Little reason to celebrate the state of Northern Ireland

When society fails to perform its duty and fulfil its office of providing for its people, it must take another and more effective form, or it must cease to exist.”

James Fintan Lalor

The Six-County state of Northern Ireland will reach its hundredth birthday in May. The British government, with enthusiastic support from Northern unionists, is making preparations to celebrate the anniversary.

Though claiming to emphasise the future rather than its history, it is inevitable that the nature of the Northern state, past, present, and future, must come under scrutiny. With even the best will in the world it is impossible not to conclude that an objective analysis must record a sorry tale of sectarianism, facilitated and encouraged by imperialism.

The result has been an unbroken century of maladministration and misgovernance. Given its origins and the rationale underlying its foundation, it could hardly have been otherwise.

Contrary to a certain tendentious narrative, Northern Ireland was not simply the unaided creation of stalwart Ulster unionists. Though a section of the local population was obviously integral to its establishment, the Northern political entity was the result of cynical British state manoeuvring, an action carried out to ensure that the empire would retain a physical military presence on its western flank. To secure this end the British ruling class facilitated and fostered the establishment of a political entity actively practising antagonistic religious sectarianism.

By doing so, the well-practised British imperial machine provided for the continuing alienation of one million people from others living in Ireland, ensuring that the minority unionist constituency, now in charge of its own mini-state, would be left in a condition of depending for survival on their London guarantors.

For those who doubt the ability of British imperialism to be so mendacious, one example among many should suffice. At or about the same time, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which has caused havoc in the Middle-East, was being put into effect. Interestingly, today imperialist support for hostility between Israel and its larger neighbours has created a result similar to that of Northern Ireland: loyalty to the imperial centre arising from dependence on it for security.

The cynical selection of the Northern state’s boundary illustrated its founders’ intentions. By discarding the three Ulster counties of Monaghan, Cavan and Donegal they avoided having a finely balanced electorate. That these staunchly unionist communities were so casually abandoned in 1921 was not necessarily from a fear that their inclusion would threaten a permanent unionist majority. If that were the sole consideration, Cos. Tyrone and Fermanagh would have been excluded as well.

Difficult as it may be to envisage now, those three excluded counties contained significant firmly unionist communities. In recognition of their loyalty to the union and the empire, Edward Carson himself spoke at several rallies in each. Consequently, by June 1912 more that 17,000 people in Co. Donegal had signed the Ulster Covenant, while in Co. Monaghan the number was over 10,000. A few months later, in 1913, each of these counties mustered 2,000-plus men for the UVF.

However, opting for the long-recognised nine-county entity could have given rise to the “risk” that practical political necessity would dictate agreeing to a working consensus both within the new entity and with the neighbouring Free State—a condition inimical to the imperial design, requiring divide and rule.

To reinforce this design, the newly founded Northern state embarked on the application of systemic institutional discrimination, coupled with coercion. While recently there has been a retelling of the story of the burning of Cork by the Black and Tans in December 1920, much less attention has been afforded to events in Belfast in the same period. Oddly enough, while Cork was a Sinn Féin stronghold, Belfast’s nationalists were still solidly Redmondite. Nevertheless this did not save them. Thousands were driven from their employment and thousands more left homeless over the course of a few days in July 1920.

The expulsions from places of employment were more cynical than simply being the actions of mindless anti-Catholic bigots. This was evidenced by the simultaneous and forcible removal from their work of hundreds of left-wing Protestant trade unionists, or “Rotten Prods,” as they were named at the time. The authors of the Six-County state were not prepared to allow working-class solidarity to undermine their creation. That it also left a legacy of a divided work force was a bonus for unscrupulous employers.

Systemic discrimination punctuated by occasional bouts of repression continued over the following five decades, leading to the traumatic events of the final twenty-five years of the last century. A facile analysis of those years, insisting that the North would have been transformed into a liberal social democracy had it not been for the Provisionals’ campaign, overlooks the degree of resistance to reform emanating from within the ranks of unionism. After all, the Sunningdale Agreement was not forcibly brought down by republicans, nor was it Sinn Féin that organised violent opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985.

Nor, indeed, have events of the past decade done much to alter the essential nature of the Northern state. An unprecedented opportunity arose in 1998 when Sinn Féin agreed to operate within the constitutional arrangement built upon partition. Unionism, however, was unable to change or adapt, when doing so would surely have been in its best long-term interests. Defining itself by dogmatic opposition to all things republican or even nationalist, it ensured that there would be no shared vision for a “New” and possibly viable “Northern Ireland.”

Having obstinately vetoed every proposal that might have made its politics more palatable across the board, unionism crowned its long history of negativity during the crisis of the covid-19 pandemic. Being eager to appear more British than the Tower of London, the largest unionist party, the DUP, refused to endorse an all-Ireland strategy to combat the virus. The party even refused to follow the example of other devolved administrations in the United Kingdom and temporarily stop travel between England and the Six Counties. This they did in the face of a virulent mutant strain of the virus emerging in the Greater London area. By doing so, the DUP failed the fundamental test for any administration or political entity: the protection and well-being of its citizenry.

While unionism may be resistant to change, it cannot prevent conditions and circumstances changing. Britain, no longer the primary global superpower it was a century ago, has different defensive and political requirements today. The Northern six counties are not the strategic asset they were in the past. Ironically, Dublin is now of greater value to London than the North.

This, coupled with inexorably changing demographics, means that the Stormont-fronted political entity is unlikely to celebrate a second centenary. In reality, its ending will be more worthy of celebration than its foundation.