‘Dominant party systems’ the norm in Europe

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2008), Volume 16

Paris, 13 May 1968—a demonstrator with a broom ‘for sweeping away the police state’. ’68ers in Northern Ireland and around the world believed that they were engaged in a global struggle against capitalism, imperialism and bureaucracy. (Serge Hambourg, Berkeley Art Museum)

Paris, 13 May 1968—a demonstrator with a broom ‘for sweeping away the police state’. ’68ers in Northern Ireland and around the world believed that they were engaged in a global struggle against capitalism, imperialism and bureaucracy. (Serge Hambourg, Berkeley Art Museum)

The context in which the civil rights crisis should be placed stretches beyond the islands on the edge of Europe’s Atlantic coast to take in the whole continent. Northern Ireland was not entirely a ‘place apart’; it was one variation upon a wider European pattern. The French sociologist Raymond Aron highlighted that the post-war era in Western Europe was marked by ‘dominant party systems’. ‘It is not a one-party system,’ he explained. ‘Opposition parties exist, and intellectual and personal freedoms are respected. But . . . no-one can see any possibility of the majority party being replaced in power.’
Like the Unionist Party, West Germany’s Christian Democratic Union had been in government since the creation of the state. The Federal Republic also restricted certain political activities, and justified them by the threat posed by the other half of the country (communist East Germany). The West Berlin police were even more aggressive than the Royal Ulster Constabulary in defending the status quo, treating protests against the regime as illegitimate and using guns and gas to clear the streets of ‘fifth columnists’. To their enemies, Stormont was the ‘Orange State’ and the Federal Republic was the ‘CDU State’.
Northern Ireland was shaped by and helped to shape the key events of post-war European history: reconstruction, the Cold War, the affluent society, European integration and ’68. The last has been overtaken by its own legend—one that distances development in Derry and Belfast from what happened in Paris and Berlin. ’68 in Western Europe has been commemorated as the moment the ‘Baby Boomers’ came of age and rebelled against everything that was out of date and repressive. Northern Ireland lacked a distinct youth culture, so Northern Ireland was not part of the youth revolt. Turning again to the primary sources turns ’68 into a political rather than a cultural rebellion, however. ’68ers in Northern Ireland and everywhere else in Western Europe believed that they were engaged in a global struggle against capitalism, imperialism and bureaucracy.

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