Keith Kyle, Visiting Professor of History, University of Ulster
This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.
JEFF MARTIN: This is Common Ground. In this edition of Common Ground, a
historian discusses Northern Ireland where the dispute between Catholics and Protestants is
KEITH KYLE: It’s different over here. Over here we have to teach our children the
difference between right and wrong, the difference between King William and King James.
MARTIN: Now with talks involved with all the parties underway, there is a chance, but
just a chance, that an agreement might be reached.
KYLE: Strongly underline the word “might” in what you said then. I think, I can see a
possibility, but it it’s not a very, I wouldn’t put money on it.
MARTIN: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape
events. It is produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Jeff Martin.
MARTIN: Keith Kyle is a visiting professor of history at the University of Ulster. He
whimsically refers to himself as a specialist in insoluble problems, a list on which he
includes the Middle East, Cyprus, and Northern Ireland. With negotiations involving the
British and Irish governments, Sinn Fein and the Ulster unionists now underway, there is some
hope for a peace settlement that would put an end to decades of bloody struggle. The partition
of Ireland dates back to 1921, when the Protestant majority living in the six counties of the
north chose to remain a part of the United Kingdom. That has never sat well with the sizable
Catholic minority in those counties, or with the Irish government. I began my recent
conversation with Keith Kyle, talking about the sovereignty issue.
MARTIN: The question of British sovereignty there is really at the sort of core of the
whole dispute in some ways, isn’t it?
KYLE: Oh yes. I mean the decision was made in the 1921 agreement between Britain and
Ireland, that Ireland would have its independence. It was not strictly speaking defined as
independence in 1921, but it was defined in 1946 so that it has been—I’m sorry 1949 it was
defined as independence—and the arrangement was that any county which wished to vote itself
out of the Irish free state was at liberty to do so and the six counties did vote themselves
MARTIN: And basically, where are we right now with the negotiations?
KYLE: Sinn Fein have now said that they will take part and they have signed the famous
Mitchell Principles which involve the Sinn Fein in renunciation permanently of the use of
force, and committing themselves to the eventual disarmament of all the parties in Northern
Ireland. That does not mean that the IRA is committed. The Sinn Fein always insists that they
are an independent organization. We know they’re not, but nevertheless, that is the pretense
which it suits everybody to have. It suits the British government and the Irish government to
have. A lot of the Unionists in Northern Ireland are very indignant that we keep up this
pretense that the Sinn Fein is separate from the IRA, but nevertheless, it’s the only way
really of carrying out, carrying on negotiations.
MARTIN: In fact, it was shortly after this interview that all parties finally agreed to
participate in the negotiations which are being headed by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell.
Mitchell has said he is optimistic, but if you look at the positions of Sinn Fein and the
Ulster Unionists, the situation looks hopeless. I asked Kyle if he sees cause for optimism.
KYLE: Not really, not for much optimism. I did write a pamphlet for the University of
Ulster putting?? out where, what I saw as a possible way ahead, based on the framework
documents that were jointly signed by the British and the Irish governments as a suggestion,
as a foundation of these negotiations. The documents, the framework documents, were rejected
by the Ulster Unionists. The British government is committed to putting any proposed solution
to the vote, so it is just possible that out of these talks may come some package which will
certainly not be accepted by all the Unionists, certainly not by Ian Paisley’s Democratic
Unionist Party, probably not by the Ulster Unionist Party, which could be put then to the
people and there might be a majority in its favor, if the, Nationalist community turns out in
full strength and does not abstain as the Sinn Fein supporters often do on votes of this sort,
and if to the 40 plus, 40% plus, of the Nationalist community, you ad a proportion of the
Unionist community, it doesn’t have to be a majority, then you might get a positive vote for
this proposed solution. It would be supported by both British and the Irish governments, you
see, and plenty of publicity given to it. So it is conceivable that a solution could emerge.
Something like the framework documents which were produced by British and Irish governments
and it might be endorsed by the people. The people are sick and tired of this whole business.
But that is one thing , I think, that the Ulster Unionists are afraid of, and they’re afraid
that, that’s the one thing which gives them an incentive to take part in these discussions, so
as to steer them away, as far as they can, from they regard as the objectionable features of
the framework documents.
MARTIN: What’s sort of the core political configuration that’s in these framework
KYLE: In reality, the framework documents ensure the continuation of the partition of
Ireland. They ensure that a government will be established in the North in which both
communities would participate. But the essential thing is, and that’s the point that I’ve
tried to ram home in any of these writings that I’ve done on the subject, the bottom line is
that Northern Ireland stays inside the United Kingdom until and unless a majority of the
people voted otherwise. Now that is a proposition that has been accepted by the Irish government.
Now, given that, this bottom line, this framework, the language in which the framework is
couched is very much a public and nationalist language. All sorts of phrases about Ireland and
the idea of all-Irish cooperation and all kinds of semantic concessions to the Nationalist
side come in this document. But the sheer essence of it is that there will be no change in the
partition of Ireland unless the people of the North vote in favor of it.
MARTIN: Does it include economic and cultural kinds of things that make it appealing to
KYLE: Yes, the cooperation of North and South, yes it does. Whether it appeals to Sinn
Fein or not, one would have to see, but it would appeal to, cause Sinn Fein actually has very
little electoral support in the South, you know. It runs the political party there and it did
just this last election, won one seat in the Doyle. Before, it had not even won one seat, but
now it actually, tremendous triumph, it won one seat so let’s not exaggerate the importance of
Sinn Fein. But it’s politically important because it’s linked through the IRA. But, as far as
opinion in Ireland is concerned, there are quite a number of things which will make, which
will recommend the framework proposals to the people of the Republic of Ireland.
MARTIN: The economic and cultural issues in the dispute are important. It is a largely
undisputed fact that the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland was subjected to blatant
discrimination by Protestants in housing, jobs, and other vital matters. So, if there could be
progress on those issues, perhaps the sovereignty question would be a little less critical to
the Irish government and the Catholic minority in the North.
KYLE: I think the government of the Republic of Ireland, both political parties in fact,
the Sinn Fein, the Feina Fael which runs the government at the moment and the Feina Fael which
ran the last government, they both of them are realistic. They know that it’s not going to
help the people of Ireland to import into the Republic a million bitterly hostile Protestant
people. They know the thing has to be settled by consensus, but they want various expressions
of the unity of the island, not the political unity, but functional unity of the island of
Ireland. And they are quite prepared as part of the whole deal to work out measures for greater
cooperation between Ireland and the United Kingdom. You see, there’s three strands in this
negotiation, always have been. The North-South strand in Ireland and the East-West strand
between Ireland and Britain and the Constitutional relationship between the, the Constitutional
relationship in the North, between the two communities in the North. That’s always understood
that negotiations have these three strands, all of which must be pursued.
MARTIN: The way that one might find some resolution is by trying to find a consensus
that involves all three of those strands.
KYLE: You’ve absolutely summed it up and there are perfectly reasonable people around
who believe that that is a reasonable consensus. I mean, this is the Alliance Party, which
gets about, I think gets about 20% of the vote. That may exaggerate, maybe more like 15% of
the vote. That is a party, non-sectarian party, that’s allied to the Liberal Party in this
country. And they, for example, are perfectly willing to go along on these lines, and I think,
with some reservations, so are the Social Democratic Party which is the SDP, which is John
Humes’ party, the party that, the principle constitutional party of the Nationalist community
in the North. They’re prepared to go along these lines. But the problem really is the, well
two, the two, the Unionist Parties and the Sinn Fein. They’re the two problems.
MARTIN: In the United States we focus on the extreme elements, but you’re saying you
might be able to patch together a coalition of some of the more moderate forces, is that right?
KYLE: I put the, strongly underline the word “might” in what you said then. I think,
I can see a possibility, but it’s not a very, I wouldn’t put money on it. I mean, because
there’s very strong feeling within the Unionist community that they are being sold down the
river. The British government is not really terribly serious about wanting to keep Northern
Ireland in the United Kingdom and would prefer to sort of, make a kind of agreement which
would, not perhaps in one move, but in two or three moves time, end up with the North becoming
part of a United Ireland. They, they’re constantly on the alert to identify symptoms that they
see that Britain is prepared to write off Northern Ireland. Now, Mr. Blair made a very good
impression when he first became Prime Minister. He went to Belfast almost immediately when he
became Prime Minister and made his speech, said “I am a Unionist, and I regard that Northern
Ireland is a part of United Kingdom.” Now that made a good initial impression, but there’s an
awful lot of suspicion and animosity and doubts that need to be lived down before you get the
people, the Unionist people in Northern Ireland to get them to agree. But nevertheless there
is a lot of war weariness too.
MARTIN: Is that doubt at all fueled by this government’s approach to devolution?
KYLE: No, I don’t think so, because you see, the situation that we had before, before
these troubles started in 1969, the situation we had before was a devolved government in
Northern Ireland. It was called Stormont, after the building that was used, it was called
Stormont government and it was run on a straight one man, one vote basis , and the parties
were organized more or less according to religion, not, not totally, but substantially according
to religion. So the result is, because there were more Protestants than there were Catholics,
the Unionist Party always won every election and formed every government. And you know what
happens when one party runs the place for decades.
MARTIN: My guest in this edition of Common Ground is Keith Kyle, Visiting
Professor of History at the University of Ulster and we’re discussing Northern Ireland.
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JEFF MARTIN: After the Second World War, a number of social changes, prompted by the
government in London, including free secondary education for all, led to the development of a
Catholic middle class in Northern Ireland. In the 1960’s, inspired by what Martin Luther King
was doing in the American South, these Catholics demanded that the remaining discrimination,
practiced by the Stormont government cease. Keith Kyle explains that their earliest efforts
did not draw much support.
KEITH KYLE: And so the Republicans sat down and said, “We’ve go to do better, we’ve got
to try some other route. We must involve in these struggles, people who at the moment, are not
involved, people who would not join it because it was an IRA rising. We must be non-violent
and we must follow the example of Martin Luther King because that seems to be a useful way
ahead.” So there were various, that was a civil rights organization that was founded in the
North, which mobilized very large crowds. Now, the bulk of the people who turned out, the foot
soldiers, as it were of this crusade, were Catholics. In the front line, there was a real rainbow
coalition. There were Protestants, there were people, atheists, and so on. So that they were
able, this organization was able to produce, as we say, the first two ranks of any procession,
but the rest of it was provided by the Catholics. And when the Protestants saw the Catholics,
saw the processions coming, they said that’s a Catholic-Republican disorder and attacked it,
attacked them, and the trouble was that in those days the police were very largely Protestant
and they were, they were the police reserve which was militantly Protestant. And the various
members of the police reserve which are identified on film and that sort of thing, organized
attacks, physical attacks, on these processions. And then there was all the usual business,
you may remember, Martin Luther King, the same thing, they couldn’t get permission to, to
march, but they march all the same, and the confrontation with the police, the same sort of
procedure that happened there. Well, the British government demanded that the government in
Stormont, the devolved government of Northern Ireland should act rapidly because the demands
that were being presented were reasonable, in most people’s opinion in Britain. The legislation
governing elections were not up to date, not, hadn’t, been left behind. In Britain, for example,
everybody had a vote in local elections as well as in national elections. In Northern Ireland,
only rate payers had the vote and the boundaries were gerrymandered to insure, for example that
the substantially Catholic city of Londonderry, that it’s council was still run by Unionists,
by Protestants. The allocation of housing was unfair, the giving of jobs in local government
was rigged. So they did all these riots and processions and everything, demanding British rights
and for awhile, the British government tried to solve the thing by putting a great deal of
pressure on the Northern Ireland government, but after a bit, the Northern Ireland government
resigned. They said we, the rioting became so severe, initially Catholic, I suppose, but there
was a bad backlash and the Protestant crowds burnt the Catholics, rows of houses, burned the
Catholics out. Eventually the British Army was sent in to protect Catholic families. That’s
sometimes forgotten. The reason the British Army was sent in was because the Northern Ireland
Security Forces, were not, either not able or not willing to protect Catholic families from
the backlash, from the Unionist majority.
MARTIN: Up until this point, there had been no use of guns, but it was known that both
sides were stockpiling them. So a decision was made to conduct searches. Eventually this led
to open clashes.
KYLE: And then in Dublin, there was split between, as I said to, the IRA decided that
armed rebellion was not a good thing and they would work through peaceful non cooperation means.
Well, when the tensions began to rise in Belfast and Derry and other places, a number of the
IRA people rebelled against the political leadership, the Sinn Fein leadership of the time,
and formed a breakaway. The original IRA has now gone completely into legitimate politics and
has changed its name, so that the IRA, in effect became these, this rebel group, now it became
the IRA. Then violence started. Policeman were killed. The attacks were initially on policemen.
The police, as I say were always totally Protestant. You see, the point really was this, that
the Northern Ireland—it’s not a state—the Northern Ireland province, it was an autonomous
province, had been founded by, in essence, Unionists, by Protestants, who were unwilling to
live under an Irish Republic. Now the minority population which originally was about, I suppose
30% but is now well over 40%, disagreed with this and wished to be citizens of a United
Ireland. So in a way you could understand the Protestants, in the Protestant establishment
feeling that a Catholic or a Republican was simply not to be trusted because he owed no
loyalty, you see. So that, that was a sort of a, well… And, I mean in the last war for
example, quite a lot of feeling about that because the Northern Ireland, they were very
patriotic in the war. There’s a feeling that when Britain went to war, Ireland, the Republic
of Ireland, was not be relied upon, whereas in Northern Ireland, they contributed a very great
So things have changed a bit. I was in Northern Ireland as a reporter in the early years for
the BBC, in the early years of this trouble and, well, I’ll, let me give you an example. I,
the first person I spoke to on, when I went on this occasion, was a member of Stormont.
Untypically, because most of the Ulster Unionists were some?? landowners, untypically sort of
working class member of Stormont, and he said,” You want to come onto the Shankle Road,” which
is the principle Protestant street in Belfast. “You want to come down on Shankle Road to find
out what people really think.” I said, “Yes, but I will come onto Shankle Road to find out
what people think.” And so anyway, I made a deal with him that I would come along, without
cameras. It was part of the learning curve, you know, come along to his little drawing room.
He lived in a quite small working class row house, that I would come and join him and meet his
pals. It was the extraordinary evening I’ve ever been through, I think, except possibly in the
South of the United States in the 1950’s. But I went into this dwelling, and it was just, the
whole evening was one long stream of hate about the Catholics and why didn’t we see it? Why
couldn’t we see that they were traitors? And they talked of Dublin, as one would talk, many
people in those days talked of Moscow. They could not understand why we didn’t treat Dublin as
the equivalent of Moscow. So, this went on and then a question came up about, about a certain
area known as the Divas Flats. This was an area which, they, deliberate effort had been made
to produce flats, working class housing, well, public housing, which, into which would come
both Catholics and Protestants. It was an effort to get people to live together. And there was
a lot of trouble in Divas Flats, because of the football teams passing and the Unionist
football team passing, waving the Union Jack and some of the Catholics in Divas Flats, apparently
spitting on it, or throwing things at it or something of that sort. And then he said, “It’s
your flag too. What do you feel about your Union Jack being spat upon?” Well I said,” It is
my flag and I’d rather not have the Union Jack used for these, in these kinds of processions
in which we’re liable to have… He said, “It’s different over here. Over here we have to teach
our children the difference between right and wrong, the difference between King William and
MARTIN: Now then, a quick refresher in Irish and British history. In 1690, Britain’s
King William of Orange, a Protestant, defeated King James II, a Catholic, in two battles at
the Boyne River near Dublin and then at Derry, where he successfully warded off a siege of the
city that had been laid by James. Kyle notes that even today, Protestants assign great importance
to William’s victory.
KYLE: They teach each generation that King William stood for liberty. He stood for all
democracy, for all the things that we share. And the enemy, the devil figure was King James,
and papacy, and authoritarianism, that sort of thing. That is, that is… So, that was my initiation.
Now things have changed a bit since then. I wouldn’t want to exaggerate the extent of the
change but there is a general realization that if Northern Ireland is to be ruled by themselves,
that is if they’re going to get any self rule at all again, it will have to be a form of
consensus between the Protestants, and the Unionists and the Constitutional Catholics. Most
people I think are ready for that. What they are not ready for, a lot of them not ready for,
is that to be linked to cross border cooperation of an institutional kind. They’re willing to
have cross-border cooperation ad hoc kind but not an institutional kind.
MARTIN: My guest on Common Ground has been Keith Kyle, Visiting Professor of
History at the University of Ulster. I’m Jeff Martin.
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
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