Before the Treaty of 1921 put a border between Northern and Southern Ireland, Ulster comprised nine counties and was one of the four ancient kingdoms of Ireland. That treaty cut off three counties – Donegal, Cavan, and Monaghan – from the rest, and left us in the other six, neither British, nor Irish, nor all of Ulster. But the history that has made us what we are goes back further than 1921. The first date that belongs to us rather than to Ireland as a whole is 1609, when thousands of Scots Presbyterians were brought over for the Plantation of Ulster. The hatred between colonised and coloniser was underlined by the difference in their religions, and the Irish were persecuted not only for being the natives but on the basis of being Catholics as well. From then on they never quite sorted out religion from politics.
The march of the Orange Order, which was founded in 1795 to keep up the traditions of Protestantism in Ulster takes place every year. In fact, it is a semi-religious, semi-political organisation. All over Northern Ireland on July 12th, branches of the Orange Order march off some three or four miles to a field where a meeting is held. Having blasphemed their fellow-Christians, they do another Christian stomp home again, get drunk, sing Orange songs, and take in the Union Jack to be put away till next year.
It’s the same thing, but in reverse, when it comes round to the 1916 Commemoration day, or to August 15th. This day is the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, and what that has to do with politics nobody knows. But the Nationalists, the Catholic Tories of Northern Ireland, keep it as their day, and sing anti-Orange songs, meaning every bitter word they sing.
Both the Protestant Unionists and the Catholic Nationalists deny they discriminate against each other, but both use religion to divide and rule the working class. It is only less serious on the Catholic side because there are fewer Catholic bosses and fewer
Catholic local authorities in a position to practise discrimination. It is a tactic which has made the ruling minority look like a majority and kept the Unionist Party in power since Northern Ireland existed.
Polarised by this ploy into their religious sects, and set against each other, the ordinary people have not been able to combine and fight politically for their real interests. At the bottom of the social pyramid with nothing to lose, the Catholic working man doesn’t really fear the Protestant; but the Protestant working man, who has very little, feels the need to hang on to his Protestant identity in case he loses what little he has. He fears the Catholic because he knows that any gain made by the Catholic minority will be his loss, for the businessmen and the landowners, Orange or Nationalist, are not going to suffer losses on anybody’s behalf.
Where discrimination hurts most is in employment and, housing. You come to a factory looking for a job and they ask you which school you went to. If its name was “Saint Somebody”, they know you are a Catholic and you don’t get taken on. Until the civil rights campaign forced a promise of reform, housing was the burning issue in Northern Ireland, because only householders have a vote in local elections: subtenants, lodgers, adult children living at home are nil without the vote, and thus a quarter of the electorate disenfranchised. So it is very important where you build houses and for whom you build them. Too many houses for Catholics could upset the majority on a Protestant council, in vice versa.