Here is a version of a talk I gave on 31st August 2014, at St. Mary’s College, Falls Road as part of Féile an Phobail (West Belfast Festival) on the Catholic predicament in ‘Northern Ireland’ 1914-68. The event was chaired by Mark Langhammer and introduced by Jim Gibney.
“In 1920/1 the Catholics of the North suffered a catastrophe. They were not only cut off from the rest of the Irish Nation as it entered on the start of independent development but they were forced to endure life in the perverse political entity that became known as ‘Northern Ireland’. This cut them off from the functional state structures of the UK State and denied them the opportunity to participate in the new political structures of the Irish State. And it placed them in a political limbo between states with no means of escape.
What is ‘Northern Ireland’?
The first thing needed to understand the Catholic predicament in the North is an understanding of the perverse political construct called ‘Northern Ireland’. We need to understand why it came into being, what it was for and why it has been so difficult to deal with.
This is quite a separate thing from an Anti-Partitionist view of the 6 Counties. The 6 Counties were divided off from the rest of the Irish Nation by Britain in 1920. This was naturally seen as a great injustice by nationalist Ireland because Ireland had been thought of as a single nation and had always been treated as such by the British administration down the centuries.
The 6 Counties are not ‘Northern Ireland’. The political entity that became known as ‘Northern Ireland’ was something altogether more devious that the mere geographical region that was retained by Britain in 1921.
‘Northern Ireland’ was an Imperial construct for an Imperial purpose. That might seem an obvious point to be made in West Belfast. However, in the Irish universities and amongst the Dublin establishment that point is no longer accepted. The view has developed that Partition and ‘Northern Ireland’ was a mere recognition of political realities on the island after the Ulster Unionist opposition in the Home Rule struggle and Britain was a kind of independent arbiter in a local dispute.
That view is nonsense and the existence of ‘Northern Ireland’ proves it to be nonsense.
Imperial Britain was the architect of ‘Northern Ireland’. There were a number of options open to Whitehall in 1920 in dealing with Ireland. Leaving aside the option of withdrawing and recognising an all-Ireland Republic, which Britain was not inclined to do, it could have settled the issue either on Home Rule or Unionist terms.
The Home Rule option had been undermined by the support given by the main British party of state – the British Unionist Party – to the Ulster Unionists, the bringing of force into the equation by the arming of the UVF, the British Army mutiny at the Curragh and then the assumption of anti-Home Rulers to power in Whitehall in the course of the Great War. Home Rule was a dead-duck even when it was put on the Statute Book in September 1914.
The Unionist settlement option was undermined by the effect these events had on nationalist Ireland. The 1916 Rising, the rise of Sinn Fein, the General Election result of 1918 when the Irish people voted overwhelmingly for independence and the way in which the Irish people had shown resolution in the face of British attempts to repress the Irish democracy subsequently. The Unionist government of 1919 found it could not impose the settlement it would have done if it was in power in 1914.
On top of that the Great War propaganda about “freedom of small nations” and “self-determination” and the creation at Versailles of new nations in Europe where they had not previously existed made a settlement on Unionist terms very difficult for the gigantic anti-Home Rule majority that now governed at Westminster. And then there was the growing influence of Irish America which came about because Britain was incapable of winning its Imperialist war on Germany with its original pre-war allies. For the first time Britain was restrained in its behaviour toward Ireland by an exterior force that it was in large debt to and whose President was trumpeting the principles of “self-determination” around the world in 1918/9.
Why ‘Northern Ireland’ came about
The 1920 legislation Britain introduced into its Parliament to settle the Irish issue was known as the “Better government of Ireland Bill.” A less apt title could not possibly have been thought of.
It gave the vast bulk of the island a meagre sort of devolved power on Home Rule lines after it had voted overwhelmingly for an independent state. In the North-Eastern Six Counties it set up something that nobody, Catholic or Protestant, wanted or had ever called for.
The Unionist position was that Ireland should be governed directly by Westminster as part of the Union. Failing that Ireland should be given the clean cut and be partitioned giving a Unionist majority in the area retained by the UK. There was never a demand for a parliament or any trappings of state. Lord Carson spoke out against such a thing as positively dangerous to the Ulster Unionist interest. He doubted the Ulster Unionists had the capabilities of ruling a large, discontent minority and he believed that semi-detaching Ulster from the UK by making it a distinct entity would undermine Unionism in the long term. How right he was!
But Ulster Unionism was persuaded to make this “supreme sacrifice” because they were threatened with worse by Lloyd George and told they would be well looked after if they operated this peculiar unwanted construct which was necessary to the new Imperial interest, because of the situation that had emerged in Ireland and the world after the Great War.
The Ulster Unionists were told privately they must have a Home Rule set up of their own so that a deal could be made with some elements in Sinn Fein in order to divide the Republican forces. These elements in Sinn Fein would accept the Crown and be assured that if they did the concoction of ‘Northern Ireland’ would be made unviable. And so, in strategic terms Ulster Unionism agreed to make the ‘supreme sacrifice’ and accept semi-detachment from Britain so that the Imperial Government could make a Treaty with the rebels, in order that the Irish independence movement could be disorganised and weakened, enabling Britain to retain its hegemony over the whole island.
And that is why the Imperial construct of ‘Northern Ireland’ came about.
It was the only part of the 1920 Act retained after the Treaty of 1921 consigned the rest of the Better Government of Ireland Act to the dustbin of history.
But it was what the Imperial governing class rejected that shows the true purpose of what was constructed in ‘Northern Ireland.’ During the committee stages of the Bill, Arthur Balfour, former Prime Minister and Chief Secretary of Ireland during the great land revolution, suggested a simple solution to the better government of Ireland – retain Ulster as a part of the UK and let the rest of Ireland go to be what it willed. But this proposal was not even considered. It was believed that something that nobody on the island of Ireland wanted had to be constructed in ‘Northern Ireland’ to satisfy the new Imperial interest.
What ‘Northern Ireland’ isn’t
‘Northern Ireland’ was not a state. The state it was part of was the UK. However, it had some of the trappings of state that made it into what Henry Harrison, the old Parnellite, called a “pseudo-state”. It had a Parliament which Joe Devlin initially called a “simulacrum parliament,” meaning a fake or virtual parliament. It was in essence a false front for the remaining British State in Ireland.
A false front is a military tactic aimed at drawing the enemy into a area in which he exhausts his energies before the real front bears down upon him. Think of this in relation to what happened to Collins in 1922, the Civil Rights Association in 1968/9 and when the Republican Army destroyed Stormont in 1972. Think of the policy of Ulsterisation in the 1970s and you will understand the British use of the false front in relation to the Six Counties.
‘Northern Ireland’ was not meant to provide better government for its citizens and it has provided the worse possible form of government. The fact that some of the greatest and most experienced statesmen from the state with the world’s most successful system of representative government in the world were the architects of it suggests that its purposes lie elsewhere.
‘Northern Ireland’ is not the major British interest in Ireland. The main part of the island which Britain feared it was losing in 1921 was the object of ‘Northern Ireland’. ‘Northern Ireland’ was created by Whitehall as the great prize that nationalists on the island, determined on developing the fullest sovereignty and independence, had to take into account before they proceeded too far. It was a hostage to good nationalist behaviour. It was a lever on the 26 County State.
How that lever worked is instructive. It divided the Irish plenopotentiaries at the Treaty negotiations leading them to trade their opposition to the Crown in for a Boundary Commission that, they were led to believe, might whittle away the North. It provided a reason why Ireland should stay within the Empire/Commonwealth for the Free Staters. De Valera understood it and determined that he would not let the North contaminate his independence policy. But in doing so he had to abandon the Northern Catholics. And during the recent 28 Year War Britain used the conflict in the North to encourage a retreat from national culture in the south through various means, including a retraining of the Irish academic elite so that they saw things the way Britain saw them and started rewriting our history.
At the end of the day ‘Northern Ireland’ was a device for securing general British hegemony, now in the form of “soft power,” over the main area of its interest in Ireland – the independent Irish State.
The Northern Catholics
So what then of the Northern Catholics?
The Nationalist population of the Six Counties was very unsuited to playing the part of a dominated minority within the new political construct. It was an intensely political community with now no outlet to expend its energies.
In the years before the catastrophe that befell it in ‘Northern Ireland’ it had developed a great momentum in the Home Rule movement under its leader, Joe Devlin, who was emerging as the most powerful man in Ireland. Devlin began to incorporate West Belfast through his Hibernians in the developing social welfare structures of Imperial Britain.
Devlin’s Hibernians were the real substance of the Home Rule Party because they were the only real activist part of it in Ireland since the party largely confined its efforts to Westminster. The Hibernians were Devlin’s shock troops which helped to extend his power across the island and they became indispensible to John Redmond in seeing off internal nationalist opposition, like the followers of William O’Brien in Cork and then Sinn Fein. The Hibernians increased their own power by becoming the major distributor of patronage between the British State and the Irish working class by being registered as a friendly society to distribute Lloyd George’s new national insurance scheme.
Devlin was conscious that West Belfast was different to the rest of the island being part of a great industrial city. That city was also the capital of Protestant Ulster and presented the Catholic population with a colonial problem that did not confront any other community on the island in the same way.
On the rest of the island the Home Rule demand was a concession made to the reality of British Imperial power. The advocating of Irish independence was illegal and its achievement seen as an impossibility whilst England remained the dominant force in the world. So the Irish Parliamentary Party demanded Home Rule, a form of devolution within the UK, and hoped that the British Liberal Party would consent to trust the Irish with this small grant of local government.
Home Rule was actually more appropriate to Catholic Belfast than elsewhere in the country. Presumably, since it was such a moderate demand, it would be acceptable to the powerful colonial society that lay in the midst of the North-East Catholics. Home Rule would keep Belfast as an integral part of the Empire where Devlin was flourishing and it would look after the social welfare of the mill workers and Devlin’s working-class support much more fully that an independent Ireland with an agricultural interest to satisfy. That was the argument aired by Devlin in response to Sinn Fein when it emerged.
However, the Ulster colony objected to the Liberal Home Rule proposal that the Imperial connection be reconstituted on democratic lines, with themselves in the position of a new minority in a Home Rule Ireland. Ulster saw itself as 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’ section of the native population, even if they became Imperialists and active participants in Empire building, as Redmond and Devlin desired.
Things started to go wrong for Devlin with the Ulster colonial rebellion supported by the British Unionist Party. Devlin portrayed the Ulster Unionist opposition as a game of bluff and the UVF as toy soldiers. This was very unwise as it failed to see the substance that was confronting the Home Rulers as they staked everything on the parliamentary alliance with the British Liberals.
Then in August and September 1914 when the Chairman of the Parliamentary Party, John Redmond offered up the Irish Volunteers to Britain’s war to prove Ireland’s loyalty and fitness for local government Devlin went on the recruiting platforms with a vengeance.
It is clear to me in reading the press reports from the initial period of the Great War that West Belfast was the most Imperially-enthusiastic part of nationalist Ireland. Part of the reason for this was due to the fact that it was put into direct competition with Unionist Ulster over recruiting as part of the on-going Home Rule struggle; part of the reason was a realisation that what confronted the Northern Catholics and barred their way to Home Rule was a heavily armed and militarised society in their midst which they had to find some way of counter-acting in a physical way after the war; and finally, Devlin had developed a form of Imperial nationalism which he took to be the future for his community.
When the great recruiting meetings addressed by Redmond, Dillon and Devlin took in the Falls in late 1914 and early 1915 the area around here was bedecked by Union flags and ‘God Save the King’ was sung in the Clonard Cinema. The accounts of them in The Irish News need to be read to get a flavour of it.
Because of this Redmondite Imperialism when it became apparent that the Great War was a great fraud it was West Belfast that suffered the greatest disillusioning of all over Britain and its so-called “war for small nations” that Devlin had proclaimed from the recruiting platforms. He was strongly admonished by James Connolly in a famous article for this.
But the disillusionment really set in during the aftermath of the war that West Belfast had contributed so many men to. When the Catholic servicemen returned to Belfast they were treated abominably by their new Ulster Unionist masters. They were dismissed from their jobs; they were driven from their places of employment; their homes were burnt out; they were abducted, tortured and murdered in the most gruesome ways. Their community was at the sharp end of Pogroms. And they saw the forces that they had been part of repressing the Irish democracy in the rest of the country. Devlin complained about all this in the Commons but they just smirked at him and thanked him for his service.
The nightmare was complete when Devlin’s community found that they were to be cut out of the Irish Nation, detached from the State they had fought for in the Great War in which they had participated politically in the great Liberal/Labour reform movement and were to be placed permanently under the heel of the community that had deprived them of their destiny.
Enter Michael Collins
In August 1921 the Northern Catholics seemed to be presented with a saviour at the last minute. Michael Collins, the man who had beat the British to the conference table, turned up in Armagh at a gigantic Republican meeting. He ridiculed the thing that was to be called ‘Northern Ireland’ and could not even say its name in disgust at it. He promised the Northern Catholics that he would see to it personally that it was “still-born” and they would never have to live within it.
At this point the Devlinites had been discredited even in their West Belfast heartland. Devlin had easily defeated De Valera in the 1918 election in the Falls but he was left virtually alone at Westminster as a fragment of a once great party. In agreeing to temporary Partition on Black Friday in St. Mary’s Hall in 1916 he had alienated the Tyrone, Fermanagh and Derry nationalists. And it became apparent that all the promises of the Home Rulers about the imminence of Home Rule, the faith in Britain to honour its “sacred treaty” to Ireland, had not resulted in nationhood but Partition and Pogrom.
For about a year West Belfast Republicanised behind Michael Collins.
Collins set up his IRA HQ in St. Mary’s Hall in the heart of the Unionist citadel under General Eoin O’Duffy. O’Duffy promised the Ulster IRA that if the Unionists stood in his way he would “show them the lead”. So Collins was indicating that he was going to put it up to the Ulster Unionists.
The IRA in Ulster was something of a blank slate. It did not have the battle experience of the Munster IRA and only existed in rudimentary form prior to the Truce with the British when there had been a great upsurge in recruiting. Only in Tyrone had it done anything significant under Charlie Daly, the Kerryman. The Northern IRA was therefore there for the taking by Collins to use as the instrument of his Northern policy, which was very much a personal policy. Collins established an Ulster Council to direct the Northern IRA and he put its officers on his own payroll. They were Collins’ men after that.
Collins was a born conspirator, as Peadar O’Donnell noted. His aim in signing the Treaty was to get the Brits out and then start smashing the Treaty afterwards. It was merely a stepping stone to independence for Collins. However, the Treaty was much more important for many other Republicans. It was a betrayal of the Republic, democratically established in 1918 for people like Liam Lynch. Things like oaths of allegiance and the British Empire could not be played fast and loose with, as Collins was doing. Here lay the problem for Collins and the opportunity for Britain.
Collins solution to the problem was to make a deal with the Anti-Treaty people in which a Northern offensive would be organised uniting national forces against the Unionists in the North. The Northern IRA, reinforced by experienced men from Munster, including some of Tom Barry’s best officers, would launch a combined offensive in the spring of 1922 that would kill two birds with one stone for Collins – restore the unity of the Army and destabilise the North.
Collins’ Northern policy rested on deception and subterfuge and the Irish News struggled to understand what Dublin was doing. Peace Pacts with William Craig were alternated with kidnappings, burnings, attacks on the Specials and assassinations. This IRA activity was met with an unleashing of great violence against the Belfast Catholics.
Then the Northern offensive began. But it went off at half-cock. The Northern IRA went into action but it was not backed up by the Southern Divisions under Collins’ control. Only the Anti-Treaty men fought with the Northerners and they were quickly routed by the Specials and mopped up or force to retreat back across the Border. It appears Collins countermanded the order to his men and Frank Aiken went off on a diversion in South Armagh instead of supporting the Down and Antrim men.
Collins was under the impression that he was going to be able to make war on the Ulster Unionists without British interference. This was a strange assumption and it hasn’t been commented at all on by historians. But here was the false front again, that I spoke of earlier. The false front was removed at the battle of Belleek/Pettigo and I think Collins never recovered from the shock of it.
Collins complained bitterly to Churchill when the British Army intervened with heavy artillery in Pettigo after a combined force of Free Staters and Anti-Treaty men were getting the better of the Specials. Churchill had had enough of Collins’ shenanigans and showed him the real force behind the local false front that would confront him if he pushed things.
And that is what happened. Churchill was slowly boxing Collins in on implementing the Treaty. He was forced into an Imperial Constitution and then to attack the Republican forces in the Four Courts in Dublin, after Collins had unwisely had Sir Henry Wilson assassinated in London in a last desperate act of frustration produced by the situation he had found himself in.
On the day before the war about the Treaty began Collins was still sending Anti-Treaty men North to fight. But as soon as the Treaty War began Collins formally called off the Northern offensive and was then killed in an escapade in County Cork. The Northern IRA was broken for generations as a result.
This sequence of events, from the summer of 1921 until the summer of 1922, had a shattering effect on Northern Republicanism and the Catholic community in the North in general. The Irish News declared that the Northern Catholics had been used as “pawns in a game” although it blamed the Anti-Treatyites when it should have blamed Collins.
Collins had declared himself deliverer of the Northern Nationalists from ‘Northern Ireland’ but ‘Northern Ireland’ remained and Collins was gone. And the men who replaced him were content to quietly put the North to bed, leaving those in the North who had supported them and suffered for the cause at the mercy of the Ulster Unionists to do with them what they willed.
Of course, there was one last hope – the Boundary Commission which Collins had such faith in to whittle the North away to unviable proportions. Lloyd George had inferred this in the Treaty negotiations and the Irish delegation indulging in wishful thinking to believe it. However, when it reported in 1925 there were no transfers of Catholic Fermanagh, Tyrone, Derry and Armagh to the Free State.
And the reality began to sink in – ‘Northern Ireland’ was there to stay.
The Northern Catholics between 1920 and 1925 suffered a disaster not experienced by others on the island. And it deserves to be called a catastrophe. They not only got Partition but much, much worse – they got ‘Northern Ireland’.
‘Northern Ireland’ not only placed the Catholic community in a kind of political quarantine but also locked them into it with a much more numerical and better armed enemy to see to it they behaved themselves. This was very detrimental to their well-being as a self-respecting community and it was not surprising that they decided to retire into themselves and lived a life apart from what confronted them.
It took a while for the North’s Nationalists to get organised after the debacle of 1914-25. The chief moving spirit in the formation of Northern Nationalism was Cahir Healy, originally from Co. Donegal but based in Fermanagh. Healy had been one of the founding members of Sinn Fein with Arthur Griffith, a member of the IRB and he had been an IRA intelligence officer during the independence war.
He was a strong supporter of Collins and put great faith in the Boundary Commission. This experience had a big effect on Healy who blamed Collins for the mess Northern Catholics found themselves in after trusting in the Free State, and being badly let down by it. Nationalist councils on the Border had been encouraged by Dublin to virtually secede from the North to become extra-territorial parts of the Free State. Then their funding was cut by Dublin after Collins’ death and they were abandoned. This left a bad taste with Healy leading him to organise reconciliation with Joe Devlin (who had little faith in the Boundary Commission) to pick up the shattered remnants of Northern Nationalism and organise Northern Catholics in a united body.
Healy did an extraordinary thing in 1924. Although he was elected for Sinn Fein on an abstentionist ticket he took his seat at Westminster, with the support of his constituents.
Healy personified what became Northern Nationalism and was the most representative politician of his community. He slipped easily between Republicanism and what is called ‘constitutional’ nationalism, like those who voted for him. The Northern Catholics would easily switch their allegiance in different elections between different shades of Nationalism, from absenteeist Republican prisoners put up to contest Westminster seats to those who attended the Northern Parliament and attempted to work the system.
That was a rational response to the Catholic predicament in ‘Northern Ireland.’ The Catholic community was an intensely political community and had to engage in politics, even in the cold house on the hill, but ultimately ‘constitutional’ politics were found to be futile and deeply dispiriting.
The problem was that there was no material for political development in ‘Northern Ireland’ and its simulacrum parliament. The matters which were the substance of political development elsewhere were “reserved” matters in ‘Northern Ireland,’ dealt with by British democracy through party conflicts from which the local façade was excluded, and the outcomes were applied administratively in it as a matter of routine by the Unionists who minimised politics to preserve their system.
‘Northern Ireland’ elections were merely referendums on the Border in which it was always decided, through the entrenched Unionist majority, to retain this mode of attachment to Britain. Then after elections there was really nothing more to be done but wait for the next election/referendum. It was always deeply frustrating for a community craving meaningful politics and politics were really a sham.
It should be said at this point that the Unionist majority was an unsuitable governing class to preside over the Catholic community. It had cheated the Nationalists of the North of their destiny by bringing the gun into Irish politics and it never had any experience of statecraft or even wanted to rule its Catholic minority. It was largely inept in the business of politics and could only rely on subjugating the large minority it found in its midst by its extravagant security apparatus which Westminster funded for it as a pay-off for its “supreme sacrifice” in 1921.
So, the system established in ‘Northern Ireland’ could only result in a perpetual communal war of attrition between the two communities confined to it.
Escape through Fianna Fail?
The Unionist Garden of Eden was a nightmare for those whose role it was to make up the subjugated part of it and they naturally attempted to break out of it. The first instinct was to break out Southwards and toward the new political force in Ireland, De Valera’s Fianna Fail. In 1928 Devlin proposed a merger between the National League of the North i.e. the Nationalist Party and Fianna Fail but he was rebuffed by Dev. Despite this large numbers of Northern Nationalists crossed the Border to campaign for Fianna Fail in the 1933 Election and a large fighting fund was collected for De Valera in the Six Counties. Fianna Fail’s triumph seems to have been a major event in the political life of Catholic Belfast as thousands gathered outside the Irish News’ offices to hear the election results. The Northern paper produced a special Sunday edition to mark the event, the first that century.
Eamonn Donnelly became a Fianna Fail MP in the North and a TD in the South and Cahir Healy implored Dev to let Northerners into his party. But Dev would have none of it. He was determined that the North would not interrupt the march to independence he had in mind for the Twenty Six Counties. And in a speech to the Dail in 1939 De Valera gave the most explicit indication of his policy that Anti-Partitionism should never impinge on the Nation’s march to sovereign independence and if there were ever a conflict between the two objectives of Irish unity and independence there was no contest.
De Valera realised the purpose of ‘Northern Ireland’ as a kind of object of the Nation’s desire for which it had to on the best of behaviour to hope to gain. As Oliver Wright remarked in 1970 the South were to be seducers of the North to keep them from going too far away in an independent direction, that would remove all prospect of the seducer succeeding in the seduction.
Because of the Imperial design and purpose of ‘Northern Ireland’, that meant that Irish independence would, through necessity, have to be Partitionist.
And so the South determined that the Northern Catholics be held in quarantine until the Southern State had achieved independence and could deliver them.
The most significant expression of the plight of Northern Catholics in the Six Counties came in the form of a pamphlet entitled ‘Orange Terror’ by ‘Ultach,’ (Joseph Campbell) which appeared in the Capuchin Annual of 1940.
‘Orange Terror’ described how ordinary Catholics in ‘Northern Ireland’, however willing they might have been to live the quiet life of a peaceable private citizen came to suffer periodic terror and intimidation through the normal functioning of state authority over them. It was significant because it described how the everyday conditions of life for Catholics in ‘Northern Ireland’ made a peaceful existence impossible. It was written by a middle class Catholic who wanted to be an ordinary decent and law-abiding citizen but who was put into an antagonism with the British State in Ulster by its local political character. ‘Ultach’s’ was not an ideological Republican criticism of the Six Counties but a description of why Catholics were alienated from ‘Northern Ireland’ by how its political and judicial functioning impacted upon their ordinary lives.
The criticism ‘Ultach’ made of ‘Northern Ireland’ was quite distinct from the Anti-Partitionist one. He made the point that the mode of government that operated in ‘Northern Ireland’ was reprehensible and dysfunctional in its own right, quite apart from the injustice Northern Catholics felt from Partition itself.
‘Ultach’ noticed that what was peculiar about the Unionist one-party regime, which contained so many of the trappings of fascism, was that the undemocratic and totalitarian system of the Six Counties existed within a real democratic state that had pretensions about democracy. And yet it imposed a system on part of its territory that it was supposedly at war with in Europe at the time ‘Ultach’ was writing.
The routine of ‘politics’ consisted of the Unionist community voting itself into office at every election in order to remain semi-attached to Britain. The Catholic community played no part in the process because there was no part for it to play. Its role was simply to be kept down. But it was far too large a minority to be kept down in perpetuity without a continuing generating of an atmosphere of threat to the existence of the Northern entity that provided for a Unionist “siege-mentality”.
The Northern Catholics were therefore subjected to close, intimate supervision by the ‘Peelers’, and reminded that the UVF, which had brought about their predicament, had never gone away, you know.
The attitude among the Unionist establishment was that it was unfortunate that there should have been such a large body of Catholics within the Ulster idyll, but Fenians will be Fenians, and had to know their place. Of course Croppies should lie down, but it was no matter for great surprise or resentment when they didn’t: Hence the very substantial security apparatus that was maintained at the disposal of the Stormont regime just in case.
‘Ultach’s’ pamphlet seems to have been a major event in the life of the Catholics of the Six Counties. This can seen in the type of people who contributed to the discussion comments printed after his article including Bishops, Papal Counts, Republicans, Nationalists and all manner of cultural and artistic figures.
Britain did not lack the executive or legislative power or the appropriate means of securing a just and peaceable existence for the Catholics in ‘Northern Ireland’. It could have vetoed or suspended any Bill presented by the subordinate Parliament under Section 75 of the 1920 Act provided the means of producing over-riding legislation from Westminster. But Westminster lacked the will to do any of this and continued to allow the sub-government in Belfast to police the Catholics as they saw fit.
Escape through British Labour?
After the Second World War, and having been fobbed off by Fianna Fail, West Belfast sought an escape from ‘Northern Ireland’ in another direction.
Jack Beattie was elected in West Belfast to Westminster in a by-election in 1943 as a Northern Ireland Labour candidate. He was a Protestant elected with Catholic votes. He defeated the Republican candidate by a massive majority and reduced the Unionist vote by a third. In 1945, after falling out with the Northern Ireland Labour Party he was re-elected as an ‘Independent Labour’ candidate. Beattie took part in the great social reform that was occurring, claiming to be a member of the (British) Labour Party. But British Labour refused to allow him in its party because his home was in Belfast and he did not qualify for membership. He still voted with Labour against the Tories on all its reform measures, while the Ulster Unionists voted against at Westminster. Frustrated with British Labour’s attitude he joined the Irish Labour Party. He lost West Belfast on that ticket in 1950, regained it in 1951, and lost it again in 1955.
Beattie was also a Stormont MP, representing East Belfast. He wanted to fight the Unionists there on the same measures that he fought them at Westminster, where they trooped behind Churchill into the lobby against Labour’s great reform measures in the interest of the working class. But what happened was that the Unionists enacted at Stormont as a matter of course all the social reforms which they opposed at Westminster.
And that is how it was in ‘Northern Ireland’. It was an integral part of the British State for social reform, and many other purposes, but had its own peculiar politics, which could never be anything but a communal squabble within which no development was possible.
The Unionists, led by Craigavon and then Brookeborough, minimised the activities of the devolved Parliament so that the Catholic community could exist without bothering with politics. They did this by taking long holidays and acting as a mere rubber-stamp for Westminster legislation, particularly in maintaining parity with Great Britain in social welfare provision. Lord Craigavon, who set up the devolved government and ran it for a generation, knew very well that ‘Northern Ireland’ was a thoroughly abnormal concoction which could not bear very much political activity without there being trouble ahead. The understanding was that ‘Northern Ireland’ was not a democracy and notions of this sort should be discouraged by inactivity whenever possible.
So ‘Northern Ireland’ was excluded from the political life of the British State though it remained part of it. Pointless political debate was engaged in at Stormont. But social and political reform did not depend on the political debate within the North. It came to ‘Northern Ireland’ as the outcome of the political debate in the rest of the state.
Political debate in ‘Northern Ireland’ was therefore doomed to futility. Nothing of any consequence depended on it. The measures of social reform came to the Six Counties as a product of the state from whose politics it was excluded. It was excluded from the politics that produced the measures, and that would undoubtedly have given rise to a substantial body of cross-community political unity, based around people like Jack Beattie, if it had been included.
Catholic West Belfast was willing to vote for Labour in conjunction with Shankill Protestant working class voters disillusioned with Orangeism and the Unionist Party. It produced and elected politicians like Frank Hanna, Harry Diamond, Paddy Devlin and Gerry Fitt who all would have neatly fitted into the Labour Party at Westminster. They could still have maintained their desire for Irish unity and worked to persuade Protestants in Labour ranks of the desirability of it. Beattie’s victories in West Belfast were reminiscent of the Joe Devlin era in the commitment they involved from local people and the celebrations they produced upon victory. Bonfires were lit, there were large firework displays and processions of 15,000 marched along the Falls Road.
But British Labour closed off another possible escape route for Catholics from their political predicament in ‘Northern Ireland’ and prevented the possible development of class politics across the two communities.
British Labour did not, therefore, act as a socialist party with regard to the North, attempting to develop a united working-class and a powerful labour movement there. It followed the traditional policy of the British State since 1920, which it shared with the Tories, to exclude the North from state politics and keep it at arm’s length with Unionists “carrying the can.” And this was the thing that not only sealed the North into communal politics but also led to the British Labour Government presiding over the disaster in August 1969, when the chickens came home to roost.
Escape through Anti-Partitionism?
Having failed to escape from ‘Northern Ireland’ through Fianna Fail and British Labour the community’s momentum then switched back to the more direct route – Anti-Partitionism.
After the World War, when De Valera launched his Anti-Partitionist campaign, Eamonn Donnelly, now representing the Falls for Sinn Fein, demanded that Fianna Fail establish a committee on Partition that included Northerners. But Dev refused to let Northerners sit on any body his government was establishing. This prompted the Northerners to establish their own home-grown Anti-Partition League which was convened at a convention of 500 delegates at Dungannon in November 1945.
The Anti-Partition League in the North reconciled the different factions of Northern Nationalism. Devlinites such as T.J. Campbell and T.S. McAllister, Fianna Fail supporters such as Cahir Healy and Eddie McAteer, and some former Republicans united for the new political project which generated a feeling of purpose amongst ordinary nationalists.
Then Eddie McAteer, launched his plan for civil disobedience, ‘Irish Action – New Thoughts on an old Subject,’ Eddie McAteer’s brother, Hugh, was Chief of Staff of the IRA during the 1940s and contested Westminster elections as a Republican in 1950 and 1964. This was further evidence of the fact that there was a continuum between ‘constitutional’ Nationalism and Republicanism. When the IRA launched a successful arms raid on Gough Barracks in Armagh during 1954 Eddie, the ‘constitutionalist,’ remarked to Conor Cruise O’Brien of the Department of Foreign Affairs, that this was greatly welcome for “keeping up morale amongst a population which had been cowed and defeated.” This perfectly illustrated the continuum between the two wings of Nationalism. It could hardly be said that there was competition between the two wings of Nationalism when elections were shared out between them even within families.
The return of a Fine Gael/Clann na Poblachta/Labour Coalition, which included Sean MacBride as Minister for External Affairs, ushered in a new phase in Anti-Partitionism which placed the Border centre-stage. The Coalition government set up an All-Party Anti-Partition Committee.
Stormont responded to these moves by calling an election for February 1949.
The Anti-Partitionists held a spectacular conference in the Mansion House, Dublin. A massive propaganda campaign against Partition was then launched by the prominent Fianna Failer, Frank Gallagher.
An election fund for Northern Catholics was set up which took collections at Catholic Churches throughout the Country the following Sunday. The money collected for the election was given to the Church to keep up an accurate electoral register of Catholics qualified to vote. To select candidates in local constituencies, the clergy called a convention with every Catholic organisation having two delegates.
The result of the election was, however, another predictable victory for the Unionists, and even bigger than usual. The Northern Ireland Labour Party was all but wiped out in the polarised atmosphere of the Anti-Partitionist campaign and the Orange vote was encouraged to come out in large numbers.
The reverse in the Northern election result and the passing of the Government of Ireland Act confirming the Unionist veto, encouraged De Valera to wind up his Anti-Partition campaign in 1950.
At this point Michael O’Neill, one of the two Nationalist M.P.s at Westminster, made representations to Dublin to admit Northern Nationalists to the Dail, so that the energies that had been released by the Anti-Partition campaign could be channelled into politics rather than elsewhere. But he was swiftly rebuffed by De Valera, like all the others before him.
Between 1956 and 1962 the IRA tried to achieve by military force what the Anti-Partition League could not by its ‘constitutional’ and ‘extra-constitutional’ methods. The IRA received a new lease of life from the failed efforts of the Anti-Partition League.
The Border campaign’s character was that of a small invasion from the South. What is significant about it was the absence of any activity of significance from Northern Republicans or any real Northern Catholics support of it. In West Belfast support was very limited, even in 1he 1955 election, when it was at its height in the rest of the North. The Republican candidate, Eamonn Boyce made a poor showing, only disrupting Beattie’s vote enough to let in the Unionist. The Belfast West seat remained in Unionist hands until Gerry Fitt won it back in 1966.
The IRA Border Campaign was the last hurrah of Anti-Treaty Republicanism in the South. It was a Southern event that marked the virtual exhaustion of the Anti-Partitionist impulse within that society. It had something of a reawakening in response to events over the Border a decade later. But that was very much a Northern Catholic event.
The Lemass revolution
Northern Nationalism was in a rut by this time. The full gamut of Nationalist politics, ‘constitutional,’ ‘extra-constitutional’ and military had been exercised in the Anti-Partition cause during the 1940s and 1950s and nothing had come of it. ‘Northern Ireland’ remained as strong as ever and the Northern Catholics remained trapped within it.
Something had to give and for the first time a tentative reform movement began to emerge among Northern Catholics that indicated greater participation within the 6 Counties and a de facto recognition of it. The National Democratic Party, the McCluskeys and John Hume were all manifestations of this, as was the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association.
In 1958 it had been suggested by Basil Clancy, a Fianna Fail intellectual, at a summer school in Garron Tower that the Nationalist Party should play a fuller part at Stormont to improve the position of Catholics in the North. Eddie McAteer replied that such a suggestion was an insult and to act upon it would be tantamount to “taking the soup.” And yet within a few years McAteer, as leader of the Nationalist Party was supping with the devil at Stormont on the orders of the Taoiseach.
The new Taoiseach, Sean Lemass, impatient with the Nationalist Party and feeling it was no longer appropriate for what he had in mind for the North, decided that a new departure was necessary to unfreeze the situation. After his meeting with Terence O’Neill Lemass predicted: “How far the road may go is not yet known. It has been truly said, however, it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive.”
Lemass’ deviation from De Valera’s policy of letting ‘Northern Ireland’ be had an explosive effect on the situation. He met with something of a kindred spirit in O’Neill. Lords Craigavon and Brookeborough had had a policy to minimise political activity in “Northern Ireland” because it was not a state and there was no possibility in it of evolutionary political life. But Lemass and O’Neill departed from this policy, South and North, and by doing so they caused the explosion from which everything else has followed.
Lemass pressed the Nationalist Party to take on the role of Official Opposition at Stormont, and that was the beginning of the end for the so-called “Northern Ireland state”. The Nationalists knew in their bones they were indulging in a farce, but evidently Lemass did not.
Lemass took ‘Northern Ireland’ to be a viable political entity and obliged the Nationalist Party to participate in his grand illusion. His admirers called him a “pragmatist” but that is hardly the right name for what he did. The thing about pragmatism is that it is supposed to work. The thing about ‘Northern Ireland’ is that when it was operated in earnest it did not work, and in fact it exploded. For the first time its pretensions of being a state and its capability of evolving into a democracy were tested and it started to break up under all the political activity.
Lemass forced the Nationalist Party to play a make-believe game of Government and Opposition at Stormont in which it always came off second. That had a deeply disturbing effect on the Catholic community and it encouraged it on to the streets to work off its energies. The Unionists and their security apparatus then appeared on the streets to do what they were there for. And so the pragmatic effect of the Taoiseach’s initiative was to blow away the Constitutional fig-leaf which the preceding generation had kept in place by inaction.
The Catholic genie had been bottled up for half a century by leaving the cork in the bottle. But once the cork was out the genie was loose and it wanted to escape the bottle.
Civil Rights lead to war
The Civil Rights Association’s demands were meagre and could have been met by any democratic state. But the Unionists chose not to meet them before a dangerous momentum had built up. And the real state chose to remain aloof from the matter. The only force that could have averted what was happening was the British Labour Government. But it chose to stand idly by despite being warned by Dublin of what lay ahead if it did.
The beauty of the NICRA approach was that it acted on British public opinion by showing that here were people being batoned by a British police force for doing nothing more than demanding the same rights and privileges as the rest of the United Kingdom. It was no wonder that, against the perceived democratic standards of the British State, the Unionists looked to be a gang of backward reactionaries.
The Civil Rights demands were conceded before 1970. But there still was a War – which tends to suggest that the War was not about Civil Rights at all, or was only connected to the Civil Rights programme in a superficial way.
In fact, the trivial Civil Rights demands were totally inadequate to the situation in which the North found itself by 1968-9. They were mostly met and the whole place still went into flux. And then an Insurrection and War were launched without any reference to them.
The British were open to addressing these Catholic grievances because they could place the blame for them on local Protestants. They were useful diversions from the real issue from the point of view of the British State, particularly since the architect of the cause of Catholic second-class citizenry was actually Westminster and the abnormal political conditions it imposed in a region of the UK, rather than the local Unionists, who simply operated the system on Britain’s behalf and upon whom London wished to place responsibility.
The Catholics of the 6 Counties had never wanted to be part of what was constructed there in 1920. They had not wanted to be cut off from the Irish Nation and neither had they wanted to be placed under a “Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people.” They had sought numerous means of escape, through Michael Collins and the Free State, through De Valera and Fianna Fail, through British Labour. But they had been bottled up.
In August 1969 they broke loose and for the first time they formed something substantial of their own to look after their own interests. They had waited around for half a century for Dublin to deliver them and the South had never shown up. Britain, which could have addressed their predicament, since it was the architect of it, preferred to ignore what was going on in “John Bull’s political slum” (as The Times called it in the 1960s).
After the events of August 1969 things could never be the same again. And they weren’t.”
The Second part of The Catholic Predicament in ‘Northern Ireland’ called ‘Resurgence, 1969-2014’ will be published early in 2015.