A unionist history of Northern Ireland

The editors of a new book on unionism blame the South, Northern Catholics and IRA

July 1935: Statue of Edward Carson (1854-1935), unionist leader and founder of the  Ulster Volunteer Force  at Stormont Castle, seat of the Northern Ireland Parliament. Photograph: Fox Photos/ Getty Images

July 1935: Statue of Edward Carson (1854-1935), unionist leader and founder of the Ulster Volunteer Force at Stormont Castle, seat of the Northern Ireland Parliament. Photograph: Fox Photos/ Getty Images


Northern unionists have never claimed to be a separate “nation”. From the outset they supported the union with Britain for a variety of rational and valid reasons.

They felt an instinctive loyalty towards Britain, the “nation” into which they and their ancestors had been born and which, in their view, embodied civil and political liberty. They valued the security of belonging to its Protestant majority. They shared an acute sense of being different from Ireland’s nationalist population not only in religion, but in ethnic origins, culture and political aspirations.

They feared that home rule would result in “Rome rule”, a state in which the Catholic Church would exercise pervasive political and social influence, and they would experience religious discrimination and exclusion from public life.

They were also convinced that the region’s rapid economic growth was dependent on continued access to Britain’s markets, raw materials, capital, skilled labour, and entrepreneurs; early 20th-century Belfast was the most rapidly growing city in the British isles. Unionists accepted the 1920 Government of Ireland Act because it recognised the distinctive entity of the northeast, and their democratic right to remain within the union.

Irish nationalists have never understood the nature of unionism. Despite the North’s distinctive characteristics, they claim that the Irish “nation” is indivisible from the island of Ireland, the “national territory”, and are/were unwilling to concede that a majority in one region has as much right to remain in the British state as they had to separate from it.

They have held various, often incompatible, viewpoints regarding unionism. To some, the area they disparagingly described as the “black north” long before partition, was like a creeping disease, alien, Anglicised, materialistic, corrupting and degraded.

During 1912-14 unionists were widely dismissed as “bluffers” who, despite their rhetoric, would eventually recognise the futility of opposing Irish independence. They were also depicted as having been duped into supporting the union by conservatives in Britain, or the local commercial elite and aristocracy, and it was assumed that they would eventually recognise their true Irish identity. Both these presumptions still prevail.

Conversely, before the Great War, unionists were projected as being a “splendid example” for Irish nationalism because they had “led the way” in opposing Westminster legislation. Irish nationalists have never been either willing or able to recognise the integrity and validity of the unionist commitment to the union and the consequent strength of unionist opposition to Irish unity.

This ideological blindness on their part lies at the root of their long-term focus on the persuasive role of English or at times United States politicians and, on the part of republicans, their commitment to the ultimate legitimacy of the persuasion that comes thorough the “barrel of a gun” which underpinned the three decades of IRA/Sinn Féin terrorism post-1969.

During the 1918-23 period Sinn Féin was the dominant nationalist party. Entirely lacking a coherent policy towards the North, it projected the Ulster question and partition as being due to the British presence in Ireland, its duplicity and colonialism, and argued during the Treaty negotiations that “if England would stand aside, there would be no difficulty”.

It rejected the principle of unionist consent to unity; Éamon de Valera stated that “Ulster must be coerced if she stood in the way”. It regarded the creation of the Northern Ireland state as being unnatural and reversible, refused to engage with the Government of Ireland Act (the Council of Ireland was therefore stillborn), was unwilling to recognise the Belfast parliament, increasingly focused its energies on the North and deployed every means available to destabilise and overthrow it.

A vital additional motivation for Collins’ intervention in the North was his determination to arrest the deepening split in the South over the Treaty by diverting attention to the perceived iniquity of partition.

Collins adopted various strategies to undermine the Northern Ireland government, including non-cooperation and propaganda, and encouraging the northern minority not to recognise or co-operate with its institutions. Above all, in early 1922, he covertly sponsored and orchestrated an IRA campaign aimed at making Northern Ireland ungovernable.

Sinn Féin’s negative and belligerent attitude largely dictated the Catholic minority’s level of engagement with the newly formed state. Its members increasingly supported the IRA’s campaign, 1921-22 adopted a strategy of passive resistance and civil disobedience towards Craig’s government, and of abstentionism by their elected representatives; public bodies which they controlled pledged allegiance to Dáil Éireann.

The failure of northern nationalists to recognise Northern Ireland, 1921-22, “robbed them of any say in the future shape of its institutions or political culture”, reinforced their feelings of alienation and reaffirmed the unionist sense of being under siege. Ulster unionists undoubtedly had a siege mentality but there were also besiegers.

Ulster unionist opposition to inclusion in an all-Ireland state was fully vindicated by the policies adopted by the Dublin government. From the outset WT Cosgrave strove to bring about the “Gaelicization… of our whole culture”; Irish was declared to be the national language of the Free State in its 1922 constitution. De Valera said repeatedly that its “restoration” was a “more urgent national issue than partition”; he was convinced that “Irish nationality would wither if [its]… revival failed.”

The southern leaders also set about constructing a confessional, Catholic state. Cosgrave’s government, and its successors, farmed out core responsibilities to the Church, particularly in health and education. It was a policy which its current Taoiseach has had good reason deeply to regret. In his 1937 Constitution, de Valera endowed the Catholic Church with a “special position” (Article 44), though fully aware that this would hinder Irish unity.

Moreover, Catholic moral values were all pervasive: divorce was not permitted, birth control outlawed, literature advocating contraception banned and films and books censored, so rendering “independent Ireland an object of international ridicule for the next forty years”.

A number of its other policies were equally anathema to unionists; it precipitated a trade war with Britain, 1932-38, and it adopted a position of neutrality during the second World War.

Furthermore, between 1919-23, Protestants in the South were subjected to intimidation, vicious attacks, sectarian murder (as in the Bandon Valley, April 1922) and the burning of “big houses”. All of this resulted in an accelerating exodus of up to 48,000 of them between 1911 and 1926. Those who opted to remain post-independence had to endure further violent outrages in 1935; legislation intended to create a theocratic state; the Ne Temere decree which applied the Church’s canon law to mixed marriages and the compulsory learning of Irish throughout the school system.

They were enclosed within a society dominated by a nationalist understanding of history, and in which there was an identification of being authentically Irish with being Catholic. Arguably, despite the recent modernisation of the state, a residual latent Anglophobia has remained, and was evidenced by the stance taken over Brexit by the Varadkar-led Fine Gael government in 2019.

Despite pursuing these policies, the South continued to assert its “unabated” claim to jurisdiction over the six counties; this was enshrined in Articles 2 and 3 of its 1937 Constitution. It has continued to regard partition as reversible, generally encouraged the northern minority not to co-operate with the Northern state and persisted in adhering to “the deeply flawed dogma… that Unionists could be coerced into unity”.

De Valera considered that in time unity was inevitable and favoured a policy of non-cooperation with Northern Ireland. According to John Bowman, his “fixed view” was that the partition problem could only be solved in the “larger general play of English interest”; he hoped that the Westminster government would commit itself to the unification of Ireland, a perspective sustained by his successors up to the Good Friday Agreement.

Overall, southern politicians have consistently failed to “confront the realities of partition”, or recognise and accept the depth and intensity of the sense of British identity shared by unionists. They have blamed Britain for their continuing failure to achieve unity, rather than work constructively to resolve the “widening gulf” between north and south.

Northern Ireland “pioneered” devolution in the UK, though this has never properly been acknowledged in accounts of Britain’s constitutional and political development. Its image has been tarnished by northern nationalist allegations of discrimination. These were politically significant because they were widely accepted internationally, so that the cause of violence post 1969 was attributed solely to unionist sectarianism.

But this entirely ignores the sectarian outlook and inflexibility of many Catholic leaders and politicians, a legacy of their negative view of the state from the outset: their abstention from the regional parliament until 1925; their unblinking focus on the constitutional issue until the 1960s and the extreme views expressed by those with influence within the northern minority such as Cardinal MacRory.

Their persistent demand for “Irish unity” has generated and nourished a culture of grievance, a “MOPE” mentality. It is noteworthy that investigations into devolution written before the Troubles are more measured and favourable than those produced after they began.

A negative view of the Northern state was facilitated by the intellectual inability of unionists to counter effectively nationalist aspersions and by the highly pejorative treatment unionism has historically received. The result was that a broad consensus emerged in London and Dublin that majority-based government was not appropriate for Northern Ireland, and this helped determine the nature of the mandatory, power-sharing institutions required by the 1998 Belfast Agreement.

This negative image of the Northern Ireland state is in large part a distortion of reality. All of the citizens in the region benefited from being in the union, as unionists always claimed they would, and allegations of discrimination have been grossly exaggerated.

For example, post-1921, Craig maintained the same social security provision and welfare payments as in Britain; this was an objective only made feasible because of the financial settlements reached with London. Craig justified these arrangements by arguing that the North had a legitimate claim to its share of the UK’s pool of resources because its citizens paid the same taxes at the same rates as elsewhere. His policy also affirmed the region’s place in the union, bound it more closely to the UK and avoided any risk of disaffecting his working-class supporters.

His government was practising what unionists had long argued regarding the advantages of British citizenship – that UK rights and privileges would apply equitably to all. This “step by step” approach is not open to charges of discrimination as the benefits claimed were available equally to all.

With regard to education, minority allegations of discrimination are weakened by the unconstructive role played by the Catholic Church, notably its refusal to engage in the creation of a new educational system and uncompromising insistence that it should run its own schools. Despite this, Catholic schools were treated generously – to the extent that education was never adopted as a civil rights issue.

Again, in relation to public housing allocation, exhaustive analysis of the relevant statistical data indicates that, contrary to the claims routinely made, “Catholics were over-represented, not under-represented, in social housing at the end of the unionist regime in 1971”. The Housing Trust built almost 50,000 dwellings between 1945 and 1971, and was scrupulously impartial.

Likewise, the twin basis of allegations of anti-Catholic discrimination regarding employment have been effectively undermined: firstly, the suggestion that a persistent high Catholic/Protestant unemployment ratio is “proof” of discrimination and, secondly, the assertion made in the New Ireland Forum report that regional patterns of Catholic/Protestant employment indicate Catholics were “deprived of the means of social and economic development”.

It is certainly arguable that unionists failed to “take what opportunities they had to bring the nationalists into the political system and to reform the outmoded system of local government”. But, whatever the level of discrimination that existed in Northern Ireland, it provided “no moral justification for violence or the threat of violence for political ends in Ireland” (the IRA campaign, 1969-94, caused 3,518 deaths, 59 per cent of them were inflicted by republicans, and fewer than 15 per cent resulted in criminal convictions).

But these considerations have not restrained the leadership and “fellow travellers” of the republican movement from their pursuit of, in effect, a total re-writing of the history of the conflict. This has had a dual objective: the exoneration of the IRA and the focusing of blame on the security forces and the British state.

It has been aimed at the glorification of republican violence and at obscuring the fact that IRA terrorism was both an abject, political and military failure. It failed to achieve its stated objective, to secure an all-Ireland “democratic and socialist republic”, and it was also militarily defeated.

The moral culpability of the leadership and of the activists in the IRA, whose members conducted their 30-year campaign with callous brutality, must not be “buried in oblivion” in a distorted, airbrushed historical narrative. To do so would amount to a factual and moral perversion of history, and the effacing from the record of the sufferings of thousands of innocent victims of republican terrorism.

The content of this article is based on The Northern Ireland Question: Perspectives on Nationalism and Unionism (Wordzworth Publishing, 2020), edited by Patrick J Roche and Brian Barton. Patrick J Roche lectured in economics at the University of Ulster and Brian Barton tutored in history with the Open University.

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