Unrest in the north of Ireland – the root cause is Partition

One hundred years ago today, the British government partitioned Ireland. Geoff Bell and Nadine Finch assess the situation now.

As Irish people mourn, celebrate, reflect on or simply get bored with this year’s centenary of the foundation of the statelet in the six north eastern counties of the island, it is fair to suggest that never before in these past hundred years has the British government been so despised.

The recent riots in Belfast and Derry, in predominantly loyalist areas, are indicators. So too are the growth of support in the north for a united Ireland and increasing accusations from the nationalist/republican community that for the last ten years successive British governments have neglected to build on, or even implement, parts of the Good Friday Agreement. There is also the widespread debate within the south of Ireland about what a new united Ireland would look like. Even in Britain, there are traditional unionist voices, such as the Economist and the Daily Telegraph, publishing articles saying a united Ireland is on its way, and, moreover, that this would be no bad thing.

In part, this can be explained by the incompetence and deceit of the Johnson government. How Johnson promised the northern unionists that there would be no border across the Irish Sea only to erect one. How he has annoyed nationalists/republicans by saying that there will be no border poll “for a very long time”, and, as with May and Cameron before him, defaulted on many promises on human rights and cross-border cooperation contained in the Good Friday and subsequent agreements.

However, it would be too simplistic to blame the current emerging political crisis in the north of Ireland on the disreputable elements now occupying 10 Downing Street.  At the heart of the matter is the very event the Northern Ireland centenary is marking. By way of explanation, a bit of history is necessary.

In the early 20th century, the Liberal government in the UK was on course to deliver ‘Home Rule’ for a 32-county Ireland, a country still owned and run by Britain. But for many in the British ruling class, while this did not concede total Irish independence, it still struck at heart of imperial dreams and interests. So, they vowed to stop it. The loyalists in north-east Ireland organised and openly imported guns for the Ulster Volunteer Force. Their leader, Edward Carson proclaimed: “They tell us this is treason. It is not for men who have such strakes as we have at issue to trouble the cost. We are prepared to take the consequences.”

On behalf of the Tory Party its leader, Andrew Bonar Law, promised, “We shall not be guided by considerations, we shall not be restrained by the bonds, which would influence us in any ordinary political struggle. We shall use any means – whatever seem likely to be most effective.” He also taunted the Liberals, and indeed the entire British constitutional tradition: “There are things stronger than parliamentary majorities.”

One of these things was the British army, whose officers at the Curragh barracks near Dublin declared they would not move against the unionists, if they were so ordered. The Times and many others in the British media also endorsed Carson and his UVF, as did most members of the House of Lords.

This was the most serious armed challenged to an elected government the modern British state had faced. It was at least partially successful. Just before the outbreak of the 1914-18 war, the Liberal government said that the six north-eastern counties would be temporally excluded from a devolved Irish parliament. This sowed the seed of the permanent partition of Ireland.

There followed Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising and the UK general election of December 1918, when Sinn Féin won 70 per cent of the Irish vote. In accordance with the manifesto on which they fought the general election, Sinn Féin MPs, and those from the other more moderate republican party that won a few seats, refused to take up their seats in the Westminster parliament and formed their own parliament in Dublin, the Dail Eireann.

The War of Independence followed, which ended with the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, which partitioned Ireland. Even the northern Irish unionists did not vote for this in the House of Commons: Carson’s intention was always to use “Ulster” resistance to defeat a separate Irish parliament of any description. He said the Tories had betrayed him by giving most of Ireland self-rule. He was not the last leader of northern unionism to make this accusation of Tory betrayal.

The Treaty itself was another in a long line of British deceits. The Sinn Féin negotiators were told that a future boundary commission would review the frontier of the six-county northern state and remove two-and-a half counties from the six county ‘Ulster’, thus making it untenable. They were also threatened with a “terrible war”, if they did not sign the treaty. A civil war in the south of Ireland over the treaty followed, but the northern statelet had been born and the boundary commission later confirmed a six-county Ulster, designed to ensure that loyalists maintained political control for the foreseeable future.

The obvious and still relevant argument against partition was that, if it was problematic to create a united Irish state in which unionists, who then made up a quarter of the population, were not willing to participate, then how was it viable to create a Northern Irish statelet in which Catholics, who made up more than one third of the population, were expected to accept unionist domination?  

Instability was bult in from the start. The leadership of northern unionists – generally Protestant wealthy capitalists and landed gentry – was so worried about the large Catholic minority in its midst that they built a society in which they made it clear that the Catholics were not welcome. The deeply Calvinist faith of many of these Protestants, that told them they were ‘saved’ and selected by God, gave them a sense of superiority over Catholics that justified the anti-Catholic discrimination for which the northern state was to become infamous. But it was the partition of Ireland which was the foundation of this shaky house.

The Northern Irish civil rights movement began to challenge this discrimination in the late 1960s. Patchwork attempts at reform began, usually dictated by Britain.  For the most they were unsuccessful and, when the British army was sent in to help quell the growing Catholic rebellion in 1969, British priorities changed, often embracing the search for a military solution to that rebellion.

Nevertheless, they still insisted on righting the most obvious abuses of the north of Ireland statelet, fearful as they were of the damage being done to their international reputation. This began to alienate the unionists in the north. “Ulster Says No” became that all-embracing slogan of unionism: no to civil rights, no to power-sharing with Catholics, no all-Ireland consultative bodies, no to abortion and no to marriage equality, the latter two challenging their literal reading of the bible.

Later, the Democratic Unionist Party became the largest unionist party, primarily because they also said “No” to the Good Friday Agreement. Their social conservatism and very strong connections with the evangelical and fundamentalist Free Presbytarian Church of Ulster, also led the DUP to embrace illiberal views at a time when large parts of the population, both north and south of the border imposed by partition, were beginning to oppose discrimination, whether religious or social.

However, they seriously misled the strength of the Orange card that they had played so often in the past and said “no” to every Brexit put forward in Parliament, until the 2019 election result rendered them of no further use to the Conservative Party.  

The DUP’s support for Brexit further damaged the party, including among many Protestants who feared economic damage. Then, Arlene Foster’s alliance with Johnson backfired over his agreement to an Irish Sea border.

The DUP now see traitors all around them. When the loyalist youth recently rioted, DUP’s leader Arlene Foster told them to stop fighting the police because “the real enemy is Sinn Fein”. But, of course, it is not Sinn Féin who created the Irish Sea border, it is Boris Johnson, the one-time star of the DUP’s annual conference.

Meanwhile, the DUP is, according to opinion polls, losing votes to the Traditional Unionist Voice, that now accuses the DUP of the betrayal of loyalism by making friends with Johnson in the first place, and to the Alliance party, whose liberalism is attracting a significant number of middle class Protestants, alienated by the fundamentalist views of the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster.  All of this means is that, according to current projections, Sinn Féin will win the most seats at the next Assembly election.

Therefore, Unionism is in deep trouble. This is the root cause of the revolt against Foster, although her decision to abstain, and not vote against, a motion in the Northern Ireland Assembly to ban the use of anti-gay “conversion therapy” was used to galvinise other DUP Assembly Members and MPs. In the event, there was no vote on her continuing as DUP leader, as she announced that she would stand down. The contenders so far are likely to lead the DUP in an increasingly fundamentalist and isolationist direction.  

As for Britain, as its leaders have said in the past, Northern Ireland no longer has the same strategic or economic interest. This does not mean they do not have a political interest. The increasing revelations concerning past collaboration between British security forces and sectarian loyalist murder gangs and the continuing attempts to block delayed inquests and inquiries into murders in the period from the 1970s to the 1990s suggests many in the UK’s ruling elite retain their traditional pro-union allegiances. The promotion by May and the Tory right of the ‘precious union’ indicated the same.

The rush of both Johnson and Keir Starmer to openly wrap themselves in the union jack suggests they also bask in old imperial glories. It may make common sense for Britain to finally leave Ireland and promote a united Ireland, but the problem is that there are not many times in history that the British ruling class has used its common sense in relation to Ireland, which it still views as a badly behaving colony.

 Geoff Bell has written extensively on Ireland. His most recent book is Hesitant Comrades – the Irish Revolution and the British Labour Movement. He is a member of Hackney North CLP. Nadine Finch is a former barrister who specialised in human rights law and is the author of several books on family, immigration and comparative law.

Image: No Irish Sea Border graffiti on a wall in Stroud Street, Belfast. Author: Whiteabbey, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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