Saturday, 3 March 2012

The Spirit of 1968 - Lessons from the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement

AS we continue to bear the brunt of the recession and our politicians stabilise the interests of the rich and fat cats, the 1960s provides us with an example in the necessity for struggle and social revolution. Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Labour Party, pillars of the establishment continue to squabble over the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement they all share one thing in common when it comes to defending the status-quo and attacks on workers rights and conditions.

Origins of the CRM
After World War Two, the 1950s and 1960s were marked by a world wide economic boom which ensured general high levels of employment and real improvements in the standard of living, together with the creation of the welfare state. In terms of health, there were improvements in vaccinations and the overall death rate and infant mortality rate began to fall.

There was also a post-war housing boom, which saw 103,000 houses built between 1944 and 1962. However, there also began a gradual decline of Northern Ireland's main industries including shipbuilding, textiles and linen.
As a result of economic changes, there was also the creation of a larger Catholic middle-class who would soon provide the conservative leadership of the NICRM. As the Cameron report (1969) into the eruption of social unrest noted,
“They were less ready to acquiesce in the situation of assumed inferiority and discrimination that was the case in the past.”
Historians Paul Bew and Henry Patterson offer a more complex interpretation of social change in term of the decline of skilled working class and secondary industry. In 1911 employment in these industries composed 58% of the population (52% of Catholics; 60% of Protestants). With their decline it was Catholics who were more likely to experience unemployment. They would later go on to provide the backbone of the NICRM and the basis of support for resurgent ‘armed struggle’.

It is now generally accepted that the Catholic population in the period 1922-1968 suffered discrimination at the hands of the Unionist government. Catholics were under-represented on statutory bodies and among the higher ranks of such bodies. The Campaign for Social Justice (1969) listed 22 public bodies, with a total membership of 332, of whom 49 or 15% were Catholics.

In the first election to the Stormont Parliament in 1921, Sinn Fein polled 100,000 votes to 60,000 for Nationalists but each party won six seats. In 1925 Nationalists won 10 seats to 2 for Republicans. However, republicans refused to contest further elections to the 'partitioned' parliament. Even if the minority chose to work within the institutions of the state they were not trusted thus. For example, of 608 Acts of Parliament in its first twenty years only one, The Wild Birds Act (1931), was successfully introduced by the opposition.
However, there still continues some debate as to the 'extensive' nature of sectarian discrimination. We should also remember that the ‘carnival of reaction’ (as republicans often throw up) in terms of sectarianism and discrimination pre-dated partition (i.e., Derry was gerrymandered to produce a Unionist majority in 1896, not 1922). In the absence of a vibrant revolutionary workers movement, it was almost inevitable that partition would occur due to the gradual emergence of ‘two national identities’ especially during the various Home Rule crises.

The Unionist Government only served to copper-fasten sectarianism and operated like all governments - those who supported the regime should benefit, rather than those who did not. It just so happens that this was decided on the basis of religion and national aspiration.

From an anarchist perspective this is the logic of state which serves to protect the interests of the minority over the majority, which is why we struggle for its overthrow.

It is, of course, quite reasonable to ask the question "why if things were so bad, did the catholic population tolerate them until the 1960s?"

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