Echoes of a School Visit to Stormont byJohn Patton

In 1967, while teaching in a Derry Secondary School  I was part of a school visit for the history and English departments  to  the Parliament at Stormont.  None of the four teachers involved had ever visited Stormont but had been part of an organised demonstration outside the building the previous year to protest against the decision not to site the second university in Derry. Our host at the Parliament was  Unionist , MP ,  Edward Jones, in whose constituency  the school was located.  The pupils were on their best behaviour in the public gallery  but were  bemused by the truculence of the MPs in the Chamber.

Jones, who was the Attorney General, proved a very gracious host and with his wife treated our group to tea and cakes in a committee room. He gave a brief talk on his work as an MP and then invited  questions. The teachers had not primed the pupils in any way but the MP was taken aback when the first question asked was  about his role in denying Derry the university; it  was quickly followed by a suggestion that he had helped to close the BSR – a factory which made record decks .  He replied politely but in overblown , verbose terms, including phrases such as ‘ultra vires ‘ and ‘collective Cabinet responsibility’.  In plain language, he claimed innocence on all charges.

The gerrymander of Derry City by the Unionists , with the support of the Stormont Government, was the prototype for sectarian control of the State; despite being 70% Catholic and Nationalist, through blatant manipulation of ward boundaries, the City remained under Unionist control.  Professor Henry Patterson of the University of Ulster has recently had access to  State records    and particularly those of  Mr Edward Jones; his research  shows clearly that the questions, asked by our pupils, were very close to the events of the time. Unionist leaders in Derry were paranoid that the  development of new industries  in the City would precipitate an influx of mainly Catholic workers which would threaten their boundary manipulations and power. Jones was their conduit to the Prime Minister to ensure such a calamity was prevented.

The facts about the University debacle are now well known but ,  through letters accessed by Professor  Patterson , we now learn that Jones and the local Unionists put every possible impediment  in the path of the US multinational, Dupont, to prevent the establishment of their plant at Campsie.  However, the Americans were not to be deflected and planning permission was only reluctantly granted when Dupont agreed to appoint a Unionist Personnel Officer whose job was to give the phrase , ’employing the best people’ , a whole new , sectarian meaning.

Despite the Good Friday Agreement and the serious power which Sinn Fein exercised through the late Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister, change in the City has been largely cosmetic. John Hume’s powerful connections in the US and Europe attracted some investment and the construction of the Foyle Bridge. The latter was opposed by Unionists who viewed it as a pathway to Donegal in the Irish Republic. The DUP is intent on centralising power and investment around Belfast and its environs. The recent bung from Theresa May will undoubtedly be spent around the Lagan.

The Laager mentality prevails.

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