On Community Relations in Northern Ireland

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On Community Relations in Northern Ireland

28 April 1967

Terence O'Neill

This article by Northern Ireland prime minister Terence O'Neill was addressed to a British audience and can be read as an attempt to gain British support for his policies. By 1967, O'Neill was coming under attack from nationalists, who were dissatisfied with the slow pace of change, whereas an increasing number of unionists were becoming uneasy about O'Neill's overtures to Dublin and to the nationalist community in Northern Ireland.

SEE ALSO Irish Republican Army (IRA); Lemass, Seán; Northern Ireland: History since 1920; Northern Ireland: Policy of the Dublin Government from 1922 to 1969; O'Neill, Terence; Politics: Nationalist Politics in Northern Ireland; Ulster Unionist Party in Office

It is a truism that Northern Ireland has long had a divided community. The reasons for this division are rooted in the long sequence of historical events connecting the destinies of Ireland and Great Britain. However those events may be interpreted, they do demonstrate with absolute clarity the fact that Irish problems are deep-seated and not amenable to facile external solutions, however well intentioned. When, by an irony of history, the one area of Ireland which had consistently resisted home rule was the only part left to operate a home rule parliament, it was unfortunate but perhaps inevitable that opinion polarized on a religious basis. This polarisation tended to push both sides into extreme attitudes.

The majority, loyal by tradition and sentiment to its British heritage, regarded the minority as a disloyal "Trojan Horse" in its midst, intent only upon subverting the constitution and merging Ulster in an independent All-Ireland Republic. The minority, seeing in the new government merely a perpetuation of the historic Protestant ascendancy, withdrew into attitudes ranging from detachment to outright hostility. Northern Ireland simply cannot be understood unless it is appreciated that regularly over the years actual physical violence has been used as a political weapon: that as recently as 1956–62 a campaign of IRA terrorism caused six deaths, thirty-four injuries and over £1 million worth of damage to property: and that for much of the period of the state's existence a substantial minority of its people have failed clearly to dissociate themselves from such activities.

At this point the reader may well comment that all too often in any discussion of Irish affairs one becomes lost in a lengthy historical preamble, long before reaching the present day. That is not my intention. I mention this background merely to put current events in their proper setting and perspective.

What was the position when I took office in 1963? The largest opposition party attending the Northern Ireland House of Commons, the Nationalist Party, had declined the role to which its numbers clearly entitled it, leaving a four-man Northern Ireland Labour Party to discharge the role of official opposition. Throughout society the hostility and suspicion of more than three decades still persisted very widely, although beginning to break down in more educated circles. This divide within society was paralleled by another in external politics, because not since partition had a prime minister of Northern Ireland met his opposite number in Dublin.

It was clearly time for a change, and the whole basis of my political effort of the last four years—with the help and support of my colleagues in the government—has been to demonstrate that the historic divisions cannot be allowed forever to stand in the way of that community spirit without which we will never realize our full economic or social potential.

That is why I regretted so much in The Times' article, to cite one example, the reference to Lord Craigavon's remark about "a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people." This had some relevance in its historic setting of the troubled twenties, but it is no more representative of the present spirit of Ulster Unionist politics than the declarations of Stanley Baldwin are of conservatism in the sixties. What are the facts? By inviting the prime minister of the Irish Republic, Mr. Seán Lemass, to Stormont I ended an absurd mini cold war and made possible a whole series of useful exchanges between ministers on both sides of the border. This did not mean any weakening whatever of Ulster's determination to remain within the United Kingdom, but it was intended on my part to create a more friendly and relaxed spirit both between the two countries, and within our own community. In our domestic policies over these recent years, we have consistently tried to emphasize those aims to which all our people can make a contribution, and from which no one will be excluded. I defy anyone to detect in our last election manifesto, or in any of the speeches in which my colleagues and I sought a further mandate, even a suggestion of a sectarian approach.

Little by little one had the impression that old barriers were in fact breaking down. Sensitive observers were able to detect a new and heartening aggiornamento in our affairs. Why, then, has the current critical attitude gained momentum? Unfortunately 1966 was not an easy year for us in Northern Ireland. There were widespread celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of the Dublin Easter Rising, undoubtedly encouraged and exploited by people of extreme Republican views who would see in any permanent easing of inter-community relations a real threat to their ultimate aims. These celebrations in Belfast and elsewhere in their turn produced a backlash from the most extreme elements of ultra-Protestant opinion which had to be met by extremely firm action on the part of the government of Northern Ireland.

These events made many people realize that harmony in a previously divided community cannot be achieved overnight, but demands a long and patient process of social and political education. The Times news team commented on Monday, as though I had said something rather whimsical, that I had told them that "Reform takes a long time." Perhaps this illustrates the difference between the idealism of the journalist, who can propound his theories and leave for pastures new, and the realism of the politician, who has to cope with problems on the spot.

There are two points which must be made. First, that although reform does indeed take a long time—and is in fact a process which is never at an end in any community—no one should assume that reforms in Northern Ireland are not in progress. As an example, university representation and plural voting in elections to the Northern Ireland parliament are being abolished, and we will be setting up a permanent impartial boundary commission to keep electoral boundaries under review. Ulster members at Westminster have, of course, all along been returned for constituencies fixed by the UK boundary commission and on a franchise identical with that in Great Britain. Again, a most exhaustive re-examination of the functions, areas and financing of local government is now under way, and this is likely to lead to far-reaching reforms in that area.

The second point to make is that many of the criticisms now being directed at us are demonstrably illfounded. We have been accused, for instance, of "discrimination" in the siting of Ulster's new city and second university; yet in both these instances we were guided by the most objective expert advice—in the one case Sir Robert Matthew, and in the other a committee chaired by Sir John Lockwood, neither of whom had any connection with Northern Ireland or was influenced in any way by the Northern Ireland government.

Of course there are still some unhealthy tensions in Northern Ireland affairs, although comments equating the lot of the Ulster Catholic with that of American Negro are absurd hyperbole. But there really is no acceptable or truly democratic alternative to letting us find the solution for our own problems. Stormont is, after all, a democratically elected parliament, and no solution which is imposed upon the majority of the population could fail to provoke greater evils than it would solve.

I would like to conclude by quoting some words I used at Easter last year, when, at a time of considerable strain, I spoke to a joint conference of Protestants and Roman Catholics. I said:

It is easy to be impatient with the pace of change in 1966, but it is no answer to return to the mentality of 1926. We may not have achieved perfection in our affairs, but in the words of the song we are "forty years on," and have built up material and other assets which this generation must not squander. If we cannot be united in all things, let us at least be united in working—in a Christian spirit—to create better opportunities for our children, whether they come from the Falls Road or from Finaghy [a Roman Catholic and a Protestant area, respectively]. In the enlightenment of education, in the dignity of work, in the security of home and family there are ends which all of us can pursue. As we advance to meet the promise of the future, let us shed the burden of traditional grievances and ancient resentments. There is much we can do together. It must and—God willing—it will be done.

It is my hope that, in spite of the current clamour, my colleagues and I may be allowed to pursue the course inherent in these words. Certainly this is not the moment for an ill-judged intervention in our affairs. As I said at the beginning, the long history of Anglo-Irish relationships warns that such an intervention may produce effects which no one can foresee. What we want to do is not become involved in a profitless exchange of charge and counter-charge but to emphasize more and more those things which unite Protestant and Catholic in our community. For, in the last resort, a truly happy and stable society must depend not upon legislation by Stormont or by Westminster but upon mutual trust.

The Times, 28 April 1967. Reprinted in Terence O'Neill, Ulster at the Crossroads(1969), pp. 123–128. Reproduced by permission of Faber & Faber Ltd.

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On Community Relations in Northern Ireland

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