A hundred years ago, no one in Ireland wanted partition. Unionists would have preferred the entire island to remain with Britain. Nationalists, for their part, had been seeking a form of devolution in the return of the Irish parliament abolished in 1801. Why Unionists fought so hard against such a moderate measure has long been a matter of historical debate. Yet they did and were the first to threaten armed resistance.
Although Northern Ireland had come into being, the border remained provisional, to be decided by a Boundary Commission. But its controversial report was shelved, not becoming public until 1968. The South — engulfed by a war of independence and then by civil war until 1923 — was more concerned about sovereignty than territorial unity, and the unsatisfactory border settled into an uneasy permanence. The Northern Ireland state had been born amid heightened violence and that sense of siege has never gone away.
This month’s commemoration of Northern Ireland’s centenary — public statements on both sides of the border try to avoid the term “celebration” — is being marked with considerable sensitivity to its contested nature. That is progress. However, it is taking place against the backdrop of renewed violence, largely brought about by the consequences of Brexit for the province. Arlene Foster, first minister and leader of the Democratic Unionist party, has just resigned amid speculation that the party may be about to swing back to its rightwing fundamentalist roots.
I worry because I am from Belfast. Although based in England, where I have taught and written about the history of Northern Ireland for several decades, I still regard the province as home and am distressed at how underlying sectarianism continues to have the power to keep people apart, particularly in polarised working-class communities.
I come from a moderate Catholic/nationalist background, meaning that my family aspired to some distant future when Ireland would be reunited. The violence of the Troubles (1969-98) tarnished that dream. My parents stopped talking about it altogether. We lived in traditionally mixed-religion North Belfast, so rarely encountered overt sectarianism on a day-to-day basis. But there were regular reminders of our minority status at election times and during the Orange “marching season”. The truth is that in pre-Troubles Northern Ireland we all had a sixth sense of who belonged to which community and rarely talked about what divided us.
How I wish we had, for the kind of mixed-religion housing estate on which we lived is no more. The early stages of the Troubles involved the enforced relocation of perhaps as many as 15,000 families in Belfast. Those mixed estates were re-sorted into single-identity ones, as people were forced out. They have never returned.
Such sectarian polarisation helps perpetuate stereotypes and facilitates paramilitary godfatherism and criminality. Pre-Troubles Northern Ireland lacked many of the amenities that young people expect. But it felt safe. This changed with the Troubles. It became positively dangerous to wander into newly polarised areas. In recent times I have noted an absence of the kind of spatial knowledge of Belfast city that was instinctive to my generation. Such limits on mobility are particularly acute among young, working-class males, such as those who have recently been out rioting.
The problem in 1921 was that partition had left in Northern Ireland a very large number of Catholic nationalists (34 per cent). Protestant unionists associated them with an IRA campaign being waged against the new state, took reprisals and introduced emergency measures that not only remained on the books into the 1970s, but were largely used against Catholics. Here we had a large and aggrieved Catholic minority, identifying with the southern state, living beside an unsettled and insecure majority who considered Catholics “disloyal”.
Partition was, in effect, a recognition of sectarian division. It drew a territorial line around a majority Catholic state in the South and a majority Protestant one in the North. Moreover, those religiously based identities had been fashioned from very hostile views of the other religion.
To Catholics, Protestants were heretics, blow-ins, England’s tools, persecutors, not Irish at all. This was at the heart of the new cultural nationalism underlying the rise of Sinn Féin and the armed separatism of 100 years ago. The massive land confiscations and resettlement by English and Scottish Protestants in 17th-century Ulster added an extra layer of resentment to Ulster’s Catholics. For they were pushed down the social scale and remained something of an underclass until very recent times.
Generational unemployment fuelled IRA activity in places such as West Belfast and Derry’s Bogside. A Catholic middle class was long in coming. It has finally arrived, transforming once Protestant strongholds such as affluent parts of south Belfast. The sight of Catholics finally holding important positions can be deeply unsettling to some Protestants.
Protestant sectarianism sees Catholics as something of a dangerous underclass. Put simply, the theology of the Protestant Reformation claimed a monopoly on liberty and industriousness. It saw the Pope as the Antichrist and “popery” as a persecutory system. Modern Orangeism replicates the 16th and 17th-century imagery in its pageantry and survives because of a Protestant fear that if Catholics became the majority, Protestants would be made the victims. Whereas for much of Northern Ireland’s history the key themes in Protestant imagery have been triumphalistic, there has been a notable increase in Protestant victim-lore since the Good Friday Agreement.
Researching my 2009 book When God Took Sides: Religion and Identity in Ireland, I was shocked to discover how loyalist paramilitary news-sheets during the Troubles spoke of past times when Protestants were massacred by Catholics — often as much as four centuries ago — as if they had happened only yesterday. The IRA atrocities of the Troubles were factored in to the Protestant story as just another example of “popery” closing in.
Unionist-minded people were told by successive Unionist governments that they were economically better off under the Union. After all, did not popery and poverty go together? The undoubted poverty of the South until the 1970s was surely positive proof. “The waiting South’s bog-barbarians starve against a grand squiggle on our map,” as Patrick Williams’s brutally explicit 1970s poem “Cage Under Siege” described it.
Protestants’ dominance of the skilled industries was such that they were able to shut down Northern Ireland in the 1974 loyalist “workers’ strike”, bringing down the first power-sharing executive. A call in social media for loyalist areas to again “shut down Northern Ireland” prefaced the 2021 April riots, harking back to an apparent golden age when they were in control. The difference today is that the Irish Republic is economically successful and more progressive on social issues than the North. References to its backwardness have disappeared from loyalist propaganda. This is another factor in Unionist nervousness.
The Orange Order still has the power to have swaths of public arteries officially closed to accommodate the “marching season”, which punctuates much of the year from March onwards. How many countries define their major public holiday season by sectarian anniversaries? “The Twelfth” — the two weeks around July 12, the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne — is when many workplaces close in Northern Ireland and people take their annual holiday. It even dictated the date of my own wedding. Loyalists say this is part of their culture. And so it is. Yet it is also a reminder of a time when Protestants were in control, the glory days.
The message circulating in loyalist areas in April 2021 spoke to the fear that Protestants would be “outbred” by Catholics. The same fear was there in the refusal of Ulster Unionists to accept the whole of nine-county Ulster in their new post-1921 state. Catholics were in a majority in three of those counties and, as they had made abundantly clear, would eventually vote the whole province back into a united Ireland.
The historical accuracy of the stories forming both identities can be queried. But the history of the streets, reflected in endless murals, reinforces the divisiveness. The lack of an understanding of Ulster Protestantism was one of the factors contributing to partition. Indeed, for much of the past century nationalists and republicans seem to have been utterly incapable of grasping why Protestants feel as they do. Charles Townshend’s recent book The Partition cites an intriguing example of pre-partition Sinn Féin debate, when its future president Father Michael O’Flannagan did grasp the issue. “We claim the right to decide what is to be our nation,” he said, but “refuse them the same right.”
The future direction of Northern Ireland may depend as much on this recognition as on other factors. Michelle O’Neill, the Sinn Féin deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, dressed in black, delivered a eulogy to Prince Philip and the royal family at the Stormont Assembly on April 12. That would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. Sinn Féin, after all, had refused to meet the Queen during her historic 2011 visit to the Irish Republic. It was soon clear, however, that it was a popular visit, rightly seen as a courageous gesture by the Queen, and they did meet her on her visit to Belfast the following year. Despite the jingoistic flag waving, a sense of Protestant “Britishness” needs to be taken seriously and accommodated.
The 1998 Good Friday/Belfast Agreement largely ended the violence of the Troubles and gave “parity of esteem” to nationalist and unionist aspirations. Belonging to the borderless EU provided a kind of balm to the divisions, permitting Britain and Ireland to be part of a shared bigger unit and taking the sting out of the continued political border.
Brexit has been enormously destabilising. It put where to reinstate that border centre stage again. Senior police on both sides of the border warned that the restoration of any physical border posts would be attacked by dissident republicans, potentially delivering us back into the Troubles. The Theresa May government showed some, albeit still limited, understanding of this. Boris Johnson’s government has not and regularly disposes of those who do. Former attorney-general Dominic Grieve comes to mind, and the shortlived secretary of state for Northern Ireland Julian Smith, even though he commanded respect from unionist and nationalist alike.
The DUP was badly wrongfooted by Johnson, for he had charmed its annual conference by promising never to have a border in the Irish Sea, only to later impose one. It is not the first time that unionist insecurities have been intensified by the many signs that London does not really care. This time it was a major ingredient in Foster’s downfall.
Ironically, recent Irish governments have been rather better than London at understanding unionist interests, although that may change with the signs of growing support for Sinn Féin in the Irish Republic. Sinn Féin has every right to pursue constitutionally its ultimate goal of reuniting the divided country. But its frequent demands for a speedy border poll help the agitators to play on Protestant fears. The late SDLP leader John Hume recognised that the “border” was in people’s minds and the physical one would go when that was changed. Moderate nationalists, including the current Irish government, subscribe to that and encourage delaying such a poll until far into the future.
Despite my love for Northern Ireland, for its people, its physical geography, its quirky sense of humour and natural friendliness, I know too much about the sectarian substrata ever to feel entirely at ease about its future. It causes me great sadness and I have spent much of my professional life trying to increase understanding of why things are as they are.
It was not easy being an Irish historian in Britain during the Troubles, when the IRA was killing and maiming in the name of a semi-mythical Ireland. Its supporters certainly did not welcome historical debate. Nor was Irish history taught widely in British universities. That now has changed and, hopefully, this will help produce a future generation of leaders more informed than in the past. We certainly could do with more leadership than is being displayed at present.
These are volatile times. A recent BBC NI poll found 51 per cent of people North and South expecting that Northern Ireland will have left the UK in the next 25 years. That is far too narrow a constituency to assume it would happen without considerable violence and the same poll found 86 per cent expecting a return to major violence in the future. The flippancy of the Johnson government in its public statements on Northern Ireland does not inspire confidence that it has grasped this.
I befriended the ex-Loyalist paramilitary David Ervine in 1993. I had just served on the Opsahl peace commission and was explaining its findings to a fringe meeting of the Labour party conference in Blackpool. I recognised the loyalist group in the audience, including David and the veteran UVF commander Gusty Spence. They invited me for a drink afterwards. I accepted nervously. Gusty had considerable notoriety in my family. He was widely blamed for the sectarian murders of Catholics in the lead-up to the Troubles, particularly that of 18-year-old barman Peter Ward in 1966. But Gusty had been transformed in prison and is credited with having inspired younger prisoners such as David to become peacemakers.
I later invited David to speak at my institute in Liverpool University. He was an extremely charismatic and courageous man and we all lost out with his early death in 2007. After his talk, a member of the audience approached me. “I am the sister of Senator Paddy Wilson, do you know who he was?” Indeed I did. A member of the moderate nationalist SDLP party, he was the victim of a particularly grisly killing in June 1973 by loyalist paramilitaries, along with his Protestant secretary Irene Andrews, after sectarian incitement in loyalist news-sheets.
There are still too many ghosts left over from the Troubles. You simply cannot be flippant about peace in Northern Ireland. It is still too fragile and the state created out of our disagreements 100 years ago has some way to go before its siege mentality evaporates sufficiently for constructive discussion to take place about its long-term future.
Marianne Elliott is an Irish historian and former director of the Institute of Irish Studies at Liverpool University. Her most recent book is ‘Hearthlands: A Memoir of the White City Housing Estate in Belfast’
Main Image: Catholic families play beside a peace wall in West Belfast, 2019, by Moises Saman/Magnum. Inset, anticlockwise from top: a car crosses the border into Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland, c1960; members of the Ulster Defence Regiment patrol Belfast streets, 1978; Peace Gate protesters, Belfast, April 7, by Getty Images and AP Data visualisation by Alan Smith
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