ON the evening after my arrival in Belfast I told a group of trade unionists, shipyard workers, and others that I had come to study the workings of democracy in Northern Ireland.
They laughed derisively. as every single person of whatever type had done that day to whom I had explained the nature of my mission. " That should not take you long. There isn't any," they said.
But I wanted to discover why everyone laughed and then dismissed the mere suggestion so derisively. I pressed the matter further. Were there faked elections, cooked votes, corrupt electoral practices ?
There was some discussion and then one thoughtful worker said : "Where there is sectarianism such as we have here there can be no democracy. Sectarianism stifles democracy."
That, I believe, goes right to the core of the matter. That is why no article which simply concerned itself with a description of the mechanism of the democratic machine in the Six Counties and the way in which it works would give any indication of the character or the extent of the real problem.
And that is why, too, my study of democracy there became in reality an inquiry into sectarianism and its political, human and spiritual consequences.
See how it works in practice. Local and Parliamentary elections throughout Northern Ireland are fought almost entirely on the Nationalist and Unionist tickets. It is more than 98 per cent correct to say that the Nationalists are all Irish Catholics and the Unionists Protestants (or at any rate nonCatholics) of English or Scottish descent.
There are Catholic areas which always vote Nationalist, and Protestant areas which remain solidly Unionist. And, of course, there are some mixed areas too. But even there the racial-political-sectarian balance of the two opposing forces is already known on the basis of earlier contests. So, with a high degree of certainty the outcome of every election can be foretold or determined in any given area.
With the population one-third Catholic and two-thirds nonCatholic, the existing balance is such that, provided only that the Protestants can be got out to vote by one means or another nothing can prevent the continuance of the existing administration.
And with the whole democratic machine. the adrninstration and the 'very pattern of life resting on this basis, there is an obvious danger. It becomes possible, if one so wishes, to draw the Parliamentary and municipal boundaries in such a way as to guarantee the over all continuance of the status quo.
And that is precisely how the boundaries both local and Parliamentary have been drawn. After that it only remains necessary to maintain those boundaries or to shift them according to geographical or numerical population changes. And that has been done, too, The area known as Ulster is not, in fact, the whole of the province of Ulster at all. Had Ulster been separated off from Ireland and attached to Britain it would have immediately voted itself back to Ireland, for a majority of the people of Ulster are Nationalists.
The Six Counties are the largest area in which a pro-Unionist vote could be guaranteed beyond all doubt. It was the entity which created the majority. It was not the majority who created the entity.
A non-political Protestant pamphlet published by the Association for Promoting Christian Knowledge has demonstrated quite clearly that the majority of Protestants actually live in the Belfast area. The district within a 30 mile radius of Belfast contains 48 per cent of the members of the Church of Ireland and 69 per cent of the Irish Presbyterians, This means that a majonity of the people outside that tiny area are, in any case, Nationalist, and the problem is in that sense a Belfast problem.
But within the skilfully drawn border surrounding the Six Counties only one-third of the total population are Catholic-Nationalist, so that neither a referendum nor the fairest of fair elections would result in anythipg but a vote for continued Union.
That is the essence of gerrymandering about which one hears so much. II is what makes democracy in Northern Ireland so unreal.
With politics based on religious and national differences and with a carefully drawn border (and within it even more carefully drawn boundaries to constituencies and wards) there is no need for totalitarian practices to achieve a totalitarian result. Democracy may safely be left to take its course.
Provided that sectarianism is kept alive the political, racial and econonik supremacy of the existing ruling Protestant majority an be assured. But in practice, sectarian hatred and bigotry cannot he switched OlI and off like an electric current as soon as the right government or council is returned. It is there. all the time, taking the form of discrimination against Catholics and the monopoly of privilege by Protestants.
Theoretically, sectarianism of this sort is unnecessary between elections. In practice it poisons the whole of tile the whole of the time.
I have, I know, given what is in effect my verdict before presenting my evidence, But in the space I have available this has been necessary if the significance of the evidence is to be fully appreciated. And it is necessary as an explanation of why an examination of democracy became an examination of sectarianism. Chronologically, my conclusions were arrived at after I had collected my evidence.
The Story of Derry Derry, capital city of Londonderry. is the classic example of sectarianism in practice. I reached it after the pleasantest possible journey which improved with every mile that took me nearer Derry. I arrived thrilled by its setting and by the magnificence of the scenery through which I had travelled.
I left in a profoundly troubled mood, sickened and angry at what I had seen and heard. I collected my evidence from ordinary working folk, from M.P.s, from clergy, from the minority who arc impatient of both Nationalists and Unionists, and from official records and statistics.
In Derry, the majority of the population are Catholics. For a brief period when there was Proportional Representation they therefore had a majority on the local council. But for years before, and ever since, they have been " represented " by a Protestant-Unionist majority.
This has been achieved by carving the administrative area up in such a way as to ensure that the denselypopulated Catholic wards have minimum representation and the more sparsely populated Unionist wards the maximum.
The balance has been maintained in two ways. First there have been the famous gerrymanders, when on four separate occasions over a period of years the boundaries have been re-drawn to keep pace with the growth and shifts of the Catholic population.
But the second method is one which is equally effective but far more subtle. It consists of concentrating the Catholic population more and more into certain areas which already have a Nationalist population and, at the same time, keeping them out of the Unionist wards whose balance must not he tilted.
During the war, when the Americans were in " occupation," many shifted into the Unionist, North and Waterside wards and it looked as though the balance would be upset. But today. under current rehousing schemes, they are being moved back. No new houses have been built in those two wards. All rehousing has been into what has in effect become the Catholic Ghetto.
Mgr. Farren, Bishop of Derry, gave me case after case of refusals by estate agents to let or even to sell property outside the "ghetto" to Catholics — examples which were backed up by many more from a number of clergy who were present.
Right to the Vote
In order to ensure the Catholic's elementary right to the vote, people are employed all the year round by the Catholic community for the sole purpose of checking the register, discovering those who have been excluded or " crowded " off and then fighting to get the vote for them.
Some 700-800 claims, Mr. Patrick Maxwell, Nationalist M.P. and registrar, told me, have to be put in each year—a figure which was confirmed by Mgr. Farren.
And so Derry's local council keeps its twelve out of twenty Unionist majority. In such a set-up, I suppose discrimination against Catholics in every branch of activity beComes almost inevitable,
Many cases of discrimination were given to me and I approached Mr. Alexander Hunter, the official Unionist spokesman about them. His answer was a complete denial.
When I told him that only two Catholics are employed in the three most important departments of Derry's local administration, and that there is not a single Catholic departmental or assistant departmental head despite the fact that Catholics constitute the majority of the townspeople, he suggested that an explanation might he found in their educational standards. To this I replied that I had already checked that point and discovered that Catholics had, in fact, for years swept the board in all local scholarships and open examinations.
He then replied that he did not really know the position in Derry but that Catholics in Ulster, far from being discriminated against. get many advantages. For example. he said. it was notorious that Catholics had most children and so got far more from the Government's expenditure. on education than did the Protestants.
Mr. Hunter is an intelligent man and the puerility of his answers made me feel that he was sensitive to the discrimination which exists throughout the Six Counties. For. although it may take more than usually blatant forms there. Derry's