The Grievances Of Catholics And Protestants In Ireland History Essay

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5/12/16 History Reference this

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This essay examines the grievances of Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland between 1923-39. The Catholics in Northern Ireland suffered a great deal of grievances in this period in relation to partition, no proportional representation, franchise of local government, gerrymandering, out voted in Parliament, inequalities in education and security forces, and finally discrimination by private firms and a lack of economic aid leading to high rates of unemployment in Catholic areas. [1] The Protestants grievances were not as severe as Catholic grievances, they had feared sporadic attacks from the Irish Republican Army, they felt insecure about their position as they regarded Catholics as a threat and most of all they believe Catholics to be a dangerous and disloyal force that sought to undermine the state. All of these grievances will be examined and the extent to which they actually occurred.


The state of Northern Ireland was due to come into existence in June 1921. Sir James Craig, who succeeded Edward Carson as leader of the Unionist party, became the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. The new Parliament was opened by King George V on 22 June, both the Nationalist Party and Sinn Fein refused to recognise the new government and boycotted the ceremony. [2] This new government would have ramifications upon the Catholic minority community living in Northern Ireland at the time.


The Anglo-Irish Treaty 1921 contained three important provisions that affected Northern Ireland directly. The provisions inferred that Northern Ireland could vote to remain outside Irish control, a Council of Ireland would be set up of representatives from North and South and also a Boundary Commission would be set up to decide on a final border. The final decision of the Boundary Commission in 1925 was favourable to Northern Ireland. [3] The border remained unchanged which had a knock on effect for Catholics in the North.

The partition of Ireland was a major setback for Catholic nationalists. They felt isolated in a state dominated by Unionists and abandoned by southern nationalists. In the beginning the northern Catholics had hoped partition would only be temporary and relied on the Boundary Commission to rescue them. Unionists saw partition as democratic and consequence of the Irish Free State refusal to join the Union. [4] This partition meant many northern Catholics felt aggrieved and as a result they suffered discrimination by Protestant unionists who ran the state. Such discrimination was reflected in the voting system, in security force, education and housing.

Despite discrimination being denied by unionists, some discrimination did occur. The election result in Londonderry showcases how some of the Catholics’ grievances were justified. [5] Under the PR (proportional representation) system, nationalists won a majority of the seats in Fermanagh, Tyrone and Londonderry in the elections of 1920. When the Northern Ireland state was established these councils refused to accept the new Parliament and declared their allegiance to Dáil Éireann. In retaliation the New Parliament dissolved these councils. [6] To prevent this from re-occurring, Richard Dawson Bates, head of the Unionist Government introduced a number of measures to ensure unionist victories in elections. Three measures were undertaken as follows: PR was abolished, electoral boundaries were redrawn and only people who owned property were allowed to vote. PR was replaced by the British system of ‘first past the post system’ which made it more difficult for Catholic nationalists to gain enough votes to win an election. [7] In areas of nationalist majorities local government boundaries were ‘gerrymandered’ to reproduce unionist majorities. [8] In local elections, only those who owned property could vote and people with more than one property had more votes. According to Richard Mansbach, Catholics were disproportionately renters and so he points out that this qualification disfranchised more Catholics than Protestants. [9] Representatives in local council were important because they had the power to decide on certain issues such as employment and housing, [10] which will be look at later.


In 1923, Catholic grievances were first highlighted in the northern Bishops’ statement. Sparked by disapproval of government legislation, a conference of the Catholic clergy took place in Dublin 12th October to discuss the position of Catholics in Northern Ireland. During this conference they had formed a statement expressly listing Catholic grievances in certain areas such as the abolition of proportional representation, gerrymandering of constituencies, Education Act, Catholics unable to train as teachers in Dublin, oaths of allegiance and lastly attitudes displayed towards the boundary question. [11] 

James Craig appointed Lord Londonderry as the head of the Ministry of Education in order to improve the education system. Londonderry set up a committee which the Catholics refused to attend and as a result, the Education Act 1923 was introduced. [12] “Under the Act, local Protestant and Catholic clergy would be replaced as managers of primary schools by communities in which the churches and local councils would be represented. Schools known as ‘transferred schools’, which accepted students from all religious denomination received higher grants from the government.” [13] 

The Catholic Church decided to remain outside the new system for fear the Catholic ethos would be undermined. [14] The state system was largely under Protestant control and now the Catholics’ main grievance was that the Protestant schools received more state grants then they did. [15] Protestants’ retort to accusations of discrimination place the blame on Catholics’ failure to attended meetings on the education issue.

Northern Ireland also contained Queen’s University and separate teacher-training colleges for Catholics and Protestants. [16] This was another contentious issue raised by the Northern Bishops’ Statement 1923. Religious divisions dominated the debate on education. The composition of security forces as well as the education issue was another source of Catholic grievances.


Craig appointed Sir Richard Dawson Bates as the Minister for Home Affairs. In March 1922, Dawson Bates introduced the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act. The Special Powers Act expressly provided for the introduction of the death penalty for those carrying arms and also provided for flogging and internment without trial of offenders. [17] The Act was renewed repeatedly and in 1933 it was made permanent. [18] It was used almost exclusively against Catholic Nationalists and became a great source of contention amongst the Catholic minority. To enforce these laws the government enlisted the help of the Specials and the RUC. [19] 

Before the establishment of Northern Ireland, a special police force had been set up to support the regular police. They were known as the Ulster Special Constabulary, consisting of Class A Specials (full-time officers), B Specials (part-time officers) and C Specials (unpaid reservists). Many Ulster volunteers joined this force and as a result it was predominantly made up of Protestants. Later the A Specials and C Specials were disbanded and the only the B Specials remained. In May 1922, the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) police force was replaced by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). One-third of the membership was reserved for Catholics but they refused to join, so it was a force predominantly made up of a Protestants. [20] The Catholic community felt aggrieved as they were constantly at the mercy of the Specials. Specials stored their weapons at home and so Catholics were in constant fear of the threat of a sectarian attack. [21] “With regard to Nationalist charges against the RUC, the Unionist Government pointed that of the 3,000 allocated places 2,000 were reserved for Protestants and 1,000 for Catholics.” [22] Catholics’ refusal to join the force was used by Unionists to answer all allegations of discrimination in relation to security forces.

They also used the threat of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) to the Northern Ireland state to justify any discrimination that may have occurred. Otherwise discrimination is denied or claimed to be exaggerated. [23] Some Unionists fail to acknowledge any discrimination as it would legitimise IRA’s violence. On the other hand, it has been argued that Catholics have exaggerated the extent of discrimination in order to gain the moral high ground against unionists. [24] 


In 1921, two-thirds of all Irish industrial workers were concentrated in north-east Ulster. The major heavy industries, such as shipbuilding, engineering and linen manufacturing, had prospered during WW1. However, demand decreased in during the 1920s and 30s, industrial employment fell throughout the UK because of failure to modernise and falling prices. [25] By the mid-1920s nearly a quarter of the workforce in NI was unemployed. Many members of the Catholic and Protestant communities believed it was right to show preference for employment towards someone on religious or political grounds. Protestant believed this was the best way to maintain their supremacy and protect their Constitution. Catholics suffered most from unemployment and poverty and so believed that it was only fair that they would be given preference for employment. [26] However, Catholics still faced some discrimination by Protestants in employment.

The reason offered by unionists for such discrimination was that they viewed Catholics as untrustworthy. They view them as always being disloyal to the Crown and always in pursuit of the Irish republic. [27] This was the Protestant main grievance. The NI Government were primarily concerned about the employment of Catholics within the NI administration. [28] Further discrimination was enabled by the requirement of an oath of allegiance to the NI Government to be taken by those in the public employment. This was seen by unionists as a test of Catholic’s loyalty whereas the nationalist resented this mandatory requirement. [29] 

This type of discrimination heightened tensions between Catholics and Protestants which was to later manifest in riots which occurred in the summer of 1935 in Belfast. Previously in 1933 and 1934 there had been minor outbursts of sectarian violence but the most significant of these began in 1935. [30] 


Expenditure in health, housing and welfare was low in NI during the 20s and 30s. Between 1921 and 1939, fewer than 8,000 houses were built by local authorities throughout NI. Welfare payments were extremely low. Max Hastings points out ‘that in many areas Protestant-dominated councils had used their powers to discriminate against Catholics in the distribution of accommodation.’ [31] The Unionist Government denied such religious discrimination. They argued that in all schemes for alleviating distress, in the application of health and unemployment insurance, widows’, orphans’ and old age pensions, absolute impartiality is observed. [32] 


After the Wall Street Crash in New York in 1929, economic depression spread worldwide. During the 1930s in Northern Ireland, economic activity declined and unemployment increased dramatically. By 1939 it was clear Northern Ireland was characterised by deep religious and political divisions. [33] It was governed by a permanent unionist majority and Catholics felt aggrieved by this.

The onset of war in 1939 enhanced the division between unionists and nationalists. Unionists in Northern Ireland used the war as an opportunity to prove their loyalty to Britain and so supported Britain in WW2. The Irish Free State remained neutral. [34] Conscription was introduced in Britain in April 1939 but not Northern Ireland. Unionists were divided on the issue of conscription. Some supported conscription and others believed it would be unwise to train Catholics in use of arms. There was little support for the war amongst Catholics. They did not want to fight for a government which existence they opposed and which allow them to be subjected to discrimination. [35] 


The Prime Minister, Lord Craigavon, had once declared, ‘Ours is a Protestant government and I am an Orangeman.’ [36] Under such a regime, Catholics felt like second class citizens. They felt that they were the victims of several injustices, committed by Protestants. On the other hand Protestants also felt certain grievances; they feared the constant threat of Catholics trying to gain control of the state and believe them to be ‘disloyal’. Unionists have responded to accusations of discrimination by claiming it didn’t happen or by saying it was grossly exaggerated. Nonetheless the opposing views held by both parties led to violence which still remains present today.

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