This year marks a significant centenary for the Nationalists of the North of Ireland. The year of 1914 saw the climax of their struggle for Irish Home Rule and the great gamble of their leaders, including their own Joe Devlin, in supporting Britain’s Great War.
Having gradually freed themselves from centuries of systematic oppression, the Northern Catholics entered a phase of rapid National development. They were in the vanguard of the movement for Home Rule and looked forward to being a major force in a self-governing Ireland within the Empire as promised by the British Liberal Government. And they were also part of a great social reform movement with their Liberal and Labour allies in the British State.
This was a great improvement on their experience over the previous three centuries. The Catholics of the North had barely survived England’s colonial project in Ireland that had earmarked them for extermination and replacement by a Plantation. Their destiny to be cleansed from the lands intended to be colonised was no different from that of the rest of the Irish. But the Northern Catholics found themselves in a different situation from the rest of native Ireland when the colony established amongst them, unlike the others, survived and developed into a substantial society around them.
And so the Catholics of the North found themselves with a colonial problem and the colony which had grown into industrial Belfast found itself with a native problem.
It started to go wrong for the Northern Catholics with the Ulster colonial rebellion supported by the British Unionist Party, against the Liberal Home Rule proposal. The Unionist Party was an alliance of the Conservative Party and Joe Chamberlain’s social reform Liberals and it was the main British party of state.
The Ulster colony, unlike the Protestant ascendancy on the rest of the island, did not need the natives in order to exist and it objected to the Liberal proposal that the Imperial connection be reconstituted on democratic lines with themselves in the position of a new minority. Ulster was a partner with Britain in the great Imperial project of ‘civilising’ the world and it was not about to submit to a majority from the less ‘civilised’ and ‘backward’ section of the native populace.
And so, in alliance with British Unionism, the Ulster colony frustrated the Imperial Home Rule future through the bringing of force into Irish politics. In some desperation, and to prove loyalty to England in its vital hour, the Home Rule leaders entered into Britain’s Great War on Germany in an attempt to circumvent the Unionist obstruction to Home Rule and on a pledge that the ‘war for small nations’ and for ‘self-determination’ would include Ireland.
But the Northern Catholics who supported Britain’s Great War and who made a great ‘blood sacrifice’ for it found themselves victims of a Great Fraud. In 1920/1 they were separated from the rest of the Nation of which they formed a very significant and substantial part and the National development that was entering its momentous phase.
And they not only got Partition but much, much worse – they got ‘Northern Ireland.’
In 1920/1 the Catholic community in what was becoming the political construct of ‘Northern Ireland’, suffered a disaster not experienced by others on the island.
Britain not only Partitioned Ireland, cutting off the Catholics of the North from the rest of the Irish Nation, but also decided to cut off the Northern Catholics from the social reform movement they had been part of in the UK, placing them within a new political construct within which they were to form a permanent minority under the heel of the people who had deprived them of their historic destiny.
That act represented a Catastrophe for the Northern Catholics.
Michael Collins, fresh from fighting Britain to the negotiating table, arrived in Armagh in late 1921 and promised deliverance to the Northern Catholics from the Catastrophe. But in the following year he only succeeded in making things considerably worse for them. In attempting to manoeuvre around the ‘Treaty’ he signed he used the Northern Catholics and IRA as pawns in a losing game with greatly demoralising consequences for them.
And the Boundary Commission that Collins had been sold turned out to be a pup.
The Northern Catholic predicament resulted from a revised Imperial design for the rest of the island of Ireland contained in the ‘Treaty’ of 1921 in which the part of Ireland that was being lost by the Imperial state was being attempted to be held through utilising that which was still held against it.
Gerry Adams later wrote: “We were the unfortunate baggage of a Partitionist arrangement. We were the human flotsam floating about in the political limbo of an unfinished struggle” (‘Twenty Turbulent Years,’ Irish Times, 3.10.88) And Britain, for Imperial purposes of state, was determined that ‘Northern Ireland’ remained a political limbo no matter what effect it had on those who had to inhabit it.
The Catholics of the North were not only cut off from their own nation they were also shut out of the political life of the state they remained part of. That State which retained overall authority for the part of Ireland it continued to occupy constructed a false front in the Six Counties that helped absolve Westminster of responsibility for its construction.
So it is little wonder that the Northern Catholics withdrew within themselves to live their own lives until the day of deliverance arrived from the rest of the Nation. But that day never came.
The effect of all this was to confine the Northern Catholics in a type of political quarantine that was very detrimental to their well-being as a self-respecting community. And it took half a century, a popular insurrection and a Twenty Eight Year War for them to transform their position within this confinement.
And that is what this book, in two volumes, ‘Catastrophe’ and ‘Transformation’, is about.
This is the first part of the Preface to the book ‘Catastrophe – The Catholic Predicament in ‘Northern Ireland’. Read more in this book about the period 1914-1968 and life in the perverse political construct which Britain constructed in the Six Counties and named ‘Northern Ireland’.