Belfast Telegraph

History has answer to Peter's vision of future

Captain Terence O'Neill:Former Northern Ireland Prime Minister. Talks to the Press after the unionist Parliamentary Party meeting at Stormont. 12/12/1968.
Captain Terence O'Neill:Former Northern Ireland Prime Minister. Talks to the Press after the unionist Parliamentary Party meeting at Stormont. 12/12/1968.

By Liam Clarke

Captain Terence O'Neill made much the same pitch to Catholics just before the Troubles began as Peter Robinson is doing now that they are over.

It didn't work the first time around and it may not work the second either - unless lessons are learnt from history and the offer is sweetened.

Unlike Mr Robinson Captain O'Neill didn't have control of his own party. He was also a toff, a Big House unionist, who spoke in plummy tones and his key quote at the time strikes us now - as it did at the time - as embarrassingly patronising.

Just after he was forced to resign as prime minister in May 1968, O'Neill said in a Belfast Telegraph interview: "It is frightfully hard to explain to Protestants that, if you give Roman Catholics a good job and a good house, they will live like Protestants, because they will see neighbours with cars and television sets. They will refuse to have 18 children.

"But if a Roman Catholic is jobless and lives in the most ghastly hovel, he will rear 18 children on National Assistance. If you treat Roman Catholics with due consideration and kindness, they will live like Protestants."

The 'Protestants' to whom he was referring included Ian Paisley, who had recently said of Catholics that they "breed like rabbits and multiply like vermin".

So, however toe-curling Captain O'Neill's words may sound, they have to be taken in the context of the time.

O'Neill's resignation had been prompted by the inconclusive outcome of an election in which the Rev Paisley came close to defeating him in his own Bannside constituency.

Paisley later took the title Lord Bannside and when he signed the St Andrews Agreement, he also echoed a key image from Captain O'Neill's famous speech, made during that 1969 election campaign. The image was of Ulster being at a crossroads between democracy and chaos.

O'Neill cast a long shadow on the DUP, which now risks repeating one of his key mistakes.

O'Neill failed to recognise that the traditional divide in Northern Ireland involves cultural identity as well as religion.

He took little account of the Irish identity of most Catholics - and got few votes from them when he was in trouble. Peter Robinson quotes surveys showing that many Catholics would prefer to remain in the UK. He sees an opportunity but he should also realise that those making this pragmatic choice will not vote for a party which believes, in the midst of a recession, that any threat to the display of crown emblems in the Prison Service is worth causing an election over.

And they will not welcome general threats to north-south relations because of Enda Kenny's stance on Pat Finucane.

Perhaps Mr Robinson's immediate target for votes is not so much Catholics as liberal Protestants, who are more likely to support a party which talks in terms of reaching across the divide.

If he wants to actually get Catholic votes, he will have to make still-deeper changes and look to the lessons of history.


From Belfast Telegraph