Remembering the first Troubles

Remembering the first Troubles

THE HISTORY of the Troubles throws up so many painful and shocking anniversaries that we can perhaps be excused if we overlook earlier episodes.

In fact, we don’t really have a name to describe events in Belfast, where 428 people were murdered between 1920 and 1922 (equivalent in today’s Britain to around 20,000 deaths).

The ‘Belfast Pogrom’ comes closest, with Catholic workers expelled from the shipyards and factories as part of a premeditated campaign of violence and communal terror by loyalists, orchestrated by their political masters.

Unionist leader Sir Edward Carson, had used the annual celebrations for the ‘Glorious 12th’ to whip-up loyalists, complaining about the lack of support coming from the British government for the nascent Northern Irish statelet.

It was time to take matters into their own hands, he argued.

“ And those are not words,” he said. “ I am sick of words without action.”

A whispering campaign then followed in the pages of unionist-friendly newspapers.

A correspondent to the Belfast News Letter said it was time to counter the rise of Catholics “energetically in every possible way”.

Following a lunchtime meeting on July 21, 1920, loyalists began attacking their Catholic co-workers – and any other Protestants that stood with them.

Many were beaten and kicked as the rampage ensued, with some flung into the murky dock water and showered with ‘Belfast confetti’ – nuts, bolts and rivets.

One Catholic worker was said to have swum out into the estuary of the River Lagan to make his escape.

“Remember the 21st” had been scrawled on the shipyard’s walls for days before the attack started. It was a calculated move – and it didn’t stop there.

A rout of Catholic workers also took place in engineering companies, factories, warehouses and shops.

Some employers pleaded with the loyalists to stop. Mainly because their Catholic workers were among their most skilled and vital to their businesses.

The pleas had little effect.

Catholic families were driven from whole areas of Belfast, in what we would today recognise as ethnic cleansing. Churches and even a convent were attacked by loyalist mobs.

A journalist from the Daily Mail said it was “an organised attempt to deprive Catholic men of their work and to drive Catholic families from their homes”.

Another reporter likened what had happened to “Russian or Polish pogroms”.

In all, 10,000 workers were driven from their places of work, with thousands more burnt or beaten out of their homes in parts of Belfast.

It is estimated that a fifth of the Catholic workers in the shipyards were former British soldiers and political moderates. It didn’t matter: They were still Catholics.

Visiting the shipyards a few months later, Sir James Craig, by then Northern Ireland’s Prime Minister, spoke to assembled workers.

“Do I approve of the action you boys have taken in the past,’ he asked rhetorically.

“I say, yes.”

Those initial few years, as Northern Ireland was coming into existence, set the seal on what would become a century of strife.

But the events of the 1920s are often overlooked, given the horrors that would follow half a century later.

But each time loyalists celebrate the glorious Twelfth, we should try to remember the inglorious 21st as well.


Catholic schools are not to blame for sectarianism

What were the Troubles about? Was it a religious war, with Catholics on one side and Protestants on the other seeking to convert each other at the point of a gun?

Did marauding gangs of loyalists round-up Catholic youths to force them to recant the doctrine of transubstantiation?

Or their IRA equivalents force Protestants to recite the Rosary?

Of course not.

The Troubles are usually described as an ethno-national conflict. Two tribes with different aspirations about the flag that should fly over the ground they each stand on.

Yet here we are, a quarter of a century on from the Good Friday Agreement with a society still bitterly divided and segregated – with religion often blamed as the cause.

This, it seems, is the main argument for integrated schooling.

It is usually posited as the catch-all solution to Northern Ireland’s lingering problem with sectarianism.

Don’t get me wrong, if that is what parents want for their children - non-denominational schools, with Catholic and Protestant children (and, indeed, those of other faiths or none) educated together – then so be it.

But let’s not kid ourselves it’s a solution for the deep well of sectarianism that exists in Northern Ireland, which has taken centuries to foment.

The idea that all of Northern Ireland’s ills can be remedied in this way is fanciful.

In fact, it rests on a rather offensive assumption. Namely, that the 489 Catholic schools in Northern Ireland, teaching around 45 per cent of children, are somehow factories of hate and division.

Nor is forcing integrated schooling on parents and communities that do not want it a solution of any kind.

The idea of closing Catholic or Anglican schools in Britain would generate the campaign of all campaigns from parents to keep them. No education minister would dare take them on.

If we want to abolish institutions that appear to embed sectarianism, then its curtains for Rangers football club, I guess.

The Orange Order would certainly need to go, that’s for sure.

And perhaps in a spirit of even-handedness, Celtic and the GAA?

When we go down this road, where do we stop?

Housing is perhaps a more subtle lever to pull if the aim is to try and get people to live together.

But as we see, time and again, the flags of loyalist terrorist organisations denoting ‘their’ territory, often results in Catholic families being forced out of what are nominally ‘cross-community’ areas.

I often point out to people in Belfast that if they want to see what segregation really looks like, come to any former mill town in Lancashire or west Yorkshire.

Here you will find segregation on a scale far greater than Belfast, with invisible demarcations between – nominally – White and South Asian communities.

In the recent past, there have been terrible clashes in places like Oldham and Burnley, resulting in a brooding stalemate.

Sometimes, however, a brooding stalemate is the best outcome – or certainly the least bad – that we can expect from a divided society, where people are often disinclined to mix with each other.

It strikes me that full employment is a better policy to get people from different backgrounds to rub along together.

As is further education. Young Protestants and Catholics, each on the same course learning to become plumbers, strikes me as a perfectly realisable ambition.

Sometimes recognising how far Northern Ireland has come, rather than worrying about how far it has yet to travel, is the best we can do.