By Jim Gibney (for Irish News)
At least 20 years before the white racists in South Africa set their hands to creating a one-party apartheid state the unionists of the six counties set about creating their own version of political and cultural apartheid after partition in 1920.
In South Africa the task the whites set themselves was very obvious to the outside world because those they set to exclude were of a different colour.
They were black whereas in the six counties nationalists were white and spoke the same language as those who set to exclude them from positions of influence.
In South Africa the racists relied on legislation and violence to reinforce separation and white domination, in the six counties unionists used state repression in the form of the Special Powers Act and systematic discrimination in voting procedures, employment and house provision.
The Special Powers Act was backed up with an array of armed forces, A, B and C Specials plus the RUC and British troops.
The preferred method of intimidation used at periods of popular unrest here in the 1920s, 40s, 50s and 70s was internment without trial when hundreds of men and women were imprisoned. Also to consolidate partition and to terrorise the nationalist and Catholic people unionist death squads were used to kill Catholics in the 1920-21 period and most of the years of this conflict.
The purpose behind apartheid and discrimination was to terrorise and impoverish the blacks in South Africa and the nationalist population in the six counties and to render both politically and economically impotent.
But political and material dispossession was not enough - the blacks and nationalists had to have their identity psychologically undermined.
For nationalists this meant that their language, history and sport was criminalised, ignored or pushed to the margins of society. The Irish tricolour was illegal and flown on pain of imprisonment.
The main media outlets - BBC and UTV - reinforced unionist privilege most noticeably in their coverage of the July 12 celebrations. (The poppy is a modern media variation of this symbolism and remains divisive).
The flagships of the six counties’ industry - Shorts, Harland and Wolff, Sirocco, Mackies were the preserve of the Protestant working classes as were the state’s armed forces.
The courts were the preserve of the unionist ruling classes.
The Union Jack was the emblem of the state and picture houses played the British national anthem at the end of each night as did the television stations.
This led to a situation in the six counties where nationalists and Catholics felt isolated, alienated and unwanted in their own country.
They were made to feel that being Irish was a burden to be carried privately and sullenly with many resorting to armed struggle as the only way to secure justice and recognition.
Armed resistance became a badge of identity - a defining characteristic.
In a hostile, British-unionist state it was one way of not only claiming your Irish identity but of strengthening it and legitimising it.
So it was with delight that I attended a meeting recently of the Policing Board where its business was conducted primarily in Irish for its Irish-speaking audience.
The chairperson of the board, Barry Gilligan, spoke in Irish as did a PSNI officer, a member of the board’s staff and all literature on display for the meeting was in Irish and English.
Two Irish speakers, Feargas O hIr and Gearoid O hEara (a member of the board) translated the night’s proceedings.
The meeting was told that more than 80 police officers were attending Irish classes and that the board would respond to the needs of the Irish-speaking community.
Another special and important event a few weeks ago was the tree planting ceremony in the grounds of Stormont’s parliament buildings in recognition of the GAA’s 125th anniversary.
This formal recognition by the north’s executive puts Irish culture not only symbolically on the ground where the regional parliament is situated but at the heart of the unionist-nationalist power-sharing administration.
Even though there is still a distance to travel to establish equality in the six counties it has to be acknowledged that we have travelled a long way from Craig’s ‘Protestant Parliament for a Protestant People’ or Thatcher’s arrant nonsense that the north’s as ‘British as Finchley’.