15 October 2005

'Catholics forced to live in squalor


(Bimpe Fatogun, Irish News)

The assertion that Catholics were treated "like animals" by the unionist ascendancy may be extreme but it is not a million miles from the truth, according to one Protestant civil rights activist.

Ivan Cooper emerged as one of the major figures of the 1960s civil rights movement.

A Co Derry Protestant, Mr Cooper was initially a grateful recipient of employment discrimination.

"I can remember whenever I was first approached about employment as a young executive in the shirt industry," he said.

"It wasn't advertised but I was approached simply because I was a Protestant.

"What they didn't know was how my political outlook would develop over the years."

The trade union activist went on to become a Stormont MP was an early advocate for equality for all.

"Derry was probably the Achilles heel situation in that nearly one third of it's population had a proportional majority on the council," he said.

"The difficulty was because of the lack of universal franchise. The vote was tied to houses, they just simply didn't build any houses for the Catholic population.

"In parts of Derry, [Catholics] were living in the likes of Springtown Camp on the edge of the city."

Springtown Camp was a former US army base, vacated in 1945 by GIs and left to house Catholics families who made their homes in the discarded Nissan huts.

"There were extremely high infant mortality rates and people living in absolute squalor.

"There were terrible housing conditions but they wouldn't build houses because that would have created imbalance in the council.

"You had men standing on street corners with no chance of employment opportunities."

He said as far as he is concerned there was clear bias against Catholics in the north in the 1960s and before.

"Father Reid didn't put it very well, but the essence of what he was saying was absolutely correct. Even in 2005 unionism hasn't accepted the mistakes of the past.

"As far as I'm concerned it was an unfortunate remark, but I could understand that he said it when he was faced with provocation."

UUP representative Esmond Birnie said on the contrary unionists are aware that

there was some discrimination in the past against Catholics.

However, he questioned the scale of such bias.

"It is very important to draw a distinction between what an individual might do and what may be done as a deliberate state policy," Dr Birnie said.

"There were bad-minded individuals but it is an exaggeration to say the province had some sort of apartheid system."

He pointed out that there was a one-man-one-vote system for Stormont and Westminster elections at the time, claiming that the criteria for council elections discriminated against working-class Protestants as much as working-class Catholics.

"To say what happened in the past was like the treatment of blacks in South Africa is to downplay the extent of that evil. The same is true of Nazi Germany.

"Anyone who draws such comparisons clearly doesn't know their own history or the history of central Europe in the mid-21st century."

However, historian Eamonn Phoenix said the 1969 Cameron Report into "injustices in Northern Ireland" found the government guilty of such charges.

He also pointed out that Stormont prime ministers and cabinet ministers had made sectarian calls-to-arms in parliament.

"Sir Basil Brooke, then a cabinet minister who went on to become prime minister, gave a speech telling people not to employ Roman Catholics, saying he hadn't 'one about the place (his lands)'," Dr Phoenix said.

"Nationalists felt they were treated as second class citizens from the inception of the state in 1921 until 1972."

October 15, 2005

This article appeared first in the October 14, 2005 edition of the Irish News.

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