Fifty years ago this summer, the British home secretary Reginald Maudling was on a flight back to London after his first visit to Northern Ireland, for which he had responsibility as a member of the new Conservative government: “For God’s sake”, he demanded, “bring me a large Scotch. What a bloody awful country!”
It was a typical private Tory declaration about Northern Ireland. Despite all their honeyed words about the unity, integrity and greatness of the UK, Northern Ireland in its almost 100 years of existence has been mostly a crisis for British governments to manage.
Boris Johnson is likely to have uttered similar sentiments to Maudling in the last few years given his tumultuous relationship with the DUP and the intractability of the Border complication during the Brexit saga; he was captured expressing private anger in 2018 that the focus on the Border was “allowing the tail to wag the dog”.
Even when Tories had assented to the creation of the new Northern Ireland in 1920, they had few positive things to say about Ulster; former prime minister Arthur Balfour accepted the case for unionists controlling their destiny “in spite of their bigotry”. Historian Charles Townsend observed that British ministers responsible for Ireland, “usually second-rankers, had difficulty in finding an audience for their views”.
Lillian Spender, the wife of Wilfred, who became Northern Ireland’s cabinet secretary in 1921, recorded in her diary that year the strong unionist sense that “England doesn’t want us”. In the same era, Ulster nationalist leader Joe Devlin decried the desperate plight of the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland, “kept as one third of the population as if they were pariahs”.
‘Something to celebrate’
When in Belfast last week, Johnson announced plans to mark next year’s centenary of the formation of Northern Ireland, with the establishment of a Centenary Forum and Centenary Historical Advisory Panel. From his perspective, he said, “it is something obviously to celebrate, because I love and believe in the union that makes up the United Kingdom, the most successful political partnership anywhere in the world”.
In contrast, Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill said that Northern Ireland was built on “sectarianism, gerrymandering and an inbuilt unionist majority”, while the DUP’s Arlene Foster was understated but called for commemoration to be inclusive.
Commemoration was hijacked by paramilitaries, with the Ulster Volunteer Force exploiting the 50th anniversary of the Somme
That will be a tall order, not helped by Johnson’s comments or those of northern secretary Brandon Lewis, who said the centenary would represent an opportunity to “celebrate Northern Ireland’s integral place within our union”.
Forget celebration. The creation of Northern Ireland was an admission of defeat and became something worse. Commemoration of its centenary should be sober and include historical scrutiny of British skulduggery and nationalist subjection, but also a greater understanding of a unionist political culture that has never been monolithic. Ulster unionists have always made much of their own suffering and sacrifice. Their losses in the Battle of the Somme in 1916, for example, became a crucial part of Ulster Protestant self-image. Memorialising the Somme was partly about ensuring historical validation of the Ulster sacrifice to justify the creation of the state of Northern Ireland.
Its first prime minister, James Craig, suggested Somme memorials were a reminder “to stand firm and give away none of Ulster’s soul” but this was also about selective and sectarian memory and forgetting the presence at the Somme of Catholic nationalists.
Confidence and anxiety
Yet this was not just unionist triumphalism; it was also born of insecurity and the need to hone a local Ulster identity because Protestant memory never lost its siege aspects or distrust of London, and in the words of historian Ian McBride its outward confidence was “tempered by a note of anxiety”.
Remembering past battles also underlined class tensions within unionism, with working-class Protestants determined to see themselves as “puppets no more” of bourgeois official unionism. But like so much else in Northern Ireland, commemoration was hijacked by paramilitaries, with the modern Ulster Volunteer Force that emerged in 1966 exploiting the 50th anniversary of the Somme and its iconography.
In 1971, the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Stormont Parliament was strangled by the Troubles; Northern Ireland’s government could not commemorate it as planned or even secure a royal visit, indicating it was no longer in control. The situation in 1971 reinforced the memory and legacy of the contested birth of Northern Ireland in 1921 and it was a bloody birth: over 100 were killed in Belfast alone in 1921, rising to nearly 300 in 1922.
It is easy for British ministers to dash in and out of Belfast and offer platitudes, but Northern Ireland’s complications have always justifiably followed them. No doubt Reginald Maudling was given his large Scotch in 1970, but 18 months later, after Bloody Sunday, Mid Ulster MP Bernadette Devlin smacked his face in the House of Commons. Afterwards, Devlin said she was “sorry I didn’t go for his throat”.