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The Civil Rights Movement did not represent a true desire to accept a British identity on the part of Catholics, nor did its eruption cut across a sustained development in that direction. It is possible to say that Catholics held themselves to be Irish but with a special relationship to Britain by virtue, certainly, of the economic benefits, but also of recognition of unionist rights and their own sense of affinity with British culture. However, Irishness was prone to slide into articulation through uncomplicated all-Ireland nationalism particularly as more subtle concepts such as joint sovereignty remained much under-developed. Thesis Religious differences and political instability led to the emergence of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement association in 1967.
Militant nationalism became increasingly attractive as the boundaries of catholic identity were threatened first by O’Neill’s ambitions to assimilate all citizens into a unionist consensus, then by the breakdown of established patterns of unionist ‘oppression’ in favor of Westminster-led amelioration (Mulholland, 2000).Sectarian discord seemed to be dissipating in the early 1960s. In Northern Ireland, as in the Republic, there was a broad ‘reaction against the political in favour of the socio-economic’. The increasingly liberal broadcast media from the 1950s strove to blur religious differences, while remaining obsequious to the state. A little later the editorial columns and letter pages of Northern Ireland’s profuse press took up this conciliationist. O’Neill was prone to grand theorizing on the ills of western society. He believed could contribute to British society in the late twentieth century. He suggested that the concept of civic weeks might be transplanted to Britain as a means to securing ‘a greater involvement in national aims throughout the community’ There was a regrettable tendency for individuals to abdicate responsibility to the state. Locally based, self-help activities could overcome this sense of anomie and revitalize civil society. The Northern Ireland Civil Rights association (NICRA) threatened to urge the minority to withdraw from civic week events (Mulholland, 2000).
The failure of the IRA border campaign, called off in 1962, served only to emphasize the lack of militancy amongst northern Catholics. In this space politics developed to weaken the protestant/catholic differences. The Second Vatican Council, which ran from 1962 to 1965, modernized the Roman Catholic Church and watered down its objections to liberal democracy. This “facilitated… a re-evaluation by the catholic community of its relationship with the state and protestant population” (Mulholland 2000, p. 43). It was the catholic community that appeared to move much the farthest from traditional attitudes in the 1960s (Mulholland, 2000). Tim Pat Coogan, editor of a southern Irish newspaper, found that ‘the secret wish of most Northern Catholics is not for union with the South (entailing a fall off in social benefits) but for an end to discrimination and a fairer share of the Northern spoils (Mulholland, 2000). This truth may be unpalatable to us in the South, but it has to be faced.’ Poll evidence indicated a fairly broadminded attitude amongst Catholics to nationalist verities. Of those who identified themselves as nationalist, only 30 per cent favored a completely independent united Ireland, a substantial 20 per cent preferred the status quo and the greatest number, 50 per cent, favored a united Ireland linked to Britain. No doubt generous economic and welfare benefits were important factors in this, but so too was a real affinity with British liberal democracy and religion (Lee 1997).
Mulholland (2000) underlines that admittedly parallel state institutions continued to socialize Catholics into a sense of alienation, yet catholic schools and even catholic health services were compatible with full acceptance of citizenship in other countries. Moreover, Catholics were far from insistent on separate institutions, accepting them rather as a given fact (Lee 1997). A full 69 per cent of Catholics favored integrated education, surpassing support amongst Anglicans and Presbyterians. Nor were Catholics religiously exclusive; an overwhelming 96 per cent thought the ecumenical movement a good thing. Whilst conciliatory, Catholics were largely non-assimilations in that they clung to a basic Irish identity. The contrast to protestant uncertainty was marked. Catholics in the 1960s looked to seize the moral high ground as progressive and modernizing. Many, including crucially Terence O’Neill, assumed that Catholics had wearied not only of the Nationalist Party, but also of Irish nationalism itself. Upon closer inspection, however, the genuine moderation of the catholic community was but one face of a protean character (Mulholland, 2000). Catholic consciousness was a curious amalgam of moderation and militancy.
In sum, a conflict between two religious branches led to the emergence of NICRA. Whilst Protestantism tended towards theological assertiveness, even aggression, Catholics as a rule were non-dogmatic in religion. There was a certain superiority in this stance that annoyed even liberal protestants: Catholics were not inclined to debate with erring brothers. In some respects a similar attitude existed in their politics. Old strategies of voluntary segregation were thus put under very considerable strain but, until the Civil Rights Movement, an alternative was not clear. Not surprisingly, traditional nationalism was wracked with crisis.
Mulholland, M. (2000). Northern Ireland at the Crossroads: Ulster Unionism in the O’Neill Years, 1960-9. Macmillan.
Lee, Joseph. (1997). The Modernization of Irish Society 1848-1918. Dublin : Gill & Macmillan.