After TAPSS, I’ve headed up to Belfast in Northern Ireland, to stay with an old friend from Co-Op. Northern Ireland has been quite a different place from the Republic of Ireland, at least since 1921 when Southern Ireland separated from the United Kingdom.
The armed conflict between nationalist Catholics and the unionist government in Northern Ireland has largely ended, but it remains an important part of history and identity in northern Ireland. While unionists (protestants) usually characterize the time of troubles as the IRA trying to bomb their way to a united Ireland. In reality, the demands were largely civil rights issues. Up until the end of the 60s, Catholics in Ireland could not vote, and were discriminated against openly. For instance, it was completely acceptable to write “Catholics need not apply” on job advertisements. When Catholics were granted the vote the boundaries were drawn in such a way that a unionist minority turned an elected majority – and because of the way the system was set up, Catholics still had virtually no political representation.
The origin of the troubles was therefore a civil rights struggle with five specific demands:
- one man, one vote which meant extension of the local government franchise from ratepayers to all those over 21
- an end to gerrymandering which meant Unionists were elected even in districts with Catholic majorities
- an end to discrimination in housing
- an end to discrimination in jobs
- the disbandment of the B-Specials, the Ulster Special Constabulary, which many viewed as sectarian.
The movement was radicalized on Bloody Sunday, which was a normal weekly civil rights march in which British Soldiers fired on protesters killing 14 Catholics, half of which were teenagers. The army claims the crowd was armed, but no evidence of this has ever been produced. Soon, the British government may even be forced to admit that this attack on civilians was totally unjustified. As a result of Bloody Sunday, support for violent means to civil rights was radically increased.
There are interesting similarities between the Catholic struggle for rights in Northern Ireland and the Palestinian struggle for rights in territories dominated and occupied by Israel. Weekly protests in Palestine are tear gassed by the IDF – sometimes the IDF even targets reporters covering these protests.