efforts to restore the order which the ceremony represents, shook the bases of the whole system throughout Northern Ireland. The Protestant militants of Belfast, for whom a Protestant force known as the “B Specials” provides armed leadership, sought to restore the balance in their own way, intimidating the local Catholic minority by threats, arson, and shooting. The B Specials are nominally police reservists, exclusively Protestant in composition, and traditionally drawn from the most vigilant anti-Catholic section. Their activities were mainly responsible for the British government’s decision to depart from their long-established policy of leaving Stormont to run the internal affairs of the territory in its own way, without intervention or even question from British Parliament, to which the Stormont government owes its existence.

The events of August abolished non-intervention. The British Army, always present in the area, but hitherto completely uninvolved in its internal affairs, was hurriedly given the main responsibility for the maintenance of order in the most troubled districts. Stormont’s police were placed under army control and kept out of the principal Catholic districts. The B Specials were required to check their weapons into military armories: it was strongly hinted that the force would gradually be “phased out.”

The nature of a sectarian rule which had existed for fifty years suddenly surfaced before a shocked British and international public. The demand for reform in Northern Ireland has acquired a force which it never possessed before. The Cameron Commission—established before the August troubles—published a report which showed that Catholics had been the victims of systematic discrimination in local government franchise, in housing, in jobs, and in relations with the police. All this had long been notorious but the official status of the Commission Report meant that it could no longer be ignored or denied. The Northern Ireland government promised reforms; the British government promised that the reforms would have to be real.

The most pressing of these reforms—and the most alarming to Protestant-supremacy extremists—is the establishment of a police force not imbued with the Protestant-supremacy ideal. This would mean reforming the Royal Ulster Constabulary and completely disbanding the B Specials. It is against implementation of police reform especially, and in defense of Protestant supremacy generally, that Protestant extremists are now fighting in Belfast. The fact that these “pro-British” people are now skirmishing against the British Army, which is at present defending the “anti-British,” is only superficially paradoxical. (Though perhaps sufficiently so for most outsiders.)

Ulster Protestant loyalty since the seventeenth century has been that conditional Whig loyalty of attachment to the Protestant succession. A man is loyal to the Crown so long as it is a Protestant Crown and so long as its servants behave accordingly. If these servants behave in ways which are not clearly Protestant—by the strict standards of the Protestant militants in Belfast’s Shankill Road—then they are traitors. Asquith was regarded by most Ulster Protestants in that light in 1912 and Wilson is so regarded by some Protestants today. This lesson of conditional loyalty also is inculcated by the annual rituals I have already mentioned. Each year on Derry’s wall they burn the effigy of one Lundy, the governor who was so loyal to the Crown that he tried to deliver the city to the legitimate but Catholic King James. A “Lundy” is a synonym for a traitor and also for one who fraternizes with Papists or favors concessions to them.

The present situation is transitional, complex, and messy. Where once an apparently monolithic and eternal Unionist regime completely controlled the region, today there are numerous separate focuses of power. There is the British Government, which could, if it so decided, use its parliamentary majority to revoke Stormont’s powers altogether. There is Stormont, by-passed in vital functions of law-enforcement, badly damaged and yet a force to be reckoned with, because it is fairly representative of the Protestant majority in the area. There are controlling groups in the semi-insurgent Catholic ghettos, areas which are necessarily self-policing, since they are protected by the army from the Stormont police.

These groups have varying degrees of cohesion: fairly high in Derry, fairly low in Belfast. There are Protestant groups, Paisleyites and others, some of them with considerable territorial authority in certain areas (such as the Shankill Road in Belfast). And finally there is the army, responsible to the Queen’s government in London, but obliged to take part in tricky day-to-day negotiations with Stormont officials, and with local associations of Catholics and Protestants. The army is also, as the official phrase goes, “in support of the civil power.” But where exactly is the civil power? Is it in London or in Stormont? No definite answer can be given to that question, and until it can be given there will be no end to even the present phase of the troubles of Northern Ireland.


The disruption of the ritual in Bogside ghetto in Derry last August was the culmination of a series of actions which began, or at least acquired perceptible momentum, in October 1968, the month of the first major civil rights demonstrations. The Civil Rights Movement, which greatly accelerated this process, if it did not set it in motion, never of course conceived itself as a movement of “Catholics against Protestants.” There were Protestants among its members, and among its leaders. Its main focus initially was in Queen’s University, Belfast—a mainly Protestant institution—where it drew on the support of the students affected by the student protest movement in other countries.

The movement had, and has, liberal and radical wings. The liberals wished to get rid of sectarian injustices and anomalies, and thereby make the region as like as possible to other parts of the United Kingdom. The radicals agreed with enough of this program to enter a common movement, but they wanted to use the struggle as an instrument of social education and social transformation. Eamonn McCann and Bernadette Devlin, militant radical leaders, sought to bring it home to both Catholic and Protestants workers that they had a common class enemy, against whom it was in their interest to join forces.

What happened was that Catholics, in considerable number, rallied to the support of a movement which looked as if it was making headway in the direction of securing equal citizenship for them. Protestants, whatever their class, did not rally to it in any significant number. Some of them attacked it violently, as at the village of Burntollet, where non-violent civil rights marchers were stoned by organized Protestant extremists last January.8 The majority of Protestants simply held aloof, expressing a general distaste for trouble-makers, and bracketing the civil-rights marchers with those who stoned them.

The Civil Rights movement grew, in numbers and in confidence. But it grew as a large but loosely coordinated movement of Catholics. Civil Rights leaders were dismayed. I heard Bernadette Devlin this summer, speaking at Strabane, upbraid her almost entirely Catholic audience for their sectarianism. They applauded her fervently. She was, and is, despite herself, the most inspiring leader the cause of the Catholics in the North has had. Instead of leading a class struggle, as she hoped, she has become the inspiration of an oppressed and partly insurgent caste, the descendants of the dispossessed native inhabitants (to which caste she of course belongs).

Is this because the Protestant workers, who would not heed the call to make common cause with Catholic workers, are dupes of their bosses? As I indicated at the beginning I doubt the adequacy of this explanation. A system of caste-privilege creates beneficiaries of its own, who are much more numerous than the category of employers and landlords. There are solid satisfactions: a Protestant in Ulster has a better chance of a job, of promotion, of a house, of success generally, by being a Protestant. When he is told that if he will combine with Catholic members of his own class he can bring into being a society in which there are jobs and houses for all, under better conditions, he is not impressed. He will now work with Catholic fellow-workers for limited objectives, in the Trade Union movement—which has so far been remarkably successful in keeping sectarian violence out of the shipyards and factories—but he will not cooperate with them politically.

  1. 5

    Alias Londonderry. There is a great pother about nomenclature, even about the name of the political entity in question. Unionists like to call it “Ulster,” Nationalists “The Six Counties.” I use “Northern Ireland” here because it is the official designation even though geographically misleading. Ulster is the name of the old province—nine counties, three of which are in the Republic (Eire, Ireland). I use it adjectivally for Ulster Protestants, who will not object.

  2. 6

    Many observers have even held that, as social services are now considerably better in the United Kingdom than in the Republic, and as so many Derry Catholics are on welfare, they would, if given a choice, remain with the United Kingdom. But if economic interest were always the sole determinant the population in question would be now Protestant, as would the population of the Republic, and the problem would not arise.

  3. 7

    They are not, of course, boys but men. Their name commemorates the exploit of the Protestant apprentices who, against the wishes of the governor of the city, closed the gates against King James.

  4. 8

    See Burntollet, by James Egan and Vincent McCormack (L.R.S. Publishers, London, 1969), p. 28.

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