Virtue Turned to Vice; at the Heart of Ulster Politics

The News Letter (Belfast, Northern Ireland), March 4, 2002 | Go to article overview

Virtue Turned to Vice; at the Heart of Ulster Politics


Byline: Mervyn Pauley

THE dictum that those who will not learn from history are condemned to re-enact it has a special resonance in Northern Ireland.

Here, as in the rest of Ireland, past and present tend to merge, to become indistinguishable - proof that, if you push history out through the door, it comes, in the words of A T Q Stewart, "smashing back in through the windows".

In his celebrated work, The Narrow Ground, Stewart threw fresh light on the roots of the Ulster conflict, showing that recent headlines about our sorry situation could equally apply to certain 19th century events here.

To those who insist that partition is the root of all evil, this sort of scholarly exercise reaffirms that it is more a symptom of the problem than the cause.

I've just finished reading a new book, Religion, Politics and Violence in Nineteenth-Century Belfast. Published by the Four Courts Press, Dublin, it supplies symptoms galore as part of a comprehensive analysis of city rioting.

To be precise, of rioting in two working-class areas of the city-the Catholic Pound, centred in the old cattle pound to the west of downtown Belfast, and the Protestant Sandy Row, bordering the Pound and to the south.

These are logical choices for such a study, given that the inhabitants were the main combatants in sectarian riots throughout the century in question.

The Pound and Sandy Row, similar in socio-economic terms and equally unskilled in occupational make-up, were seething hotbeds of discontent. Their claims to be Belfast's most violent districts were not in dispute.

Friction between Catholic and Protestant workers was fuelled by campaigns for and against the repeal of the union with Great Britain. The home rule movement, imported from the South, gave matters a sharp, contentious edge. Orange marches also figured in the often turbulent equation.

Author Catherine Hirst, an Australian who completed a PhD in Irish History at Queen's University in 1997, examines the politics of the street and of the secret society in a worthy bid to illuminate the roots of our modern conflict.

Her painstaking research indicates that the Repeal Association, with its nationalist ideology, had a much greater influence among the Catholic working-class than has previously been acknowledged.

It also gave a "political legit- imacy" to hostility towards Protestants who were generally opposed to repeal. While sectarianism was denounced by local repeal leaders, they nevertheless did not hesitate to ally their association with purely Catholic causes. …

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