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There was, however, one part of Catholic Ireland that remained faithful to the Home Rule Party and that was the North East corner, fiefdom of the very remarkable Joe Devlin. Devlin - like McGuinness from a working class background - had become one of the most powerful men in the Home Rule movement partly because he had built up and controlled the 'Ancient Order of Hibernians', a sort of Catholic version of the Orange Order that provided the muscle needed to see off rivals to the Home Rule Party - William O'Brien's Cork-based All for Ireland League for example, or Arthur Griffiths' pre-war Sinn Fein.

Devlin was an MP at Westminster and as part of the Home Rule/Liberal Party alliance he had been a powerful figure in British politics. Under the Home Rule arrangement, in which Ireland would still be represented at Westminster, he was undoubtedly looking forward to a continued career in British politics and in particular to working with the newly emerging Labour Party. Instead, with the partition of Ireland and the creation of Northern Ireland, he found himself the impotent leader of a permanent minority trapped in what he, with his large political view, would have experienced as a political slum.

The Unionists didn't want their own little pseudo-state with its own laws, its own budget, its own Parliament. When they realised that it was impossible to keep all of Ireland in the UK and that the most they could hope for was the six counties of Northern Ireland, they wanted Northern Ireland to be ruled as it had been previously, by Westminster, as an integral part of the UK. Indeed it could be said that the highest achievement of the Unionist leadership was so far as possible to minimise Northern Ireland's distinctiveness from the rest of the UK. Although notionally they were Conservatives they broadly replicated whatever legislation was passed at Westminster, including, happily, the programme of the post-war Labour government. But there was no opportunity in Northern Ireland to participate in the political process through which this legislation was passed. In particular the parties capable of forming governments in Westminster where these decisions were being made - Conservative and Labour - refused to organise in Northern Ireland.

While writing alternative history may be a pointless exercise, I think it's reasonable to assume that had people in Northern Ireland been able to participate in the politics of the state as a whole (the UK state), the Catholic population, while they may not have been pleased, would have been able more easily to reconcile themselves to the situation. They had just fought a long, hard war on Britain's behalf; they hadn't supported Sinn Fein's demand for independence; their leader was a man with considerable experience of British politics; and with the emergence of the Labour Party British politics was becoming interesting, there was a sense of direction to it, it provided an outlet for what was a very politically conscious - much more than their Protestant neighbours - population. 

Instead they found themselves trapped in a system by which they were subjected to the permanent and unshakeable domination of their traditional enemies and rivals. The Republican movement in the South of Ireland of course refused to recognise the legitimacy of Northern Ireland and in 1922 Michael Collins organised a disastrous IRA invasion of Northern Ireland. It's an interesting story and we could speculate as to what his motives were - this occurred just after he had signed the pseudo-treaty with the British government under Lloyd George's threat of 'immediate and terrible war' - terrorism - if he didn't. But we have to hurry on. The Unionists necessarily regarded the Catholic population as a permanent threat to the existence of the state. The position of the Catholics was quite analogous to that of the Palestinians in Israel, especially in Israel in its pre-1967 boundaries. On paper they had equality of rights with the majority population but in practise they were subject to a virtual reign of terror - occasional outbursts of raw terror as in the shipyard expulsions or the expulsion of the Catholic population of Lisburn in 1920, but always the threat of terror. Together with devices such as the manipulation of electoral boundaries and local government housing policy to minimise what small political influence they might have had.

The best option for what had been a lively political society was to keep their heads down. There are a number poems by Seamus Heaney that capture something of the atmosphere of fear - 'The Ministry of Fear' is the title of one of them - in which he was brought up on a farm in County Londonderry. I'd like to read you one of them which I think is particularly expressive. It's called 'A Constable Calls' and it describes a very ordinary occurrence.

Seamus as a small boy is watching as a policeman interviews his father about his tax returns. Nothing untoward happens, the constable's behaviour is perfectly correct, and I assume there would have been policemen performing the same role at the same time in the Republic of Ireland. But what the poem conveys is an atmosphere, the feelings that are conveyed to the boy, watching:


His bicycle stood at the window-sill,
The rubber cowl of a mud-splasher
Skirting the front mudguard,
Its fat black handlegrips

Heating in sunlight, the ‘spud’
Of the dynamo gleaming and cocked back,
The pedal treads hanging relieved
Of the boot of the law.

His cap was upside down
On the floor, next his chair.
The line of its pressure ran like a bevel
In his slightly sweating hair.

He had unstrapped
The heavy ledger, and my father
Was making tillage returns
In acres, roods, and perches.

Arithmetic and fear.
I sat staring at the polished holster
With its buttoned flap, the braid cord
Looped into the revolver butt.

‘Any other root crops?
Mangolds? Marrowstems? Anything like that?’
‘No.’ But was there not a line
Of turnips where the seed ran out

In the potato field? I assumed
Small guilts and sat
Imagining the black hole in the barracks.
He stood up, shifted the baton-case

Further round on his belt,
Closed the domesday book,
Fitted his cap back with two hands,
And looked at me as he said goodbye.

A shadow bobbed in the window.
He was snapping the carrier spring
Over the ledger. His boot pushed off
And the bicycle ticked, ticked, ticked.

(7)  Seamus Heaney: North, London, Faber & Faber, 1975, pp. 66-7.

And here's another example of the sort of thing young Catholics might expect at the hands of the police in Northern Ireland, an imaginary but all too realistic dialogue from an article published in 1943:

“Where are you going?”
“You live up there?”
“You’re one of the men who are going free Ireland?”
“Got an identity card?" (Card produced).
“H’m, well, Jimmy, so you have no ideas on partition or anything like that?” Silence.
“Not much manners up there where you live, eh?”
Silence and attempt to move on. “Where are you going? Where do you think you’re off to? Stand there. Trying to prevent the police doing their duty, eh?” Silence.
“You seem to be in a big hurry, Jimmy. Got a meeting to attend? I.R.A.., eh? (Silence)
(Aside): “Think we ought to take him in? Better search him anyway. Back against the wall, Jimmy.” (Search, none too gently).
“Off you go now, Jimmy. Don’t let it happen again. . . Oh, going to say something?”
“I was going to say I object to all this. That’s the fourth time this week you have stopped me. You know I’m doing nothing wrong. But you’re trying to provoke me. I’ll report you.”
“Ha - ha - ha. That’s right, sonny. Report us...”

The author comments: 'One thing I escape, being not so young as I was. But I never see it happen without a tightening of the heart ...' (8)

(8)  "Ultach" - 'Orange terror - the partition of Ireland' reprinted from The Capuchin Annual, 1943, in A Belfast Magazine No 16, Jan 1995, p.9.