Two Nations Once Again!

portrait780Is Republicanism the same thing as Anti-Partitionism? Does a detour, on the way to ending Partition, mean the end of Republicanism? Anti-Provo Republican Dissidents think that it does and now it seems others are following.

In the last few weeks Gerry Adams equated Republicanism with simple Anti-Partitionism in trying to minimise the West Belfast vote for People Before Profit. The Two Nations label did them no harm, it appears. PBP denied they were “Two Nationist” on the basis that they were an all-Ireland entity. So maybe the label was better applied to the SDLP? However, PBP denied they were “two nationists” although they are apparently not going to be “Nationalist” in their designation at Stormont but “Other”.

Patrick Murphy has blamed the Two Nations theory on the poor showing of Nationalists in the Assembly election in his Irish News (14.5. 16) column:

“They will find it difficult to reverse the trend, because by accepting that unionists are British and not Irish, they abandoned the political argument for Irish unity. The two-nations theory is now the bedrock of the border.”

Again, confusion over Partitionism and Two-Nations.

This is history repeating itself (as farce?) within Northern Nationalism.

An Irish News editorial produced at the time Lloyd George unveiled his Partitionist Government of Ireland Bill of 1920 is very pertinent to all this. It was headlined ‘Father O’Flanagan’s Partition Scheme’ – a reference to the Sinn Fein Vice-President’s view of 1916 that there were two Irish Nations and that Nationalists had better take account of that fact if they were to successfully establish a single state on the island. Here is the Irish News:

“Lloyd George was generous; he found an Irish father for the Partitionisation plan; his speech might have been an utter failure… had he not commandeered the Rev. Michael O’Flanagan to the Partitionist front and turned the batteries of Sinn Fein’s Vice-President against the principle of Irish National Unity with so much effect that the most phlegmatic Saxon became impressed… The case for Partition was made out for the English Prime Minister by the Rev. Father O’Flanagan. If the Vice-President of Sinn Fein had not written and published the fatal letter of June, 1916, which was recited against Irish nationhood at Westminster with such remarkable effect last night, the necessity for discussing and rejecting the scheme propounded by the Prime Minister might never have arisen. Father O’Flanagan wrote and published that letter two months after the Dublin Insurrection had been quelled in the blood of its leaders; he wrote and published his eloquent exposition of Ireland’s ‘dual nationhood’ at the moment when the leaders of the Irish National Parliamentary Party were making a desperate attempt to rescue the country from chaos and ruin by framing a temporary arrangement under which peace and the possibility of constructive national work might be secured pending the end of the war. Mr. John Redmond and his colleagues never for a moment contemplated the permanent division of Ireland into two fragments, nor did the idea of acknowledging the existence of ‘two nations’ in this island ever enter their minds. They were negotiating on the basis of a strictly temporary arrangement when Father O’Flanagan’s letter appeared. Thereafter, Lord Lansdowne and his friends in the House of Lords insisted on making the tentative arrangement permanent and binding for all time. The words in which Mr. John Redmond rejected the heresy of Permanent Partition may now be recalled…

“Mr. Redmond spoke as follows: – ‘ We took the position of saying that in the middle of the war he could not expect the Parliament of the country seriously to take up the final and permanent settlement of these proposals, and when the right hon. Gentleman, the Secretary of State for War, Mr. Lloyd George, put this proposition before us it was presented to us merely as a temporary war measure. I do not believe that for one moment he ever thought that this proposal was to contain a permanent settlement of any of these great problems. It was put before us as a temporary emergency or war measure, not to settle any of these great problems, which could not be settled in existing circumstances, but merely to bridge over the period between now and the permanent settlement. As such it was accepted by us, and as such it was submitted to our followers; and I repeat today… we cannot consent, and no fair-minded man can expect us to consent, now to vary that agreement by making the whole future of these Ulster counties the subject of a permanent and ensuring settlement such as Lord Lansdowne demanded in his speech.’

“During the same debate Mr. Devlin declared, even more emphatically, that he ‘would never agree to the permanent exclusion of Ulster.’ That was the position taken up by the Irish Nationalist representatives of 1916 when the question of an arrangement to end with the war was under discussion. Nothing has occurred since then to alter the convictions which inspired those vigourous and uncompromising repudiations of the destructive ‘two nations’ theory; but three and a half years later Mr. Lloyd George comes before the British Parliament, the Irish nation, and the world with an elaborate scheme for permanently disrupting the country; and he commends that scheme to Nationalist Ireland and to the Irish race on the authority of the Rev. Father O’Flanagan…

“ Ireland is to be split, with all possible scientific accuracy, into two sections divided by alleged racial and existing religious dissonances… no Irish nationalists attended to listen to the Prime Minister’s long explanation of his reasons for adopting Father O’Flanagan’s full theory. We do not suppose he will ever seek to put into practice; if he does he will fail.” (23.12.19)

The context of the Fr. O’Flanagan letter was Asquith’s offer to Redmond in 1916 and its acceptance by Devlin and the conference of Nationalist representatives on Black Friday at St. Mary’s Hall.

Three days before the conference a letter written by Fr. O’Flanagan was published in The Freeman’s Journal urging acceptance of Asquith’s proposal for temporary exclusion of six counties.

Father O’Flanagan’s “two nation heresy” went as follows:

“We can point out that Ireland is a nation with a definite geographical boundary… National and geographical boundaries scarcely ever coincide; geography would make one nation of Spain and Portugal history has made two nations of them. Geography did its best to make one nation of Norway and Sweden; history has succeeded in making two nations of them. If a man were to contrast the political map of Europe out of its physical map he would find himself groping in the dark. Geography has worked hard to make one nation out of Ireland; history has worked against it. The island of Ireland and the national unit of Ireland simply do not coincide. In the last analysis the test of nationality is the wish of the people… The Unionists of Ulster have never transferred their love and allegiance to Ireland. They may be Irelanders, using Ireland as a geographical term, but they are not Irish in the national sense…

“We claim the right to decide what is to be our nation. We refuse them the same right. After three hundred years England has begun to despair of making us love her by force. And so we are anxious to start where England left off. And we are going to compel Antrim and Down to love us by force.” (FJ 20.6.16)

Father O’Flanagan had the courage to recognise the complication that confronted Nationalist Ireland if it wished to build a single state on the island. That complication was there long before Father O’Flanagan recognised it and would have been there even if he had never acknowledged its existence. However, The Irish News wished to pretend that it would not have existed and it would not have come to the attention of the British Statesmen, who wished to make something of it, if it were not for Father O’Flanagan’s Two Irish Nations.

Father O’Flanagan’s suggestion of the existence of Two Irish Nations was subjected to the same misrepresentation at the moment of his letter as it was in 1919 and has been ever since. He was arguing that Ireland had an inalienable right to independence and that should be immediately recognised by Britain. Having conceded that right it was then up to Nationalist Ireland to obtain the consent of those who felt themselves to be part of the second Irish Nation to be a part of an Irish State.

Fr. O’Flanagan understood nationality to lie with the subject, rather than being an external imposition. If anyone wishes to know another’s nationality, wrote O’Flanagan, the ultimate test is “Ask him.” (The Leader 12.8.16 and also see Denis Carroll, ‘They Have Fooled You Again – Michael O’Flanagan, Priest, Republican, Social Critic’ for a biography of the Gaelic Leaguer; contributor to The Catholic Bulletin and An Phoblacht; Vice-President of Sinn Fein from 1917 and President of Sinn Fein, 1933-5; advocate for the separation of Church and State; and defender of the Spanish Republic against Fascism.)

Fr. O’Flanagan was not “Partitionist” and was not arguing that Ireland should be dismembered. He was in favour of a united Ireland and wanted to bring it about through recognition of the facts of the matter that were preventing it.

Father O’Flanagan made explicit recognition of the two Irish Nations in order to try to overcome the complication in Ulster. That was a prerequisite for a functional policy on the issue. John Redmond and Joe Devlin would never take the necessary first step of recognising the national difference and as a result they never had a functional policy on Partition. And it was their policy rather than O’Flanagan’s that tended to be passed down to Sinn Fein.

The Devlinite Irish News persisted on making the point that Sinn Fein’s 1918 election victory was responsible for the Partition of Ireland. But it was against Redmond and Devlin’s Home Rule proposal that the Ulster Protestants signed the Covenant, set up and armed the UVF, that the Curragh mutiny occurred and that civil war was promised through “the full grammar of anarchy” by British Unionism.

It was in reaction to the threat of Home Rule that Ulster Protestants most revealed that they believed themselves to be another nation.

If Devlin did not know that some form of exclusion was inevitable by this time he was living in a land of make-believe. He, himself, had countenanced it and carried it among those affected, against substantial opposition, at St. Mary’s Hall, while wishfully thinking that this would have no bearing on the situation after the War.

And yet The Irish News believed the formal agreement of Ireland’s representatives to Partition, however temporarily they might have believed it to be, would have less effect than a letter from a member of a small party without a single MP.

One can only conclude it must have been that Devlin could not face being the man who agreed to the Partition of his country. He would “never accept it,” even though he must have known he had no means in preventing it and he would also probably work with it.

Because Devlin would not admit to the Protestant complication that made Two Nations in Ireland he was open to Lloyd George’s counter-argument that Ireland was not a Nation itself and did not come under the Wilson Principles because it could not as a single unit and agree what it wanted.

Of course, Lloyd George was just making a debating point that hid Britain’s real reason for not allowing ‘self-determination’ to Ireland – that the Irish wanted more than Britain was willing to concede to it and it just would not allow self-determination to Ireland in the first place. And he was using the ‘Ulster’ complication (and Fr. O’Flanagan) to obscure the issue.

But he was able to do this because of the position of Devlin and The Irish News whereas he would not have been able to do so if Fr. O’Flanagan’s understanding had been widespread within the Nationalist movement.

In the end Devlinite politics amounted to this: wanting to maintain Ireland as a single unit, with national recognition through a local parliament, within the U.K. and Empire. But that was something that proved to be unrealisable between 1912 and 1918 and it was definitely an impossibility by 1919. And what did Joe Devlin matter to Britain by 1919? It had wrecked his party and left him washed up on the back benches of its parliament – an inconsequential remnant of the lost world of Imperial Ireland, who would be thanked now and again for the recruiting work he did in the War.

Lloyd George was a clever politician – one of the cleverest. He must have realised that the inability of Nationalist Ireland to deal with the Ulster complication could be utilised in the Imperial interest in dealing with the demand for self-determination that he must show he was addressing. And if this was the case with Devlin even more would it be the case with Sinn Fein, who stood for a greater demand than the Parliamentary Party ever did. Just as ‘Ulster’ had defeated Devlin it also had future possibilities for leverage over the Republicans as long as they persisted in their desire for having it. Because knowing someone’s desire for something that can be kept from them is a sure way to manipulating them.

Back to the present: Martin McGuinness said in a radio interview at the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis of 2012:

“I recognise that there are one million people on this island who are British and let me state here and now that as a proud Irish Republican I not only recognise the unionist and British identity, I respect it. People who think that a new Ireland, a united Ireland can be built without unionist participation, involvement and leadership are deluded… The war is over and we are in the process of building a new Republic” (Irish Independent, 23.6.12).

This was, de facto, the ‘two nations’ view of the Northern situation as put by the Irish Communist Organisation (more conveniently known as ‘Athol St.’) in 1969.

The ICO, as an active element in Northern politics, had its origin, along with the Provos, behind the West Belfast barricades in August 1969. Republicanism was almost dead as a movement in 1969. As far as it was present, it called itself”Republican Socialism”. But Republican Socialism had no currency when the masses were impelled into action by the events of mid-August. Socialist appeals could not cross the barricades in a situation in which the sense of nationalist difference was uppermost.

The ICO therefore said that the fact of national difference must be acknow- ledged in order for there to be any practical possibility of cross-community rapprochement. It proposed this to the Dublin Establishment, which was very anti-Partitionist in its rhetoric at the time. Taoiseach Lynch issued a formal rejection of the proposal at the Fianna Fail Ard Fheis about a month later.

The Republican Socialist IRA of 1969 became the Officials, or Stickies, in 1970, and it condemned both the “two-nationists” and the new Republican body that began to organise itself on the evident realities of Northern life. It condemned the Provos as sectarian bourgeois nationalists in the pay of the Dublin Establish- ment. And it condemned the ICO as Imperialist. And then, in the course of about a decade, its members entered the Dublin Establishment, qualifying for entry by the vehemence of their condemnation of the Provos.

The Provos also condemned the“two nationists”—or some of them did. In 1972, when military action was at its most intense, the Republican News (April) derided the “two nationism” being published down in Athol St. Liam Mac’s page denounced the ICO as a “true blue unionist organisation” (30.4.72). But there were also others who knew better, Ruairi O Bradaigh being one of them.

The Workers Weekly (Athol St: a precursor of the present Irish Political Review) replied to Republican News that—

“In August 1969 it contributed more to the defence of Catholic areas than some bodies with very great pretensions. As a consequence of its involvement in this it was led to do some serious thinking about the developments that led to August 1969, and about the general national question. It came to the conclusion that there was no validity in the ‘one nation’ dogma which it had taken from the Catholic bourgeoisie. There were no national ties between the Catholic and Protestant communities. They were two distinct historical communities. They could form a common state by agreement, but for either to assert national rights over the other was completely undemocratic… Furthermore, we have observed that for all practical purposes nobody believes in the ‘one nation’ theory. Everybody, be he Republican or Unionist, who makes practical political calculations reckons the Protestant and Catholic to be distinct and separate communities… The inevitable outcome of the national conflict will be a compromise between the two nations” (Workers Weekly 5.5.72).

The view of the Dublin Establishment of the early 1970s was that Ulster Unionism was a kind of illusion that would soon be blown away, or a delusion that would be rectified by a sharp shock. It saw the North as being run by a feudal aristocracy that was manipulating the masses by means of an obsolete form of religion that had somehow dragged on from the 17th century and would soon be overcome by modern fashion. Brendan Clifford was derided for mistaking this concoction, that would collapse, for a nation. He replied in a pamphlet, published about that time, that he was sure the Ulster Unionist morale would long outlast the morale of Dublin Establishment anti- Partitionism. That was borne out over subsequent decades.

Dublin Governments in the new millennium have even less understanding of basic facts of life in the North than they had in the 1960s and 1970s. The Provos grew in strength by coping with facts. And they have long coped with the fact that the difference running through the North is a national difference, and that it must be worked around.

Dissident Republican intellectual Anthony McIntyre expressed the opinion that anti-Partitionism is Republicanism, and that any admission of a national complication in the North abandons Republicanism:

“Republicanism is dead in my view because it lacks the capacity to overcome the bedrock of partition—the refusal of the unionists to consent. Republicanism as we knew it had a coercive attitude to unionism. Republicanism sought to coerce the Brits out of Ireland and the unionists into a united Ireland. It failed absolutely and nobody yet has put forward a plausible strategy for making coercion work. And once republicanism abandons coercion and acquiesces in the consent principle it is no longer republicanism, but merely embracing the Brit/unionist/constitutional nationalist means of getting the Brits to leave and getting the unionists into a united Ireland… The unionist question is the central question and one that can’t be wished away. The unbridgeable cleavage between the British state and republicanism was not on whether Ireland should or should not be united. It was on the terms it would be united. The Brits insisted on the partition/ consent principle. Republicanism dissolved itself in order to acquiesce in the Brit position. Once the consent principle is accepted it is an acknowledgement that partition has a democratic basis and is therefore legitimate. That is something which is irreconcilable with the republicanism we knew… There are only two ways to unite the country: coercion of the North or consent. The republican position is one of coercion. The British state’s position is one of consent. The coercive position does not have to be one of armed struggle. The Brits or the international community could arrive at a conclusion that the six counties are Irish territory and should therefore be returned… Republicanism can do everything… apart from signing up to the consent principle which legitimises partition. The entire philosophical basis of republicanism is that… no minority on the island has the right to rupture the national unity and that to recognise the consent/partition principle is to give them that right” (From the Pensive Quill, September 2014).

Academic history is doctrinaire and merges conveniently with doctrinaire notions of Republicanism. And it contrasts with Sinn Fein’s understanding of social reality, of the “bulks of actual things”, as Pearse once put it, in relation to the substance of the Northern Protestants.

What was it that Wolfe Tone actually said? He did not say: There are no Anglicans, Dissenters and Catholics, only Irishmen. He said his aim was to bring it about that Anglicans, Dissenters and Catholics would all become citizens of an Irish nation. He wanted to make them into Irishmen because the nation was what was becoming the general form of socio-political organisation.

That surely was what Martin McGuinness set out to do.

McIntyre said Republicanism was dead because the Republican War to knock down the British State in the Six Counties and set up an all-Ireland state failed in that object, and that what it succeeded in doing counted for nothing.

The War failed in one object and succeeded in another. It caused the British State to exert pressure on the Protestant community to submit to a re-arrangement of the internal mode of government in the North. That rearrangement gave the Catholic community a guaranteed position in public life which enabled the Republican cause to be pursued Constitutionally.

McIntyre said that Republicanism is Anti-Partitionism pure and simple, and that it was a matter of “all or nothing”. If an interim settlement, that was much more more than nothing, was achievable as a result of the military action, it should not have been achieved or accepted. The Republicans who achieved it, and used it as ground for achieving Irish unity by other means, killed Republicanism.

The right thing for Republicans to have done was to admit defeat, plead guilty to having waged an unjust war, and walk away from the situation.

The revisionist historians depict Republicanism as an elitist ideology that despises the people. That was a caricature of the Republicanism of the past, but it seems to be true of the rejectionist Republicanism that sees no value in the interim settlement which greatly improved the political and social position of the Catholic community, and which that community had experienced as a victory that opened the way to further development.

At the time of the 1998 Agreement McIntyre wrote an article for the Guardian headlined “We, the IRA, have failed”. What failed was the One Nationism on which the War was launched in 1970. But that denial of national diversity within the North was not an IRA position particularly. It was the general position of nationalist Ireland as a whole, from the President and the Taoiseach downwards—barring Athol St. (and some isolated individual voices, like Desmond Fennell). The Provisional leadership felt its way towards an interim settlement taking account of the fact of national difference within the North. McIntyre and his colleagues continued in denial of that fact.

“The republican position is one of coercion. The British state’s position is one of consent… Republicanism can do everything… apart from signing up to the consent principle which legitimises partition. The entire philosophical basis of republicanism is that… no minority on the island has the right to rupture the national unity” (Pensive Quill, September 2014).

There was a war between the British State and the Provisional IRA on the issue of uniting Ireland by force. If the War had not been fought with the British State, it would have been fought with a military force of the Ulster Protestant community. That was the case on the island in 1919, and in the North in 1970.

Redmond denied that Ulster Would Fight, and he expected the British Army to bring it into line for him.

Sinn Fein in those times was not so certain that Ulster would not fight. It knew that the British Army would not force ‘Ulster’ into an all-Ireland political structure. And there were prominent members of Sinn Fein who did not see the coercing of ‘Ulster’ into the Republic as being Republican in spirit.

The Vice-President of Sinn Fein recognised in 1916 that:

“The Unionists of Ulster have never transferred their love and allegiance to Ireland. They may be Irelanders, using Ireland as a geographical term, but they are not Irish in the national sense…” (Fr. Michael O’Flanagan as reported in Freeman’s Journal, 20.6.1916).

The question now is whether the political force generated out of the segment of the Irish Nation which was trapped on the wrong side of the Border, and subjected to hostile government by the Unionist Irish nation for 50 years, can succeed where the one-nationist Anti-Partitionism of the 26 County state failed so completely.

The Constitution of the 26 County state denied the legitimacy of British sovereignty in the 6 County secession until 1998, and it never paid any attention to the anomalous form of government established by the British State in its Six County region. The North was undemocratically governed even by British standards, regardless of he question of legitimate sovereignty, but Dublin Governments never made that an issue with Britain.

The Southern sovereignty claim was repealed in 1998, with IRA approval, but no definite view of what Northern Ireland was then was ever published by the Southern State or its major political parties. The sovereignty claim was replaced by an”aspiration” to unity, but no political engagement with Ulster Unionism with a view to achieving that aspiration followed.

The first nationalist political force that ever came to a close political engagement with Ulster Unionism is Provisional Sinn Fein.


As the position of the nationalist community in the north strengthens with Republicans in government under the 1998 Agreement, and the nationalist population increases proportionately, the consent principle with regard to unity will possibly become a live political issue. The expectation of this was a factor in the making of the 1998 settlement. Consent was not a pig in a poke.

The Unionists chose their ground. They chose, or agreed to, a kind of minimal Home Rule, connected with Britain but detached from British politics.

Unionism has not flourished under this form of Unionist Home Rule. The nationalist minority of a third in 1921 maintained itself for half a century, and it has done much better than maintain itself since Unionism threw itself into crisis by its conduct in 1969.

Sinn Fein has signed up to consent. So has the SDLP. (It is too often forgotten that the ‘Constitutional nationalists’ rejected the principle of consent for most of this period, calling it the “Unionist veto”.)

Which consent is meant—Unionist consent or Northern Ireland consent?

The constitutional position under the Good Friday Agreement is that, once a first Border Poll is held, it will be repeated every seven years. That provision has kept the peace since 1998 and it is impossible to see it abrogated.

Some people are trying to move the goalpost from Northern Ireland consent to Unionist consent. They want to reassert the principle that was adopted in 1912 that there must be an agreement acceptable to Unionism. In the end that meant Ulster Unionism.

But Unionism chose Six Counties as its safe haven, and surely the ground on which consent must operate is the Six County voting population.

Will Unionism agree to that, if there is a danger of the consent vote going against it?

History is not yet at an end.


(Note: This article is made up of material from ‘Catastrophe’ and ‘Resurgence’ – the 2 volume history of the Catholic Predicament in ‘Northern Ireland.)

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