When I arrived in Londonderry — Derry, as I learned to call it — in Northern Ireland in 1964, there was a political march going on. Several banners carried the legend ‘One Man One Vote,’ and I turned to my Irish friend in bewilderment.
‘What are they on about? This is part of the British Isles — we’ve had universal suffrage since 1918!’
‘Not over here,’ was the reply. ‘Only Protestants get to vote round here.’
I couldn’t believe it. Coming from the ‘swinging city’ of London I hadn’t given church attendance in any kind of building a thought for years. And this was still part of the British Isles, wasn’t it? My friend explained that only property-owners were eligible to vote, and most the property-owners in the city were Protestant so they, effectively, were the main voters. Plus, those who were employers were entitled to have the use of their employees’ votes — and their workers were mainly Catholic.
When I’d finished seething with indignation, I had another question.
‘What does that mean?’ I indicated the small crowd nearby chanting ‘Vote for Claude, the Catholic Prod’, their Ulster accent making this a rhyming couplet.
Claude, it transpired, was Claude Wilton, a solicitor who supported Ulster’s burgeoning Civil Rights movement. ‘Prod’ and ‘Proddy’ being the widely used terms for a protestant, ‘Catholic Prod’ was the only term that could cover this new phenomenon of moderate.
I learned much, during that year and following years as I strengthened my friendships among the people of Derry — on both sides of their self-imposed divide. I learned that religion and politics were bound as tight as the stripes in a candy cane. I learnt that the Northern Irish can detect catholicism or protestantism on sight — a useful skill when a fight is brewing — and I learnt that if you are not Northern Irish you will be asked your religion on meeting. I learnt that saying ‘I’m English’ was essential to get your boyfriend out of trouble if that question was asked in the wrong way. Religion was essential on forms too: you had to put something, even if it was “haemophiliac.”
I learnt that it’s so important that Protestants maintain their priority that a homeless single woman will be thrown out of a flat she has been lent while she is having her baby, if the housing estate is Protestant and she isn’t. I learnt that Protestants won’t use a Catholic milkman if they can find a Protestant one, even if they have to wait an extra hour for their morning tea…These were extremes, of course, and by no means all the people I met were like that. But many of the older ones were.
In short I learned enough to know that although the community I lived in now seemed to speak English, its attitudes and values had nothing in common with the England I had left. Protestant and Catholic in Northern Ireland were separate tribes, with a long history of antagonism — and England had been guilty of stirring the trouble every foot of the way. From the land seizures in Norman times, through the iniquitous settlements imposed by Cromwell that gave his soldiers ‘plantation rights’ across Irish lands, to the contemporary prejudices and inequalities in status, this country had suffered at the hands of the English.
I married an Ulsterman, and made Belfast my home. For all its rough edges, I loved the city and its crazy humour, and by the time we had our two babies we had found a group of like-minded friends. We could feel the ‘Troubles’ brewing again in the early 1970s, but we thought our broadmindedness would carry us through — until the English troops came in, bringing sandbags to our doorways, barricades to our shopping precincts, barbed wire around our buildings and CS gas blasting into our air. We lost friends to prison cells, and to bullets. It took years of negotiation by good men like John Hume to secure peace in the Good Friday Agreement, and by that time I had come home to England.
And now it’s fifty years since Bloody Sunday, when British soldiers shot into a Civil Rights protest march, which became the catalyst for years of violence and the return of the IRA — but we’ve had years of peace since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement promised to ensure Ireland would never again be divided.
So what’s happening now? Brexit has created a border, whatever way you look at it. The Good Friday Agreement has been transgressed, and many in Northern Ireland are saying it is now invalid. Their cities are daubed with angry graffiti again and once more filled with rioters and police struggling to contain them. We’re staring another decade of Troubles in the face.
During the first lockdown in England, when the first warnings came about the way things were were going, I hunted out and got together all my notes about living in Belfast and watching tension grow into violent conflict. I wrote it all up — not as a history but as a novel, using all the facts but showing them through the viewpoint of naive ex-hippy, a flower-child from the late 60s, finding herself a young mother in the centre of a city increasingly in turmoil. To my protagonist Lee, All you need is Love, but can that mantra help her family and friends survive when Get out or be Burned out is scrawled on her wall every night?
The Price of Bread by Crysse Morrison, is published by Hobnob Press (ISBN 978–1–906978–85–3) £8.95 — available online or from the publisher. Bookshops and book groups especially welcome.