W ho began the killing? At root, arguments about the genesis of the Troubles are arguments about responsibility for murder, and that’s one reason it has proved so hard to disentangle history from blame in accounts of Northern Ireland since the late 1960s. In May 1974, in the New York Review of Books, the critic Seamus Deane lambasted Conor Cruise O’Brien, then minister for posts and telegraphs in the Irish Republic’s coalition government, for implying in a previous issue that ‘the Provisional IRA began the killing in the North.’
Not so. It was the Royal Ulster Constabulary who did this, using armoured cars and Browning machine guns on unarmed and unsuspecting Catholic citizens in the Falls Road area in 1969. He [O’Brien] also states that the British army’s role in the North is, fundamentally, to protect the Catholic population. This was originally so, but to state that this situation persists is a lie.
O’Brien countered that while Protestant extremists and the RUC were indeed responsible for attacks on Catholics in 1969, the deployment of British troops that year, far from negatively affecting the Catholic population, had actually initiated long overdue social and political reforms of the Northern Irish state. Since 1922, when Ireland was partitioned, Northern Ireland had been governed by a devolved parliament, modelled on Westminster but sitting at Stormont in Belfast. Stormont had the power to legislate over nearly every aspect of Northern Irish domestic life, while foreign policy and some central taxes remained the preserve of Westminster. The regional parliament was notorious for its efforts to maintain a unionist majority: even before the end of the 1920s it had dispensed with the original electoral system, which was based on proportional representation, and systematically gerrymandered the boundaries of constituencies to ensure the return of unionist candidates. For fifty years, until Stormont was prorogued by Westminster in 1972, the Ulster Unionist Party was in government. Northern Ireland was effectively a one-party state, operating an institutionalised form of discrimination. Emergency law and order legislation was normalised as a tool to be used against the minority nationalist population. Nationalist and republican marches, publications (including communist publications) and emblems – the Irish tricolour, for example – were frequently banned. The Northern Irish police force, known as the Royal Ulster Constabulary, was armed (unlike any other British force), and overwhelmingly Protestant and Unionist in its composition – a sectarian outfit. There was open discrimination against Catholics in the fields of employment and local housing allocation, which also determined the right to vote in local elections.