In the wake of partition, unionist society rapidly adopted a monolithic structure with an almost seamless fusion of political, social, religious and industrial organizations. Unionist political and economic influence and control permeated all aspects of society. Sir Basil Brooke, who was Prime Minister of ‘Northern Ireland’ for 20 years, synopsised the situation thus: “I have always said that I am an Orangeman first and a politician and a member of parliament afterwards... All l boast is that we have a Protestant parliament and a Protestant state.”
Founded on the denial of democracy and generally informed by such rationale as Brooke’s, the Six-County state could only be maintained by undemocratic methods.
The inbuilt, manufactured unionist majority meant continuous government by the Unionist Party and its control of the autonomous legislature at Stormont. For the Unionist Party, its single most important piece of legislation was the Special Powers Act (SPA). The SPA was a comprehensive piece of repressive legislation with wide-ranging powers of search, arrest, detention and imprisonment and included the power to prohibit inquests.
So appealing was the SPA to despots that it prompted the then South African Minister for Justice Mr. Vorster, to say that he “would be willing to exchange all the [South African] legislation of that sort for one clause of the Northern Ireland Special Powers Act.”
The SPA was actively and enthusiastically enforced by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) - nominally the police force but in effect the paramilitary adjunct of the Unionist Party - and its reserve force the `B’-Specials. Both forces were overwhelmingly Protestant in composition, the latter exclusively so.
For nationalists, Brooke’s “Protestant state” was a system of political and economic apartheid with which the envious Mr. Vorster could easily find an affinity:
* The manufactured unionist majority determined that political power would reside in the hands of the Unionist Party for as long as Stormont existed.
* Local government boundaries were gerrymandered to ensure Unionist Party control of local government, even in areas with clear Nationalist majorities.
* Nationalist political dissent was harshly suppressed by the RUC and the unionist judiciary.
* Discrimination was rampant: in employment practices; in housing allocation; in the electoral franchise.
The Westminster Parliament had given the unionists political power through a system of devolved government, while at the same time ensuring that it distanced itself from the repressive and undemocratic methods used by the Stormont regime. lt turned a blind eye to the institutionalized discrimination, electoral gerrymandering and human rights abuses and the inevitable sectarian programs instanced by a sectarian state.
Unionist rule was conditional only on its ability to maintain British interests through political stability.
Organized discontent with the apartheid system began to emerge in the late `60s and led to the formation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. Its moderate demands were aimed at trying to reform and democratize the state. The issue of partition was not part of its agenda. Unionists, however, interpreted any form of political dissent, however moderate, as a threat to their privileged position and the union with Britain.
Peaceful civil rights supporters were consequently viciously attacked by the RUC and B-Specials. The violent reaction of the state shocked the world as television cameras relayed scenes of unprovoked attacks on civil rights marches and demonstrations. The British government was not prepared to allow its interests to be compromised by widespread political unrest. At 5 p.m. on August 14th, 1969, substantial numbers of British soldiers moved into Belfast and Derry. The British army was injected into the situation under the propaganda cover of being a peace-keeping force deployed “to keep the warring factions apart”. The `religious war’ myth was regenerated as justification for the occupation. In reality, it had been introduced as a life-support unit to sustain a state which was under threat of collapse.
The bad dream of partition was about to be come the `nationalist nightmare’. Within a relatively short period, the British army’s real job became apparent. With the unionist government nominally still in control, the actual power behind the throne was the British government’s proxy, the British army.
The Falls Curfew, Interment and Bloody Sunday in Derry, clearly identified it as an indispensable and major instrument of government for Westminster in the same way as the RUC had previously served the Stormont regime.
Within weeks of the Bloody Sunday massacre in 1972, Westminster had prorogued Stormont and resumed direct responsibility for the governance of its colony.
Some two decades ago, people in the Six Counties were marching for civil rights, Justice, equality and self-respect.
The moderate and just demands of the Civil Rights movement were:
One man, one vote; An end to the gerrymandered local government boundaries; An end to discrimination in the allocation of housing; An end to discrimination in employment; and The repeal of the Special Powers Act (SPA).
Pursuit of those demands and the Stormont regime’s reaction to it brought the state to a point of collapse. Only the life-support system provided by the British army staved off the collapse, and in the process of attempting to sustain the state, exacerbated the situation.