Nelson McCausland: Sectarianism in the Republic had powerful effect on the attitudes of Protestants in Northern Ireland
Discrimination against non-Catholics in the southern state remains a dirty secret, says Nelson McCausland
Claims and counter-claims about discrimination are commonplace in Northern Ireland and they featured during a recent discussion on Radio Ulster. I was one of the contributors, along with Mark Durkan, the former SDLP MP, and Chris Donnelly, a schoolteacher, commentator and former Sinn Fein election candidate.
In the course of the discussion I referred to discrimination against Protestants in the Irish Republic and mentioned some examples, such as the infamous Mayo Library case in 1930 in what was then the Irish Free State.
Letitia Dunbar-Harrison, a young librarian, was refused employment as the County Librarian in Mayo simply because she was a Protestant and might hand out books that were deemed unsuitable by the Roman Catholic Church.
Mayo County Council refused to approve her appointment and the government in Dublin then abolished the council to enable her appointment to proceed. However, at that point Roman Catholic churchmen organised a boycott of the library service in Mayo and effectively closed it down.
When the controversy was debated in the Dail, Fianna Fail leader Eamon de Valera broadened it out and said that it would be inappropriate to have a Protestant doctor working in a predominantly Catholic community.
On that basis you would not have had any Protestants employed as librarians or doctors in the Irish Free State.
Eventually the government moved the young woman to a library job in Dublin, where she did not have to meet the public and the position in Co Mayo was given to a Roman Catholic.
I also referred to the equally notorious Fethard on Sea boycott in 1957, in what was then the Irish Republic, which was the subject of the film A Love Divided. In that case the Roman Catholic community, led by their bishop, organised a boycott of the small Protestant community in the Co Wexford village in a dispute over the raising of children in a mixed marriage.
At that time the Roman Catholic decree Ne Temere required the children in a mixed marriage to be raised as Roman Catholics. The plight of the little Protestant community alarmed Protestants in Northern Ireland and reinforced their perception that Home Rule was Rome rule. They did not merely look on with horror; they actually sent practical aid.
That was in 1957, during the IRA border campaign, which ran from 1956 to 1962. Is it any wonder that Protestants in in Northern Ireland were fearful of the possibility of a united Ireland?
However, when I raised these points the BBC presenter intervened and curtailed the discussion with the comment: “But we are on air in Northern Ireland.”
Of course we were “on air in Northern Ireland”, and everyone knew that, but the point I was making was that events on the other side of the border had an impact on events here.
In this, as in many things, context is important and what happened south of the border after partition influenced the mindset and thinking of unionists in Northern Ireland.
The IRA border campaign was organised south of the border, sent IRA men across the border and launched its attacks from across the border. Six RUC officers were killed and more than 30 were injured.
The republican bombing of Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin in 1966 was another significant event, showing that while the IRA had “dumped arms” in 1962, republicans still had access to arms and explosives. It happened south of the border, but influenced unionist thinking in Northern Ireland.
With the benefit of hindsight, some of the things that unionists did in the past may have been unwise, but they were certainly understandable, and the anti-Protestant discrimination in the south was an important part of the context.
It seems, however, that there is a widespread reluctance to acknowledge the extent of the anti-Protestant discrimination over the birder.
The situation in the Republic today is different in many ways from what it was in the past.
But the sectarianism in the southern state had a powerful influence on the attitudes of Protestants north of the border.