Religious Divisions in Northern Ireland

February 18, 1970

Report Outline
Growing Tensions in Troubled Ulster
Past Relations of Ireland with England
Search for Lasting Settlement in Ulster
Special Focus

Growing Tensions in Troubled Ulster

Recurrence of Catholic-Protestant Disorders

The uneasy truce that has held back full-scale violence in Northern Ireland since the 1969 riots looks more fragile with each passing day. A smoldering resentment on both sides, Protestant and Catholic, threatens to flare anew into civil strife. The Ulster government, caught in the middle, is groping for a formula that will satisfy Catholic demands for civil rights and yet somehow be acceptable to the Protestant majority. Many of the reforms that were passed last fall by the Ulster Parliament, at London's insistence, have not yet been implemented—sometimes for lack of money and sometimes because of Protestant intransigence.

“The things that have gone right in Ulster this winter are not…impressive,” the Economist of London commented on Feb. 7, 1970. “The bombings and the shootings are beginning once more: this time the British troops are the first target. It will not need much to set things alight again.” Some 8,000 British troops man the barricades and “peace lines” that separate Protestant and Catholic sections of Belfast, Londonderry and other cities of Northern Ireland that were beset by disorders in 1969. At first the troops were welcomed, especially by Catholics who accused the police of harassment. But with the passage of time, the troops, like government officials in London, became objects of anger from both sides. Catholic demonstrators hurled stones and bottles at British soldiers who tried to disperse them in Londonderry on Jan. 4,1970. It was a reminder, if indeed any were needed, that the smallest incident could set off a new wave of rioting across troubled Ulster.

London and Belfast feared that such an incident might well be a judicial decision—expected in February 1970—on the appeal Bernadette Devlin filed to overturn her six-month prison sentence. The sentence was imposed Dec. 22, 1969, upon her being found guilty of disorderly behavior and of inciting Catholics to riot the previous August. Miss Devlin, a 22-year-old (born April 23, 1947) member of British Parliament from Northern Ireland, has sometimes been called the “Pasionaria of the Ulster civil rights movement,” a “miniskirted Fidel Castro” and a “Joan of Arc.” Whatever the word choice of her admirers and detractors, she personified the Catholic passions now unleashed in Northern Ireland.

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