“Accusations of discrimination against Catholics by the unionist Stormont regime of 1921-72 have been a staple of nationalist politics, underlying the Good Friday Agreement and the aspiration for Irish unity. The allegations are widely believed, even by unionists, but are hugely exaggerated.” So claims Graham Gudgin, David Trimble’s former adviser, in one of the, now routine, pieces of counter-factual nonsense run by the Belfast Newsletter.
As a defence of the old Stormont regime, Gudgin’s article fails miserably in trying cherrypick facts to support the premise that the civil rights abuses by the Unionist governments were negligible and unimportant. Unintentionally, Gudgin provides a useful illustration insight into how little is changed in the Unionist mindset. At one point he lovingly cites the following excerpt from the 1969 Cameron Commission, “It is in a sense understandable that, given the political history of Northern Ireland, in certain areas in particular, local unionist groups should seek to preserve themselves in power by ensuring that local authority housing is developed and allocated in ways which will not disturb their electoral supremacy.”
Basically, civil rights abuses were fine because they kept Unionists in power. This more or less summarises his thinking. And it seems to be representative of a significant strand of political unionism today as chimes with pretty much every DUP intervention into the Brexit process.
At the time of the publication of the Cameron Commission’s report in 1969, Stormont minister Brian Faulkner was ridiculed for claiming the report showed that Catholics had few genuine grievances. You can read the contents of the Cameron Commission’s report here yourself. The report’s conclusions are a world away from the interpretation given to them by Faulkner in 1969 or Gudgin today. It contains sixteen points, covering discrimination in housing, jobs allocation, gerrymandering, policing, due process, the repressive use of the Special Powers Act and very specifically puts the responsibility for the emerging violence on various unionist groups. I’ve quoted these at the end of this post. All of the report’s conclusions reflect the claims made by the civil rights movement and others in the decades before 1960.
Even Dr Gudgin understanding of the context of the statistics he uses is demonstrably flawed. As part of his dismissal of the significance and impact of gerrymandering, he claims that, “The abuses only concerned local authority elections, but even so the Stormont regime was wrong in not acting to stop them much earlier.” This is manifestly untrue. The restricted electoral franchise also applied to elections to the parliament at Stormont (while, paradoxically, they did not apply in Westminster elections). Thus one impact can be very simply measured by the variation in the total electorate for an election to Stormont and an election to Westminster. To take the electorate for the 1970 Westminster election and the 1969 Stormont election as an example, the electorate for Westminster in 1970 was 1,017,303 while the electorate for Stormont in 1969 was 784,242. So 22.9% of the electorate was disenfranchised for Stormont and local authority elections. Not only were they disenfranchised as individuals, others were able to vote multiple times due to property ownership rights. This means that even this 22.9% reduction in votes masks a larger reduction in the number of individuals eligible to vote. As economic status was the key to electoral eligibility, the Unionist government’s tactic was to utilise poverty to disenfranchise it’s political opponents. There are many lasting monuments to this tactic, including the dearth of physical infrastructure west of the Bann.
If unionism and the likes of the Belfast Newsletter are going to repeatedly insist that others are trying to rewrite history, they might first ensure that their understanding of that history is better informed.
Here are the Cameron Commission’s key findings:
(1) A rising sense of continuing injustice and grievance among large sections of the Catholic population in Northern Ireland, in particular in Londonderry and Dungannon, in respect of (i) inadequacy of housing provision by certain local authorities (ii) unfair methods of allocation of houses built and let by such authorities, in particular; refusals and omissions to adopt a ‘points’ system in determining priorities and making allocations (iii) misuse in certain cases of discretionary powers of allocation of houses in order to perpetuate Unionist control of the local authority (paragraphs 128-131 and 139).
(2) Complaints, now well documented in fact, of discrimination in the making of local government appointments, at all levels but especially in senior posts, to the prejudice of non-Unionists and especially Catholic members of the community, in some Unionist controlled authorities (paragraphs 128 and 138).
(3) Complaints, again well documented, in some cases of deliberate manipulation of local government electoral boundaries and in others a refusal to apply for their necessary extension, in order to achieve and maintain Unionist control of local authorities and so to deny to Catholics influence in local government proportionate to their numbers (paragraphs 133-137).
(4) A growing and powerful sense of resentment and frustration among the Catholic population at failure to achieve either acceptance on the part of the Government of any need to investigate these complaints or to provide and enforce a remedy for them (paragraphs 126-147).
(5) Resentment, particularly among Catholics, as to the existence of the Ulster Special Constabulary (the ‘B’ Specials) as a partisan and paramilitary force recruited exclusively from Protestants (paragraph 145).
(6) Widespread resentment among Catholics in particular at the continuance in force of regulations made under the Special Powers Act, and of the continued presence in the statute book of the Act itself (paragraph 144).
(7) Fears and apprehensions among Protestants of a threat to Unionist domination and control of Government by increase of Catholic population and powers, inflamed in particular by the activities of the Ulster Constitution Defence Committee and the Ulster Protestant Volunteers, provoked strong hostile reaction to civil rights claims as asserted by the Civil Rights Association and later by the People’s Democracy which was readily translated into physical violence against Civil Rights demonstrators (paragraphs 148-150 and 216-226).
(8) There was a strong reaction of popular resentment to the Minister’s ban on the route of the proposed Civil Rights march in Londonderry or 5th October 1968 which swelled very considerably the number of persons who ultimately took part in the march. Without this ban the numbers taking part would in all probability have been small and the situation safely handled by available police forces (paragraphs 157-165).
(9) The leadership, organisation and control of the demonstrations in Londonderry on 5th October 1968, and in Newry on 11th January 1969 was ineffective and insufficient to prevent violent or disorderly conduct among certain elements present on these occasions (paragraphs 54 and 118)
(10) There was early infiltration of the Civil Rights Association both centrally and locally by subversive left wing and revolutionary elements which were prepared to use the Civil Rights movement to further their own purposes, and were ready to exploit grievances in order to provoke and foment, and did provoke and foment, disorder and violence in the guise of supporting a non-violent movement (paragraphs 187-189 and 193).
(11) This infiltration was assisted by the declared insistence of the Civil Rights Association that it was non-sectarian and non-political, and its consequent refusal to reject support from whatever quarter it came provided that support was given and limited to the published aims of the Association (paragraph 187).
(12) What was originally a Belfast students’ protest against police action in Londonderry on 5th October and support for the Civil Right movement was transformed into the People’s Democracy – itself an unnecessary adjunct to the already existing and operative Civil Rights Association. People’s Democracy provided a means by which politically extreme and militant elements could and did invite and incite civil disorder, with the consequence of polarising and hardening opposition to Civil Rights claims (paragraphs 194-204).
(13) On the other side the deliberate and organised interventions by followers of Major Bunting and the Rev. Dr. Paisley, especially in Armagh, Burntollet and Londonderry, substantially increased the risk of violent disorder on occasions when Civil Rights demonstrations or marches were to take place, were a material contributory cause of the outbreaks ( violence which occurred after 5th October, and seriously hampered the police in their task of maintaining law and order, and of protecting members of the public in the exercise of their undoubted legal rights and upon their lawful occasions (paragraphs 222-224).
(14) The police handling of the demonstration in Londonderry on 5 October 1968 was in certain material respects ill co-ordinated and inept. There was use of unnecessary and ill controlled force in the dispersal of the demonstrators, only a minority of whom acted in a disorderly and violent manner. The wide publicity given by press, radio and television to particular episodes inflamed and exacerbated feelings of resentment against the police which had been already aroused by their enforcement of the ministerial ban (paragraphs l68 – l7 1).
(15) Available police forces did not provide adequate protection to People’s Democracy marchers at Burntollet Bridge and in or near Irish Street, Londonderry on 4th January 1969. There were instances of police indiscipline and violence towards persons unassociated with rioting or disorder on 4th/ 5th January in Londonderry and these provoked serious hostility to the police, particularly among the Catholic population of Londonderry, and an increasing disbelief in their impartiality towards non-Unionists (paragraphs 97-101 and 177).
(16) Numerical insufficiency of available police force especially in Armagh on 30th November 1968 and in Londonderry on 4th/ 5th January 1969 and later on l9th/20th April prevented early and complete control and, where necessary, arrest of disorderly and riotous elements (paragraphs 87, 101 and 182).