A ‘special mission’ in Belfast
Sir, – Recent correspondence in your paper in relation to a “no-deal Brexit”, the prospects of a united Ireland, the views of Ulster unionists, and the status of the Irish language, have interesting echoes in views expressed almost 100 years ago in the reports of a “special mission” undertaken on behalf of the Dáil Cabinet by one Diarmaid Fawsitt, an economic adviser with the Treaty Plenipotentiaries.
Fawsitt, formerly consul-general in New York, visited Belfast five times in the course of the mission, meeting prominent Belfast businessmen and industrialists and submitting four reports (preserved in the National Archives and National Library).
During his second visit (December 13th-14th, 1921) – just before the first Treaty debates – he was handed a statement by a member of the Ulster Unionist Council setting out assurances required from the south:
“Belfast commercial men . . . need to be assured that no tax whatever will be imposed on any raw materials used in her manufactures, and that no attempt will be made to levy taxes upon exports. Ulster also wants an assurance that whatever changes may be made in education, her Protestant population need have no fear that their schools will run the risk of being dominated by an educational policy which will be chiefly Roman Catholic. Freedom of education from any kind of clerical control is what is required. The language question is also of great importance. Ulster will require guarantees that in the portion of Ulster which is mainly English or Scotch in race, there will be no attempt to make the Irish language compulsory in the schools, or that ignorance of that language will be a bar to promotion in the public services. But beyond these various points, and more important than them all is the necessity for showing a genuine desire to adopt a friendly fraternal attitude towards the Ulster people. There is in Ulster a movement towards forgetting the bitterness of the past, a looking towards a future of peace and concord. Let Sinn Féin assure Ulster that such a feeling exists also in southern Ireland, that there is no desire for conquest or ascendancy, that Ulstermen will be welcome to assist in the task of building up a new Ireland, let this be done and there will be little fear of the ultimate issue.” (NAI: DE/2/478).
The four reports shed interesting light on the views of some Ulster unionist businessmen at that time – attitudes towards an “All-Ireland Parliament”, “unity with the south”, Irish language, etc – views that were to modify as the Treaty debates proceeded. The “keenness on immediate action” which Fawsitt encountered on his first visits “sobered down somewhat” following “extremist speeches” in the Dáil and, although the meetings continued until late January, 1922, the initiative was soon overshadowed by subsequent events. Perhaps the reports and the views expressed merit some re-examination today?
But in the meantime, surely the imperative today is to get the institutions of the Belfast Agreement back “up and running”? – Yours, etc,
(A granddaughter of