Political Oppression of the Catholic Minority in Belfast
The political climate from the early 20th century to the 1970s was tumultuous. The Catholics of Northen Ireland faced political oppression in the form of disenfranchisement and discrimination leading up to an explosion of conflict in the 1960s and 1970s. These ideological differences led both sides to believe they were fighting for their survival. The result of this was the Catholic population facing reduced voting rights, inadequate housing, employment discrimination and gerrymandering to reduce their political voice.
After generations of Union (Protestant) domination the Catholics began protesting. This period in time has been named "The Troubles". During this time, the Catholic Nationalist population banned together and protested against the discrimination they faced. The Catholics saw Northern Ireland as an unforgiving and difficult place to live. As a result, several conflicts and battles ensued.
The Bogside Battle occurred on Bogside Street, a street that represented the majority of Derry (Londonderry). On August 12, 1969, as the Catholics were protesting their situation, the police used tear gas against them. The major motivation for this protest was the Catholic people felt they were being destroyed. It was a turning point and motivated the Catholics to continue their fight.
Belfast Burning is thought to be the catalyst for the resurrection of the Irish Republican Army. It was yet another battle motivated by Catholics feeling they needed to preserve their existence.
Bloody Sunday occurred January 30, 1972, and is perhaps the most well-known battle. Before the march, the government declared the gathering illegal, but it continued as planned. The march was a peaceful one until the end, when a part of the crowd stormed the British troops. Then is turned bloody. Fourteen Catholics lost their lives that day, and it is considered the day the British government lost complete control over Northern Ireland. The Guardian, a British newspaper, blamed the Catholics for the violence that occurred that day.
To understand this conflict, it is important to understand the Protestant perspective on the situation. They certainly did not see things the same way as the Catholics did. They were led to believe, by political leaders, that their lifestyle was being threatened. Some even felt that God was a Protestant, definitely not a Catholic. They felt they should have preference for jobs, even believing the Catholics had preferential treatment over them. Robert Babbington, a leader for the Union Party, stated, "The Unionist Party should make it clear that Loyalists have the first choice of jobs."
These ideals made it easy to marginalize the violence and discrimination against the Catholics. It even seemed acceptable since they watched the police participate as well.
In 1969 a Protestant housewife was quoted saying, “It was all ‘the Catholics this and the Catholics that’ [with Loyalists] living in poverty and us lording it over them. People looked around and said, ‘What, are they talking about, us? With the damp running down the walls and our houses not fit to live in." This quote could sum up the beliefs of Protestants during this period.
Catholic perspective & The Northern civil rights association (nicra)
The Catholic population felt they had been ignored for over 50 years by the late 1960s. The voting discrimination they experienced ultimately led to the formation of the Northern Civil Rights Association (NICRA) in 1969 by Bernadette Devlin. Ms. Devlin later went on to found a more radical group, the People's Democracy. Their battle cry was "One Man, One Vote".
Martin Annal, a civil rights campaigner state about the situation, "Our ignorance about Northern Ireland is astonishing. Some of us have been there and experienced this atmosphere of distrust, discrimination, plotting and hate. The silence in England about conditions in ‘Ulster’ almost amounts to criminal negligence.”
Bernadette Devlin refused to make these issues simply Catholic and Protestant. She was quoted as saying, "We refused to accept the politicians’ logic that the problems could be seen in terms of Catholic versus Protestant… The civil rights march was interested in people’s needs.”
An unnamed resident of Derry said, “I joined the civil rights marches because it was obvious that some people were being treated better than others. We used to accept bad housing and bad jobs. Most of my friends just went to England and didn’t bother looking for work here. I had never voted and neither had my parents, brothers or sisters. There was no point, you couldn’t really change anything. The marches awoke a sense of injustice in me and a determination to be treated equally.”
Voting inequality was rampant during this period in history. To vote in Northern Ireland you had to be a property owner. This was a considerable problem, consider most Catholics did not own property at that time. To make matters worse, if you were a business owner that owned multiple properties that spanned multiple districts, you received up to 5 additional votes. In theory, one man could vote six times if he was wealthy enough to own several properties. These votes were called Limited Company votes. These issues essentially left Catholics with no voting strength and made them feel they would never gain any political power. Catholics were almost always excluded from any public appointment.
In an original 1965 pamphlet, published by The Campaign for Social Justice in Northern Ireland, statistics were shared on voting numbers for Londonderry in 1964. There were 19,870 Catholics over the age of 21. Only 14,325 voted of that group along with 257 company votes. The Protestants fared better with 9,253 Protestants voting out of 10,573 that were of age along with 902 company votes.
The Catholics faced many challenges when it came to housing. They composed 40% of the population in Northern Ireland and were mostly lower-middle to lower class. They often lived in run down homes or flats ran by unscrupulous landlords. This slum housing, or "ghettoisation" kept them confined to a desired geographical location. This became prevalent because of the Housing Trust. They gave Protestants more housing options, while forcing Catholics to live only in certain areas. In 1964, the North Ward of Derry County contained 2,212 Catholics and 924 people classified as other. This was a stark contract to the rural areas that were mostly Protestant.
In 1964, there were over 2,000 families waiting for housing that were Catholic, while Protestants enjoyed virtually no housing shortage. With few housing options available to Catholic families, they became squatters inhabiting huts that were abandoned by the American Army. These unfair allotments also played into the hand of the voting discrimination, as there were not enough homes to live in.
A journalist said of the situation, “I regret to report that if you want a house in the town of Dungannon, County Tyrone, your chances will depend to a great extent on what church you belong to.”
Catholics were 2.5 times more likely to be unemployed during this time period. In Derr County, 1964, 145 Protestants were employed in government jobs while only 32 Catholics were. The police and Constabulary forces were almost all Protestant, which added to growing resentment.
Sean Cronin, an IRA volunteer stated, "I grew up in a situation of such degradation and unemployment that the life our people lived was no life at all… I want something better for my children than this.”
Northern Ireland was controlled by the Union Party, with no Catholics being admitted. Electoral boundaries were drawn in a way to benefit Protestants and keep the Catholic electorate from being heard. If an area became problematic for the Protestants, the boundaries were simply redrawn to neutralize the area. Londonberry is a prime example, as it was divided into two areas for this reason. The boundaries of the city were stretched far into the countryside as so it would include Conservatives. By doing this, they strategically herded Catholics onto one large area and left them politically impotent.
The Campaign for Social Justice in Northern Ireland, stated that in 1961 there were 9,961 Nationalist voters with a representation of 8 Councilors, while the Union with only 7,444 voters had 12 Councilors.
Edmund Warnock, a Unionist MP said of gerrymandering, "“If ever a community had a right to demonstrate against a denial of civil rights, Derry is the finest example. A Roman Catholic and Nationalist city, it has for three or four decades been administered — and none too fairly administered — by a Protestant and Unionist majority, secured by a manipulation of the ward boundaries for the sole purpose of retaining Unionist control.”
Other Civil Rights Issues
In 1972, The Special Powers Act was introduced. This gave the government the ability to detain someone without a trial.
The police were guilty of killing innocent people during raids, even elderly, children and whole families.
Additional relevant quotes
- “I grew up in that state [Northern Ireland]. So did many generations of Nationalists before me. We experienced, in a very stark way, the denial of human rights. We experienced first hand institutionalised discrimination. Our cultural rights were systematically trampled upon. We were denied democratic participation. Many, many Nationalists… have borne the brunt of various British government attempts to suppress their sense of Irishness and the expression of their Irish identity.” Martin McGuinness, 2013
- “I was a marked man before the march started. These were storm trooper tactics at their worst. They hit me once, but that wasn’t enough, they had to have another go, and this was the cause of the wound which had to be stitched.” Nationalist MP Gerry Fitt on the NICRA march, October 1968
- “Showers of rocks crashed round us. I was in the middle of the fourth row and bent double in an attempt to avoid the hail of missiles, when a middle-aged man in a tweed coat, brandishing what seemed to be a chair leg dashed from the left-hand side of the road, hit me on the back, then pulled down the hood of my anorak and struck me on the head. I then tried to crawl away, but, teeth bared, he hit me again on the spot on my skull… I fell, and a fellow marcher picked me up and dragged me up the road. I passed out, and came round in the ambulance on the way to Alnagelvin Hospital.” Judith McGuffin on the Burntollet Bridge ambush, 1969