Northern Ireland: Out of the Headlines, Injustices Beget Tragedies Built on Old Hate

By MacEoin, Gary | National Catholic Reporter, October 22, 1993 | Go to article overview
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Northern Ireland: Out of the Headlines, Injustices Beget Tragedies Built on Old Hate


MacEoin, Gary, National Catholic Reporter


As the media move the spotlight to new trouble spots around the world, the old stories seldom go away, merely get eclipsed. One tragic example of this is Northern Ireland.

There is an irony about Britain's Lord David Owen's very public efforts to create peace and justice in Bosnia. When the centuries-old Northern Ireland "problem" erupted again in the early 1970s, Britain adamantly insisted it was a "domestic" matter and brooked no interference from outside.

And, as the social caldron simmers, Britain's highly sophisticated public relations machine controls the world's perception machine controls the world's perception of what is happening.

Gary MacEoin, who wrote the 1974 Northern Ireland: Captive of History, recently revisited Northern Ireland. He reports in two articles on the seemingly everlasting, festering injustices.

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- U.N. reports describe the 1980s as the lost decade for the Third World. Those who live in Northern Ireland's Third World call the past 25 years the lost quarter century.

Northern Ireland's Third World is only a relatively small part of the six Ulster counties ruled -- or misruled -- by Britain. It consists mainly of the enclaves of West Belfast and Derry's Bogside, with smaller concentrations in Belfast's Short Strand, Omagh, Strabane and Dungannon.

What these have in common is that the inhabitants are overwhelmingly Catholic, permanently unemployed -- as high as 80 percent in parts of West Belfast -- militarized, lacking effective legal redress when abused by the police and the British army, and denied a fair trial when charged with crimes on the mere allegation of unidentified accusers.

What does the lost quarter century mean? To ask such a question in Ireland is dangerous. The reply isalmost certain to start in 1178, the year in which England embarked on the still-unfinished project of dominating militarily, culturally and linguistically its smaller neighbor. The reply may even take one back several centuries further to the depredations of the Norse pirates and marauders.

For present purposes one can -- mercifully -- start with 1968. That was the year when a significant majority of the Nationalists, who are mostly Catholic and compose 40 percent of Northern Ireland's population, made a historic decision. They agreed to separate the two issues that had polarized Northern Ireland since Britain, having partitioned Ireland, set up in the early 1920s a regime for six of Ulster's nine countries that would be dependent on the British Parliament.

Dropping from their political agenda, as less urgent, the demand to reunify Ireland, they focused on human rights, especially the right to equal opportunity in jobs and housing with the Unionists (mostly Protestant) who have always monopolized power and decision-making, thanks to superior numbers, gerrymandering and the sympathetic noninterference of London.

This new approach resulted, at least in part, from changed conditions since World War II. The Labor governments that held office in Britain from 1945 to 1951 had forced the reluctant, dependent Parliament of Northern Ireland to adopt the social benefits they had granted the rest of the United Kingdom.

Guaranteed unemployment benefits meant a slowing down of Nationalist emigration which had previously offset the higher Nationalist birthrate. They dampened the ardor for reunification with the republic, which could not afford comparable social benefits. They also meant that young Nationalists, still denied jobs, prolonged their education.

A rigidly segregated education system at grade school and high school levels had previously excluded all social contacts. Now, free higher education brought young Catholics and Protestants together for the first time, absorbing them into the new youth culture that swept the world in the 1960s. The beliefs and prejudices of their parents ceased to be their exclusive motivations.

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