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Northern Ireland

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 7th April 1970.

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Photo of Mr Gerry Fitt Mr Gerry Fitt , Belfast West 12:00 am, 7th April 1970

Perhaps hon. Members opposite have a twinge of conscience about it, because they know in their heart of hearts that what I have said is true. The Union Jack in Northern Ireland is not the flag of the United Kingdom, but it has been dragged in the gutter and sullied by Unionist party politics.

This debate is ostensibly about the present situation in Ulster, what happened over the Easter period, and the deterioration in the situation. I submit that we cannot discuss happenings over the past week in isolation from Ireland's past troubled history. It would be generally conceded—and this is no reflection on the present Government, for whom I have the greatest admiration—that over four or five centuries of Irish history the British Government have divided the Irish people, and that those divisions have been carried out at the point of a gun. Now, in 1970, we are being told that they should unite, again at the point of a gun.

Is it any wonder that we have in Northern Ireland today a confused, frustrated, bewildered and, particularly, a fearful community, because of the past actions of successive British Governments that so successfully divided the Irish people and eventually divided the Irish nation? That is why there is so much confusion in Ireland today and why the troubles in Northern Ireland last week had their basis in what happened in past centuries.

Members of the Unionist Party would try to claim no responsibility for the present situation in Northern Ireland. They have said their policies have brought about progress, economic development, that the whole community in Northern Ireland has enjoyed the economic development that has taken place in Northern Ireland over the past 20 to 30 years. Does the hon. Member for Belfast, South or any other hon. Gentleman on the opposite side of the House really believe this?

Has Derry, with a 25 per cent. unemployment figure, has Strabane, with a 29 per cent., has Newry with 17 per cent., and has Ballymurphy—the estate that caused such trouble last week and where a recent poll revealed that 47 per cent. of the male persons were unemployed—have any of them shared in the economic development in Northern Ireland? These are the reasons why there is such discontent.

I believe that the hon Member for Belfast, South should be honest and should tell the House. Unless this House fully understands, unless the British people fully understand and, particularly from my point of view, unless the trade union movement and the British working class fully understand, what is happening in Ireland, there can be no solution to the present problems.

Limited as we may be by the three hours of this debate, I hope that at its conclusion there will be a further realisation of what has brought about the present tensions in Northern Ireland. Over the Easter period I was hopeful that there would be no further escalation of violence in Northern Ireland. A series of marches took place in Northern Ireland over the Easter period which were deliberately intended and calculated to inflame sectarian passions.

All over Northern Ireland Orange parades were taking place. It takes an Irish man to understand this; it takes someone born and bred in the hatred and bigotry that has existed in that country to understand the violent passions that can be aroused by these very provocative parades. In the City of Belfast, on the Ballymurphy estate, one can quite well imagine the great discontent that exists in the males and youths of that estate. Twenty yards from that estate, on the other side of the road, the Springfield Road, there is another estate, much more affluent. It happens, and I regret to say this, that the majority of people living in that more affluent estate is non-Catholic. There is employment there. Naturally, there is a feeling of frustration that one side of the road has been victimised and the other side of the road is being given favours and privileges from the Unionist Government. This is a fact of life.

When it was known that the Orange parade would traverse the Springfield Road which bisected the two estates, the member who represents that constituency at Stormont, the Peace Committees, both Protestants and Catholics, made representations to the Army commander in the area and to the police not to let this particular parade take place because the was a danger it would bring about violence. Whether it was the Stormont Government, whether it was General Freeland, whether it was the police authorities or not, a disastrous decision was taken to let that parade continue. When the parade was passing, many insults were hurled at the Catholic Church; many insults were hurled at the residents of the Ballymurphy Estate; many derogatory things were said—and I should make it clear, because this did incense the Catholic people—about the blessed Virgin Mary.

An Englishman, a Welshman or a Scotsman may not understand it, but in Northern Ireland, where this has been heaped upon us generation after generation, it is bound to cause trouble. These boys retaliated in the only way they knew; they lifted the first stone or missile that was available and threw it at their tormentors. Who is to say they should not have done that? What would any human being in their place say if he were being tormented to such an extent? He must retaliate; it is human nature.

Then the Unionist mob on the other side of the Army cordon joined in. I am not condemning every single individual who took part in that Orange parade, for I am sure that there were many decent people taking part and who had every right to take part in that demonstration. I am not condemning the people on the other side of the road, the people in the New Barnsley Estate; many of them were there to watch the parade come hack. But there were people of both sides there who wanted trouble. The stones began to fly; the windows of two houses were broken; two windows were broken on the Ballymurphy side of the road, and immediately the Army moved in. The Army then over-reacted and took strong action against the young boys on the Ballymurphy side of the confrontation.

It has been said—The Times article said it again today—that there were Republicans on the Ballymurphy side in this confrontation. I do not deny that. I know many Republicans who live on the Ballymurphy estate. I got them their houses there. I made representations on their behalf. Republicans have to have somewhere to live in Northern Ireland. They are men who cling tenaciously to the understandable ideal, particularly in view of past repression by the Unionist Party, of a united Ireland.

But once the Army over-reacted the seeds were sown for a violent confrontation. I have condemned what happened. Those young boys should not have involved themselves in a confrontation with the British Army. Many Republicans in that estate were actively seen to be doing their best to prevent that confrontation. They realised that no one could win—certainly not the oppressed people of Ballymurphy.