Political violence must be unambiguously repudiated
OPINION:In 1974, the Achilles Heel of the power-sharing executive in the North was the North-South arrangements, against which an unconstitutional Protestant strike was to bring the executive down. While the institutions arising from the Belfast Agreement eventually collapsed in 2002, they were restored under new conditions after the St Andrews agreement of 2006, entrenching mutual sectarian vetoes. And, since 2007, they have appeared stable and secure.
But they, too, have a point of vulnerability. North-South collaboration today shows how ideological were the stances taken in 1974 against the removal of the Republic’s territorial claim over the North and in support of a baroque Council of Ireland as a putative half-way house to a unitary state. The trouble today, however, is the past.
Orwell famously said he who controls the present controls the past, and he who controls the past controls the future. That’s why there is so much at stake in the struggle to control the meaning of the third Home Rule crisis, a century on.
This month’s centenary is of the establishment by the Ulster Unionist Council – forerunner of the Ulster Unionist Party which governed the breakaway Northern Ireland as a one-party monopoly – of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force, following a year of public drilling.
With members of the imitation UVF, reformed as a precipitating agent to the “Troubles” in the mid-1960s, involved in the recent violent protests against the regulated flying of the union flag, the organisation will over the weeks ahead be keen to burnish its historical credentials.
The formalisation of the UVF was the sequel to the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant against Home Rule four months earlier. The covenant had spoken the language of citizenship and resonated with the broad mass of Ulster Protestants – nearly half a million signed it – fearful that Home Rule would undermine their socio-economic standing as well as subjecting them to a Catholic political majority in Ireland.
It is now clear that they had a case: living standards in the South after partition never did catch up with those in the UK until the Celtic Tiger, and the role of the church in institutional abuse of children and single parents has now been fully brought to light. But in eliding Protestantism with the citizens of “Ulster”, the covenant foreshadowed the “Protestant parliament for a Protestant people” which institutionalised discrimination and oppression of the Catholic community in the Northern state.
Worse even than that, the covenant wilfully misrepresented the democratic decision by the UK parliament – to which all Irish men (but not women) qualifying for the pre-1918 franchise could send representatives – to introduce a Home Rule Bill for the third time in 1912. It darkly threatened resort to “all means which may be found necessary” to defeat what it labelled this “conspiracy”.
The covenant was thus to give credence to the launch of the UVF in a poisonous political atmosphere in which elected Protestant leaders such as Edward Carson and James Craig – and their British Tory allies including the party leader, Bonar Law – were unabashed about patronising anti-democratic revolt against the Liberal government at Westminster.
Gun-running to Larne and the Curragh mutiny of British army officers in 1914 elaborated this constitutional subversion.