Why is Northern Ireland so intractable? Sean Matgamna looks to the intricacies of Irish history and the peculiarities of the Six County entity for an explanation.
There are two distinct peoples in Ireland, who see and define themselves differently and antagonistically, the Catholic “Irish-Irish” Nationalists and the Protestant “British-Irish” Unionists.
Ireland, which had been ruled by England since the 12th century, was partitioned in 1920-21 into Six and 26 Counties entities. The border dividing the Six and 26 Counties does not coincide, or even approximate to, the geographical location of the two distinct Irish peoples/identities. It cuts right through them. There is a large Catholic-Nationalist minority in Belfast, but broadly the Protestant-Unionists are concentrated in the North east of the Six Counties, while large areas along the border with the 26 Counties, amounting to about half the Six County territory, are heavily Catholic Nationalist.
This was so in 1921 and now, as a result of population movements, it is more so than ever.
These are the central, all-shaping facts about Ireland and, specifically, Northern Ireland. They are the reason why the northern six county sub-state broke down 36 years ago into the beginning of civil war — which the British army smothered — and why, in the years since, the efforts to set up a viable political system in Northern Ireland have failed, including, so far, the Good Friday Agreement.
UNITY OR INDEPENDENCE
Because there are two distinct peoples on the island, the goals of an independent and a united Ireland have, for the last 150 years, proved incompatible.
The independence demanded by the Catholic national majority implied not a united Ireland but a partitioned island; a united Ireland implied continued unity with Britain, or at best only a very limited form of Irish Home Rule.
It is the nature of the partition imposed on the peoples of Ireland that has made and makes a “settlement” between the two Irish peoples impossible.
Partition was not the result of a democratic agreement between Catholic-Nationalist and Protestant-Unionist Ireland to organise their co-existence as best they could. The unviable six county entity was imposed by an alliance of Irish Protestant-Unionists and the British imperialist government. That was a Liberal-Tory coalition government, with the Liberal Lloyd George as Prime Minister, but consisting overwhelmingly of Tory-Unionists. Identifying very strongly with the Protestant-Unionists of Northern Ireland they worked to win as much for them as the British state could impose on Catholic Nationalist Ireland.
Partition was imposed by war and the threat of escalated war. The British Prime Minister threatened the representatives of Catholic-Nationalist Ireland — Michael Collins, Arthur Griffith and others — that if they did not accept what Britain was offering, the result would be a renewal of war, of “immediate and terrible war”, between Nationalist Ireland and Britain.
It is known now that Britain had contingency plans to do in Ireland what had been done to the Boers of South Africa two decades earlier — intern much of the Catholic population who sustained the guerrilla fighters against the British occupation forces.
In the UK General Election of November 1918, the Republican Party, Sinn Fein, headed by survivors of the 1916 Dublin Easter Rising, won approximately three-quarters of the Irish seats. It had asked for a mandate for its elected MPs to secede from the London Parliament and set up an Irish Parliament in Dublin. It did that in January 1919, declaring Ireland a Republic. War followed.
From early 1919 to July 1921 that war had been fought by an Irish guerrilla army on one side and British forces acting as an army of occupation on the other. The British forces behaved as all such forces faced with a hostile population and guerrilla soldiers indistinguishable from the rest of the population have always behaved: they committed atrocities — shooting at random, killing captured prisoners, hanging POWs, and so on.
The Partition imposed on the Catholic-Nationalist Irish people drew the dividing line between the two Irelands arbitrarily, to give maximum advantage to the Protestant Unionists. About a third of the Six County population was Catholic-Nationalist, and they were the majority in about half the Six County territory. That part of the Six County population felt themselves to be a conquered people, their areas along the border, “British-Occupied Ireland”.
HOME RULE WITHIN HOME RULE?
Against the Catholic-Nationalist demand for “self-determination” for the people of Ireland, from the mid 19th century, Irish and British opponents of Home Rule had argued that if democratic principle entitled the Catholic Nationalist Irish majority to Home Rule separate from the majority of the UK, then in logic and in justice the Irish Protestant minority could demand Home Rule from the Irish majority. Practically, this might encounter difficulties — where was the dividing line? — but logically and politically it was irrefutable.
Catholic-Nationalist arguments against it revolved around denial that the north-east population was a distinct people. They argued from selective history. Hadn’t the Protestant people of the north-east led the Irish Nationalist movement for independence at the time of the French Revolution — the United Irishmen? And so on. All such arguments counted for nothing against the obdurate fact that the north-east Ulster population now were not at one with the Irish majority. That they saw themselves as a distinct people and proclaimed their readiness to go to war to resist being put in a Home Rule Ireland under Catholic-Nationalist majority rule.
Partition came to be considered as a practical “solution” in the years before World War One because finally there was a Liberal majority in the London parliament in favour of Home Rule — and the House of Lords no longer had an absolute veto on decisions of the House of Commons. The proposed Irish Home Rule state would not give Ireland independence; the proposed Dublin government would have very limited powers. Even so, Irish Protestants rejected it, organised their own army — the Ulster Volunteer Force — to resist Home Rule, and prepared to set up their own Ulster Government if the London Parliament tried to put them under a Dublin parliament.
The Tory Party openly supported the Protestant rebels. The Tory MP, Edward Carson, led the Irish Protestant movement; the Tory leader, Andrew Bonar Law, proclaimed the right of the Irish Unionists to revolt against London and Dublin. Their cause, he insisted, was just. A Liberal majority at Westminster could not change that: there are “things stronger than Parliamentary majorities”, the Tory leader insisted, and set about proving it.
In 1914 both the Liberal government and the Irish nationalist Home Rule Party (their closest direct descendants in Irish politics today are the SDLP in Northern Ireland), faced with the Six County Unionists’ preparation for armed revolt against London and Dublin, accepted Partition.
There were three possible options for partition, differing radically in the amount of territory the Protestant Unionist entity would have. These would separate either four, six or nine of the existing counties from Home Rule Ireland and Dublin rule.
Division by county was a very crude tool. For example, Derry City — a place of great historical and symbolic importance to Protestant Ireland — has a big Catholic majority, is two miles from the border with the 26 Counties, but is in a heavily Protestant-Unionist county, Londonderry. Yet it was in terms of counties that Partition was discussed.
A four counties partition would involve north-east Ireland, where Protestant-Unionists were the compact majority. In this entity there would still be Catholics — in Belfast, most notably — but the overwhelming majority were Protestant-Unionist.
A nine country option would include the whole province of Ulster and Protestants would be only a bare majority there.
Those who imposed partition did so in the name of securing Protestant-Unionist rights against the Irish Catholic-Nationalist majority. They rejected the nine counties option, because the Protestant majority would be small and possibly precarious. They rejected the four county option because it would give the Protestant area too little territory and involve the loss of important towns such as Newry and Armagh.
A six country option would still include a big Catholic minority — then one in three — but also a Protestant-Unionist two-thirds majority. That is what they finally chose.
The Catholic Nationalist leaders of the time, the Home Rule Party, called a convention of Ulster Catholic-Nationalists early in 1914 and persuaded them to assent to partition as a “temporary measure”, believing that the Six and 26 Counties would soon be reunited.
Catholics were a bigger proportion of the Six County population than the Protestants of the whole island were of the total population.
In 1921 — after the 1916 Rising, the 1918 election won by Republicans, the secession of Dail Eireann, the proclamation of an Irish Republic in January 1919, and the Anglo-Irish war that followed — Britain conceded to Dublin not the limited Home Rule over all Ireland that had been contemplated in 1914, but the fullest measure of independence then available within the British Empire, Dominion status, such as Australia, Canada and other states had. But only for 26 Counties. The Irish nationalist leaders agreed to that as a temporary measure — under great pressure and, as we saw, the threat of a renewed war from the British forces still occupying the whole of Ireland.
The injustice of a partition involving six countries was recognised. It was stipulated that a Boundary Commission made up of London, Belfast and Dublin government representatives would meet to redraw the boundaries. In logic and in justice that would mean that Dublin would get the Catholic majority territory along the border, thus reducing the Nationalist state to the Protestant-Unionist heartlands. In effect, to the four country option.
The Catholic-Nationalist leaders saw the inclusion of such a large minority of Catholics and of Catholic majority territory in the Six Counties as ultimately to their advantage. Things could not settle down in the “Protestant State” with this issue unresolved. They saw the decision which they expected from the Boundary Commission as a future bargaining counter with which to promote a United Ireland. They thought the removal of the Catholic areas would render the northern Protestant state unviable and push things towards Irish reunification.
During the negotiations in the autumn of 1921 the British government encouraged them to think that, while telling the Northern Irish leaders that what they would have under the Six/26 County partition, they would be able to hold.
A high degree of coercion was necessary to impose partition on the Catholic-majority areas of Northern Ireland. From the beginning an apparatus of coercion over the Catholics was a necessary feature of the northern state. Protestant-Unionist special para-military police forces were set up to “contain” the Catholics. Repression of Catholics would be a feature of Six County life until the Six County state broke down into near civil war 50 years later.
All sections of Catholic Nationalist Ireland ruled out attempting to coerce the Northern Unionists into a United Ireland.
They believed that an attempt at coercion against the Six Counties could at most move the border north and east, with the Catholic majority territory becoming part of the Catholic state and the “four county” option, as a hard, impermeable Protestant-Unionist state.
Not only those controlling the Dublin government — Michael Collins, Arthur Griffith — ruled out coercion, but also the Republicans who opposed the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty and who would soon fight a year-long (1922–23) civil war against the Dublin government.
The major points of conflict in the debate in Dail Eireann on the treaty with England preceding the civil war centred on such things as the oath of allegiance to the King of England then required under the British Empire, of which the new Irish state was to be a part. Northern Ireland did not become a central issue for the IRA-Republicans until the late 1930s, by which time the oath to the King had been removed and the 26 Counties had become a fully independent state (from December 1937).
When the Boundary Commission met in 1925 the British and Protestant representatives ganged up on the Dublin representatives — led by the great Gaelic scholar and disastrous nationalist politician, Eoin McNeill — proposing only a small secession of territory by Dublin to Belfast! Some millions of pounds were given to Dublin as “compensation”, and McNeill returned to Dublin proclaiming that he had made “a good bargain”.
THE SIX-COUNTY STATE
Because the northern state had so large a Catholic population — and one with a faster rate of growth than that in the Protestant community — the “six counties option” proved disastrous for both Catholics and Protestants alike. The Catholics boycotted the institutions of the Six County state.
The Unionist rulers saw the Catholics as a “disloyal”, permanent threat. Not only did they create a Protestant-sectarian special police to “control” them, they gerrymandered local election boundaries so that even where — in Derry City, for example — the Catholic-Nationalists were a big majority, they got only a minority of council seats. They systematically discriminated against Catholics in jobs. They discriminated against Catholics in the allocation of social housing. (A restrictive local government franchise, which Britain had abandoned, continued in Northern Ireland, so that a council house also meant a council vote.) Two parallel societies existed in the Six Countries.
Politics in Northern Ireland became a matter of sectarian head-counting. Each community had its own political catch-cries, its own ethnic-sectarian account of Irish history.
Catholic church insistence on running Catholic schools for Catholics meant that from early childhood the communities were segregated.
Political parties — except the Communist Party and, in some periods, the Northern Ireland Labour party — were sectarian entities, in which not only sectarian politicians but also Protestant and Catholic priests thronged.
The Protestants had their sectarian-religious civic organisation, the all-controlling Orange Order, and the Catholics their equivalent, the Ancient Order of Hibernians (though its power, immense throughout Catholic Ireland in the early 20th century — it gained control of the Home Rule Party in 1909 — declined: the Church hierarchy did not easily tolerate competition).
The Belfast government had only limited Home Rule. The convention came to be that the London Parliament, which legally held the supreme power in Belfast, did not discuss Northern Irish affairs. The Six County Protestant Unionists were left to rule in their own way. Majority rule there was Protestant sectarian rule.
For half a century, until London abolished the Belfast Parliament in March 1972, there was one-party Unionist-sectarian government.
The ruling Ulster Unionist Party became a great monolith incorporating bourgeois, petty bourgeois, pseudo-aristocrats and workers alike.
CIVIL RIGHTS FOR CATHOLICS
Sporadic IRA para-military activity in Northern Ireland erupted occasionally, but it was feeble, ineffective and counter-productive, serving only to justify repression of Catholics.
What became the mass Catholic base of the war which the Provisional IRA launched in March 1971 was mobilised in the late mid 1960s, in the first large scale political mobilisation of Catholics in the history of the Six Counties, as a Catholic civil rights movement.
Catholics demanded equality with Protestants — an end to gerrymandering in elections and anti-Catholic discrimination in housing and employment.
They secured the support of Protestant trade unionists and students for Catholic equality.
It was a generation of Catholics that had grown up in the welfare state created by the 1945 Labour government. A layer of Catholics who had had a university education emerged as leaders. They said they wanted “One man, one job; one man, one house; one man, one vote” and “British standards” in Northern Ireland.
The conventional wisdom of the time was that the welfare state — independent Ireland had nothing like it — had reconciled Northern Irish Catholics to partition. Perhaps it had.
Some of the civil rights leaders proclaimed themselves no less hostile to the “Green Tories” who ruled the South than to the “Orange Tories” who ruled in the Six Counties.
The most prominent leaders were socialists, some of them Marxists. The Catholic Civil Rights movement was inspired by the Civil Rights Movement of black people in the USA and modelled on it to a great extent. They sang US Civil Rights movement songs on demonstrations, such as “We Shall Overcome”.
The main, behind-the-scenes, organisers of the Civil Rights movement were Northern Irish Stalinists, people who held leading positions in the Northern Irish labour movement and the very weak and depleted Republican movement.
That also was under Stalinist and quasi-Stalinist control. The Republicans saw the Civil Rights movement as the preliminary to a new movement for a United Ireland. (The leading Stalinist Republican then, Dr Roy Johnstone, has publicly testified to that.)
In fact, however, they did not need to manipulate things in that direction. The logic of the situation did it for them.
THE NATIONAL QUESTION
The root civil right which the Northern Irish Catholics lacked was self-determination. Their lack of everything else they demanded — one man, one vote, etc — flowed from their lack of that right, from their position as second class citizens in the “Protestant State”. The whole logic of a Catholic mobilisation inescapably pointed to a re-raising of “the national question.”
But it was not the leaders of the Civil Rights movement who first posed this question. The Republicans and Stalinists in the Civil Rights movement thought the time as yet unripe for it. Other socialists — in the main, sympathisers of the International Socialists, the name of the SWP then — did not want to raise it at all. They proclaimed that there could be no talk of a United Ireland under Dublin “Green Tory” rule — not before Ireland became socialist.
It was sections of the Protestant establishment and fringe Protestant militants, such as the Reverend Ian Paisley then was, who saw the logic of the Civil Rights movement and inferred that there was a hidden, Nationalist and Republican conspiratorial purpose to it. There was a strong Protestant backlash against the Civil Rights movement and that shaped what happened next.
SIX COUNTY BREAKDOWN
The Northern Ireland Home Secretary, William Craig, banned a Civil Rights march in Derry and, when the ban was defied, set baton–flailing police on to the demonstrators. The TV cameras’ pictures of the West Belfast MP, Gerry Fitt, being batoned to the ground, broke the embargo on British involvement in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland.
Civil Rights marches continued. On the streets, Paisleyite counter-demonstrations attacked Civil Rights marchers.
In the first eight months of 1969 clashes between Civil Rights activists and Paiselyites and between Civil Rights activists and police multiplied.
In January Samuel Devanney was batoned to death in his own house by sectarian policemen in Derry.
On 12 August serious fighting erupted in Derry between members of the elite Orange Order, the “Apprentice Boys”, other Orangemen and police on one side and, on the other, Catholic youths objecting to the “traditional” Orange march around the walls of the city.
Barricades were thrown up at the entrance to the Catholic ghetto, the Bogside. The Catholics repelled the massed ranks of Orangemen and armed police who tried to invade, using stones and petrol bombs.
After two days of that, fighting erupted in Belfast, where Catholics were in the minority, and not as in Derry, the majority. Catholic streets were set on fire and their residents driven out. It was the beginning of what was then the greatest population movement in Europe since the aftermath of the Second World War. It was the start of erupting civil war.
On 15 August the British army was sent in to take control of Belfast and Derry and put an end to the fighting. British “non-interference” in the internal affairs of the Six Counties was at an end.
THE PROVISIONAL IRA
The soldiers were welcomed by the Catholics — by those for whom, as for many generations before them, Britain was the great traditional enemy. Catholic leaders called for the abolition of Six County majority rule and for direct rule from London. Instead, a Commission of Inquiry under Lord Hunt was set up to inquire into the reasons for the “breakdown of law and order”. Behind the scenes, senior British civil servants were sent to supervise the running of Northern Ireland. Barricades remained up in Catholic Belfast and Derry — British soldiers with rifles and machine guns posted on one side, Catholics armed with hurleys and clubs on the other, friendly but wary and suspicious.
The Hunt Commission reported in October 1969, proposing the abolition of the Protestant special police, the B-Specials, the disarming of the RUC, and reforms to eliminate the grievances of the Civil Rights movement. Protestant outrage at the British government’s acceptance of Hunt’s recommendations led to a running gun-battle between
Protestants and the British army in the Protestant heartland of the Shankhill Road. The Catholic barricades came down peacefully. British Home Secretary Jim Callaghan was welcomed enthusiastically when he visited Catholic Belfast and Derry. A period of deceptive calm followed.
An IRA scarcely existed then; no more than a rump, controlled by Stalinists intent on moving it away from its traditional reliance on “physical force on principle” and refusal to sit in Parliaments. They had proved helpless to defend the Catholics in mid-August. Now the backlash of traditional Republicans against them split the IRA and Sinn Fein and led in December 1969–January 1970 to the establishment of a breakaway, which called itself Provisional IRA, and Provisional Sinn Fein. (An “official” IRA and Sinn Fein, Stalinist-controlled, remained active for much of the 1970s.) The Provisionals were devoutly Catholic, politically primitive, physical force on principle, traditional Republicans. They prepared for an offensive war.
In early 1971 they started shooting British soldiers and setting off bombs in Northern Irish towns and cities, often with much carnage.
The polarisation between Catholics and Protestants now again reached civil war level, kept under simmering control by the British Army.
As the logic of sectarian-communal civil war worked itself through, the “extremes” on both sides set the pace and the tenor of politics. They gained military control in their communities.
Protestant workers who had supported civil rights and Catholic equality within the Six Counties now felt themselves threatened with conquest and forced incorporation into an Irish Catholic state. Belfast shipyard workers marched to demand internment — that is, imprisonment on suspicion of IRA membership, without charge or trial — as a means of fighting the IRA.
They began to organise a Protestant counter-militia, the Ulster Defence Association which became a mass movement.
In August 1971 the introduction of internment proved to be more petrol on the fire, lining up Catholics en masse behind the IRA.
The killings of soldiers and RUC people, and bombings escalated.
A large-scale Protestant underground movement — the UDA was an open, legal organisation — developed to assassinate Catholics picked at random or because of suspicion of IRA membership. Hundreds of Catholics died at their hands.
This was Catholic-Protestant sectarian civil war, half-smothered and regulated by the British army. And not, by any means, an impartial British army. The IRA was their central enemy, and the Protestant militias loosely if independently on their side.
The army, police and intelligence services often colluded with the Orange “underground” against their common enemy.
Even so, the British army and the RUC moderated and stifled the Catholic-Protestant civil war and prevented it from escalating into large-scale massacres and mass “ethnic cleansing”, as distinct from the limited scale ethnic cleansing which did occur on both sides.
In March 1972 Britain abolished Protestant majority rule in the Six Counties. London openly assumed the control it had begun to assume behind the scenes since August 1969. Protestant workers in Belfast struck and marched in protest.
It was recognition that the Six Counties was, as a nationalist politician put it, a “failed entity”. Protestant Home Rule, to secure which Ireland had been partitioned into two states, had proved to be sectarian-Protestant rule, and had at the end led to the breakdown into Catholic-Protestant civil war that even the British army could not entirely suppress or control.
Instead of recognising that the Six Counties, whose existence created a second, Catholic, artificially-created Irish minority; which recreated the minority-majority problem on the island within the Six Counties, on a smaller scale and with the minority and majority roles artificially reversed: instead of tackling the problem at its roots, Britain, with the active collaboration and support of Dublin, set out to reform the Six Counties.
REFORM THE SIX COUNTIES?
The entity designed for majority-Protestant self-rule was to have a new political mechanism transplanted into it.
A statelet designed to let Protestants rule was to be reformed in such a way as to abolish majority rule, and in its place put institutional power-sharing — guaranteed by law — between Catholic and Protestant parties.
But in the 33 years since, majority, Protestant, Home Rule was abolished, stable power-sharing has, again and again, proved an impossible task. The failure so far of the Good Friday Agreement is only the latest in a long list of failures.
The first attempt at power-sharing was agreed upon by Northern Irish political leaders and by London and Dublin in late 1973, at Sunningdale.
The “moderate” Protestant and Catholic politicians would share power; Britain would ensure that only power-sharing governments could rule Northern Ireland. There would be a Council of Ireland, loosely linking Dublin and Belfast.
Under British pressure for reform, the once-monolithic Ulster Unionist Party shattered into fragments. Some tried to do Britain’s bidding, others said they would die to defend Protestant majority rule. Large numbers of Protestant workers began to support Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party. Paisley was a long-time and sometimes populist critic of the Unionist-Orange establishment.
An election, in which the pre-March 1972 Northern Irish Prime Minister, Brian Faulkner, seemed to promise not to share power with Catholics, produced a power-sharing majority in a New Belfast Assembly.
A government was duly set up, with Faulkner as Prime Minister and SDLP leader Gerry Fitt as his deputy. This government would last five months.
Though a majority of Protestant Assembly members were Faulknerites and in favour of power-sharing, their electors considered them tricksters and turncoat traitors. In February 1974 the British General Election allowed outraged Protestants to express their feelings: of the then 12 Northern Irish seats at Westminster, 11 were won by opponents of power-sharing (the exception was the MP for West Belfast, Gerry Fitt).
The moral position of the Faulknerites was fatally undermined. An attempt to activate the clause in the Sunningdale Agreement stipulating that a Council of Ireland would be set up triggered an Orange General Strike. UDA coercion played an important part in getting it going, but then it gained its own momentum.
After nine days the government resigned. Power-sharing was dead.
Britain now decided to set up an elected Constitutional Assembly. The people of Northern Ireland were asked to choose representatives who would thrash out a constitution acceptable to both Protestants and Catholics.
The Faulkner Unionists were wiped out in the election. The Constitutional Assembly dragged on for a year — with the IRA on ceasefire for most of it — but agreement was not possible. The Orange politicians would not have powersharing and a Council of Ireland — not even voluntary as distinct from statutory powersharing. When the former Northern Ireland Home Secretary, William Craig, leader of a strong quasi-fascist movement, Vanguard, proposed voluntary power-sharing, his standing as a prominent Orange Unionist leader was destroyed.
Britain finally shut down the Constitutional Assembly. The next sustained attempt to set up power-sharing government would not come until the Good Friday Agreement 22 years later.
THE ARMALITE AND THE BALLOT
The Provisional IRA resumed its war. The British Labour government began to take back the de facto status as political prisoners which jailed IRA members had won in the early 70s. Refusing to wear prison uniform, IRA prisoners spent years naked except for blankets.
In 1981, 10 of them starved themselves to death seeking political prisoner status.
The tremendous Catholic support for the prisoners which the hunger strike generated led Sinn Fein to stand one of the hunger-strikers, Bobby Sands, for a Parliamentary seat in a by-election, which he won. The hunger striker, who went on fasting, died a member of the British Parliament.
From that experience grew the IRA-Sinn Fein policy of combining politics with war — the Armalite rifle in one hand and the ballot in the other, as they expressed it.
In November 1985 an Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed which gave Dublin a direct political say, though not Executive power, in the running of Northern Ireland. A sharp Protestant backlash failed to remove it.
During the long war, the IRA evolved politically. They became mildly left-wing. Slowly they moved away from some of the dogmas of physical-force-on-principle Republicanism.
When they decided in 1986 to take seats they might win in the Dublin Dail Eireann, the founding leaders of the IRA, Rory Brady, David O’Connell and others, split off to form the Continuity IRA. The war continued.
GOOD FRIDAY AGREEMENT
Secret talks between the British government and the IRA, with the SDLP leader John Hume (a member of the quasi-secret Catholic cult, Opus Dei) as sponsor and broker, led the IRA to a ceasefire in August 1994. Though it broke down for a while in Britain — Canary Wharf and the centre of Manchester were blasted — the ceasefire has held continually for nearly 11 years in Northern Ireland.
The Good Friday Agreement followed four years later.
The Good Friday Agreement differed from Sunningdale in that it was to be not power-sharing by some of the political parties, but mandatory power-sharing between all of them.
Where Sunningdale had relied on the centre against the “extremes”, the Good Friday Agreement looked essentially to agreement between the extremes. Britain was not now concerned even to preserve the centre. The 2003 Northern Ireland elections were called in the certain knowledge that the extremes — the Paisleyites and the IRA-Sinn Fein — would grow at the expense of the “moderate” Unionists and Nationalists. So they did.
The experience of the Good Friday Agreement points yet again to the untenability of the Six Counties and of any political system there other than the majority rule it was created to embody.
It created an intricately bureaucratic system of sectarian power sharing. It recognised existing sectarian divisions, but also it froze them.
While the overwhelming majority of Catholics supported it in the referendum of 1998, only a bare majority of Protestants did.
Sinn Fein was understood to sign the Agreement for the IRA also. In practice Britain accepted that the IRA (and, less importantly, some Protestant para-militaries) would continue to exist and rule in “their own” areas. Shootings and beatings by the para-militaries within their own areas were not considered to be in breach of the Good Friday Agreement or the ceasefire.
Thus Britain accepted continued para-military warlordism. They expected that over time the IRA would fade away.
Concessions to the IRA quickly led in the Protestant communities to a sizeable loss of support for power-sharing. The Trimble Unionists, advocates of power-sharing in the Assembly, were at the start a majority of the Protestant representatives, but within less than a year they had ceased to be a majority or to enjoy anything like Protestant majority electoral support.
For most of the last seven years there has not been a Belfast government: for most of that time it was either being haggled over or it was suspended.
Polarisation is as sharp now as seven years ago, and possibly sharper. In the Westminster election of 5 May, as in all Northern Ireland elections, there was not one but two, parallel, elections, reflecting the fact that there are two parallel communities/national identities — one for the Protestant-Unionists and one for the Catholic Nationalists. (One of the three SDLP Westminster election victories occurred because the Protestant vote was split between two candidates; split Catholic votes have in the past produced the same result for Protestant Unionists.)
Within Northern Ireland the process of sectarian segmentation has continued relentlessly. What Sinn Fein-IRA calls the “greening of the west” is more or less complete — the winning by Sinn Fein of the Westminster seats in a wide swathe of the Six Counties along the border.
A central consideration of the Sinn Fein-IRA in agreeing to the Good Friday Agreement was the belief that the Catholics — now maybe 45% of the population — would, because of a greater natural increase, outbreed the Protestants and, within a decade or two, be the majority in the Six Counties. When that point is reached, the Good Friday Agreement commits Britain to hold a referendum and to comply with the wishes of a majority should it vote for a united Ireland.
The Trimble Unionists’ response — “demography is not an exact science” — is true. But the absurdity of the Six Counties and of the political system of juggling an artificially demarcated Catholic minority and a Protestant majority is even more clear if we contemplate such an eventuality.
When a Six County majority wants a United Ireland (as the decisive majority in the island once wanted Home Rule and then an independent Republic) will the Protestants, reduced to a minority in the Six Counties, accept it?
What if they don’t?
What if they do what the Protestant minority on the island did in the past and revolt against it, proclaiming — as the Catholic-Nationalist Irish in the old UK did — that their own identity is more important than a “democratic majority” of people of a different national identity?
IS THERE A SOLUTION?
The way out of the morass is a Federal United Ireland, linked closely, and perhaps confederated, with Britain.
One of the great tragedies in Northern Ireland over the last four decades has been the virtual destruction of the socialist left.
In the late 1960s a lot of people there proclaimed themselves socialist — the official Republican Movement, the younger leaders of the Civil Rights movement, from Michael Farrell to Bernadette Devlin (now McAliskey) and many others.
In the 1970 Westminster general election, a young Bogside socialist, Eamonn McCann, standing on a left-wing, class struggle platform, got nearly 9,000 votes in Derry.
In the recent election, McCann, now a prominent media pundit, got 1,649 votes in the same area.
Socialism in Northern Ireland was cut down because the best of the socialists tried to ignore the “constitutional questions”, proclaiming that socialism was the answer to Catholic-Protestant conflicts of identity, to Partition, to everything.
But only real, historically conditioned people — in the first place, working class people — can achieve socialism.
In part because socialists offered them no answers to the constitutional questions that perplexed them when the pre-69 structures fell apart, the workers in Northern Ireland, Protestant and Catholic alike, bitterly divided, lined up behind their respective communal leaders and their politics.
The political beneficiaries of the separation of Unionist workers from the old Orange-Unionist establishment — a development which socialists had fervently wished for for many decades — were the quasi-populist Paisleyites.
Because they had no answer to the constitutional question, the socialists were politically marginalised.
What might a socialist, working class answer to this question be? Consistent democracy! The Bolshevik Party proclaimed long ago, in 1913, what that means in conditions such as those of Northern Ireland.
“In so far as national peace is in any way possible in a capitalist society based on exploitation, profit-making and strife, it is attainable only under a consistently and thoroughly democratic republican system of government… the constitution of which contains a fundamental law that prohibits any privileges whatsoever to any one nation and any encroachment whatsoever upon the rights of a national minority. This particularly calls for wide regional autonomy and fully democratic local government, with the boundaries of the self-governing and autonomous regions determined by the local inhabitants themselves on the basis of their economic and social conditions, national make-up of the population, etc.”
Against this, the demagogic reply is frequently made that that is a proposal to repartition Ireland. Those who dismiss a federal united Ireland because it would mean redrawing boundaries rationally and democratically allowing the maximum local self-rule are in effect arguing that the existing partition is the best possible partition!
The alternative to such a consistently democratic approach is not a united Ireland, but the existing partition.
A unitary Irish state is not on. Not now, and not in the calculable future. Not, most likely, even if a mainly Catholic majority in Northern Ireland votes for such a united Ireland.
A federal united Ireland, with northern British-Irish self-government and linked more closely with Britain, perhaps in a confederation, is the only constitutional framework in which — and by the advocacy of which — the working class in Ireland, Catholic and Protestant, in the Six and 26 Counties alike can unite and offer political answers to the issues that dominate life in the north, as a direct result of the botched, anti-democratic partition imposed on Ireland in 1921-22.