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Fintan O’Toole: Partition squeezed out pluralism. We have to let it back in

The events of a century ago led to the creation of two sectarian states

There are two ways of thinking about the partition of Ireland 100 years ago. One is as a realist drama – the working out of the inevitable consequence of ruptures that were already irreconcilable. The other is to see it as a tragedy – the destruction of all the finest hopes for what Irish independence might have meant.

The first of these interpretations sits well with Ulster unionism; the second with Irish nationalism. But the choice between them is false. Partition was both an inevitability and a tragedy. We can surely, after a century of living with it, accept that the division of the island was at once unavoidable and calamitous.

What may be more difficult to accept is that it also suited an awful lot of people, not just in the new polity of Northern Ireland, but in the other entity that emerged shortly afterwards south of the Border. It was possible both to rail against partition and to live quite happily with the distribution of power it created and sustained.

The contradiction at the heart of partition is that it is a fallback position that has endured. Nobody, at the start of the revolutionary period, explicitly set out to make it happen. For Irish nationalists of all kinds, it was anathema. Edward Carson, whose statue dominates the approach to Stormont in Belfast and who is claimed as the founding father of Northern Ireland, was a Dublin Protestant who wanted to preserve the existing position of the whole of Ireland within the United Kingdom. In Britain, the Liberal Party supported Home Rule, the mechanism that would see the island govern itself as a single unit. The Conservatives opposed it entirely.


Even the Ulster Covenant of 1912, the foundation stone of Ulster Protestant political identity, is not a charter for partition – on the contrary, it is a pledge to oppose Home Rule as “disastrous to the material wellbeing of Ulster as well as of the whole of Ireland”. The idea that it would lead, not merely to one but to two “home rule” parliaments on the island, would surely have baffled most of those who signed it.

Partition made sectarianism viable as the primary organising principle of the political life of the island

And when partition did become the fallback position for those opposed to Home Rule, there was no consensus on what form it should take. Would it exclude four counties or six? Would the excluded counties be ruled directly from Westminster or have their own devolved parliament? Would the Border be readjusted – as apparently envisaged in the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921 – to move the Catholic-dominated areas of counties Derry, Armagh and Down into the Free State? These were open questions.

All of this can make partition seem accidental, contingent, opportunistic. All the more so because the creation of Northern Ireland was mired in coercion and cynicism: the threat and reality of sectarian violence and the exploitation of the Irish issue by British politicians for their own ends.

But a deeper logic was at work. That rationale is expressed succinctly in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic issued by the rebels in Dublin in 1916. The document makes a very progressive promise of equal rights and liberties in an independent Ireland. It adds that it does so “oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past”.

This is, of course, a glancing acknowledgment that there was by then a large-scale, well-armed and politically powerful Ulster Protestant resistance to moderate Home Rule within the UK and the British empire – never mind to a putative Irish Republic. It was a fact that had to be alluded to.

But the formula is telling. The "differences" are not real. They are a result of what Marxists (and James Connolly, after all, was one) call "false consciousness". They have been "fostered" by the British. Therefore they can be dismissed and, literally, forgotten. That is what "oblivious" means. Bitter divisions are consigned to some vague period "in the past", as if they existed neither in the present nor in the imagined future of the Republic.

The problem, of course, is that deciding to consign differences to oblivion does not make them go away. Those divergences were both religious and economic. There was a profound strain of Protestant bigotry in which “papists” would always be inferior and unfit for government. But there was also a new Irish nationalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the “Irish Ireland” movement that insisted the true nation was rural, Gaelic and Catholic.

To the objection that this excluded those who were urban, Anglophone and Protestant, the answer lay simply in the numbers: Catholics are 75 per cent of the population, so the other 25 per cent must accommodate itself to the culture and aspirations of the majority.

But the differences were also economic. The 1911 census showed that, for the first time, the biggest city on the island was no longer Dublin – it was Belfast. The northeast was Ireland’s industrial heartland, and it was much more advanced than the South. Its industrial system was, furthermore, integrated into the British imperial market. It was not false consciousness for a highly developed, urbanised and globalised industrial society to be extremely wary of absorption into a potentially protectionist and agrarian economy.

These rifts – and, in particular, the way they fused religious and ethnic identity with economic interests – made partition inescapable.

There were, in theory, two ways to avoid it. Either Irish nationalists would give up their aspirations to autonomy or independence – which was not going to happen. Or there would be a civil war in which one side would triumph. But that triumph was not going to happen either.

A civil war, however horrendous, would have settled nothing. The later experience of the Troubles showed that tribal violence merely deepens divisions. It does not make them disappear.

The most likely consequence of a sectarian civil war in the early 1920s would have been ethnic cleansing driven by pogroms, with Catholics violently expelled from the North and Protestants meeting the same fate in the South. Partition would have become an even more brutal and bitter sundering.

But to say that partition was, in the real historical circumstances of a century ago, inevitable, is not to deny that it was tragic. Tragedies, for the Greeks, result precisely from inevitabilities.

Connolly wrote in 1914, when partition was emerging as a possible solution to the immediate Home Rule crisis, that it “would mean a carnival of reaction both North and South, would set back the wheels of progress, would destroy the oncoming unity of the Irish Labour movement and paralyse all advanced movements whilst it endured”. He was not wrong.

The nationalist dominion had to hide its self-satisfaction in rhetorical appeals for the great injustice of partition to be undone

Partition did prevent any prospect of Labour becoming a determining political force in Ireland. As a result, while Northern Ireland eventually got a welfare state (thanks to the Labour Party victory in the UK general election of 1945), social progress south of the Border was (and remains) piecemeal and incoherent.

And the rival carnivals of reaction were indeed open for business. Essentially what partition achieved was to remove from both Irish nationalism and Irish unionism the burden of pluralism. It made sectarianism viable as the primary organising principle of the political life of the island.

Northern Ireland was purposefully designed to encompass the maximum area in which there would be a comfortably dominant Protestant majority – initially at a ratio of two to one. But its creation also brought into being an overwhelmingly Catholic counterpart. Of the Free State’s population in 1926 of 2.97 million, 2.75 million were Catholic.

Even though the southern State inherited, rather than deliberately created, this stultifyingly monolithic condition, it was secretly quite happy to live with it. It was necessary for both of the main political parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, to rail against the evils of partition. All the evidence suggests, however, that this was an evil they found quite acceptable.

The State that became the Republic of Ireland was not a theocracy. It was a democracy that repeatedly voted to accept the right of the Catholic hierarchy to control education and healthcare and to set very narrow limits on the operation of the law in any area that could be deemed “moral”. This meant in practice that all law relating to sexuality, reproduction and the control of women and children was subject to the approval of the Catholic bishops.

Partition also meant that the southern State could define itself, in both cultural and economic spheres, in ways that were “oblivious” to the Protestant presence on the island.

Culturally, the Republic could imagine itself as purely Gaelic and pretend that it was, someday soon, going to be Irish-speaking. Economically, it could prioritise the interests of farmers and especially of the cattle trade. It could develop protectionist policies that would have been impossible if it had to think about the interests of the North’s industries.

The big difference between the elites on either side of the Border was that one was openly smug about the status quo created by partition, while the other was obliged to affect distress.

The unionist hegemony could be open about its contentment. The nationalist dominion had to hide its self-satisfaction in rhetorical appeals for the great injustice of partition to be undone.

Anti-partition allowed Irish nationalists to use a language of freedom even while they were themselves running a deeply repressive State

The sincerity of these appeals can be judged by the reality that – in almost a century of Irish independence – it is impossible to point to anything the State did purely to reconcile itself to unionists. Even with something as cost-free as the recent Seanad byelection, it was much more important for the Government parties to vote for one of their own than to place a single liberal unionist from Armagh (Ian Marshall) in the Oireachtas.

Neither the rhetoric of the democratic parties nor the sporadic IRA campaigns to try to end partition by violence changed anything. In 1954, no less a figure than Éamon de Valera admitted to the Fianna Fáil ardfheis that without the consent of Ulster unionists he could offer no credible solution to the problem of partition: “our efforts… have come to nought”. The history of anti-partitionism – in both its constitutional and its violent forms – is a history of failure. But it still served a purpose: it allowed Irish nationalists to use a language of freedom even while they were themselves running a deeply repressive State. Repression was a northern (and behind it all, a British) thing. It was not a southern (and Irish) thing.

The truth is that both of the sectarian states used force to sustain themselves. The northern state operated on a constant plane of low-level violence against its Catholic minority. Intimidation, even when it is not explicit in direct attacks on Catholics, was implicit in Orange Order marches and in the existence of the B-Specials, an essentially Protestant paramilitary organisation in official clothing and with legal arms.

But the southern State had its own system of constant, low-level violence: its vast network of church-run industrial schools, Magdalene laundries and mother and baby homes. In the North, industrial schools were phased out from the 1920s and were gone by 1950. In the South, they continued until 1970. Yet the South could think of the North as unfree and therefore ignore its own systematic abuses of human rights.

It is easy enough now to recognise that partition created two sectarian entities that were, because they both depended on repression, equally unsustainable. Both have been altered radically – one as a result of violent conflict and demographic change, the other through economic and social transformation. Sectarian domination is no longer a viable political project on either side of the Border.

But the much more difficult question is what might replace that project. Neither a century of separation nor the long history of division that preceded and created it can be wished away. Oblivion is no more useful now than it was in 1916.

Partition is no longer the logical manifestation of the existence of very different societies on different parts of the island – those societies increasingly look like each other

Partition always had two dimensions – subjective and objective. The first relates to questions of collective identity: who people think they are. The second has to do with social, economic and political facts: the way things are.

Where we are now is that objective realities have changed beyond what anyone would have recognised 100 years ago. The empire is gone. Britishness is in deep trouble; the continued existence of the United Kingdom is now in serious doubt. The industrial might of the North is mostly a thing of the past.

The South has long since ceased to be an agricultural and rural society. The Catholic Church has all but imploded as a temporal power. The Republic is more cosmopolitan, more globalised and arguably more liberal than Northern Ireland. The great markers of objective difference have been largely erased.

Ironically, the threat of the reimposition of a hard Border as a result of Brexit actually drew attention to this transformation. In the run-up to Britain leaving the European Union, there was a sudden awakening to the fact that the Border is crossed 110 million times every year. Life on the island has evolved, not just to cope with partition, but also to ignore and evade it.

But while the objective reasons for partition have faded, the subjective ones – the existence of different ideas of belonging – are very much alive. And indeed their status has been greatly enhanced. Differences of identity are now recognised, formally and legally, as entirely legitimate. In 1998, in the referendum that overwhelmingly endorsed the Belfast Agreement, the people of the Republic consigned unionist “false consciousness” to the dustbin of history and committed themselves, in their Constitution, to harmony with all those who inhabit the island “in all the diversity of their identities and traditions”.

Partition is no longer the logical manifestation of the existence of very different societies on different parts of the island – those societies increasingly look like each other. It is not even an accurate reflection of how people really feel about who they are. It suggests that there are only two ways to belong on the island, and that we must all choose one or the other. In fact, those ways of belonging are increasingly multiple, plural and nonbinary.

So we will have to change the question. For the past 100 years, it has been: is Ireland one or two? For the next century, there must be other, bigger numbers. The binary can’t be reduced to a monolith. It has to be expanded into a genuine plurality. If and when the partition comes down, it will have to open up a space in which there is room for many ideas of belonging. Division will have to give way to diversity.

This is one of a series of articles The Irish Times will publish in the coming weeks to mark the centenary of partition in May 2021