2020s >> 2021 >> no-1403-july-2021

A hundred years of Northern Ireland

A country, whose prospects and longevity many people must have doubted at the time of its inception, is set to have its one hundredth anniversary commemorated this year. Northern Ireland is preparing to celebrate its centenary in summer 2021 and by extension, the current version of the British state (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) will also mark 100 years of formal existence. For most countries, plans for such events are generally non-controversial and can engender a range of emotions varying from enthusiasm to indifference in the citizenry depending on how patriotic people feel and the level of identification they have with ‘their’ country. This is not the case for Northern Ireland and the ‘celebrations’ are likely to be quite muted. Indeed, for one of the governing parties in Belfast, Sinn Fein, its core, defining objective is the permanent elimination of the state.

Something else that is noteworthy is that in the other three nations that make up the UK, there appears very little awareness or interest in the significance of this coming event with the news agenda and public concerns dominated by COVID and the practical implications of Brexit. Furthermore, the centenary of Northern Ireland must logically mark a centenary for the state existing south of the border but no parallel or corresponding ceremony of any kind is at the moment planned for the Republic of Ireland. The peculiar position of Northern Ireland makes this an issue of interest to socialists. For most countries, there is a tacit acceptance of the legitimacy of the state amongst the population even if for purely pragmatic reasons. Because of the pervading national consciousness, there usually is a consensus of support for these commemorations even if many individuals are not actively involved. Given socialists’ antipathy to all nationalist ideologies, the reasons behind the ambiguous attitude to the usual bout of flag-waving and anthem-bellowing that usually accompanies such events is worth exploring.

Loyalists demonstrate against the Northern Ireland Protocol implemented following Brexit (PAUL FAITH / AFP)

The invention of the state of Northern Ireland, while not a temporary measure per se, was never really intended to result in a permanent new entity. It was set up as a matter of political expediency, as the only solution to the irreconcilable demands of Irish Nationalists and Unionists on the island of Ireland. For the British government of the time, it seemed the only workable outcome to what had been an intractable problem even though its arbitrariness and shortcomings were always evident. The border was never envisaged to be a full international frontier between two sovereign nations but an internal line demarcating two clashing ethnic groups living in a part of the United Kingdom. Its creation had all the hallmarks of a desperate government grasping at any solution to remove, even in the short term, an exasperating irritant.


The origins and validity of the state of Northern Ireland have been long studied and debated. In the early years of the seventeenth century, during the reign of James I, the organised and large-scale colonisation of a part of the island of Ireland, the northern province of Ulster, by people from northern England and southern Scotland was initiated. By the end of that century, the majority of the people in the province were British settlers and their descendants; Protestant in religion compared to the native or indigenous Irish who were invariably Catholic. However, and a point that would achieve great significance subsequently, the colonists were not uniformly distributed across the nine counties that would constitute the province but tended to be concentrated in the six more north-easterly counties. So as a result of this mass immigration, from the eighteenth century onwards, Ulster began to diverge significantly from the rest of Ireland in terms of economy and society. For a start, the province became much more prosperous than the rest of the country. It was regarded as being more dynamic and innovative than the South and a seedbed for new technologies, new industries, radical political ideas, and more modern social conventions. In some respects, it occupied a position in Ireland that California is reputed to have in the United States, being the part of the country that leads the way in adopting future trends. Indeed, during the nineteenth century, the local city of Belfast had overtaken the traditional Irish capital of Dublin in population and economic importance.

Because the whole island was governed from London (and became constitutionally united with Britain in 1801 to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland), the divergence between the two parts of the country was initially not a troubling issue for the government in London. However, as the nineteenth century progressed, a growing sense of Irish nationalism began to develop amongst the Catholic population who predominated in most of the southern part of the island. This led to a demand from them for the political separation of Ireland and Britain and the creation of an independent, all-island nation. This was resisted by the local Protestant majority in Ulster who believed their prosperity was vitally linked to remaining within the UK. After a considerable period of political turmoil, that had started in the mid to late nineteenth century, the solution finally adopted by the London government in 1921 was the formation of two regimes on the island of Ireland. The southern state, initially organised as a dominion state in the British Empire, would eventually become the fully independent Republic of Ireland; and the northern state was a devolved administration, with its own Parliament and government in Stormont, but subsidiary to Westminster and remaining within the UK.

The delineation of the border between the two states was a matter of much political passion at the time and fundamentally settled by sectarian considerations. Northern Ireland would consist of those six counties of the nine-county province of Ulster that would ensure a secure Unionist (at the time regarded as being synonymous with Protestant) voting majority and with a large enough land mass to be sustainable and not just to become a small British enclave on the island of Ireland. This meant the borders of the state were defined not by any geographical or historical landmarks but by the religious allegiances of the people. It resulted in a northern state with a two-thirds Protestant population, who generally welcomed its creation and sincerely believed it guaranteed their very continued existence, while simultaneously containing a one third, Nationalist and Catholic minority, some of whom bitterly resented the imposed new arrangement and yearned to be reunited with their southern co-religionists.

For the first fifty years of its existence, Northern Ireland could be regarded as performing quite satisfactorily although having to weather occasional periods of Republican violence against the state from elements of the discontented Nationalist minority. Whilst being fully democratic in terms of contemporary liberal European norms, (regular elections, a free press, independent judiciary, etc.) it had an authoritarian, majoritarian flavour in its conduct towards the minority Catholic population. Its leaders and senior government ministers tended to be drawn from the wealthy, large land-owning, Ascendancy class, many with some military background and intimately connected to the leading members of the Tory party in London at the time. Its single greatest achievement and ‘selling point’ was that it considerably outperformed the South in economic terms and thus ensured a better standard of living for all its citizens, though Catholics were always relatively disadvantaged. Its improved prosperity was partly due to its own local efforts, the significant amount of funding it received from the British Exchequer and the idiosyncratic and inept economic performance of the South under the leadership of its anachronistic leader, De Valera. This superior performance was important to the Stormont regime who always recognised the implicit economic rivalry it had with Dublin and realised that its continued secure existence was in part predicated on exceeding its southern neighbour. In fact, both North and South had a superficially antagonistic but mutually beneficial co-existence. In public propaganda, both justified the need for their survival by reference to the religious intolerance and bigotry that they claimed was prevalent in the other jurisdiction while absent in their own. However, the Republic had one trump card in that game of bogus moral high ground of tolerance; while Northern Ireland had a significant and growing Catholic minority who remained a distinct entity, the Protestant population of the Republic was always much smaller and declined so rapidly after 1921 that its remaining residual elements had no choice but to accept assimilation in the state.

While the Unionist leaders in Stormont were aware of the growing challenges posed by the Civil Rights movement that had begun in the mid-1960s, there seemed a certain complacency present regarding the future of the northern state. Coming up to its fiftieth anniversary, preparations were made to mark the event which was to be known as Ulster ’71. It was planned by then local Prime Minister Terence O’Neill before he resigned in 1969. Like all such ceremonies, its aim was to demonstrate ‘progress’ and to establish the forward-thrusting modernity of the state to the citizens. Also, it had the long-standing aim for Northern Ireland to showcase itself to Great Britain, to remind the mainland that it was still there and was a useful and important component of the whole nation. Notwithstanding its achievements, some Unionists tended to be defensive and insecure about how Ulster was perceived by the British public and anxious to display their worth to their compatriots in Britain. Looking back there is a poignancy to the events shown in the films that were made of Ulster ’71. While conveying an air of superficial optimism about the future, that year of 1971 really marked the end of Northern Ireland in the form it was originally intended to have. Within 18 months, the Stormont parliament was permanently prorogued, the Government of Northern Ireland ceased to exist and was replaced by direct rule from London. After 1971, there was 25 years of the Troubles followed by another 25 years of an uneasy peace. Today, irrespective of its formal constitutional arrangement as an integral part of the United Kingdom, the province is more linked to its Southern neighbour than at any time in its history. The UK government currently accepts that it is not possible to rule Northern Ireland without the tacit support of Dublin.

Changing demographics

Looking at it now, Northern Ireland has changed considerably since its creation with the decline of its traditional Unionist ruling class and the underpinning social structures of the Unionist-minded population. Demographically it is now very close to 50/50 between Protestants and Catholics and while this distinction is still important, it is not the all-defining criterion of yesteryear. A recent development is the increasing number of people identifying as ‘Northern Irish’ rather than the previous binary choice of British or Irish. Partly as a legacy of the Troubles, it is one of the poorest parts of the United Kingdom and also significantly lags behind the Republic in terms of average income per head. It must be an open question as to whether its continued presence as one of the nations of the UK is deemed essential to the capitalist class, as represented by the British government. Moreover, its future is very dependent on the outcome of Brexit in the years ahead. As part of the final arrangement between the UK and the EU, Northern Ireland remains within the Single Market and this necessitates some checks and barriers to trade between it and the mainland, marking a weakening of the Union to some degree at least. It has the strange feature that British firms are now ‘exporting’ goods to other firms that are meant to be in the same country! In passing it is ironic to note that this Northern Ireland protocol (undoubtedly a contrived political device that Boris Johnson has embraced for a short-term advantage) has been implemented almost 100 years after the creation of the Irish border itself by a previous London government as a similar stop-gap solution.

More immediately, any move towards Scottish independence will mark a major fracture of the UK and have profound implications for the province which has always had a stronger cultural connection to Scotland than to England. A poll on the border is always a possibility and the outcome of such a referendum is difficult to predict because of the volatility of the situation. Politically, Unionism, at least compared to the early years of the twentieth century, is considerably weaker now than it was then but that doesn’t necessarily mean a united Ireland is any closer let alone inevitable.

So what might socialists make of Northern Ireland achieving and marking its centenary? Any anniversary celebration by a state is usually an exercise in promoting the relevance and validity of that state to its citizens and their future and furthering ideas of patriotism. Unlike most countries where (unfortunately) most the workers readily identify with the remembrance of important historical events, Northern Ireland’s history means that is unlikely to happen in the usual sense. Traditionally minded Unionists will naturally be eager to celebrate the event while the staunchly nationalist element of the population will probably ignore it. More profoundly, socialists do not accept the division of the world into countries as the most sensible arrangement for society. Fundamentally countries exist to promote the interests of the local (capitalist) elites. Why and how they are ‘different’ to the countries that adjoin them is in many cases a result of historical events that now have no contemporary resonance or meaning. Northern Ireland has always been denounced as an artificial state by its Nationalist detractors, created solely to ensure a certain political outcome, but all countries are really just artificial constructs. Their populations are the sum of previous waves of migrations that have occurred and the sometimes arbitrary delineation of their frontiers just reflects the outcome of historical military engagements. For socialists, the fact that they still exist and can successfully claim the allegiance of their citizens shows the power of carefully fostered ‘identity’ politics. So, while Northern Ireland has its own peculiarities, its predicament over its centenary reflects much wider issues.

Fostering nationalist ideas and inculcating a faithful consciousness in the population have always been central functions of governments everywhere. But they are aware that such activities must be undertaken with care. Capitalists need nation-states to exist but they also need the freedom to trade profitably with the capitalists of other countries. While governments need a loyal citizenry, excessive and unchecked xenophobia can damage the interests of capitalism in that country by promoting a desire for foreign adventurism. History has proven many times that war is a risky business for those who engage in it. This may explain the curious phenomenon that, with arguably the most nationalistic government in London for over a century, there is such a subdued approach being taken to this centenary event. The Johnson government recognises that post-Brexit, the drawbacks in needlessly antagonising the nationalist segment of Northern Ireland and in turn the Dublin government, can have unpredictable repercussions for trade with Europe.

So Northern Ireland has proved the sceptics wrong and got to the big one-zero-zero. Whether or not it makes it to its 150th anniversary or its bi-centennial or whatever is, in a sense, a matter of indifference to socialists. The same sentiment applies to all other countries. We seek a different world system.


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