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Books: The battle of the working classes

The book investigates why Catholics' Ulster identity has withered so dramatically
A PAST APART: Studies in the History of Catholic Belfast 1850-1950 by A C Hepburn, Ulster Historical Foundation pounds 9.99

On 17 June the Northern Ireland government banned all marches in Belfast. Ten days later the order was revoked. On 12 July 40,000 Orangemen marched through the city. There were scuffles as they passed Catholic areas. In York Street Catholics prepared to defend their enclave with piles of paving stones. Over the next nine days rioting continued, with Protestants and Catholics in mixed-religion areas taking the brunt of the attack. Three hundred and forty Catholic and 64 Protestant families were intimidated out of their homes. Ten people were killed, 83 injured and the sectarian geography of Belfast was reinforced with waves of refugees.

But this is not July 1996, or the aftermath of the Drumcree episode this summer. It is 1935, and since the records of this particular marching season are still under lock and key, it is unlikely that those faced with the same problem today will learn anything from it.

At first sight this excellent book seems to confirm the sickening inevitability of sectarianism in Northern Ireland. The main theme is a detailed analysis of how the sectarian geography of Belfast materialised. Belfast developed as a Protestant town in the 17th century, with Catholics only beginning to arrive in significant numbers in the 19th century. By then its economic expansion - it had the fastest growing urban economy in the British Isles - was already at the centre of Protestant regional pride. The arrival of Catholics to man the textile mills began to threaten Protestant working- class dominance. Most of the riots and attacks thereafter (and they start in 1813) had a territorial element, as minorities were driven from mixed areas. Thereafter a "ratchet effect" comes into play, where segregation increases more in troubled times than it decreases in calm times, and so the trend was steadily upwards.

Of all the Catholic enclaves, West Belfast and the Falls Road alone retained the potential to expand, and so became the dominant Catholic area in the city, accounting for 41 per cent of its Catholic population by 1901. It was this certainty about the religious make-up of given areas which accounted for the frightening escalation of random killings in the years prior to the 1994 ceasefires. It was working class on working class, just as it had been from the outset.

There was an inevitability about the development of separate enclaves in Belfast, for both Protestants and Catholics had well-developed ethnic religious identities prior to the latter's arrival. Some of the most fascinating parts of this book tackle the problematic issue of identity, particularly the enigma of why Catholics' regional Ulster identity (evident two centuries ago) should have withered so dramatically in modern times. Again the explanation lies in the pre-existing religious identity. As Protestantism increasingly identified Ulster as its homeland, and Protestant unity became focused on Orangeism, so Catholics' identification with the region declined. The political expression of this division came late in the day, a veneer almost, and in the Catholics' case nationalist politics were an importation from the south. Ulster Catholicism had stood apart from the politics of the rest of the country, a tendency still encouraged by the Catholic bishops late into the 19th century. Things changed rapidly after the importation of the Christian Brothers, with their "Faith and Fatherland" ethos and their exclusively southern teaching staff. The outcome was that Catholic politics had lost any identification with the northern region well before it became the Northern Ireland state in 1921.

There is plenty of statistical evidence in this book to support the picture of the Catholic community in Belfast as particularly disadvantaged. But once again the trend predated the foundation of the Northern Ireland state. The new industries which created the city in the 19th century were predominantly Protestant and retained a Protestant ethos. Catholics came late, entered at a lower level and stayed there. Upward mobility only happened within the different cultural enclaves, segregation perversely opening up careers in segregated education, retailing and social and cultural organisations. Both communities pursued separation with a will, and, as Tony Hepburn concludes, "political structures within which they might remain truly `Separate but equal' have been as elusive in recent years as they were a century ago."

The story may be bleak, but the message is not. Ethnic separation and conflict long predated ethnic politics. Such longstanding tribalism and sectarianism is unlikely to wither away, even if new political structures are on offer. But, as Hepburn argues persuasively, acceptance of them, warts and all, while granting each group total equality, offers a way forward. Then perhaps we can build on that unique and very rich Belfast humour, which thrives on religious rivalries and peculiarities and often develops far more honest relationships than the other side of the sectarian coin: that awful fancy footwork around divisive issues which so characterised polite society in Northern Ireland in the past and disguised a sectarianism far more intractable than the raw working-class variety highlighted in this stimulating and important book.

Marianne Elliott is Professor of Modern History at Liverpool University and is writing a history of the Catholics of Ulster.