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A hundred years of trouble: How an outburst of violence exposed Northern Ireland as a failed state

On the 100th anniversary of the state they helped create, Ulster unionists are in thrall to a sense of doom. Will the constitutional experiment soon be over? 

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The scenes of the recent violence in Belfast were like a rerun of images from the darkest days of the Troubles. A sense of inflammatory discord hung in the air as the police came under sustained attack, youths hurled petrol bombs and a double-decker bus was set alight. The escalating mood of conflict, given a bitterly ironic twist by occurring along the so-called peace lines in the city that separate Catholic and Protestant communities, was only compounded by ineffectual appeals for calm from politicians.

This was the kind of turmoil that the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was supposed to end, yet the divisions within much of Northern Ireland remain as wide as ever. At the heart of the present crisis is said to be a feeling of betrayal among hard-line unionists over two issues. One is the alleged political bias of the police, highlighted in the refusal to take action against senior republican leaders who in June 2020 attended the funeral of the former IRA operative Bobby Storey, in breach of Covid regulations. The other is anger at the government’s Brexit trade deal with the EU, which, in clear contravention of promises made by Boris Johnson, establishes a customs border in the Irish Sea, leaving Northern Ireland – at least in unionist eyes – semi detached from the United Kingdom. Amid growing disillusion at the impact of Brexit, the Loyalist Communities Council – an umbrella body for paramilitary groups such as the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Red Hand Commandos – announced last month that it had withdrawn its support for the Good Friday Agreement, while loyalist gangs have reportedly been encouraging anarchy among disaffected Protestant youths.

But to heap all the blame on recent, specific events is too superficial, for the roots of discontent run far deeper. The reality is that Northern Ireland has always been a failed state, riven by an unbridgeable chasm between two opposing traditions. The Good Friday Agreement put a dressing on the wounds of sectarianism but it did not heal them. It is fashionable in some British political circles to speak of “our precious Union”, but there is nothing precious about Northern Ireland’s membership of the UK. On the contrary, it has been a recipe for lethal strife and lavish subsidy. Margaret Thatcher once proclaimed that Northern Ireland is “as British as Finchley” – the north London suburb home to her parliamentary constituency – but it was a fatuous remark, since, unlike Ulster, more than 40 per cent of Finchley’s population does not feel allegiance to another country.

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The Brexit deal and republican defiance are just symptoms of the weakening bonds of union. This month’s violence is a spasm of rage against the tide of history, which is flowing towards Irish unity, partly because of demographic change in favour of Catholics, partly because of the chronic failures of Northern Irish governance. An opinion poll conducted by the Conservative peer Michael Ashcroft in September 2019 even showed a narrow majority for Irish unification. The unionists know that most British people and politicians have no sentimental attachment to the link and would happily break it tomorrow. “Get me a large Scotch. What a bloody awful country,” said the Tory home secretary Reginald Maudling after a visit to Ulster at the start of the Troubles in 1970. Many at Westminster feel the same way today.

[see also: Stormont faces a near-impossible task in quelling tensions in Northern Ireland]

That is why the unionists are so gripped by febrile insecurity. The fear that they will be sold out is at the core of their soul, epitomised by their slogans such as “no surrender”. As someone who grew up in Northern Ireland at the peak of the Troubles, I saw this siege mentality all the time, even in my own family. In the early 1970s my grandfather, a respectable businessman and former leader of a unionist borough council, voiced support for the controversial Ulster Vanguard movement, which mounted vast rallies in its uncompromising defence of the Union. “We are prepared to come out and shoot and kill,” declared its leader William Craig. The same fundamentalism could be found among some of the pupils of my school in the west of Ulster, who joined Ian Paisley’s sinister “Third Force”, a loyalist defence militia, in the early 1980s.

But the real tragedy of Irish modern history is not that successive London governments have indulged in treachery against Ulster, but that they have never properly stood up to Ulster unionism. If Britain had rejected partition in the early 20th century, then much of the subsequent friction and bloodshed could have been avoided. The creation of the statelet of Northern Ireland was a calamitous error that placed a powder keg in the middle of the British Isles.

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Next month marks Northern Ireland’s centenary. It came into existence in May 1921 as a result of the 1920 Government of Ireland Act that established devolved administrations in Belfast and Dublin. The republican movement, waging a ferocious guerrilla war at the time for full Irish independence, rejected the act, but the Ulster unionists welcomed it as a means of maintaining British rule. The birth pangs of the Stormont regime could not have been more brutal, setting the tone for the violence that has continued to this day. In the atmosphere of insurrection that engulfed the whole of Ireland, Ulster saw vicious fighting and bigotry, most of it targeted at Catholics. Between July 1920 and July 1922, 557 people died, 54 per cent of them Catholics, though they made up only 35 per cent of Northern Ireland’s population. In Belfast alone, 11,000 Catholics were kicked out of their jobs because of their religion. The state-sponsored aggression was fuelled by the Special Constabulary, an overwhelmingly Protestant auxiliary police force created by the new prime minister James Craig, a diehard Orangeman. Of the anti-Catholic campaign, the Manchester Guardian reported, “On these unfortunate beings, the fury of the Orange Specials and Orange mobs falls daily and nightly.”

The turbulent creation of Northern Ireland was the culmination of a disastrous British strategy towards Ireland dating from the late Victorian age. London had the chance to grant Home Rule on three occasions before the First World War, but each attempt failed because of blinkered opposition from defenders of the Union, despite overwhelming support in Ireland for parliamentary autonomy. The first, by William Gladstone in 1886, was broken by a rebellion in his own party when the Liberal Unionists joined forces with the Tories to defeat the measure. The second Home Rule Bill, also by Gladstone, was passed by the Commons in 1893, only to be thrown out by the House of Lords, dominated by the Conservatives and Liberal Unionists. Almost 20 years later, a third try by Herbert Asquith’s Liberal government in 1912 led the Tories to plumb new depths of recklessness, as the Irish unionist cause was galvanised by its charismatic leader Edward Carson, a compelling, brooding orator and brilliant Dublin lawyer who in 1895 had destroyed Oscar Wilde in the witness box.

Even when the Ulster unionists plotted armed resistance by importing 25,000 rifles and three million rounds of ammunition from Germany, the Conservatives still lent them their backing. It was a stance of far-reaching folly. Home Rule might have kept Ireland within the empire, but its rejection inevitably drove Irish nationalism to the extremes of republicanism, a development that in turn fed unionist intransigence.

Desperate to end the draining struggle in Ireland after the First World War, Lloyd George’s government seized on the idea of partition, but that only stored up Troubles for the future. From the beginning the very concept was flawed, lacking democratic legitimacy and political coherence. Although it was the creature of Ulster unionism, the statelet did not embrace all the nine historic counties of Ulster because three of them – Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan – had large Catholic majorities. Even of the remaining six counties, two – Tyrone and Fermanagh – should have been allowed to join the new Irish Free State since they had Catholic majorities, while only 45 per cent of the population of Derry, Northern Ireland’s second city, was Protestant. But the Ulster unionists, led by Craig, felt that a four-county statelet would not be viable, and despite the obvious injustices, London feebly accepted.

Even against this unpromising backdrop, Northern Ireland might have worked if its government had been open, tolerant and pluralistic. “From the outset let us see that the Catholic minority have nothing to fear from the Protestant majority,” said Carson, who declined the job of prime minister. But the man who took the post, James Craig, led Northern Ireland in the opposite direction, turning the statelet into a gerrymandered citadel of institutional prejudice. Stormont, he notoriously said, was “a Protestant parliament and a Protestant state”.

His successor, Basil Brooke, boasted in the 1930s that he would never employ a Catholic “about his own place”. He reinforced the point with his claim that Catholics were “out with all their force and might to destroy the power and constitution of Ulster”. That view was in line with mainstream unionist opinion. When Terence O’Neill tried to adopt a more liberal, generous approach in the late 1960s, he was thrown out of the Ulster Unionist Party as Northern Ireland fell into blood-soaked strife, stoked by Catholic resentment at the lack of basic civil rights.

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More than 50 years later, Northern Ireland remains trapped in a vortex of hostilities. That is why the commemorations for the centenary are so muted, with the Northern Ireland assembly refusing to spend anything on them and even the profligate Tory government devoting just £1m to a series of low-key events, including a concert and a business conference. In a truly Orwellian statement, Northern Ireland’s Secretary of State Brandon Lewis said that through the centenary, “the people of Northern Ireland can build on their spirit of togetherness and their enormous achievements over past decades”.

The continuing unrest in Belfast makes a mockery of those words. On the 100th anniversary of the divided state they created, the Ulster unionists, far from celebrating, are in thrall to a sense of doom. Indeed, the end could come quickly if the British government feels compelled to hold a referendum on Irish reunification. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement explicitly provides for a border poll if “it appears likely that the majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom”. Judging by the latest opinion surveys and the self-confidence of nationalists and republicans, we are very close to that point. The failed constitutional experiment may soon be over – and self-destructive unionists will have contributed enormously to its demise. 

[see also: Why the riots in Northern Ireland are about more than just Brexit]

This article appears in the 14 April 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Careless people