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The Stormont Era in Northern Ireland
Structural Factors
A number of factors ensured that Northern Ireland would be an unstable state from its birth. The nature of that birth was traumatic accompanied by widespread violence.

For Unionists, the IRA violence which accompanied the creation of the Northern Irish state led to the perception that Northern Ireland was permanently under threat. The refusal of many Nationalists in the early years of the state to co-operate with its institutions, particularly when contrasted with co-operative the attitude of southern Protestants, increased the perception, already inevitable in an ethnically divided society, that Catholics were intent on destroying the state. The active participation of senior clergy in northern Nationalist politics, particularly those such as Bishops McHugh of Derry and MacRory of Down and Connor (Hennessey, 7), confirmed the suspicions that ‘Home Rule was Rome Rule’.

On the Nationalist side, the early years of the state heightened the belief that in the new state Catholics would be tolerated only as second class citizens. There was widespread belief that the driving out of Catholics from towns such as Carrickfergus, Lisburn and Dromore was carried out with the complicity of the state. A number of murders, such as the McMahon killings on the Antrim Road, combined with the nakedly sectarian attitudes of some senior police officers, e.g. DI Nixon, led to suspicion of the security forces by the Catholic population. Despite some fine words, notably from Craig - "From the outset let us see that the Catholic minority have nothing to fear from the Protestant majority" (Speech to Ulster Unionist Council, 4 February 1921, quoted in Gailey 58), early in the history of the state, it became clear early on to Catholics that all important political and economic institutions were to be kept firmly in Unionist hands. This situation was worsened by the dominance of the cabinet by the atavists, such as Bates, at the expense of reformers such as Londonderry.

Despite this, during this period, and throughout the history of the Stormont régime, ‘normal’ liberal democratic institutions, based on the British model, functioned in Northern Ireland, although they were often operated in a partial manner. The lack of rotation of government, a key requirement of the British system of democracy, meant that flaws were not resolved in a normal manner. The decision which allowed this flaw to develop was the abolition of PR for the 1929 General Election. Contrary to much popular myth, it was unlikely that this decision was taken to diminish nationalist representation, which was hardly a threat to Unionists under PR anyway but to strangle the NILP and Independents who had taken 8 seats at the 1925 Stormont Elections. Craig’s own statement on the matter was, "What I want to get into this house…are men who are for the Union on one hand or who are against it and want to go into a Dublin parliament on the other." (Mitchell and Gillespie, 68-9) The change in system succeeded in reinforcing the ethnic nature of Northern Ireland politics, as Osborne (quoted by Mitchell and Gillespie, 69) commented, this "corralled electors into neat areas of nationalist or unionist dominance". There is no evidence that the 1929 boundaries were widely gerrymandered. While there is some evidence of this in Fermanagh, in Tyrone the nationalist held Mid- and West- Tyrone seats were exceptionally small and rather curious boundaries. Moreover, while single member districts can be manipulated, it was the multiple-member plurality system used at local government level that was both constitutionally easier to manipulate and saw more abuse. However, the more serious consequence at Stormont level was a profoundly uncompetitive electoral system - between 1929 and 1965, only 54% of Stormont seats were even contested. This is not to claim the Unionist Party manipulated results - it won most elections with a vote share comfortably over 50%. However, this predictability seemed to affect the whole political culture of Northern Ireland and saw Northern Ireland politics drop into a torpor between the late 1920s and the mid 1960s.

It also had a debilitating effect on the Unionist Party. Unchallenged and effectively unchallengeable, the Unionist Party did not attempt to widen its support base, until O’Neill took on the Labour party in the mid 1960s. When reformists such as Sir Clarence Graham or Brian Maginness raised the issue of Catholics joining the Unionist Party, the hackles of (primarily) the Orange Order were raised. (Gailey, 52-53) A situation was created comparable to that in Eastern Europe, despite the obvious differences - the state and the party were so intertwined that they were confused with one another; lack of support for the party was confused with lack of loyalty to the state.

The British government’s Northern Ireland policy throughout the Stormont era can be summed up in two words - ‘hands off’. Although there was a degree of awareness, rather more so in the Home Office than among politicians, of excesses by the NI government, Ireland was seen essentially as a troublesome country from which Britain had successfully disengaged in 1921. Churchill is reputed to have offered De Valera control of Northern Ireland in return for an Irish entry into the war in 1941. (Bew et al, 159) More scathingly, Bew says, "The policy [in relation to NI]…was to minimise British involvement both politically and militarily." (Bew et al, 158) While Cochrane further asserts that "Successive British administrations viewed Northern Ireland not as the acme of liberal-democratic state building, but as an effective mechanism for removing a seemingly insoluble problem from its domestic political agenda." (Cochrane B, 9) Bloomfield also agrees with the culpability of the British Government - "All these unhealthy developments…might not have mattered so much had it not been for the attitude of Britain." (Bloomfield, 70)


Another issue which shaped political views later were allegations of discrimination in employment. Some scholars, most notably Paul Compton, argue that the imbalance in unemployment in Northern Ireland is, and was, a structural problem rather than one of discrimination. He argues that "the explanation of high Catholic unemployment lies…primarily in the structure attitudes and aptitudes of the Catholic population." (Compton, 75) However, there are a number of problems with Compton’s analysis. Firstly it restricts its investigation to the period after 1971, as no reliable data is available previous to that period. This is perfectly understandable. However more seriously, much of the ‘reduction’ in differential obtained by Compton is due to the application of a multivariate analysis involving social class and industrial structure.(64) However, he himself admits (68) this is of comparatively minor import in resolving this dispute, as Nationalists argue that Catholics were systematically kept out of high status and many technical occupations.

In my view, there is no doubt that discrimination was quite widely, and unashamedly, practised in public employment. An internal Finance Ministry enquiry was relieved to find that no Catholics occupied any of the top 55 posts in the Civil Service. John Whyte concludes, "At manual labour levels, Catholics generally received their proportionate share of public employment. But at any level above that, they were seriously under-represented, and the higher one went, the greater the shortfall." (Whyte, 10) This investigation was launched to make sure that a Catholic ‘take-over’ of the Civil Service was not underway! Sir Edward Archdale, Minister of Agriculture, commented in 1925, "I have 109 officials, and so far as I know there are four Roman Catholics, three of whom were Civil Servants turned over to me, whom I had to take when we began." (Whyte, 13)

Whyte quotes 1979 research from Bew, Gibbon and Patterson which shows that the number of Catholics in higher reaches of the NICS fell not during the boycott campaigns of the early to mid 1920s, but in the late 1920s and early 1930s, a period when the Nationalist Party had taken its seats in Stormont and a resigned Catholic acceptance of Northern Ireland was emerging.

Whyte also examines the various factors which could explain the differential in employment rates in the private sector. While he takes various structural factors into account, but notes the open admission of discrimination by Unionist politicians as late as 1962; it was seen as a vote winner. (Whyte, 18) He concludes, "Factors above [i.e. structural factors] are just as likely to have been operative before 1968 as after. But there is ground for believing that, in the past, discrimination caused a larger share of Catholic disadvantage than is true today." (loc. cit.) While Whyte concludes that the picture of discrimination over most of Northern Ireland was a shade of pale grey, he notes specific regional problems in the West, where, "There, the greyness of the picture over most of the province changes to an ominous darkness." (Whyte, 31) This darkness facilitated by an initial gerrymander of local authority boundaries in the 1920s by the Ministry of Home Affairs, but "The most serious charge against the Northern Ireland government is not that it was directly responsible for widespread discrimination, but that allowed discrimination on such a scale over a substantial segment of Northern Ireland." (loc. cit.)

Feargal Cochrane (Cochrane B, 5) states that "Abuses undoubtedly occurred, but they were often hapahzard and localised rather than systematic." (Cochrane B, 5) However, I would contend that there is enough evidence for sytematic discrimination in a number of setors, notably local government in large parts of Northern Ireland (though by no means all - Belfast in particular seems to have been fairly administered), in the higher echelons of the Civil Service, and in the higher technical and managerial levels of a number private enterprises. On the other hand a large part of the private sector discrimination seems to have been caused more by cronyism rather than sectarianism, and a number of social factors did not help, nor did the Catholic eduaction system - accepting this may have been a chicken and egg scenario - which focused heavily on providing the next generation of professionals to serve the internal requirements of the Catholic section of the community - schoolteachers, doctors and lawyers - rather than equipping the bulk of children with the technical and entrepreneurial skills needed to survive in what was already a somewhat hostile job market.


Much debate has focused on the issue of O’Neill’s suitability for the job of Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. Was a minor aristocrat who had spent the first part of his life outside Northern Ireland really the best person to engender a transformation of Northern Irish society? Was that last question leading or what?

From day one O’Neill tried to make gestures to Catholics - in the early part of his tenure he officially opened Assumption [Convent] Grammar School in Ballynahinch and met the contemporary Taoiseoch, Seán Lemass. "The signals he was sending to the Catholic community were…that Catholics were…equal members of the state who should be encouraged to achieve their full (and as yet unrealised) potential." (Cochrane B, 18) After the gerryatric Brookeborough, O’Neill presented a youhtful positive image, both within and without Northern Ireland.

Bloomfield, however, felt than O’Neill lacked a strategy, particularly as he did not expect to become Prime Minister in the first place. "He had not prepared in advance any comprehensive policy blueprint." (Bloomfield, 76) O’Neill, like his friend Sayers, was given over to romanticisation about the Ulster character. He earnestly believed that most people were no longer interested

Feargal Cochrane sees O’Neill’s failure as being due to his "background and personality, together with his inability fully to understand the dynamics within the ‘state’" (Cochrane, 148) His own upbringing, largely spent abroad, followed by a career in the Guards, was hardly a primer in the realities of Northern Ireland society. (Cochrane, 151) He surrounded himself by ‘liberals’ - but many of them repeated his own faults. They were in reality more attuned to the mentality of a Sussex Conservative than a Fermanagh Unionist. Sayers, Bloomfield and Caldwell, although all local men, all had Oxbridge educations, and none was exactly in tune with the attitudes of the unemployed of the Shankill or tenant farmers in Tyrone. This failure to undestand the realities of Northern Ireland life was exemplified by his desire for Nationalists to abandon their Nationalism, but his resistance to the idea that Unionist cultural symbols should be neutered, also this ethnic desire was couched in civil terms. (Hennessey, 112)

Indeed, he was too weak in handling his cabinet also (Cochrane, 156), unable to face them down directly - i.e. over ICTU recognition - and only able to make major policy shifts (i.e. the Lemass meeting) by stealth.

So how liberal was O’Neill? Kevin J Kelley, a staunch republican, comments that, "He was at heart as bigoted and ignorantly anti-papist as the next Unionist." (Kelley, 79) At the time Gerry Fitt said, "Craigavon and Brookeborough had walked over Catholics with hob-nailed boots, O’Neill walked over them with carpet slippers." (cited in Cochrane B, 19) However, Bloomfield who worked closely with O’Neill at the time disputes this pointing to O’Neill’s wartime service with the Irish Guards - "It is difficult to regard Irish Catholics as an inferior class when you have served with them on the battlefields of northern Europe." (Bloomfield, 76)

Cochrane agrees that O’Neill did little of substance but sees this less as a result of bigotry, and more as a failure to understand the nature of Northern Ireland society. O’Neill did not see problems of inequality as being a consequence of structural problems, or of discrimination, but essentially as the product of poor Catholic work ethic and self-esteem. If Catholics wished to enjoy the same status as Protestants, they would have to learn to behave like Protestants, and O’Neill saw himself as a facilitator in this process. (Cochrane, 150)

O’Neill seemed to have a certain political naïveté, as did many of his political advisers. They were not stupid people - but they lacked that certain Peter Mandelson ability to be both a ruthless and an effective bastard. Their 44% of the overall vote in the cross-roads election was creditable if not the endorsement they had been hoping for. It was still significantly larger than the poll of anti-O’Neill Unionists, and they could point to the fact that the only cases where Unofficial Unionists had beaten Official Unionists had been in Bangor and (largely working-class) Willowfield, and in both cases a pro-O’Neill candidate had won.

In conclusion, O’Neill’s record is largely one of failure, and much of this can be put down to him personally. O’Neill managed to raise Nationalist expectations without having any intention of satisfying them, and simultaneously to increase Unionist fears of abandonment. O’Neill’s maladroitness was such that he managed to increase alienation in both main sections of the community.


Why did the Northern Ireland régime collapse so rapidly between 1964 and 1972? The O’Neill reforms obviously opened the way to radical change in the previously fossilised Northern Ireland political set-up.

One traditional explanation, much beloved by Marxist republicans, but even supported by some as sensible as Feargal Cochrane (B14), is that O’Neill’s reforms were designed to satisfy new, international, capital, who did not wish to be tied down by discriminatory recruitment practices which were counter-productive in ensuring the best labour force; this was inimical to the interests of old capital who were unable to compete effectively with new money without massive subsidies and the help of the curious quirks of a segmented society. Bew et al contradict this. There is considerable evidence that multi-nationals accrued discriminatory employment practice on arrival in Northern Ireland. Moreover, despite its Conservative rhetoric, the Stormont government were prepared to spend high amounts of public money to encourage firms to locate to Northern Ireland, and new firms did not wish to see this source of income dry up. "With eggs like this, few recipients were interested in the colour of the goose." (Bew et al, 174)

A more credible analysis is that Wilson’s known sympathy for the Nationalist cause resulted in the development of a ‘Wilson strategy’ by O’Neill, aimed at doing enough to placate O’Neill without completely overhauling the state apparatus. (Bew et al, 175) As late as 1968, "O’Neill chose the road of minimum appeasement." (op cit., 178)

Why did this result in increased levels of tension? "Civil Rights agitation increased because O’Neill had failed to deliver on his promises." (Cochrane, 162) Bew et al refute the common analysis that growing Catholic militancy was a consequence of the growth of the Catholic middle-class. They note that there is little empirical evidence for major social change among the Catholic section of the community between 1961 and 1971, while, almost uniquely among social groups in the developed world, the proportion of Unskilled Workers among Northern Irish Catholics actually increased between 1911 and 1971. (Bew et al, 151) As noted above, O’Neill’s policies worried Protestants without doing anything concrete to appease Catholics. Even Bloomfield (97) concedes that O’Neill’s policies were essentially cosmetic rather than concrete.

Another important factor was over-reaction to civil rights demonstrations. What began as poorly attended rallies organised by what was, outside Belfast and Derry, an unusual minority among the highly conservative Catholic community, gained regional and world-wide prominence because of police violence, notably in relation to the Derry march in October 1968. For Unionism this proved to be a public relations catastrophe from which it is still to recover, 31 years on. In a decade which is still resonant in the popular mindset with mass, peaceful demonstrators, the police reaction on non-violent protestors and elected politicians, had the effect of instantly casting the Unionists in the same mould as Eugen Verwood or the Alabama Democratic Party.

The political scene was increasingly hijacked by extremist elements. Paisleyism emerged as a truly serious political force, and the Unionist Parliamentary Party lurched to the right. Extreme Marxists and republicans could overturn decisions by moderates within NICRA by staging their own demos in contradiction of leadership calls for restraint. The ‘long march’ organised by a shower of silly Trot wankers most of whom disappeared off to cushy jobs in Dublin or Britain not long after (where are you now, Michael Farrell?), was a classic example of this. The reception they received at Burntollet a classic example of the rise of Paisleyism and the often sinister rôle of the security forces. Many commentators still view Burntollet as the point of no return, though I would argue that the situation still could have been rectified up until the introduction of Internment or even Bloody Sunday.

In any ethnically segmented society, extremists will be able to use significant political leverage. However, the failure of moderates on all sides to come up with a credible agenda, or to engage in more than megaphone diplomacy, led to a drifting political situation which extremists could easily fill.

Niall O Dochartaigh highlights this in his book From Civil Rights to Armalites. O Dochartaigh notes that many of the problems highlighted by the Civil Rights campaigners were very localised. Many were essentially Derry problems, which could with good-will, have been solved by Derry solutions with minimal impact on the rest of Northern Ireland.

Another problem was the Civil Rights Association faced was the sheer broadness of its coalition left it prone to entryism, particularly from Trotskyites and Republicans. Gerry Adams has bragged of this, although many contemporary moderates within NICRA have disputed Adams’ version of events.

The deployment of British troops in Northern Ireland radically changed the power dynamics of the situation. The British government now had a vested interest in minimising risk to British troops, and therefore were inevitable drawn into a more proactive rôle. However, Bew et al (165) note substantial evidence that right up to the prorogation of Stormont, British government policy towards Northern Ireland remained minimalist. Faulkner "was given his head" with regard to greater Unionist autonomy over security policy. (Bew et al, 167)

The Unionist government remained constitutionally incapable of not over-reacting to violence from Republican sources, and under-reacting to violence from Loyalist sources. Faulkner was convinced that the IRA could be defeated by a short sharp burst of military activity. The contemporary British government policy of allowing maximum Unionist freedom with regard to security policy allowed a number of blunders. The advice of the army was systematically overruled on a number of matters, viz. the toleration of the UDA, the loosening of UDR recruiting standards, and its reorganisation as a de facto territorial militia, and - most fatally for Unionists as it turned out - the introduction of internment. (Bew et al, 167) If Bloody Sunday was the final nail in the coffin of the Unionist régime, it was Faulkner who metaphorically fired the fatal shot into his own government’s heart, i.e. that the troops on duty in Derry that day should carry live rather than baton rounds, was his direct responsibility. (Bew et al, 168) Delicious irony! Don’t you just love it!


Jack Sayers - "the initiative rests with the party in power" (The Round Table, November 1955)

Feagal Cochrane - "The political history of Northern Ireland from 1920 until the breakdown of the Stormont régime in 1972 is a story of missed opportunities and myopic political vision.…Northern Ireland was not doomed to sectarian strife from the outset." (Cochrane, B, 26)

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