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Orange Parade, Belfast 2011

Orange Parade, Belfast 2011. Photo: Ardfern / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0, license linked at bottom of article

In the second part of his article on Ireland, partition and the Troubles, Chris Bambery spells out the economic and political reasons for the division of Britain's oldest colony

Read part one here

The seeds of The Troubles lay in the partition of Ireland in 1921. We still live with the unresolved effects of that decision imposed by the Liberal-Conservative coalition government of David Lloyd George.

Ireland was partitioned, divided into two states, in 1921 at the insistence of the British government. In most of Ireland, there was full support for independence from Britain. In a few short years there had been the 1916 Easter Rising – the first blow anywhere for independence against the British Empire; the overwhelming victory of the pro-independence Sinn Fein in the December 1918 general election; the creation of an illegal Irish parliament, Dáil Éireann, and, at the same time the beginning of the Irish Republican Army’s guerrilla war.  

But matters were different in the North East of Ireland. There the majority of the population were Protestants in contrast to the majority of the Irish population who were Catholics. These Protestants were descendants in many cases of settlers brought from Scotland and England to help control what had been the rebellious Gaelic province of Ulster. 

In the 19th century Ireland, as a whole, was nominally part of the United Kingdom but in reality it was a colony, run from Dublin Castle. Nominally in charge was the Viceroy, as in India, although matters were in the hands of the British government’s Secretary of State for Ireland, backed up by a strong British garrison and the paramilitary Royal Irish Constabulary.  

Native Irish industry, except in the Belfast area, was destroyed by being excluded from the British market. Ireland was an agrarian society with big farms exporting to Britain, and to the west peasants eking out an existence reliant on cultivating potatoes on their small plots. In 1845 disease struck the potato crop. In the subsequent Famine, one million died and one million emigrated. A free-market British government let matters take their course – exporting grain while Irish people starved.  

The catastrophe of the Famine left a traumatised population which became more attached to the Catholic Church. It also led the Irish middle class to support a form of devolution, known as Home Rule. This would involve the creation of an Irish parliament. Only a minority rallied to Republicanism. It was thought that Home Rule might allow Ireland to create tariff barriers to stop cheap British goods entering and allowing for the rebuilding of Ireland’s economy. That was anathema to the industrialists of Belfast. 

From the 1880s until 1914 Irish Home Rule was central to British politics, creating a bitter polarisation. Irish MPs sat in Westminster and formed a Home Rule Party backed by the Catholic Church.  Three times, in 1886, 1893 and 1914, minority Liberal governments tabled Irish Home Rule Bills, dependent on Irish votes for remaining in office. 

But the majority of the British ruling class, most Conservatives and a significant section of the Liberals themselves, opposed any watering down of British rule in Ireland, fearing the consequences in India and elsewhere in the Empire. 

They found allies in the one Irish industrial centre, Belfast. In contrast to the rest of Ireland, it had become a centre of shipbuilding, textiles and engineering, dependent on British markets and investment. Its industrialists used discrimination whereby the industrial workforce was Protestant with Catholics reduced to low paid, unskilled employment. This divide was policed by the Protestant supremacist Orange Order, and sectarian violence scarred the city. 

When between 1910 and 1914 a minority Liberal government tried once more to get a Home Rule Bill through the House of Commons. The Unionists in Belfast raised an army, the Ulster Volunteer Force, and in 1914 Tory money helped import German rifles. When the British Army in Ireland was ordered to seize them its commanders refused. A pro-Home Rule militia, the Irish Volunteers, was formed and imported a smaller arsenal of German rifles. This time the British Army did act, shooting four dead on the streets of Dublin. As Britain approached war with Germany, civil war in Ireland loomed. The Tory leader, Bonar Law, told a rally at Blenheim Palace, that ‘I can imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster will go, in which I shall not be ready to support them.’ 

In the last days of peace, the Home Rule Party agreed to the Belfast area being excluded from governance of an Irish Parliament. Despite Home Rule being put on the shelf until the end of the war, the Home Rule Party then backed Britain’s war effort urging supporters to enlist.  

The growing desire for Irish independence was reflected in the 1916 Easter Rising which declared an Irish Republic. Although it failed and its supporters were brutally suppressed, it set in train a series of events, powered by British repression that saw Republicanism gain majority support across most of Ireland. The War of Independence with the British raged from 1919-21. Realising it could not defeat the Irish the British government agreed to negotiate but the price would be partition. A majority of the republican leadership accepted that and Ireland was divided. This led to a further civil war between those who accepted and rejected the treaty from 1922 –23.  

The Irish Socialist, James Connolly (shot for his leadership role in the Easter Rising), had warned partition would lead to a ‘carnival of reaction both North and South.’ Two sectarian states were created, mirroring each other. 

In what would become the Irish Republic, the Catholic Church policed governments and controlled much of education, welfare and health care. The country remained an economic backwater with high levels of unemployment and emigration. 

Northern Ireland was created on the basis of a crude sectarian headcount. In May 1920, Unionist leader Edward Carson in the House of Commons accepted that the partitioned area would be six counties, not all nine of the Ulster counties. He said:  

‘We should like to have the very largest area possible, naturally. That is a system of land grabbing that prevails in all countries for widening the jurisdiction of the various governments that are set up; but there is no use in undertaking a government which we know would be a failure if we were saddled with these three counties.’  

One reason Britain wanted to hold onto the North East of Ireland was because of the wealth of its industry, but even as partition was enacted the British ruling class was facing the commencement of long and irreversible weakening of Empire and the decline of its old staple industries, such as those of Belfast. Economic stagnation in the new state followed leading to uncertainty. 

July 1920 saw the commencement of a full-scale pogrom in Belfast when sectarian Unionist mobs, including armed Ulster Volunteer Force members, drove some 10,000 workers from their jobs either because they were Catholics, or because they were Protestant trade unionists. Hundreds of Catholics were driven from their homes and businesses. Between July 1920 and July 1922 nearly 500 people were killed in Belfast. Nearly two-thirds of the dead were Catholics, though they made up under one-third of the population. In November 1920 the UVF enrolled en masse into the armed Ulster Special Constabulary, the B Specials. By 1922 there were 19,000 B Specials, part-time and paid. There were also 16,000 A Specials, fulltime, and C Specials, part-time and unpaid. 

The first prime minister of Northern Ireland, James Craig, told the Belfast Parliament in 1922: 

‘Owing to our system of A, B and C Constabulary, there is no reason why every loyalist in Ulster should not have arms in his hands legally.’ 

This new state was far more sectarian than its southern counterpart.  Discrimination against Catholics was encouraged by Unionist government ministers in what was effectively a one-party state. Each 12 July they would march in the annual Orange Order parade – commemorating Protestant victory at the Battle of the Boyne. Repression was a constant reality: internment without trial was implemented for Republicans in each decade of Unionist rule. 

The Great Depression of the 1930s hit Northern Ireland hard, Protestants as well as Catholics. Some workers from both sides united in an attempt to fight back, culminating in the successful 1932 Outdoor Relief riots. The Unionist response was to deliberately ramp up repression. In 1933 a future Unionist prime minister, Sir Basil Brooke, told an appreciative Orange Order audience in 1933 that 

‘. . . he had not a Roman Catholic about his own place (cheers). He appreciated the great difficulty experienced by some . . . in procuring suitable Protestant labour, but he would point out that the Roman Catholics were . . . out with all their force and might to destroy the power and constitution of Ulster.’ 

The following year the prime minister, Sir James Craig, boasted, ‘I am an Orangeman first and a politician afterwards . . . All I boast is that we are a Protestant parliament and Protestant state’. 

This fanning of sectarianism meant that in 1935 the annual Orange Order parade through Belfast was followed by attacks on Catholic homes. Over the next week, 2,000 people, mainly Catholics, were forced from their homes, Catholics were driven out of workplaces and Loyalist gunmen targeted Catholics. 

By the late 1960s, the US Civil Rights Movement inspired a similar campaign in Northern Ireland where Unionist businessmen were giving extra votes in local elections and in the city of Derry, with a majority Catholic population, council boundaries were gerrymandered to produce a Unionist run council. Catholics faced everyday discrimination in areas such as jobs and housing.  

On October 1968 a civil rights march in Derry was batoned off the streets by the RUC. The state had responded the only way it knew how with violence. 

Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, then a young left wing People’s Democracy activist, who became MP for Mid-Ulster, recalled the RUC’s deployment of a water cannon: 

‘Quite deliberately, they hosed in the upstairs windows and shopfronts, and they went right across Craigavon Bridge, hosing all the onlookers. The police just went mad.’ 

In 1981 Micky Devine would be the last of ten hunger strikers to die in pursuit of Republican prisoners’ campaign to be recognised by the British state as political prisoners. He recalled: 

‘Like every young person in Derry, my whole way of thinking was tossed upside down by the events of 5 October 1968. I didn’t even know there was a civil rights march; I saw it on television. 

‘But that night I was down the town smashing shop windows and stoning the RUC. I developed an intense hatred of the RUC. As a child I had always known not to talk to them or to have anything to do with them, but this was different. 

‘Within a month, everyone was a political activist. I had never had a political thought in my life but now we talked of nothing else. I was by no means politically aware but the speed of events gave me a quick education.’ 

Unionist rule was ended by the British in March 1972, because the Unionists could no longer be depended upon to police Northern Ireland. Deadlock, in which neither the IRA nor the British army could defeat the other, was the result until the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. But while peace must be welcomed and maintained it is important to recognise that the Northern Ireland state still rests on a sectarian divide. Its end requires the end of partition and the creation of a united Irish working class. 

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

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