Defining the ‘sub-polity’ that is Northern Ireland

Brendan O’Leary’s Treatise and Eoin McNamee’s novels are key to understanding the North

“As I reflect on the topic, I am struck by a disinclination in both academic and journalistic accounts to critique empire and imperialism.” President Michael D Higgins, the Guardian, February 11th, 2021

Ireland’s journalist and intellectual class has singularly failed to tell the true story of Northern Ireland. The true story of modern Ireland as a whole, therefore. The same goes for the academy. It is true that in the quotation above from his recent Guardian article, President Higgins is not just referring to Irish academic and media channels, but there are clear implications for domestic commentators and their inherent reluctance to critique imperialism. Northern Ireland is, undeniably, an expression of that imperialism.

In the same week, and almost as if responding directly to Michael D, the highly respected journalist and patrician English historian, Max Hastings, went a step further in his description of Northern Ireland:

“Until very recently, when made to stop by London, Ulster’s Protestant rulers governed their own 42% Catholic minority almost as harshly as US white segregationists in the old South treated African Americans.” - Max Hastings, Bloomberg Opinion, February 14th, 2021.


Whilst there is no assumption on my part that those I cite favourably here would agree with my overall analysis of the North, I think it is fair to say that a challenge to the neo-unionist narrative that has dominated discourse in Ireland for so long is now mainstream and acceptable.

The academic who has done most to turn the tide and challenge that revisionism is the political scientist Brendan O’Leary. Indeed in his magisterial three-volume Treatise on Northern Ireland O’Leary stands almost every accepted shibboleth on its head. He does so calmly, forensically and without rancour towards those with whom he disagrees. O’Leary demonstrates, for example, that Northern Ireland was never a state, never mind a “province”. It is a “sub-polity”.

In the machinations that led to the establishment of Northern Ireland, superbly described by O’Leary, Edward Carson used the term “six plantation counties” or simply “six counties”. How is it then that these terms provoke howls of outrage from unionists and much of Ireland’s commentariat when used today? To paraphrase Michael D, we are back with a disinclination to critique supremacism. Supremacism was expressly advocated by unionists themselves in the run-up to the founding of Northern Ireland in 1922. (O’Leary has correctly pointed out that the Stormont Parliament did not secede from the unified Free State until December 1922.)

“The Six Counties” is a perfectly legitimate term for Northern Ireland and it was used by unionist supremacists themselves. In January 1920, the fiercely unionist Walter Long visited the North of Ireland. Viscount Long was the chairman of the UK cabinet committee that drafted the belligerent 1920 Government of Ireland Act, which gave a legal framework to the subsequent partition of the country. Long’s fact-finding visit led him to conclude that, whilst the majority with whom he had spoken (ie unionists) favoured the exclusion of the whole of Ulster from the coming southern dispensation, he added the proviso:

“the people in the inner circle hold the view that the new province should consist of the six counties ... (to prevent) the supremacy of the Unionists from being seriously threatened”.

It seems to me that the whole of the North’s history is summed up in this seminal quote. We have an inner circle. (There is always an inner circle of powerful unionists.) We have a “province” that isn’t one. Rather it is a sectarian patchwork, torn and then roughly stitched together from the ancient contours of an actual, factual province – Ulster, so as to ensure a supreme unionist majority. O’Leary demonstrates that in fact Ireland was doubly partitioned because not only did Northern supremacists secede from the South, they also partitioned Ulster. The very reason why Northern Ireland is not Ulster and is not a “province”.

August scholars and feted journalists have spent decades denouncing the “blood sacrifice” of the 1916 Easter Rising and undermining the noble – clearly non-supremacist – aspirations of its leaders who did, O’Leary demonstrates, at least have some hope of success. The real blood sacrifice came later that year in the first World War horror that was the Somme and other suicidal waves of human beings throwing themselves at often impregnable gun and artillery emplacements in that “war to end wars”.

Likewise, it was the political leaders of those sacrificed “Ulstermen” who had first read out an incendiary proclamation in September 1913; for their part to warn of illegal armed resistance to Home Rule. This was the aftermath to the famous Ulster Covenant drawn up the year before by those men of Walter Long’s “inner council”, the Ulster Unionist Council (UUC). Almost the first thing that this inner council of proud Ulstermen did in the prolonged negotiations leading up to partition was to ditch their fellow covenanters – their fellow Ulstermen – in the three counties that endangered their overwhelming supremacy.

O’Leary’s account of the conceits and straightforward deceits that led to the creation of Northern Ireland is a triumph of political science exegesis. Lloyd George originally agreed to the expressed wishes of inhabitants in each of the affected Ulster counties being adhered to. However, unionists were well aware that any county by county plebiscite would leave them with only four counties that could carry a “supremacy” vote. Thus Fermanagh, Tyrone and Derry City were dragged in – and gerrymandered – to make up a viable “sub-polity”. O’Leary’s evidence overwhelmingly shows that he is correct to say: “The creation of Northern Ireland was ... an outcome of settler colonialism.”

If there is one area that O’Leary might be said to be not so much weak as less comprehensive, it is in the area of the “Dark State’s” covert interest in Ireland. And that, if you will, is where your author comes in. In 2004, I published a book about UK state collusion with loyalist death squads, A Very British Jihad. It is now broadly accepted that I was the first journalist to explain in detail how what is now erroneously called the “Glenanne Gang” actually worked right across the Six Counties and in Ireland as a whole. In essence, and despite a plethora of name changes, it was always “Ulster Resistance”; an MI5-backed “deniable” resistance to power-sharing with satellite logistical hubs in every northern county, not just at James Mitchell’s farm at Glenanne in Co Armagh. Collusion is now an accepted fact, but back in 2004 it was a lonely place from which to report. A cold house, partly built by the Irish commentariat.

Perhaps the fact that novelists have tackled the above issues in a better and much deeper way than our current affairs gurus is the best illustration of how badly we have been served. To my mind, Eoin McNamee has captured the sense of febrile, dank corruption at the heart of what passed for civil life in the North far better than any other writer. Some would point to his Resurrection Man as the prime example of this, given that it invokes the notorious Shankill Butchers.

But as someone who has moved in the shadow areas inhabited by loyalist death squads, in particular Portadown and Lurgan UVF and the Shankill Road’s UDA, I believe that McNamee’s The Blue Tango gets even closer to the dissolute heart of “loyal Ulster”, precisely because it is set in 1952, long before the formal commencement of the Troubles.

In The Blue Tango, the home of the corrupt judge Lancelot Curran – “The Glen” – with its bone-chilling rooms, peeling facades and fetid and swampish grounds, can pass for Northern Ireland itself. A place where there is an undercurrent of subterfuge and tension in even the smallest of transactions. A shabby dereliction of empire in what McNamee memorably calls “an aristocracy of ruin”. A bright, bubbly girl stabbed to death in a frenzy by a member of her own family for transgressing their fake moral code and even worse, fraternising and seeking to help the impoverished working class – even Catholics. The killing is then covered up by agents of the State as so many murders have been since.

For those who would say that McNamee is using poetic license and exaggeration, Leonard Hobhouse put it best as far back as 1912 (as quoted by O’Leary) – “what is meant by Ulster for these purposes is half Ulster, or the city of Belfast with some adjacent counties ... its desire is to retain what it can save from the wreck of the Ascendancy system”.

Hobhouse was a founding father of modern liberalism and social democracy and a fair question is to ask what happened to Irish liberalism in the meantime, given that its hallowed ranks would balk at describing Northern Ireland as a failed attempt at continued Ascendancy. Liberalism, it seems, has gone backwards.

The only explanation I can think of as to why our intelligentsia’s Pavlovian response to the very mention of sectarianism and collusion in Northern Ireland is to begin shouting about the IRA is because of self-shame – a phenomenon well attested in post-colonial societies. Confusing the IRA with the responsibilities of a sovereign state that was plainly oppressing and sometimes murdering its own citizens is a part of that shame. It comes from sitting on your hands instead of writing about it.

It bears stating that the people who did most to push my career and celebrate my abilities come from an Ulster unionist background, both in the BBC in England and in the North of Ireland. But these are cultured people who are in embryo what O’Leary has called the consociation of the new dispensation that came after 1998 and the Good Friday Agreement. People who also celebrate the best of the attributes of their own folk. A clearsightedness, a decency and defence of core humane principles such as the NHS, British jazz and jazz funk, challenging drama and the highest standards in television, writing and poetry. They hark back to Shakespeare rather than Cromwell.

In my outline above, I have mainly referred to volume one of O’Leary’s treatise, but if those interested do nothing else, they should read the searing depiction of unionist electoral fraud in volume two, and volume three for the way which an ingenious route was found to the destination that O’Leary posits as the only one available to any conflict society: power sharing. “Power sharing is the opposite of partition” might be a suitable mantra for the Treatise as a whole.