Friday, 26 August 2011

A History of Ireland - 8. The Northern State

Part 8 of a History of Ireland

Ulster Volunteers
Northern Ireland and Statehood.

By 1911, Ulster Protestants had recognised that they could not continue to oppose Home Rule for the rest of Ireland but this realisation made them all the more determined to defend Ulster against inclusion in a Catholic-dominated independent state.

The Ulster Defence Force was formed and armed specifically to fight this, to Protestants, unthinkable prospect. If Ulster Protestants had anything to be proud of it was their history in defending the faith against Catholicism and defending their way of life.

These were the descendants of those who carves a living out of the wild lands in the north, who refused to surrender at Londonderry and who saved Britain from the curse of the Whore of Babylon at the Boyne and Augrim. They were also the descendants of those who were massacred at Porterdown Bridge. They were the people for whom the annual celebration of these great victories was an important event in the calendar. In the words of Lord Randolph Churchill, Ulster would fight and Ulster would be right. No Surrender!

However, even Carson has conceded that they could not reasonably defend all of the historic nine counties, three of which has large Catholic majorities. The loss of these three counties was to be the final concession; not one more inch of Ulster would be freely given up.

Sir Edward Carson Addressing the
Ulster Volunteer Force, Balmoral, July 1913
Having thus retreated to their final positions, Ulstermen then looked on as the Home Rule Bill was followed by two years of terrorism and counter-terrorism in the south, culminating in Britain surrendering sovereignty over twenty-six of Ireland’s thirty-two counties. It must have looked to them as though they were right to absent themselves from the south and that their fears were justified. Moreover, the Anglo-Irish Treaty under which this sovereignty has been conceded by the British has been negotiated by representatives of the Irish terrorists invited to London to negotiate for ‘Ireland’ – then defined as the whole island – and only suspended this sovereignty over the six remaining counties for six months pending the deliberations of the Boundary Commission. Certainly, the Irish negotiators has considered Ulster to be part of the negotiations and regarded the opposition of Ulstermen as now an Irish, not a British, problem. Ulster was in a kind of limbo, not part of the Free State yet not part of Britain and the Boundary Commission was seen as not so much a safeguard as a threat, implying the loss of yet more territory. It would be resisted, of course.

Sir Edward Carson and James Craig
The Treaty established the government of Northern Ireland however and gave the Protestants their own form of Home Rule with their own parliament. The first Prime Minister, Sir James Craig, immediately made it plain that he would not recognise the Boundary Commission, though it remained British Government policy for the first year of the state.  The police force of this new state, including the reserve force of ‘B’ Specials had been recruited from amongst the UVF and in the early days many of them wore their khaki uniforms of the British Army.  They paraded with rifles with the same precision of soldiers.  This was a police force that would protect Protestants and safeguard the Protestant Supremacy in Ulster.  Moreover, Ulstermen had good reason to feel they needed protection.

The IRA had never, at its most nationalistic fringe, accepted the Free State as the independent and united Ireland they had fought for, and saw those who did accept it as traitors to the cause. It had fought on, precipitating the new state into a bloody civil war, and had the declared aim of uniting all Ireland, by force of arms if necessary. By 1932, the former leader of Sinn Fein, de Valera, was Chief Executive of the Dail.

Crowds Gather to Watch the Riots
Royal Avenue and North Street, Belfast
22 May 1922
Ulster Protestants reacted to these perceived threats with time-honoured sectarian rioting in which, in 1922, 232 people died in Belfast, most of them Catholic. Thousands of Catholics fled across the border to the south, adding to Protestant perceptions of Catholics as citizens of a foreign and hostile nation – as the enemies within. In the same year, Stormont passed the Special Powers Act that allowed flogging and made possession of arms a capital offence. This was seen as a necessary measure in a state in which even policemen on traffic duty needed to carry a revolver. Protestants not only faced threats from outside but from within and hanging over their heads was the Boundary Commission negotiated by terrorists in the south and which was going to take their territory away. Moreover, it has the backing of the government of the state of which Ulster was a part.

Whilst Unionists built and secured their new state the Catholic population in the north (about thirty percent of the population) remained mostly Nationalist. Their elected representatives continued the tradition of refusing to sit in a parliament they did not recognise and Catholic school managers refused state grants. A third of the population were refusing to recognise the state itself and instead owed allegiance to one controlled by the enemy south of the border. Nationalist politicians continued to boycott the Northern Ireland Parliament until 1925 but thereafter, to Ulster Protestants, they were never an opposition group in a democratic parliament, simply determined to get rid of the government and replace it with another one. Instead, they were determined to get rid of the state altogether.

Stormont Castle
Ulster Protestants had no doubt that the preservation of the state depended on electing a Protestant-controlled parliament determined to perpetuate the state, and being prepared to fight to the death if necessary for the right and ability to do so. The government, the police, the judiciary and indeed the whole state apparatus in Ulster were there to defend the Protestant Supremacy because that was the only way to preserve the Ulsterman’s way of life. They had no other function. And a symbol of this, a new parliament building was opened in 1932 at Stormont Castle, overlooked by a statue of a defiant Carson, founder of the Ulster Volunteer Force.

Sir James Craig, second left.
Almost total domination of Stormont thus became the single most important political consideration of Ulster’s Protestant population. It transcended, and still transcends, class. Through the depression, the Belfast working class voted solidly for the establishment Unionist Party. The ruling class could always appease them by giving them a sense of privilege where jobs and housing were concerned, over the Catholic minority. The result was a largely submissive population despite unemployment levels and social deprivation that might normally be expected to topple governments. The degree to which Orange Protestantism dominated Ulster politics is illustrated by the approval Sir James Craig got when he told Stormont, in 1934, that he prized the office of Grand Master of the Orange Institution of County Down:
...far more than I do being Prime Minister... I have always said I am an Orangeman first and a politician and a Member of Parliament afterwards... all I boast is that we are a Protestant parliament and a Protestant state”.

From it’s inception until its abolition by Britain, a single party controlled Stormont and every Prime Minister had been in the Cabinet of the former one. Each one too had been a senior member of an Orange Order. Ulster was effectively a single-party state, and its senior government figures were all members of a secretive organisation that required its members to swear an oath of opposition to Catholicism. Stormont was the tool of the Orange Orders and the instrument through which these secret societies ran Ulster. Inevitably, such absolute power led to abuses of that power.

It was at local government level where Unionist power was most blatantly abused, however. The deep insecurities of Protestants had led them to accept, almost without question, as though it were God’s will that they should be doing it, a regime which hardly even paid lip-service to the idea of democracy. Not content to be in the majority throughout much of the province, they proceeded to establish electoral rules and electoral boundaries in such as way that, even when locally in a minority, they could continue to hold power by an overwhelmingly large majority of seats on local councils. Protestants saw this as their just deserts whilst Catholics saw it as the discrimination it really was.

In Londonderry, the Catholic population formed some sixty percent of the population.  For fifty years however, the Londonderry Corporation was sixty percent Unionist and forty percent Nationalist. This was achieved in two main ways. Firstly, 87 percent of Catholics were placed in a single ward returning just eight councillors whilst 87 percent of the Protestants were in two wards which returned twelve councillors and this was facilitated by a system of apportioning housing to designated Catholic and Protestant areas. Secondly, the council was voted in, not based on one person, one vote, but by a system whereby only those with a residence could vote, effectively restricting the vote to the head of the household. However, the value of the property was also taken into account so that a wealthy person could have up to six votes to be distributed amongst his nominees. In a population where Unionists were by far the wealthier, this gave Unionist supporters a far larger electoral advantage than Nationalists had. This advantage was used to reinforce the system still further by discriminatory housing allocation practices.

Londonderry Corporation annually delegated its powers to a housing committee that in turn delegated them to the Protestant Mayor of the city. He then allocated housing in a manner befitting a Protestant mayor in a Protestant City, and was accountable to no one but himself. Similar abuses were to be found in other areas of Northern Ireland. In Dungannon, the population was split about half-and-half Catholic and Protestant, yet the council regularly had fourteen Unionist and just seven Nationalist councillors. In East County Down where the population was similarly split, there were nineteen Unionist councillors and just five Nationalists. Discrimination naturally extended to employment with the local council. In County Fermanagh, there were eighty-eight Protestant school bus drivers and only seven Catholic ones, yet Catholics formed twenty-six percent of the population.  Ninety-seven and a half percent of Belfast City Council employees were Protestant, and so on.  Yet Unionist politicians continued to deny that there was discrimination.

These abuses were carried out, and allowed by Britain, despite Proportional Representation having been put into the 1920 Government of Ireland Act. Stormont had abolished this for local elections, in 1922. The same Act also contained a clause forbidding discrimination on religious grounds and a clause reserving full powers of sovereignty to Westminster.

So where did the blame for these blatant abuses of power lie? Britain had looked on, fully aware that the 1920 Act was being flouted by Stormont so must share a large portion of the blame. Stormont itself has to bear its share of the responsibility, since it decided, as a matter of Unionist policy, that discrimination should be the established norm in Northern Ireland despite the Act. Is it sufficient to put this down to the insecurity of a beleaguered people, fearing minority status in their own lands? Protestants certainly felt they were justified in acting the way they did. Was the south partly to blame for having a constitution that was overtly threatening to the northern Protestants?

The answer of course is that ALL parties have a share in it. The south, for example, cannot both claim to be indifferent to what was happening and to have sovereignty for that part of the island. There was no threat to them that they needed an overtly Catholic constitution that posed a threat to the north. It simply increased the insecurities of northern Protestants and did nothing for the southern Catholics apart from giving a rather nebulous form of recognition of the ‘special status’ of the Catholic Church.  It did mean that, if the Republic were ever in a position to assert its claimed sovereignty, Protestants would become subject to divorce and family planning laws that they would find unacceptable.  Then why should the south bee too concerned about what people in the north thought anyway? They were building the state they had always wanted. It would be distinctly Irish, and they were in no mood to compromise just to placate hostile northern Protestants.

Westminster however, had little to gain from allowing the abuses to continue and she had the powers to prevent them. So why were they allowed to continue for so long? To an extent, Britain was happy to turn a blind eye because Ireland, for so long a problem, was now running its own affairs, albeit with two different parliaments. Britain was glad to be rid of the responsibility. The Irish could sort their own problems out.

The other major factors was the useful political support the main party of government received from Unionists, who sat on the Conservative benches in the Commons. This was the Conservative Party of Arthur Bonar Law who had declared, in 1912, that there were no lengths to which Ulster would go in which he would not support them. Ulster was to be a Protestant State for a Protestant people, and if the Catholics did no like it, well, they could always move over the border. Besides, when Britain stood alone against the Nazis, Ulster had thrown herself into the war effort with enthusiasm, whilst the south had opted for neutrality and, at times, a rather too cosy relationship with Germany and Japan. These were our people while the people they discriminated against owed allegiance to our former enemies in the south. Protestants were defending a part of Britain from those who sought to take it from us. They were our friends; indeed, they and Ulster were part of Britain.

Besides, the certainty of a large block of Conservative-supporting MPs being returned to Westminster by Ulster at each election was not to be sniffed at, especially by the Conservative and Unionist Party, as the Conservative Party was officially called. A neatly convenient arrangement whereby the main right-wing party got as large clutch of right-wing MPs through a rigged electoral process which they could claim was nothing to do with them.

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