In the 100th anniversary year of Ireland’s partition, John Palmer surveys the conflicts in the gerrymandered state and looks at prospects for a united Ireland and a rump UK
Is there any future for the United Kingdom as we know it? Growing Scottish demands for independence, Welsh insistence on full ‘home rule’, and calls from the north of England for a radical transfer of powers away from Whitehall to the English cities and regions suggest there may not be.
In the wake of Brexit (very unpopular in Northern Ireland), public opinion also seems to be edging towards an eventual reunification of Ireland. Little wonder that celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the British government’s enforced partition of Ireland in 1921 have been so muted.
The treaty ending the 1919-1922 Irish war of independence resulted in a mini-state created by partitioning six of the nine counties of Ireland’s northern Ulster province. It was engineered to create a loyalist pro-British UK enclave. The other three Ulster counties became part of the Irish Free State (now the Republic of Ireland).
Northern Ireland was run on sectarian religio-political lines by Unionists confident of a seemingly permanent majority in the Stormont Parliament. The local government electoral system would not have been tolerated elsewhere in the UK. Rigged electoral boundaries and a tendency to “vote early – vote often” ensured impregnable Unionist majorities even in strongly nationalist/Catholic areas like Derry.
The Northern state was policed by the ‘B-Specials’ – a thuggish Loyalist paramilitary force – alongside the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the British army. The Catholic/nationalist community was subject to episodic pogroms, sometimes associated with triumphalist displays by the ultra-loyalist Orange Order marching through nationalist communities.
In 1922 Catholic workers were killed or driven out from the giant Belfast shipyards and other workplaces. Homes were besieged in Catholic areas and families forced to flee the city and seek refuge in the south. Loyalist mobs were watched by the police and B-Specials without intervention.
Little attempt was made to disguise the anti-Catholic bias of the regime. The government in London washed its hands of any direct responsibility for what was happening, citing the constitutional terms of the Partition Treaty. As late as the 1960s, Labour Party delegates to the annual conference were prohibited by the NEC from debating the record of the Stormont regime for alleged ‘constitutional’ reasons.
British politicians averted their eyes from the blatant rigging of local election boundaries and the arrangement in the early decades whereby (mainly pro-Unionist) business owners were given a second vote in local elections! The regime itself ignored accusations of disregard of human rights and democracy. As the first Unionist Prime Minister of the Six County regime, Lord Craigavon, proudly declared: “All I boast of is that we are a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant state.”
There are profound historical ironies in all this. The origins of Irish republicanism lie as much in the non-conformist Protestant communities in the north of Ireland as those in Catholic Ireland. Many of the executed leaders of the failed 1798 rising by the ‘United Irishmen’ were non-conformist Protestant radicals inspired by the French Revolution.
But in subsequent decades, after the bloody repression of the 1798 uprising, the British government adopted policies systematically favouring the Protestant community. A strong advocate of this strategy was Lord Randolph Churchill, Winston Churchill’s father. Northern Catholic nationalists were treated as a subject, ‘disloyal’ and ‘subversive’ community. Protestant tenant farmers were given privileged terms for buying their land denied to Catholics.
After 1921 successive Irish governments adopted a constitution with a shameless, doctrinally ‘Catholic’ bias. But Irish governments did not overtly discriminate against non-Catholics in the way Protestant triumphalism was imposed on Catholics in the north.
Over the decades, attempts by remnants of the IRA to launch cross-border guerrilla campaigns were a complete failure. But the stifling political culture in Northern Ireland meant that progressive political and social forces made little progress in either the Catholic/nationalist or the Protestant/Unionist communities.
The trade unions were a partial exception. Inspired by the revolutionary socialist ideas of James Connolly – one of the 1916 leaders – there were instances of joint struggles by workers in both communities – but in the 1930s these rarely extended beyond limited economic and social issues.
In the south, successive conservative Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael governments (products of the post-treaty Irish Civil War) ran anti-partition propaganda campaigns with no success outside the US. But, inspired by the Black civil rights movement in the US, a mass campaign was launched in the 1960s for civil rights and democratic reforms. This proved to be a dramatic turning point.
The civil rights movement was led by young leftists in People’s Democracy like Mike Farrell, Bernadette Devlin and Eamonn McCann. It was supported by a wide coalition, mainly but not solely drawn from the Catholic community. It was met with violent repression by the RUC. That, in turn, sparked a major revival of the then-dormant IRA and its political affiliate, Sinn Féin.
The bloody carnage which followed led to a disastrous bid to impose internment without trial on ‘subversive’ republicans and civil rights activists. While thousands were detained, support for the IRA grew exponentially and survived the appalling blunders and loss of innocent lives which inevitably accompany urban guerrilla warfare.
The introduction of crack units of the British army to crush the IRA in the 1970s turned civil unrest into open urban guerrilla warfare. Only now has there been any (limited) public accounting for the massacres of unarmed civilians in Derry, Belfast and elsewhere by the British army – as well as by Loyalist and Republican paramilitaries.
After more than 25 years of bloody stalemate it became clear that neither the British government nor the IRA could achieve military success. Negotiations between the IRA, Loyalists and the British state (but with close involvement by the United States) led to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Building on a permanent ‘ceasefire’, the agreement included a complex ‘power sharing’ system of government by elected representatives of both communities.
Subsequently a Stormont ‘coalition’ between the hardline Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin has ensured a fragile peace and has produced some elements of political, social and cultural equality between the two communities. But the precariousness of the GFA has now been revealed in the wake of Brexit.
The EU-UK withdrawal agreement negotiated by the Johnson government was only approved by Parliament with the support of the DUP. But to the ire of the DUP, the small print of that deal leaves Northern Ireland inside the EU single market and customs union with the rest of the UK outside. This necessitated an Irish Sea customs trade border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The DUP denounced the Tory deal as ‘rank treachery’ and, in the wake of angry Loyalist demonstrations and threats of a return to violence, there are fears for the peace agreement itself. The DUP has now split into rival factions and electoral support for Unionism as a whole is waning and divided between three parties. Even more striking is the evidence that support among younger, anti-Brexit voters from a unionist background is switching from Unionism as a whole to ‘non-confessional’ parties such as Alliance and the Greens.
Polling evidence also suggests that opposition to an eventual united Ireland may be waning. Many northern Unionists have applied for a second Irish passport. A poll in the pro-Unionist Belfast Telegraph recently predicted that Sinn Féin would emerge as the largest party in the NI elections, due to be held next year.
The responsibility for heading the Stormont government would, in this event, pass for the first time from a Unionist party to an Irish Republican party. Meanwhile, according to a recent poll in the Irish Times, Sinn Féin may also become the largest party in the Dublin Dáil (Parliament) for the first time since 1918.
Any unification process will necessarily be gradual. Initially it may involve little more than a ‘shared island’ emphasis on cross-border economic and social developments. There is debate about All-Ireland ‘citizens assemblies’ to explore possible future constitutional changes, not least to reassure those who identify as ‘British’ rather than ‘Irish’ in Northern Ireland. Formal negotiations on the precise terms and a timetable for referenda on unification in both parts of Ireland might take place after a few years.
The entire process could still be threatened by a return to violence by Loyalist paramilitaries. But, conversely, it would be strengthened if the campaign for Scottish independence and demands for radical devolution in Wales and the English regions succeed.
Such dramatic changes would surely make a comprehensive ‘constitutional convention’ for whatever remains of the UK unavoidable. Such a convention would have to grapple with more than the fragmenting UK. Could it avoid long overdue reform of our grotesquely undemocratic electoral system? And what future for the once imperial UK monarchy? After all, the creation of the United Kingdom – through the conquest and subordination of the Celtic nations – was itself the first major step to the British empire. Time for the left to get its thinking cap on.