‘Northern Ireland’ and Democracy

Editorial from Irish Political Review November 2017:

Brexit seems to be going ahead, but there is no Northern Ireland Government to tend to Northern Ireland interests in the process of it. The two Governments are worried by this and they are urging Northern Ireland to get a Government so that it can tend to the interests of Northern Ireland. What does Northern Ireland have an interest which could be tended to if it had Government?

Northern Ireland is an empty formula: a Constitutional abstraction which does not reflect a political or social reality. It is transcendent. It exists beyond reality. In the reality of things, Northern Ireland today, as ever, exists in two incompatible parts. Until 1972 one part held free dominance over the other. Since 1998, because of a War that was fought in the interim, the two parts became independent of each other. Its new form of government, established under the 1998 Agreement between Whitehall and the IRA, and a subsequent agreement between Ian Paisley—”Ulster Says No!—and Martin McGuinness—the Republican war leader—consists of two groups of autonomous Ministries, each representing one of the parts, which pull in opposite directions.

It is perhaps fortunate for Northern Ireland, as a transcendentent constitutional abstraction, that it does not have a Government at this historic juncture. It would aggravate the antagonism of the parts without having any power of decision.

The parts decide in the light of their own particular interests whether to form the subordinate Government of discordant parts or not. That right of decision Is all that exists in the way of democracy in the Six Counties.

Those in Dublin and London who berate Sinn Fein and the DUP for not agreeing to form that unusual form of government just now do so for concerns of their own. Neither Dublin nor London has any representative in connection with the North.
The Irish Times—the Southern Unionist paper chosen by Fianna Fail to be the national paper of record—Editorialises (October 19) that—

“the people of Northern Ireland are being denied the benefits of a properly functioning government. Tribal politics and sectarian-style considerations are threatening to overwhelm the commitments to peace, diversity and compromise that formed a basis of the Belfast Agreement. It does not have to be like this. Northern Ireland’s leading parties have more to gain from compromise than they have to lose… Last week, it seemed that agreement might be reached… Michelle O’Neill appeared willing to fudge…”

There is no evidence that Michelle O’Neill was willing to trample on her electoral commitments. And the “sectarian-style tribal politics”—what we described as a national difference forty years ago—was what the Good Friday Agreement was based on and gave official structure to.

The Irish Times then proceeds to hold the Northern parties—but essentially Sinn Fein—responsible for the—”recent cuts… A functioning Executive would be in a position to disburse the additional funding secured by the DUP” in return for giving its handful of votes at Westminster to the Tories so that they could form a Government.

Northern Ireland is never without a Government. And the Government is always Whitehall, regardless of whether a subordinate façade exists at Stormont. Westminster has absolute power of government in the North. “Recent cuts” were brought in by Whitehall against the wishes of the subordinate Government, overriding the authority devolved to the subordinate.

Whitehall has always had the authority to govern the North in any way it pleased. The main services of the state have always been run by the appropriate Whitehall Departments. And, since 1998, there has been specific provision for a Whitehall Department that can function as the devolved Northern Ireland Government when the Northern Ireland parties—which exist only because the British governing parties have always boycotted their Northern Ireland concoction—cannot be got to form a subordinate government and take the blame.

There have been calls for the Six County parties to live up to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. When this cry was first raised in 1999, we pointed out that it had no spirit. To have a spirit it would have had to be negotiated between the two national communities in the North. It was never that. It was negotiated between Whitehall and the IRA after a 28 year War that Whitehall despaired of winning. John Hume of the SDLP (but not the SDLP) and Charles Haughey of Fianna Fail (but not Fianna Fail) acted as influential intermediaries. Hume was hated in the SDLP and Haughey was hated in Fianna Fail. And David Trimble of the Unionist Party let himself be intimidated by Tony Blair into letting it be thought that he had signed (though we were assured that he didn’t), and then, advised by Lord Bew and Eoghan Harris from the Official IRA, he prevented it from functioning for a couple of years.

We now find our view of the Agreement—or at least some of it—being expressed by an Irish Times columnist in contradiction of the Editorial. Newton Emerson used to be a not funny or biting Loyalist satirist but he has evolved into a straight commentator who is worth reading.

On October 19th, in a column headed “Varadkar tears up the Belfast Agreement”, he ridiculed the notion that the Agreement had a spirit, and commented:

“Leo Varadkar has torn up the Good Friday Agreement in unionism’s favour and ended up doing nobody any favours.”

In 1920 Ulster Unionism did not want the Northern Ireland system. It wanted to be governed, without devolution, within the British system of state politics. That was its programme in the 1918 Election. Historians, in a remarkable instance of Gleichschaltung—as the Nazi system of ‘co-ordinating’ the expression of public opinion was called—have all agreed to delete that indisputable political fact from recorded history.

They were persuaded to have separate ‘Home Rule’ as a Whitehall device that would help to confuse the Sinn Fein movement of the time
But the Six County Partition was their own choice. That gave them the security of a two-thirds majority.

But political life in Unionist Ulster ceased with the establishment of the Northern Ireland system. This put the Unionists in the position of being able to be part of the British state in everything but its politics by bringing out the Protestant vote at every election. And it obliged them to bring out the Protestant vote at every election so that their communal majority would be clear.

Northern Ireland had no political life of its own into which the large Catholic minority might be drawn. That community would certainly have been drawn into British politics if British politics had not been excluded from the North. It was put in an intolerable political position, and that acted on it as a stimulus to find a remedy. It remained steadfastly Anti-Partitionist, not because it was fanatically nationalist, but because British Constitutional politics was closed to it. War was the only way of producing movement towards Irish unity and therefore a war was fought, and was persisted in even when the Southern Establishment—which asserted de jure sovereignty over the North—lost its nerve and tried to back away. The outcome of the War is that Republicanism has gained a secure, officially guaranteed, base within a restructured Northern Ireland system and Sinn Fein has grown into the second or third party in the Republic.

Social progress occurs in conjunction with wars. Britain has often told us so, and has blamed what it sees as Irish backwardness on the Irish refusal to support its wars. But there is a refusal to accept the fact that there was remarkable progress in the Northern Catholic community during its long war with Britain, and that the War to which it was driven was good for it.

The Protestant community opted for the routine of the status quo that was imposed upon it almost a century ago. It drifted along, without politics, as an annex of the British state, and atrophied. The majority-rule system at Stormont was struck down by Whitehall even before it lost its majority. The security of its two-thirds majority in its chosen Six Counties has now melted away. And a majority against it in a Partition referendum is now on the cards.

But the Taoiseach wants to change the goal-posts. He says he won’t accept the Six Counties into the Republic on the basis of a simple majority. He wants to ward off the evil day by requiring a 70 per cent Six County vote for unity before agreeing to accept the return of the Fourth Green Field. The Fianna Fail leader has long been saying things to that effect.

The way things are going it will soon be demanded by these Parties—whose only Northern policy for 60 uears was Anti-Partitionism—that there must be a majority within the Northern Protestant Community for Irish unity before the Dail can allow Partition to end.


The current issue of the Jesuit quarterly Studies is on the theme of Democracy In Peril? It begins with ancient Athens and comes down to Brexit, touching lightly on many things along the way. There is an article on The State Of Irish Democracy by Stephen Collins of the Irish Times. It does not touch at all on the Six Counties, though they are the only part of Ireland where there has been a real problem about democracy since the Treaty Oath ceased to be a condition of entry to the Dail about 90 years ago. In fact the North is not mentioned at all in this pretentious publication, except obliquely by Fianna Fail’s Northern expert, Martin Mansergh.

Democracy, in its minimum practical meaning established by Britain, is the government of a state by a political party which, in a contest with other political parties, gains a majority of seats in Parliament in an election in which the electorate is the adult population. On those terms Northern Ireland is an undemocratically-governed region of a democratic state. The parties which contend for the right to govern the state have always excluded it from their sphere of operation but they govern it when they win an election in the rest of the state.

If that description, which we have repeated over forty years, is inaccurate, we would welcome a refutation of it. Or, if it is held that undemocratic government has no effect on the governed, we would be interested to see a case made for that view.

Mansergh writes that in 1918 the Bolsheviks dissolved the Constituent Assembly in which they failed to gain a majority, but Sinn Fein won an “overwhelming electoral mandate that also covered retrospectively the Easter Rising, but made Dail Eireann the centre of their legitimacy”. Can democracy act retrospectively to cover an action which in its time was undemocratic? We have argued that (leaving aside the scale of the franchise) there was no democracy in 1916. The Westminster Parliament suspended it for the duration of the War in 1915 and continued without an electoral mandate. But there is little doubt that the Redmondites would have got a renewed mandate in 1915 if they had resigned and re-fought their seats, instead of supporting the suspension of democracy by the Liberals and Unionists.

The Rising was carried out in a democratic vacuum. There is no need to seek a mystical democratic validation for it by retrospective democratic action. When democracy was eventually restored in December 1918, Sinn Fein won the election because of the great change of popular opinion brought about by the Rising.

Mansergh continues:

“History is not a simple morality tale… it would, of course, have been preferable if peaceful constitutional evolution had not been so contested that it remained stalled for nearly half a century. It is possible to argue that an Independent Ireland in twenty-six counties would never have come into being without the resort to force in Easter 1916 or the subsequent War of Independence”. [In fact, the War of Independence was subsequent in the fullest sense, to the Election, as the Election was subsequent to the Rising.] “But it is also necessary to acknowledge the cost—not just at that time but with a long afterlife—of validating even for a short period, a conspiratorial militarist tradition that claimed a superiors legitimacy to any elected body, no matter how negligible its electoral support.” [What conspiratorial militarism claimed superior legitimacy to in 1916 was electoral politics which said that independence should be sought only through a Parliament which had repeatedly declared that it would never concede it to anything but force.] “Nearly twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement the process of exorcism is still far from complete, not just because of the residual activities of dissidents but also because of the persistent proselytism for the view that the Provisional IRA campaign has the same legitimacy as the earlier struggle for independence. The historical theorising behind this is highly contrived, indeed absurd, but what cannot be denied is that it took from 1922–98 and beyond to create a political settlement… that could win the consent of the people in Ireland and Northern Ireland.”

This is all over the place, with one thing spilling over into another. The War in Northern Ireland was not, after 1922, a phase in the Anglo-Irish War, although there was some attempt around 1998 in Dublin to claim it as such. It had its own specific causes in the undemocratic structure given to the North by Whitehall which could only result in the communal policing of Catholics by Protestants.

On the comparison of the 1919 War and the 1970 War, this journal has argued that the position of the Northern Catholics, under routine communal humiliation and without access to Constitutional politics, was more difficult and more intolerable than that of nationalist Ireland as a whole after the 1918 Election. There was going to be self-government of one degree or another for the greater part of Ireland, with the “self” of the self-government being the vast bulk of the populace. Independence, as warranted by the Election, could not be got without being fought for, but failing to fight for it would not have led to anything like the position in which a third of the Six County population was placed by the establishment of the Northern Ireland system.

War may not be pleasant. But Britain is a war-fighting state, as Tony Blair often reminded the Labour idealists. And it generates war around it. We were not advocates of war in the North—the Fianna Fail newspaper was. But we saw that there was sufficient reason for war if it could be fought with the possibility of some success. And we can see that it brought considerable success to the community that sustained it—while Fianna Fail remains in denial about the fact that it was a war.

PS The Irish Times of October 25th carried an article on the Catalan crisis and made complicated debating points about it that we could make no sense of, but which possibly make sense to the Ulster Unionist mind which is fiercely Unionist with regard to symbolism, and was once Unionist with regard to the political life of the Union state, but what it cals Unionism now is a “connection” with the Union state and excluion from its political life.

Thirty years ago it was as fiercely opposed toour campaign to bring British politics to the North as it was to the unification of Ireland.

Emerson, the author, is of the opinion that “the UK appears as a model of accommodation” when compared with “the Spanish state”. We cannot say that we have kept up to date with Spanish affairs since the Fascist regime arranged for an orderly transition to democracy. Now it might be that Catalonia was excluded fromn the democratic political life of the Spanish state, as the Six Counties were from the British state when Westminster invented Northern Ireland. But if that was the case, we are sure we would have heard of it. So we are reasonablysure that Catalonia was not excluded from Spanish state politics, and was not confined in a system of subordinated sub-government in which one conmunity dominated another, and in which the only remedy available to the dominated community was war.

Westminster, though its perverse statecraft, is solely responsibvle for the 1921 Northern Ireland system and all that it led to. As far as we know, Catalonia was democratically governed within Spanish democracy, but nevertheless very large numbers of Catalans came to conceive of themselves as a distinct nationality and they wish to se cede from Spain and cease to be Spanish, as England wishes to secede from the EU and cease to be European—not that it ever was European in earnest. But England is forcing Scotland and Wales to leave along with them, and we don’t know that the Catalan nationalists are forcing any other people to go with them.

One comment

  1. Dear Mr. Walsh

    My name is Tunca Berkkurt and I am a graduate student from Galatasaray University, Istanbul. I am currently pursuing a M.A. program on political sciences and writing my thesis on comparison of Turkish and Irish independence movements. In your blog I noticed that you have made citations from Catholic Bulletin but unfortunately I could not reach those documents in .pdf or any other soft-copy format. Could you help me to complete my thesis study by providing me a soft-copy of those documents or at least by leading me where can I find them. Also if you recommend other documents or works to investigate in order to succeed my studies, I will gladly read them.

    Thank you forward

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