Why was the Civil Rights movement overwhelmingly Catholic?

I didn’t hear the whinny of a unicorn outside my kitchen door this morning, but as I munched my Rice Krispies I heard something almost as startling: the sound of a Raidio Uladh/Radio Ulster reporter asking someone “Was there discrimination fifty years ago?” Mercifully the response was “Yes”, and so the cat lives to miaow another day.

I suppose just as there are Holocaust deniers, there are still unionists who will tell you there was no discrimination back then, or that there was discrimination against Protestants/unionists as well. The first claim is clearly that of a seriously-overheated mind; the second has a grain of truth in it. There were indeed Protestants who lived in poverty, who found it hard to put bread on the table and keep a roof over their heads, but that was a class thing. The unionist upper class of Captain Terence O’Neill and James Chichester-Clark had nothing but contempt for their lowly followers, but they were handy to have when polling day came around.

Which brings us to the question: if Protestants/unionists suffered discrimination back then, why were there so few Protestants/unionists in the Civil Rights movement? With the exception of Ivan Cooper, most of us would have difficulty coming up with another five. Why so few?

I think the answer lies in a conversation I had with a Derryman in 1967. We both found ourselves living and working in Canada at the time, and as often happens among exiles, conversation turned to thoughts of home. I hadn’t been to Queen’s University and he had, so I asked him what it was like. “Good fun!” he told me. “You met and even made friends with people you otherwise wouldn’t have met.” He was referring to Protestants/unionists at Queen’s. There was a pause, then he added “The thing was, though, if there was a meeting about discrimination or gerrymandering or anything like that, even the nicest of them tended to melt away and join the traditional ranks”.

What it comes down to is this. There almost certainly were considerable numbers of intelligent, informed Protestant/unionists who were aware of job discrimination, housing discrimination and gerrymandering, with Derry city corportation at the top of the gerrymandering list. But when it came to the crunch, to deciding if you stood by what you believed to be fair and just, the great majority of Protestant/unionists quietly moved away from the Civil Rights movement, leaving it exposed as an all-Catholic/nationalist organization and therefore almost certainly intent on bringing down the state.

Which as anyone with a modicum of wit knows is bunkum – the organization led by John Hume was firmly uninterested in the constitutional question. But then, to demand full civil rights for all was a dangerous proposition. Because if you had a state that was not for a Protestant people but for all the people in it, all with equal rights,  what would be the point of such a state? Its raison d’etre would have been damaged fatally.



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