"I never saw a richer
country, or, to speak my mind, a finer people; the worst of them is the
bitter and envenomed dislike which they have to each other. Their factions
have been so long envenomed, and they have such narrow ground to do their
battle in, that they are like people fighting with daggers in a hogshead."
- Sir Walter Scott, 1825
To people whose history stays flat on the printed page it seems incredible that 'old, far-off, unhappy things, and battles long ago' should exert such influence upon the present. Ireland, like Dracula's Transylvania, is much troubled by the undead. King William III, Wolfe Tone and Patrick Pearse sustain an unnatural immortality with the blood of succeeding generations, and when people talk about the inability of the Irish to forget the past, this is usually what they mean. As a matter of fact, the Irish are not only capable of forgetting the past, but quite deliberately expunge from their minds whole areas of it. Like other nations, they have woven for themselves a garment of myth and legend which they call Irish history... that is the history they learn at their mother's knee, in school, in books and plays, on radio and television, in songs and ballads... To the Irish all History is Applied History and the past is simply a convenient quarry which provides ammunition to use against enemies in the present.
1 ~ Problems of Plantation
2 ~ Signals of Siege
3 ~ The Problems of Presbytery
4 ~ Patterns of Conflict
5 ~ Modes of Minority
6 ~ Prospect
#1 PROBLEMS OF PLANTATION
Few episodes in Irish history have been more misunderstood, or more misrepresented, than the Plantation of Ulster. Of all the factors needed to provide and explanation of the present situation, it is generally considered to be chief; and Irishmen, whatever their political attitudes, are agreed at least on one point - that the Ulster Question began in 1609... but we know even from the evidence of the written record itself that in two vital respects the plantation did not succeed as planned: the Irish were not, as is popularly supposed, driven off the escheated lands wholesale; and the Scots eventually occupied an area of the plantation out of all proportion to that originally allotted to them.
The Gaels too were invaders, a military caste ruling the native population every bit as much as the later Normans or English. In the 19th century, and for much later, it was assumed that the Gaels must have been the earliest Celtic speakers to arrive in Ireland... the term 'Celtic' is a linguistic one and cannot properly be related to race: the Gaels were anthropologically very mixed. Yet one still hears the Irish described as 'a Celtic race'. The point is that the language became a unifying agent: it was eventually adopted by a collection of dwellers in Ireland, people of different origins fused by a conquering culture. To believe that the true Irish today are descended from a pure Celtic race, we would have to believe that invaders of this race entirely subjugated Ireland, exterminating the population already establisged there for more than five thousand years, and that it remained completely uncontaminated by the blood of the Vikings, the Normans, the Old English...
At the core of the
Ulster problem is the problem of the Scots, and it requires to be considered
on its own. It is far too often assumed that it began only in the reign
of James I. In fact it was by then already centuries old. At the narrowest
part of the North Channel, Scotland is a mere twelve miles from the Antrim
coast... we usually think of eastern Ulster as an extension of Scotland,
but it is just as true that western Scotland was once an extension of the
Ulster Kingdom of Dalriada. Some at least of the planters who arrived in
Ulster in the early 17th century were direct descendants of earlier Ulster
invaders of Scotland.
Even to use the terms 'Irish' and 'Scots' in this contect creates a misunderstanding. We are talking of a time before the emergence of the modern idea of a nation or a country. The words have no meaning beyond a geographical one. Nor can we even think in terms of natural boundaries determined by the sea. We have accepted these boundaries as natural for so long that we can easily forget that mountains, forests and marshes were at one time greater obstacles to man than the open sea. The Dutch geographer, Professor Heslinga, argues that from prehistoric times the Irish sea had been the *centre*, not the frontier, of a vast cultural province.
There was in fact a much earlier effective Scots plantation in Antrim than that which began in the first decade of the 17th century.. its most obvious consequence has been the survival of a Catholic and staunchly nationalist enclave in north Antrim. This Catholic bridgehead in the very heartland of Protestant territory is an embarrassment to unionists and a strong card in the hands of anti-partitionists.
The first wave of this settlement began in the 13th century, with the migration from the Western Isles and the Highlands of Scots mercenary soldiers, 'gallowglass' as they were called.
When we try to establish a relationship between the Plantation of Ulster and the existence of Northern Ireland in the 20th century, we must be aware of certain ambiguities and some imponderable factors. The distinctive Ulster-Scottish culture, isolated from the mainstream of Catholic and Gaelic culture, would appear to have been created not by the specific and artificial plantation of the early 17th century, but by the continuous natural influx of Scottish settlers both before and after that episode: in particular, the heavy immigration which took place in the later 17th century seems to have laid the foundations of the Ulster. Immigration from Scotland was fairly continuous for centuries before 1609, and was a fact of geography rather than a fact of history.
#2 SIGNALS OF SIEGE
Since the settlers of the new plantation were at great pains to distinguish themselves, in religion and nationality if not in race, from the Irish, they found themselves from the very beginning in a state of siege which has continued in one form of another ever since. If it is true that the substructure of Irish tenantry on the planted lands was less disturbed than we are sometimes asked to believe, those who were dispossessed, particularly the chieftains and their followers, nourished and undying hostility to the planters... this feeling strengthened rather than diminished with time, and was added to the swelling sense of grievance of all the dispossessed Irish, which has given such a legacy of hatred to later generations.
Recurrent siege is
thus part of the cycle of the Ulster conflict, a cycle which will continue
for a long time to come, whatever the consequences of the recent crisis
prove to be. Nationalists argue that this is not so: once Britian relinquishes
the north, and the Protestants take their place as an Irish minority, as
their co-religionists have done in the south, then the siege mentality
will disappear of its own accord. This may be true, but it cannot be proved
except in the event, and there is no way of showing that the event will
not be preceded by an appalling civil war. It rests on the assumption that
the northerners feel besieged because they are British and not because
they are Protestants.
In Ireland no one can guarantee that violent men will be or can be controlled, and it is precisely because the most cruel and treacherous warfare has broken out over and over again, and usually after a period of relative security, as in 1641 or 1798 or 1920 or 1969, that the besieged suffer such chronic insecurity.
The 1641 rebellion in Ireland and the troubles in Scotland were a prelude to 11 years of civil war, not only in Ireland but in Britain, where civil war has never been the normal pattern of life. The uprising of the Gaelic Irish in Ulster, though it had specific local causes, has to be related not only to the wider context of Stuart government in the British Isles but to a pattern of war, revolution and atrocity which involved the whole of Europe, and of which the major aspect was the Thirty Years' War. Some historians have seen in it a 'general crisis' of society, just as at the end of the 18th century some have a discerned a democratic revolution affecting the whole of the Western World.
Irish historians are especially prone to consider the history of Ireland in isolation, as if everything that happened there was the result of a slow process of ferment of purely Irish ingredients, above all of the maturing of a sense of Irish nationality. Irish history is, as it were, seen vertically and not horizontally. Yet nothing can be more obvious than that throughout the centuries the course of events in Ireland has been profoundly influenced by major upheavals in other parts of the world. Thus events in 1641, 1690, 1782, 1798, 1848 and 1916 can all be linked to significant political changes in Europe or America. The prolonged Irish crisis of 1914-23 was coincident in time with the First World War, and events in Northern Ireland since 1969 cannot be dissociated from a worldwide upsurge in terrorism and civil disorder.
"Five generations have
passed away and still the wall of Londonderry is to the Protestants of
Ulster what the trophy of Marathon was to the Athenians."
- Thomas Macaulay, "A History of England" (1848-61)
The siege of Londonderry in 1689 was only one of several which had taken place since the 16th century, and it is chiefly interesting because it provides the paradigm for the entire history of the siege of the plantation... what Heslinga aptly calls 'the Derry cycle'.
The factor which distinguishes the siege of Derry from all other historic sieges in the British Isles is that it is still going on.
Topography is the key
to the Ulster conflict. Unless you know exactly who lives where, and why,
much of it does not make sense. The difficulty outsiders experience in
understanding Ulster's troubles arises from the fact that people who live
there know this information to the square inch, while strangers know nothing
of it. The topography of many small towns in Ulster has remained unchanged
since the early 17th century at least. This simple fact may be equally
true of many English villages... but there it does not determine the disposition
of opposing forces in a battle which has never ended.
Some Ulster villages have one main street with Catholics living at one end and Protestants at the other.
To the foreigners who only reads about the Ulster problem in books, this might seem astonishing in itself, but far more interesting is the fact that the division was exactly the same in 1690.
In Belfast history shapes the character of the housing estates. In Derry this is even more obvious; topography is the key to almost every aspect of life... once the essential pattern was established, not even the 19th century expansion of the city over water meadows and pleasant uplands could eradicate it. Beneath the maze of streets the subterranean fire eternally smouldered, because the course of Irish history never created the circumstances in which it could die out.
Bonfires still blaze in the streets of Belfast and Derry. They are among the most enduring singals used by either community to indicate a victory over the other. The red leaping flames, lighting up the wild and passionate intensity of gaunt Ulster faces, are a well-remembered element in every Ulster childhood, even the most sheltered. It may be despised, condemned, arouse revulsion or even horror - a spectacle so primitive that outsiders find it incomprehensible - but to an Ulsterman it speaks unmistakably of home. Like so much in the pattern of Ulster behaviour, it makes no sense without the code. It means so much more than it appears to mean.
The formal celebration of the siege did not begin until the late 18th century. The faults which are ordinarily found in dominant castes and dominant sects have not seldom shown themselves without disguise at her festivities; and even with the expressions of pious gratitude which have resounded from her pulpits have too often been mingled words of wrath and defiance. Here, in a nutshell, is the argument which has gone on ever since. The Commission of Inquiry on the Londonderry riots of 1869 made the same point, that it was in its 'double aspect' that the celebration became a cause of anger and offence. Few states committed the imprudenc of continuing to celebrate a victory in a civil war: in ancient times both the Greeks and Romans had been careful never to tolerate it.
It may well be that instinct is a dangerous guide, and that men should always be led by reason, but this does not seem to be how the world works, nor is it in the nature of man. History shows that the instinct to resist, against overwhelming odds, is often justified in the event.
#3 THE POLITICS OF PRESBYTERY
If the distinction between planter and Gael in the Ulster of the 17th century cannot be satisfactorily explained in terms of race or culture (in the widest sense), it is more clearly comprehensible in terms of religion. Examination of the plantation poses the question: why were the Scots and English planters the only invaders not to assimilate in time with the indigenous population? The obvious answer is that they were the first to come after the Reformation. Their religion was the barrier which cut them off from the native Irish and place them permanently in a state of siege. The gult fixed between planter and Gael was the wider in that it resulted from the confrontation of extremes, of the Roman Church with the Calvinism of the Scottish lowlanders.
To understand the nature
of the quarrel we must go back to the preceding century. It was in the
16th century, and not in the 17th, that the die was cast. The intensity
of the emotions aroused by the Anglo-Irish dispute stems from one simple
historical fact - that the Reformation was imposed on Britain at a time
when royal authority could not be exerted over all, or even very much,
of Ireland. It was a time when the Tudors ruled Ireland more by alliance
with the chieftains than by force. Given the choice between subduing the
Irish and leaving them quietly in the exercise of their religion, English
statesmen took the latter course. As always with Ireland, they took the
easy course and hoped for better opportunities of strengthing the Reformation
Church later. The opportunities never came, and the fact that the vast
bulk of the Irish population remained Catholic is a reflection of the military,
economic and administrative failure of Tudor sovereigns to exter their
will over Ireland in the secular sphere.
Had the British Isles as a whole remained Catholic, or had the Reformed religion been adopted in Ireland, a mild movement for independence would probably have developed in Ireland during the 19th century. It would undoubtedly have been successful without much bloodshed in the 20th, and some form of devolved government, like that adopted for Northern Ireland after 1920, might have been the intermediate stage.
But what gave the enduring Anglo-Irish conflict its peculiar bitterness was the difference in religion between the two islands and, even more, its political and strategic implications. By remaining Catholic, Ireland became the Achilles' heel of an England at war with the Catholic powers of Europe. Spain in the 16th century, and France in the 18th, saw the Irish as allies and Ireland as a foothold for the invasion of the British Isles as a whole. Thus the opponents of Catholic emancipation in the 18th century were not motivated so much by religious bigotry as by understandable fears that a Catholic-dominated parliament might side with the enemies of Hanoverian England. Such strategic considerations have persisted almost to the present, and they help to explain why the Union was maintained long after Britain had conceded the independence of Ireland in principle, and why politico-religious rancour survived in Ireland when it had disappeared elsewhere.
The Ulster Presbyterians had hoped, at the beginning of the 17th century, that the strenuous part which they had played in support of William III, and in particular in the siege of Derry, where they claimed to have outnumberedthe Anglican defenders by 15 to 1, might be rewarded by increased security and toleration of the sect by the government and by the established Church. It was not to be. Such benefits as they received derived from the goodwill of the King and the English Parliament. The Irish government did nothing for them.
Protestant dissenters, like Catholics, were excluded (by the 1704 Test Act) from all influence in the government of Ireland, which, for most of the 18th century was to be a monopoly of the Protestant Ascendancy. The term 'Protestant Ascendancy' has a precise historical meaning, and it is absurd to speak of the Presbyterians as being, either then or since, a part of it.
During the last quarter of the 18th century, the northern Presbyterians played a leading role in the drama of Irish history. Yet it was an enigmatic role, and one which may have been profoundly misunderstood by later generations. At the zenith of the political achievement of the so-called 'Protestant nation', there was formed, among the middle-class Presbyterians of Belfast, the radical society of United Irishmen, whose threefold aim was Catholic emancipation, the reform of Parliament and the independence of Ireland. The United Irishmen held the view that no reform or political progress was possible in Ireland until dissenter and Catholic united to isolate the Irish executive and overthrow the power of the Anglican Protestant Ascendancy. The age of the Protestant nation ended with the United Irish insurrection and the Act of Union which followed it in 1800. Many of those Protestants who had spoken up most vociferously for the right of Ireland then became fervent supporters of the British connection and left the national cause to the Catholic majority.
All historical interest tends to be compound interest. Those periods which have produced most books will produce even more.
In 1775 events of enormous
consequence in the outside world produced political turmoil in Ireland
and ushered in a period of rapid and exciting change. The period between
1704 and 1775 in Ireland was the era of the Penal Laws, that haphazard
but effective accumulation of statues which collectively excluded the entire
Catholic population from the political and public life of the country,
and further, interfered with their rights to worship, or educate their
children, as they pleased. Such codes of law directed against a particular
religion were not peculiar to Ireland, but in other countries including
England and France they operated against minorities and not against majorities.
Paradoxically they have been more resented by Catholics since their repeal than they seem to have been by Catholics who lived under them. This was in part because they were much more stringent in the letter than in enforcement. Those laws which affected worship and imposed irksome petty restrictions were soon allowed to fall into desuetude and were often circumvented by collusion with Protestants.
The American war affected the Presbyterians in a peculiarly close way, for during the 18th century there had been a steady stream of emigration from Ulster to the colonies, and by 1775 a majority of Presbyterians had family connections on the other side of the Atlantic. The Scotch-Irish, as they are called in the United States, played a not inconsiderable part in the American Revolution, and were well regarded by Washington, who said that if he were defeated everywhere else he would make his last stand among the Scotch-irish of his native Virginia. The Ulster Presbyterians were therefore very sympathetic to the ideals of the colonists, and this reinforced their criticism of British government in Ireland.
Almost everyone has tended to assume, like the United Irishmen themselves, that because unity (of Catholics and Protestants) was proclaimed, it was also in some ways achieved. But a closer look at the texture of northern society at this time shows unmistakably that this was not so. No hiatus in fact occured in the centuries-old strife between the religious sects; if anything, sectarian tension increased at this time.
The United Irishmen...
had to recruit potential insurgents from the ranks of the secret agrarian
societies, whose very existence proved that sectarian strife was a much
stronger tradition than unity. Thus large numbers of Catholic Defenders
were brought into the movement after 1796, and many of these took the field
in 1798. It was hardly surprising, therefore, than 1798 witnessed scenes
of sectarian massacre, notably in Wexford, and that the United Irish rebellion,
as it is called, was in so many respects the antithesis of everything that
the United Irishmen had stood for in 1791.
The killing of Protestants on Wexford Bridge and at Scullabogue had an immediate effect on northern Presbyterian opinion, reviving all the old fears of 1641. These fears had indeed intensified before 1798. To understand why, we must now turn to the strange laws which govern and direct Irish violence.
#4 PATTERNS OF CONFLICT
The problem of violence
in Irish history has not yet received the study it deserves. Most historians
have been content to assume that it is generated by the deplorable circumstances
of Irish history, and in particular by 'bad colonial government', the oppression
of the Irish people by the English. Yet this is a very sweeping assumption,
and the evidence to support it is a good deal thinner than is generally
imagined. And it could just as well be argued that Irish history and Anglo-Irish
relations have been tragic because the Irish are a violent and intemperate
Violence would appear to be endemic in Irish society, and this has been so as far back as history is recorded. There can hardly be a square inch of earth anywhere in Ireland that has not been at some time stained with blood.
What has always been noted about the Irish is their capacity for very reckless violence, allied to a distorted moral sense which magnifies small sins and yet regards murder as trivial. It is sometimes argued that the moral distortion is a consequence of the troubles in the earlier part of the 20th century, when terrible atrocities were committed during the Anglo-Irish war and the civil war. This cannot be true, because these same qualities are explicitly described in some of the earliest accounts of the Irish; it would seem far more likely that the frightfulness of the crimes committed in modern Ireland is to be explained by patterns of behaviour which are of great antiquity.
Much less attention
has been paid to the regularity of the froms in which Irish violence is
expressed... The primary pattern which emerges from the background of Irish
violence is that of the secret army, the shadowy banditti 'on its keeping'
in the mountains and the bogs, whose lineage is traceable from the woodkerne
of the sixteenth century to the provisional I.R.A. ...Time and time again,
in describing the woodkerne, English observers remarked on the difficulty
of coming to grips with them. After a raid on a planterís dwellings they
simply melted away into the wood, or were metamorphosed into contented
peasantry till the land or herding cattle.
It was not until the 18th century, however, that they really got into the history books. They were those whom the local populace always referred to, cautiously but sympathetically. as 'the boys' - Whiteboys, Oakboys, Rightboys, the Boys of Wexford, Peep o'Day Boys, Orange Boys. To this day in Ireland a reference to 'the boys' will generally be taken to mean the IRA (or whatever terrorist group is supported in the area).
It is worthwhile to reflect on the extent of the injury which these pragmatic terrorists could inflict on the authorities. In the 20 years before the Famine nearly 100 policemen were killed and 500 wounded in suppressing secret societies. Although the agrarian societies challenged law and order in the state, their actions often reflected an excessive respect for lawful forms. They demanded absolute obedience to 'the law', but by this they meant their own unwritten law, which demanded among other things that you did not take land from which a tenant had been evicted, or buy confiscated cattle.
"There is no English
analgoue to the Albigensian crusade, to the massacre of St. Bartholemew,
to the long rule of the Inquisition, to the devastating fanaticism of the
Thirty Years' War. There is hardly a European city which does not bear
traces of scission and apartheid as between doctrinal comminities. The
present ugliness in Northern Ireland, with which English sentiment is finding
it so difficult to cope, represents an atavistic but also routine aspect
of Continental history. So much of Europe is a consequence of exhaustion
after generations of religious civil warfare. Dogmatic fury has played
a minor, sporadic role in the English scene."
- Dr. George Steiner, article in "The Listener" (1973)
In 1969 there was a widespread feeling that the situation in Northern Ireland was an alien and un-British one, and that the army was being called upon to undertake some entirely novel and un-British role. This was far from the case. A century ago the British army was deployed on the streets of Belfast, being jeered at, stoned and fired on, under strict orders not to fire back, and in a state of total incomprehension about the nature of the quarrel it was called on to stop.
The conflict was not
total, either in numbers or in area. On the contrary, only a very small
fraction of the entire population was involved in violence of any kind.
We must, however, make a distinction between two aspects of violence; one
consists of the war between the IRA and the security forces, the other
of the war between the two communities. The first could only ocur when
the second had developed, as infection will develop in a wound. Behind
the bombing campaign and the gunning down of police and troops there lies
a far older sectarian war. It keeps the urban guerrilla in business, yet
paradoxically in the long run it cheats him of even the faintest possibility
of success. His only hope of eventual revolutionary victory is in communities
where nine-tenths of the population are either on his side or at least
not hostile to him.
Severe riots occured, in the traditional pattern, in the early stages of the Ulster troubles. They ceased. as they ceased in earlier troubles, once the use of firearms became widespread. For the disorders follow a predictable pattern, like the course of a disease; yet it is hardly recognized outside Ulster that during the long years of the troubles the character of violence has changed every month. What was happening in Belfast in 1977 was very different from what was happening there in 1969.
To say that the modern conflict in Ireland is dictated by the topography of 17th century walled towns may seem absurd to city dwellers for whom the city gates are now only the names of Underground stations. Nevertheless, it is perfectly true. Moreover the behaviour of people on those frontiers is perfectly rational, not only in terms of history but of contemporary politics; it is not the mark of too much or too little Christianity, or any kind of attitude not found in the rest of the human race.
No one who has been
caught in a Belfast riot against his will is likely to regard it as one
of the higher forms of human activity, which is one reason why most of
the population of Belfast prefer to watch riots on television... but it
is a naive and fundamental error to regard rioting as a 'mindless' and
irrational mode of human behaviour. Stone throwing, for example, is a military
art of considerable sophistication and great antiquity. Even in the
20th century, well-organized stone throwing can inflict very serious casualties
on armed and disciplined troops who are forbidden to shoot the stone throwers.
These soldiers might as well be Roman legionaries, for all the good their modern weapons are; their only protection is a shield, a steel helmet and a visor. Schoolboys can dance right up to the armoured vehicles and launch a brick or a nailbomb with deadly accuracy, but woe to the soldier who fires a single round, with or without orders; not the least of the rioters' advantages is in the field of propaganda. The stone throwers may be barbarians, savages, Neanderthal men, but from a military point of view, they know what they are doing. Their art has been perfected in the streets of Belfast and Derry, Lurgan and Portadown, for a century and a half at least.
Where a main road divides
Catholic streets from Protestant the displaying of flags and hurling of
insults may go on all through the summer, slowly building up to the inevitable
clashes and bloodshed. The first stage is followed by physical violence,
fisticuffs, stone throwing, forays into enemy territory by men armed with
clubs, the smashing of windows and the starting of fires.
The first use of firearms is always by the other side, and there is invariably a sensation of shock and anger at the elevation of the conflict to a more lethal plane.
Actual contests between Protestant and Catholic mobs do not last long. Some of the worst, like the 'Battle of the Brickfields' in 1872, have been over in 20 minutes, but sporadic rioting, cowardly assassination and attacks on the police and troops may continue for days or weeks. A 'flashpoint' usually cools in three or four days. The rioters seem to tire of the activity, no doubt because of extreme physical exhaustion, and the rioting may be transferred to another locality, where the able-bodied men are fresh for combat. Riots die away for no apparent reason, or for reasons which seem illogical; for example the prolonged fighting in 1886 ended because of three days of continuous rain. That is to say, the riots were more demoralized by rain than by rifle fire.
The army is almost totally ineffective as a means of restoring order. It would of course be extremely effective if it were allowed to operate as an army, but that is what it must never do. The addition of armed troops to the situation in the streets aggravates the disorders, and for the last 150 years has been a required elements in the scenario.
The Belfast riots of
1857, 1864 and 1886, and the Londonderry riots of 1869 and 1883, were the
subject of commissions of inquiry... the formula for tinkering with the
police was tried after each successive outbreak, and always without the
slightest effect. The Irish Constabulary, the Royal Irish Constabulary
and the Royal Ulster Constabulary were each in turn criticized for allowing
riots to develop, and failing to contain them when they did develop. If
they were unarmed, it was recommended that they should be armed; if they
used their arms, it was recommended that they be disarmed.
When Lord Hunt recommended in 1969 that the RUC be instantly disarmed, he was, whether he knew it or not, following a well-established precedent. Again the move did not have the desired effects. On the contrary, it loosed a deluge of violence which led to the deaths of many policemen and soldiers, and hundreds of civilians. The police were quickly re-armed, but the damage had already been done - less from the disarming that from the general doubt cast upon the effectiveness and impartiality of the RUC. It was an old story, as the 19th century riot reports show, and it had little to do with the IRA.
#5 MODES OF MINORITY
Whatever the 'Ulster
Question' is in Irish history, it is not the question of partition, though
it is commonly presented as such throughout the world. Not much thought
is required to perceive that the evidence of history points to a rather
opposite conclusion, that partition is more a symptom of the problem that
its cause, though it may exarcerbate the problem. The problem is clearly
older than partition and would in all probability survive it. Thus if one
could imagine the border abolished overnight, and a government in Dublin
assuming responsibility for the whole country, far from being settled,
as so many Irishmen believe, the problem would become acute.
After all, partition is not peculiar to Ireland, though Irishmen act as if it were. Other countries, larhe and small, are partitioned for more or less the same reasons - India and Cyrpus, for example. Partition in these circumstances is like a tourniquet applied to stop bleeding at a particular time and in specific circumstances. No one imagines it to be a permanent solution. It rarely satisfies either side, let alone both, and it has many practical disadvantages, especially economic ones. It might be said to have only one positive advantage, but that one is paramount. Partition is preferable to civil war.
It is perfectly possible for a loyalist population, particularly if it is a settler or colonist population, to find itself regarded as being in the 'immoral' position of thwarting the national will and taking sides with the wicked colonial oppressor. The French European population of Algeria, even though they were (like their parents and grandparents) in every sense as Algerian as African Algerians, and even though Algeria was not legaly a colony but a part of metropolitan France, were in the end made foreigners and even traitors in the land of their birth. Rejected not only by Algerian nationalists but by France as well, they were forced by the struggle for national liberation to make the stark choice of either accepting the legality of the revolution or becoming despised refugees in their own motherland. That is the situation into which the IRA hopes to manoeuvre the loyalists of Ulster.
In the long run the one decisive factor in partition is not the weakness of Irish nationalism, nor the guile of unionists, not the chicanery of British statesmanship. It is the simple determination of Protestants in north-east Ireland not to become a minority in a Catholic Ireland. It is towards weakening this determination that all the efforts of Irish nationalism ought in theory to have been aimed. Instead they have largely been directed to strengthening it in every possible way. The success of the Protestant minority has produced a bizarre consequence, for it has created within its own state a Catholic minority. The Ulster problem, as has been pointed out but not sufficiently comprehended, is in essence the problem of a *double* minority. Since 1969 a great deal has been said about 'the minority', but it always the Catholic minority in north which is meant. It seems hardly to occur to most observers that half the insecurity of the majority position stems from the basic anxieties which haunt a potential minority.
In 1920 the nature
of the Ulster Protestants' problem was dramatically changed. Until that
point they had feared becoming a minority in a Catholic state, and they
desired to remain part of the Protestant majority in a United Kingdom.
Not they were called upon to act as a majority, having to govern and tolerate
a dangerously large and troublesome minority in a devolved administration
which most Irishmen thought had no right to exist, without being able to
devest themselves of any of the fears which went with being a minority.
Though they did not want Home Rule for Ulster, the unionists made the best of the situation, and contrary to popular Catholic belief, they did genuinely try to create a nonsectarian state in which all citizens would enjoy equal rights. Carson, who declined to become Ulster's first prime minister, advised his followers to treat the Catholics well. They have every incentive to do so, for the continued existence of Northern Ireland depended on the Catholics at least tacitly recognizing its authority.
Above all, they needed to keep the goodwill of Britain, for they knew that the British could not understand their problems and easily became impatient at any display of what they considered to be religious bigotry.
The effort was probably
doomed to failure, since one man's freedom is another's captivity, and
the passions engendered by Irish history were too strong to evaporate in
any system of secular government. As it was, events soon decided the issue
by creating circumstamces in which the nonsectarian ideal could not possibly
survive. The chief reason for its demise was the turmoil of the state's
early years. In 1969 it was all too easy for people to believe that Northern
Ireland has been created merely by the stroke of a pen, and even to assume
that it could be done away with by the same means. In fact the state called
into existence by the 1920 Act forged its essential identity in bitter
suffering and adversity, for the IRA launched in the north a campaign of
murder and outrage with the object of making it impossible for the new
government to function. This inevitably set in train the ancient sectarian
The sectarian rioting superimposed on the conflict already existing between the IRA and the British army, brought Ulster to a state of anarchy. It was a situation which led to the raising of a Protestant special constabulary to assist the RUC, the 'B-Specials' and the passing of emergency legislation to giv the government special powers for dealing with terrorists, including the power of internment without trial.
The restoration of public order in 1923 owed much to two external factors. First, Sir James Craig, the Northern Ireland Prime Minister, met the IRA leader, Michael Collins, in London, and agreed with him that if the operations of the IRA in the north were ended, his government would do everything within its power to protect the lives and property of Catholics in Northern Ireland. This promise Craig and his successors kept, without regard to the Catholics' attitude to the state. The second factor which halted the bloodshed in Ulster was the outbreak of civil war in the south of Ireland, which gave the northern administration a much-needed respite. This was used to re-establish the rule of law.
The IRA campaigns and the fierce sectarian clashes which were the birth pangs of the Northern Ireland state were neither forgotten nor forgiven. Even if they had not occured, however, it is in the highest degree unlikely that the two communities would have settled down in harmony. In the first place, the Catholic minority did not see itself as a minority at all; it did not want to be a minority in a Protestant state, but part of the majority of Ireland. It saw no reason why it should even recognize the existence of such a state, a total artificial creation, Catholics argued, which was given legality for the express purpose of making a Protestant majority that would not otherwise exist. The minority had no incentive to reform the state, since they did not want it to exist.
The problem for historians
of the future will be to discover why the civil rights demonstrations of
1968 unleashed a sectarian war of unparalled dimensions, reopened the Irish
question and led to a guerilla war between a vastly reinvigorated IRA and
the British army. This will hardly be satisfied with the answer to be found
in a cant phrase of the conflict, 'fifty years of unionist misrule'. Even
if the unionists had used every opportunity for abuse of political power
available to them between 1920 and 1972, the total of Catholic grievance
far exceeds the unionist administration's actual capability to oppress
the minority. Certain obdurate facts cannot be swept aside, though it may
be argued that much is concealed by them. Northern Ireland remained a parliamentary
democracy. It was never a police state, because the police, like every
other branch of the executive, was subject to the scrutiny of Parliament.
There was no question which could not be aired in Parliament. The press
was not censored, though a ban was placed on the publication and distribution
of republican and IRA literature. Not only did Stormont not exact discriminatory
laws against Catholics; it was expressly forbidden to do so by the 1920
Government of Ireland Act.
Moreover the period of unionist rule was, with the exception of some ugly riots in the early 1930s, almost free of sectarian violence. The relative tranquility of Northern Ireland between 1923 and 1968 is probably explained by the fact that the unionist government had the confidence, and therefore the control, of the Protestant population. It is significant that the determined IRA campaign of 1956-61 failed both to gain the general support of the Catholic population and to provoke Protestant reprisals. Yet in 1969 a totally different atmosphere existed.
None of this alters the fact that the governemt lacked the consent of one-third of the population, and in the interstices of an apparently free society many minor injustices could, and did, flourish. The cultivation of inequality, in practical day-to-day matters if not in law, was aided by the circumstance that Protestants were allowed, and indeed obliged, to claim the monopoly of loyalty to the government, quite apart from their loyalty to Britain.
The Irish, Catholic
and Protestant alike, are not prone to understate a grievance. This is
one of the marked differences between the Irish and the English: the more
injury is done to an Englishman, the less he will say about it, but with
an Irishman the reverse is true. Once again, it is a trait which has long
The point is that whatever specific complaints have had about civil rights in Northern Ireland, the strength and peculiar bitterness (and even strange as it may seem, the very substance) of their grievance was derived from an experience quite outside the 50 years of unionist rule. This is equally true of Protestant political attitudes to the Catholic claims. What the Catholics have been saying for 50 years about the Ulster government springs from a well that was made bitter long before Stormont was built. The great strength of Catholic criticism of government is its ability to carry over into the local situation of today the inherited Catholic consciousness of the entire Anglo-Irish struggle since it began.
"The whole map of Europe
has been changed. The position of countries has been violently altered.
The modes of thought of men, the whole outlook on affairs, the grouping
of parties, all have en countered violent and tremendous changes in the
deluge of the world. But as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short,
we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again.
The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that has
been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world."
- Winston Churchill, writing after the end of the First World War
The quarrel is not about theology as such and remains, in its modern form, stubbornly a constitutional problem, though religion is the shibboleth of the contending parties. Essentially the conflict in Ulster is not different rom other conflicts in the modern world: it is about political power and who should wield it. People simply assume the political attitudes of the faith into which they were born.
Each community identifies itself with the myth it takes from Irish history. Each believes, mistakenly, that it still consists entirely of descendants of the Gaels or of the planters. In fact many of the IRA have planter surnames, and are probably of planter descent, while an Orangeman may be descended from Gaelic kings.
The two communities
are not intermingled but they are interlocked, and in ways which it is
probably impossible for anyone except a native of Ulster to understand.
This gives rise to a situation in which the 'territorial imperative' is
extremely insistent. The quarrel is therefore very much concerned with
the relationship of people to land, and that relationship has indeed been
considered the central theme of Irish history.
Of its very nature it consists of its particulars, the location of a road, a stretch of wall, a church or a cluster of houses... the war in Ulster is being fought out on narrower ground that even the most impatient observer might imagine, a ground every inch of which has its own associatons and special meaning.
The Ulsterman carries the map of this religious geography in his mind almost from birth. He knows which villages, which roads and streets, are Catholic or Protestant or 'mixed'. It not only tells him where he can, or cannot, wave an Irish tricolour or wear his Orange sash, but imposes on him a complex behaviour pattern and a special way of looking at political problems.
To understand the full significance of any episode of sectarian conflict, you need to know the precise relationship of the locality in which it occured to the rest of the mosaic of settlement. But the chequerboard on which the game is played has a third dimension. What happens in each square derives a part of its significance, and perhaps all of it, from what happened there at some time in the past. Locality and history are welded together.
Why, for examlple, should Armagh, the most populous and prosperous of the Ulster counties, be notorious for ambush and outrage since the late 18th century, and why should judges in the 19th century find the Crossmaglen area especially notorious for murder and outrage? Why should Portadown and Lurgan have a history of sectarian rioting, like Belfast?
The most widespread, and most erroneous assumption made about the recent Ulster crisis is that it is created entirely by Irish history, by the inability, that is, of Ulster people to free themselves from the problems of the past and address themselves to those of the present and of the future. One might argue, however, that the conflict, at least in the beginning, was not the consequence of Irish history at all, nor of the basic inability of Northern Ireland's political institutions, but of tangible pressures and problems of the contemporary world. The outbreak of guerrilla warfare in Ulster was more closely linked with the 'evenements' of May 1968 in Paris, for example, than it was with the Penal Laws or the Battle of the Boyne. One of the many aspects of the political crisis was the contemporary fashion for mass protest in the streets which led to such apparently disparate results as the Czechoslovak rising, the anti-Vietnam War campaign in the United States and the protracted political crisis in Portugal. Significantly, the act of triggering seismic catastrophe in Northern Ireland was carried out by a generation too young to have any possible realization of the nature and consequences of previous Irish troubles.
The argument here is that once these contemporary pressues have operated, the form and course of the conflict are determined by patterns concealed in the past, rather than by those visible in the present. There is nothing unusual about such atavism as an aspect of human history.
The average citizen of an Francisco is very little interested in the actual details of how people behaved during the earthquake which destroyed the city in 1906... if such a disaster should take place again, the details of how people actually behaved in 1906 might suddenly become of paramount importance for every citizen. In theory the rescue services would be infinitely more effective than those of 1906. In practice, the efficiency of such systems would probably break down at a fairly early stage, and humanity, as always, would be thrown back on its inherent resources. In such circumstances the urban population would turn instinctively to the folk-memory of what was done before, and this might prove to be a factor of enormous importance in the evacuation of the city, the organizing of shelter, and the enforcement of obedience to instructions by the army and police. In desperate situations, when the normal framework of social order breaks down, ordinary people are rarely as lacking in common sense as those who govern them; the instinct for self-preservation is too strong.
Such a situation was created in Northern Ireland in 1969. Quite apart from the strong political passions involved, the population in both communities realized at an early stage of the troubles that the authorities were failing to contain the disturbances, and indeed that they did not understand their essential nature. The disarming of the police, and its temporary transformation from a law enforcement agency into a vulnerable and subordinate element of the 'security forces', was in itself a profound shock to society. For the time being, the state had lost the capacity to safeguard life and property, and, stripped of that protection, the civil population turned instinctively to the only source of wisdom applicable to the circumstances - the inherited folk-memory of what had been done in the past, both good and bad.
At an early stage of the Ulster troubles, it became apparent that attitudes, words and actions which were familiar and recognisable to any student of Irish history, but which seemed hardly relevant to politics in the twentieth century, were coming back into fashion. This was not to be explained by the deliberate imitation of the past; it could be accounted for only by some mysterious form of transmission from generation to generation. In many ways it was a frightening revelation, a nightmarish illustration of the folk-memory of Jungian psychology. Men and women who had grown to maturity in a Northern Ireland at peace now saw for the first time the monsters which inhabited the depths of the community's unconscious mind. It was as if a storm at sea had brought to the surface creatures thought to have been long extinct.
"Prudent men are in
the habit of saying that he who wishes to see what is to come should observe
what has already happened... Future things are easily known from past one
if a nation has for a long time kept the same habits."
Every nation, and every community, has patterns of behaviour and attitude in the grain of its fabric.
The function of wise constitutions and just reforms is to help humanity to achieve a future that is better than the past, but if they are not to have the opposite effect they must take account of the grain, not cut against it.
>> Also by Professor Stewart >> "The Shape of Irish History"
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