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Irish Partition - Past and Present

 Irish Partition – Past and Present             Gerry OShea

Joseph Plunkett, the poet and youngest leader of the Easter 1916 Rebellion, often bemoaned Ireland’s total economic and cultural domination by Britain. He argued that his country should also affirm its many ties to continental Europe where, over the centuries, Irish people living there made distinguished religious and literary contributions.

A mere fifty-seven years after his execution in Kilmainham jail, Ireland joined what is now called the European Union (EU), and today that powerful body stands with the Irish government as Prime Minister Johnson tries to wiggle out of the controversial Irish protocol, a central part of the Brexit negotiations.

David Lloyd George, the British prime minister a century ago, assured the unionists then that he would not implement the Third Home Rule Bill which passed the House of Commons in 1912. That Westminster Act granted a parliament in Dublin for the whole island, the long-sought goal of Irish leaders going back to Daniel OConnell.

 Instead, the PM and his unionist friend, Walter Long, proposed two parliaments in Ireland, one in Belfast which would legislate for the province of Ulster while the other covered Munster, Leinster and Connaught. They also suggested a Council of Ireland where representatives of both legislatures could work together on issues concerning the whole island.

In 2018, another Tory leader, Boris Johnson, attended the Democratic Unionist Party annual conference in Belfast and proclaimed that an Irish Sea protocol would turn Northern Ireland into “a semi-colony of the EU. No Conservative Government could or should sign up to that.”

After Johnson’s landslide election victory in 2019 and the Conservatives no longer needed unionist votes in Westminster he signed off on the hated protocol. Johnson’s nonchalant attitude in dealing with today’s Belfast loyalists is reminiscent of the words of Edward Carson, the unionist leader who negotiated Irish partition with Lloyd George but still warned “I was only a puppet, so was Ulster, so was Ireland, in the political Conservative power game.”

It was Carson who insisted that three counties be excluded from the proposed Bill that divided Ireland. His supporters in Belfast warned him that including the nationalists in Monaghan, Cavan and Donegal could lead to a very precarious parliamentary situation for Loyalists.

 No nationalist leader was consulted about this momentous political decision to divide the country along sectarian lines. The protocol is about trying to manage the continuing division of the island, but today the Tory government has to deal with strong nationalist voices backed by leaders in Europe.

Economic exuberance in the Belfast area in the early 20th century was due mainly to the massive expansion in the shipyard and the extensive linen industry in neighboring counties. By comparison, Dublin and all the southern cities were in the doldrums with high unemployment and low wages.

The reasons ascribed for this sad situation by Loyalists included a belief that Catholics lacked the Protestant virtues of industriousness and frugality. The famous historian, William Hartpole Lecky, a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, where the chair of History still honors his name, wrote that even the most down-and-out Protestant was convinced that he was superior to the richest well-educated Catholic.

Today, while the economy in Dublin is booming, driven by investments by multi-nationals, the people living in the northern statelet are heavily dependent on welfare payments from central funds to maintain a decent standard of living. Brexit has caused a major challenge in this regard because Brussels subsidized the North with various payments amounting to over a hundred million pounds sterling every year while Westminster only transmits eleven million – a huge loss of nearly 90 million in a small economy.

56% of the people in the North, including 40% of unionists, voted against Brexit, and after the protocol was agreed just 19% of businessmen in the area wanted it abolished. Now, while long queues gather in mainland Britain outside petrol stations and shoppers face empty shelves in supermarkets, the Single European Market, guaranteed by the protocol, keeps life in Belfast humming along with almost no interruptions.

Amazingly, the four unionist parties have come together to warn the British government that if the protocol is not removed, they will walk away from the Belfast Parliament and lead agitation in the streets. This bluff worked against the Third Home Rule Bill a hundred years ago. Today, European leaders are very unlikely to buckle because of sectarian turbulence in Belfast.

At the very beginning of the Brexit negotiations, Donald Tusk, then president of the European Council, said that any proposals by the United Kingdom that would not receive a nod of approval from Dublin would be rejected in Brussels. All the indications are that this assurance still holds.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), whose support comes mainly  from farming and blue-collar Protestants, has won the most votes in the province for many decades, including in the last election. However, they have fired two leaders in the last year and seem to have no clear policies. An August poll showed them at a mere 13%, about half of their percentage in the last assembly elections.

The demography in the North is changing all the time. Older people, nationalist and unionist, remain true to traditional loyalties, but polls show that young people under forty have different priorities. Today, unlike when the state was founded, only Lisburn - of the five recognized cities in the North – has a significant Protestant majority, and, in just two of the six counties, Antrim and Down, are Catholics seriously outnumbered.

In 1921 the Loyalists in the North were well-organized and ready to use their armed militia to get their way. At the same time, nationalists had to deal with daily police harassment and indeed to endure pogroms in Belfast.

The situation is very different today. In the poll already mentioned, Sinn Fein maintained their vote at 25% and so Michelle O’Neill is likely to be the next First Minister, which would be viewed as an abomination by all unionists. How would they deal with a Taig at the top in their country?

The Catholic Church in Ireland went from strength to strength after 1795 when the British government allowed the development of a national seminary in Maynooth. Throughout the 19th century, it got  control of the schools educating their own members and expanded parish life in every town and village.

Paul Cullen, Archbishop of Dublin and Ireland’s first cardinal, led the strong ultramontane tendency in the 19th century church in Europe. This meant full tribal allegiance to Rome with no room for dissent.  The Latin expression in common use among clerics in those days encapsulates their subservience to the Vatican, Roma locuta est; causa finita est. Rome has spoken; the case is closed.

Looking to the possibility of a Home Rule parliament in Dublin, the main reason the Protestants in the North gave for their unbending opposition was that Home Rule would amount to Rome rule. They had every reason to fear that outcome, and, indeed, the Catholic hierarchy played an outsize and detrimental role in Dublin politics for the first seventy years of the Irish state.

The introduction of abortion and same-sex marriage in Ireland during the last twenty years clearly indicate a sea change in the power of the church in the country. The old religious shibboleths no longer apply and this is a factor for some young Protestants in their deliberations about a border poll that may eventually lead to a united Ireland.

Gerry OShea blogs at


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