Pushing the Irish unity agenda could backfire on the South
Past efforts to promote a united Ireland resulted in political victory for unionists
British ambassador to Ireland Lord Rugby, Irish president Seán T Kelly, British prime minister Clement Atlee and presidential secretary Michael McDunphy in 1948
Over the last year new attention has focused on the idea of Irish unity. Sinn Féin has called for a Border poll, reunification has become a subject of discussion within Fine Gael, and Fianna Fáil plans to issue a White Paper on a united Ireland.
Perhaps all this will be a useful exercise. At the same time we would do well to recall another occasion in the late 1940s when strong efforts to promote an anti-partition agenda were made by nationalists, North and South. This proved a complete failure with unintended consequences.
In November 1945, northern nationalists founded the Anti-Partition League, with the aim of ending partition through putting pressure on the British government, by propaganda at home and abroad and by seeking outside allies. The league won the support of the southern government and party leaders, but little action until 1948.
In early September 1948, in Canada, JA Costello, head of the inter-party coalition, announced the government’s intention to repeal the external relations act and to declare a republic. He also stated that he considered himself prime minister of all Ireland, “no matter what the Irish in the North say”.
This led to an added focus on partition as all parties sought to prove their republican credentials. At an anti-partition rally in Scotland in October 1948, de Valera warned unionists that they would have to choose to be Irish or British, and, if their choice was not the former, he urged: “In God’s name will you go to the country that your affections lie in.”
The opposition to partition became even more strident after the British government announced its intention of introducing an Ireland Act, giving new guarantees to Northern unionists, even though this act was a direct outcome of the Irish decision to declare a republic.
In early December 1948, Lord Rugby, British ambassador to Dublin, observed that “each party must now outdo its rivals in a passionate crusade for Irish unity . . . no leading politician dare to appear reluctant to join the anti-partition bandwagon or to seem doubtful about the wisdom of giving it a shove.”
On January 27th, 1949, Costello called a public meeting of the leaders of the southern parties, plus northern nationalist representatives, to protest against partition and to provide support for anti-partition candidates at the forthcoming northern elections. It was agreed to establish a new anti-partition body to be known as the Mansion House committee, and to raise funds to help these candidates with a country-wide collection outside churches on the following Sunday.
These events had an important influence on unionist circles in Northern Ireland. By early 1949, the unionist government faced strong challenges not only from the heightened anti-partition campaign, but also from a revived Labour movement. At the elections to the Northern Ireland parliament in 1945, Labour candidates had won 113,413 votes and 4 seats.
On January 21st, 1949, Sir Basil Brooke, the northern prime minister, called a general election. In his manifesto, he attacked Costello’s decision to declare a republic: “We have now on our southern border a foreign nation . . . Today we fight to defend our very existence and the heritage of our children.” Labour candidates urged that voters should concentrate on economic and social matters.
On January 28th, 1949, however, the press reported the meeting of the all-party Mansion House committee in Dublin and its declared intention to support anti-partition candidates in the North, including “the holding of a national collection in all parishes on Sunday”. The following Monday, a banner headline of the Belfast Telegraph read: “The chapel gate collections. Dublin, Limerick, Donnybrook lead.”
An Irish Times reporter on January 29th, 1949 warned that this southern move was probably “worth 60,000 votes to unionists” and quoted an anonymous northern nationalist who stated: “Those fellows in Dublin are playing party politics, and that is not going to help us.”
His prediction proved correct.
This direct southern intervention, with such clerical undertones, had considerable impact, but not as intended. It became the focus of the unionist campaign, and helped to lead to the withdrawal of some independent unionist candidates and to the collapse of the Labour vote.
The result was a stunning victory for Brooke. The unionist party increased its representation from 33 MPs to 37, while the Labour movement failed to hold on to a single seat. Nationalist seats fell from 10 to 9.
Despite the failure of this intervention, the Mansion House committee and Irish government then organised a propaganda campaign in Britain and America against partition, which proved completely unsuccessful. North-South relations fell to a new low and matters did not improve until the era of O’Neill and Lemass. The Anti-Partition League collapsed.
This anti-partition campaign failed completely and led to disillusionment with constitutional means of protest. Of course, the whole project was ill-conceived and ill-timed.
As John Bowman has remarked, “no juncture in European history could have been less propitious to seek sympathy for Irish grievances on partition.” Due to the role of Northern Ireland during the second World War and its strategic importance in the new Cold War, neither Washington nor London paid any attention to these nationalist demands.
There are parallels between the situation in the 1940s and today. Given the critical role of the Democratic Unionist Party in supporting a minority conservative government, unionists are in a much stronger position than they have been for a long time. They do not feel any need to be involved in discussions about an end to partition.
The new-found enthusiasm for reunification in the South in 1949 was more to do with playing party politics than anything else, and this is true about much of the current interest. At the 1949 general election, aggressive southern anti-partitionism undermined the middle ground in Northern Ireland. The same could occur if there is a northern election in the near future at the same time as heightened promotion of a united Ireland, backed by southern parties.
The southern leaders and Brooke indulged in constitutional sabre-rattling to the neglect of more pressing social and economic issues, and there is a danger of this today.
A united Ireland is a legitimate goal or aspiration. At the same time, mindful of the outcome of these earlier efforts to actively promote reunification, southern politicians and commentators should be careful about rushing to join the anti-partition bandwagon.
Brian M Walker is professor emeritus of Irish studies at Queen’s University Belfast and author of ‘A Political History of the Two Irelands: From Partition to Peace’.