In the period of 1949-1969, the people of Northern Ireland were faced with a number of problems. As a part of the United Kingdom, it was the most poverty-stricken nation within the union at the time and around half of housing in the city of Belfast had been destroyed in the bombings of April 1941 during the Second World War, by Nazi Germany. As a reward by Westminster, for the contributions which Northern Ireland had made to the war, when the welfare state, a series of social reforms, came into effect in Great Britain, it was also extended to the populous of Northern Ireland. The welfare state had an enormous effect on the health system in Northern Ireland through the National Health System or NHS, the Welfare State did great work in improving housing in Northern Ireland in this period and perhaps most importantly another area which the welfare state affected was education through the Education Bill of 1947 which radically changed the Northern Irish education system.
The Welfare State did great work in improving housing in Northern Ireland in this period. A survey in 1945 predicted that new houses would have to be built in order to keep up with the increasing population of Northern Ireland following the Second World War and to give the people a decent living standard. A Housing Trust was set up with the powers to build and allocate these houses to those they deemed in need of them and to clear the slums surrounding and within the major cities. By the year, 1965, 95,000 new homes had been built, about 40,000 of them by private corporations, with the remainder being built by the local councils or the Housing Trust. This did much to improve the problems rampant across Northern Ireland in relation to the quality and quantity of housing. Previously, people had been living in dark, cramped cottages, with families of up to eight people in homes with as few as two rooms, they were given homes that were equipped with modern necessities that provided a decent standard of living for their tenants. On top of this, the building of these homes provided part-time and temporary work for the approximately 30 percent of the unemployed in Northern Ireland at the time, improving the economic performance of Northern Ireland for a period of time. However, as with most issues in Northern Ireland, housing was not immune to the religious and ethnic divides present in Northern Ireland. When it came to selecting the new tenants of houses, Catholic-Nationalists tended to be discriminated in favour of Protestant-Unionists. The Housing Trust typically allocated the houses fairly, based on need. However, in the 12 local councils located to the west of the River Bann and the Bann Valley, particularly in Dungannon, (London)Derry and Omagh discrimination against Catholics was prevalent. In one case a family who was squatting in a new house were expelled and the house was instead given to a 19-year-old single Protestant woman, clearly against the need-based system of the Housing Trust. One reason why the Catholics were discriminated against here was because the Unionist Government had refused to get rid of the property qualification to vote in local council elections. A property owner alone had the right to vote in local elections. The area of (London)Derry’s had its local council voting system heavily rigged at the time through a process called “gerrymandering” to give an area which was sixty percent Catholic, a local council controlled by the unionist minority, they feared that if to many Catholics were given houses, the Unionist dominated council would quickly lose control, as a council house would entitle its inhabitants a vote which could be used against them. Once more, these social reforms are seen to contribute to the tensions between these ethno-religious groupings. Despite the importance of providing social housing for those who cannot afford housing for themselves or that are living in squalor, it still managed to cause further discrimination.
The welfare state had a significant impact on health. The establishment of the NHS in the late 1940s benefitted the people of Northern Ireland greatly. It guaranteed free consultations with doctors, as well as free medical care to all patients. A Hospitals’ Authority was formed in order to supervise the public hospitals. As a result, hospitals became better organised. Local health authorities took charge of general health care, child and maternity services, sanitation and home help schemes. The Northern Ireland General Health Services Board was set up to supervise these services. Health standards improved greatly and diseases such as tuberculosis and polio were almost totally eradicated, which was greatly enabled by the tackling of the scourge by the Northern Ireland Tuberculosis Authority. By 1962 Northern Ireland had the lowest death rate in the UK, having had the worst in 1940.
However, as is the case with most divisive issues in Northern Ireland, there were sectarian and ethno-national divides. The Catholic Mater Hospital in Belfast was owned and ran by the Mercy Nuns, an order of Roman Catholic Nuns. They feared that the state-run Hospitals’ Authority would threaten their independence, particularly due to the fact that the Unionist of government at the time saw the state as a Protestant-Unionist land for a Protestant-Unionist people. The order would also have conflicting beliefs with regard to healthcare than those of the Protestant faith would have, particularly in relation to the advocation of contraception and other medical procedures. When the state forced them to choose to be fully in or fully out, the nuns refused to join the scheme, resulting in no building grants for the hospital itself or state payments for its patients. Due to this, Catholics were put into an awkward situation. They had to support their own hospitals voluntarily through subscriptions and donations, while the state-run hospitals were being financed through the taxes that they paid.
Perhaps most importantly another area which the welfare state affected was education. The Education Bill of 1947, similar to the Education Act 1944 passed by Westminster for England, Scotland and Wales, changed education in Northern Ireland entirely. Free primary and secondary education would now be provided for all. This act led to a major increase in those attending school, approximately eventually reaching near full attendance by 1962. A new exam was also brought in, the Eleven Plus Examination that was taken at the end of primary education. At the age of 11, all school children sat the exam, of these the 25% who passed, the most academic group, went on to continue their education in grammar schools while the other 75% who failed went on to attend vocational colleges. This presented an enormous change in the school system. As numbers attending school increased the numbers attending third level education jumped also. This in turn led to a far more educated workforce which would prove to be very beneficial to the economy. However, despite all this progress, Catholic-Nationalists were provided unequal rights. The Welfare State and the Education Act of 1947 set up a number of state schools which received grants of one hundred percent, paying for everything that the schools needed to teach the students. Nevertheless, there was contention between Catholic and Protestant groups over the curriculum that should be thought in schools. Catholic-Nationalists wanted Irish history along with Catholicism to be taught in religious education, as well as the Irish language. Protestants-Unionists wanted British history and Protestantism taught in religious education. The Catholic-Nationalists decided to withdraw from these state schools and set up their own independent schools. These while still state subsidised, however they only received 65% grants. This meant that again Catholic-Nationalists had to pay for their own services while supporting the state services by taxes. In spite of this, 90% of Catholic-Nationalist students received scholarships. Yet again this led to increased tensions. But the new education system had another effect. Smart, Young and Educated Catholic-Nationalists who may have previously not been able to afford education as they may have come from families that could not afford to send them to school could now be given the opportunity to attend school due to the free admission system introduce as part of the Education Reforms. This led to the emergence of a new group of young, smart and educated Catholic-Nationalist in the 1960’s who were ready to stand up and fight for their rights, importantly as British Citizens, they avoided talking of the end of partition, instead wishing for their equal rights within Northern Ireland as British Citizens equal to the Unionists. John Hume, a figurehead of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association or NICRA and co-founder of the Social Democratic Labour Party or SDLP was one example of these newly educated Catholic-Nationalists.
It can be seen clearly that the Welfare State had an enormous effect on each of education, housing and healthcare. It improved dramatically the living standards of many Northern Ireland citizens. However, each of the areas have examples of a lack of equality between Catholics and Protestants. The Welfare State also had a knock-on effect in a number of areas. It would prove to be just one more factor which partially contributed to the Troubles and the civil rights movement which were soon to follow, especially the discrimination in housing and the education of young Catholics.