Belfast Telegraph

Time to rewrite our history of a state under siege

In the unionist narrative, Northern Ireland was being assailed by republicanism in the 1960s. Wrong, says Brian Walker

Recently there has been talk of the need to confront our past. Historians may be able to cast light on matters from the past. In particular, some of the myths about the background events to the outbreak of our Troubles in 1969 need to be challenged.

One example relates to a common unionist understanding of political events in the 1960s. Many unionists today still see the 1960s as a time of resurgent nationalism/republicanism, represented by advances made by Sean Lemass and also by the republican movement.

They believe that a weak Terence O'Neill failed to adequately defend Northern Ireland's constitutional position. This view is wrong.

In 1959, Sean Lemass became Taoiseach. He now sought to radically change Irish government policies, including its attitude towards Northern Ireland.

In his first news conference as Taoiseach, he announced "an end to the term 'anti-partition' in official documents about Northern Ireland".

Whereas de Valera had opposed economic co-operation with the north for fear it would 'bolster partition', Lemass encouraged it.

Lemass called for practical co-operation. Obviously, Lemass was still a republican, but he sought to promote this goal in a purely democratic and non-threatening way.

These efforts for co-operation were reciprocated by O'Neill, who became Northern Ireland's Prime Minister in 1963.

Not long after accepting office he declared his aim was to "convince more and more people that the Government is working for the good of all in Northern Ireland - not just those who vote unionist."

O'Neill encouraged north-south co-operation. In early 1965, Lemass visited O'Neill at Stormont. This caused considerable unionist outrage, including a protest by the Rev Ian Paisley at Parliament Buildings.

What is little appreciated is that this visit caused great concern to members of the Nationalist Party, which had always refused to become the official Opposition for fear this would be seen as 'recognition', or 'acceptance', of partition and which had not been warned about the event.

A few days after the Lemass/O'Neill meeting, the Nationalist leader, Eddie McAteer, visited Lemass in Dublin. He later recorded his disquiet over this meeting.

"I got neither the encouragement nor understanding of our position ... Lemass said that it appeared to him that Catholics in the north were just as intractable as Protestants."

As a result of this meeting, however, the Nationalist Party agreed to become the official Opposition.

In 1966, there were major events, north and south, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Dublin Rising.

This alarmed many unionists, but, in fact, they completely misunderstood what was happening.

In the southern celebrations, under the careful control of Lemass, care was taken that these events would look to the future and not dwell on partition and the 'fourth green field'.

In November 1966, McAteer called at the Department for External Affairs in Dublin to complain that the southern government was "growing closer to the unionists than to the nationalists" and they felt that they "were being forgotten about and begin to despair".

He was told that "he must have regard to the delicate position of Capt O'Neill vis-a-vis his extremists" and Dublin could not be seen to be "conspiring with the nationalists against him".

At Easter 1966 there were major parades in Northern Ireland to commemorate the Dublin rising, which many unionists interpreted as evidence of resurgent republicanism. This was a complete misunderstanding.

The northern celebrations were partly in response to the fact that the Irish government was now seeking a new accommodation with unionists and was paying less attention to northern nationalist/republican concerns.

After the failure of the 1956-62 IRA campaign, leading republicans had turned to political activism, but results of elections from 1966 showed a decline in their support.

Demonstrations in the north in 1966 should be seen as evidence of a declining, rather than a resurgent republicanism. Later, of course, due to events in 1969, republicanism would emerge as a major force.

Many unionists and loyalists completely misunderstood these developments. An important question remains. How genuine was Lemass in his approach to Northern Ireland?

In 1966, a parliamentary committee was established in Dublin to examine the Irish constitution.

Although he retired as Taoiseach that year, Lemass insisted on sitting on this body.

In its 1967 report, the committee proposed a whole range of changes, including a crucial one to article 3, which contained the claim to jurisdiction over the north.

It was unanimously recommended that the existing article be removed and be replaced by a conciliatory statement that 'the Irish nation hereby proclaims its firm will that its territory be reunited in harmony and brotherly affection between all Irishmen'.

This statement is very similar to the new article 3 in the Irish constitution, introduced as a result of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

Had the Troubles not erupted in 1969, it is very likely this change could have been achieved decades ago.

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