“You can read English history and still know nothing about Irish history but you can’t read Irish history and not learn something about English history.” An extract from a new self-published book, by Eddie Mulligan.
Who would have thought that more than twenty years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) that brought the bloody, thirty-year conflict to an end in the north of Ireland that there would still be sectarian riots on the streets of Belfast? That there would be twenty miles of ‘Peace Walls’ dividing the Protestant and Catholic populations of the city? That half of those eighteen feet high barriers would be built since that agreement was signed in 1998?
In 1994, after years of armed conflict, the IRA called a cease fire and a peace process began. It was fraught with difficulty from the beginning but eventually multiparty talks involving representatives of Ireland, various political parties of Northern Ireland, and the British government, began in earnest in June 1996. These eventually culminated in the signing of an agreement between all parties in Belfast on April 10, 1998 (that year’s Good Friday). The agreement called for the establishment of three “strands” of administrative relationships. The first strand provided for the creation of an elected Northern Ireland Assembly, which would be responsible for most local matters. The second was an institutional arrangement for cross-border cooperation on a range of issues between the governments of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The third called for continued consultation between the British and Irish governments. In a jointly held referendum in Ireland and Northern Ireland on May 22, 1998, the first all-Ireland vote since 1918, the agreement was approved by 94 percent of voters in Ireland and 71 percent in Northern Ireland. However, the wide disparity between Catholic and Protestant support in Northern Ireland (96 percent of Catholics voted in favour of the agreement, but only 52 percent of Protestants did) indicated that efforts to resolve the sectarian conflict would be difficult.
As the centenary of its foundation approaches, the state of Northern Ireland has once again plunged into crisis. What began as small-scale protests concentrated in working-class unionist areas escalated into rioting, the result of what many believed to be a calculated move by elements within loyalism to up the ante and provoke sectarian rioting. The familiar scenes captured by TV cameras, were of small numbers of young people throwing stones, petrol bombs, and hijacking and burning cars and buses.
The disorder has been attributed to two sources of political discontent. Unionist and loyalist leaders have blamed widespread frustration at the decision not to prosecute Sinn Fein members for attending the funeral of prominent republican, Bobby Storey last June when Covid restrictions were still in place. Such was her apparent fury at this decision Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Arlene Foster called for the resignation of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) chief constable, despite the fact that the decision was made by the Public Prosecution Service against the PSNI’s advice.
Opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol has been cited as the other main factor, with the customs border down the Irish Sea seen as a threat to the north’s constitutional position within the UK. While these issues form part of the unfolding political context in which the protests and violence have place, the situation does not easily lend itself to such superficial or self-serving accounts. The main impetus for recent events has flowed from the DUP’s efforts to cover up its own failures and recover lost ground.
Having once looked likely to continue enhancing its position as the dominant unionist political force, the DUP has suffered a number of self-inflicted wounds that have left it in a much-weakened position. Significant in this regard is the party’s implication in successive scandals and its sustained resistance to popular reforms. The DUP’s disastrous miscalculation over Brexit has been a significant factor, serving to alienate a younger, more liberal and pro-EU constituency within unionism while simultaneously amplifying the voices of hardliners now crying “betrayal”.
With an assembly election scheduled for next year, 2022, recent polling indicates that the DUP’s vote is set to drop from 28 per cent in 2017 to 19 per cent, just 1 point ahead of the centrist Alliance Party. This would follow the pattern established at the last Westminster election, when the DUP lost two of its 10 seats to Remain candidates and a huge number of votes to Alliance. The same poll also puts the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), a hard-line offshoot of the DUP, on an unprecedented 10 per cent. This fracturing of unionism would not only mean significant losses for the DUP but the likely emergence of Sinn Fein as the north’s biggest party and its deputy leader Michelle O’Neill as first minister.
Faced with this unthinkable prospect, and lacking anything resembling a coherent strategy, Foster and her allies turned to the age-old tactic of whipping up sectarian tensions to consolidate their position, using the Storey funeral and Northern Ireland Protocol for these ends. Until recently, Foster had been resigned to accepting the protocol, even extolling its potential economic benefits to the north. All of this changed when the scale of the DUP’s political troubles became apparent. This is part of a familiar cycle whereby unionist politicians incite violence in working-class areas and then issue words of condemnation from the comfort of their own suburban homes.
The working-class unionist communities affected by recent disturbances continue to be impacted by the loss of traditional employment opportunities, a devastating legacy of educational under attainment and the feeling of not having benefitted materially from the peace process. They are also marked by low levels of political participation and a feeling of abandonment by the political class that claims to represent them.
It’s not only that the class interests of loyalist communities aren’t being represented by the DUP. The underlying demographic, social and political changes, for the first time in the history of the state, have left political unionism a minority in Westminster, the northern assembly and Belfast City Council, which was once the bastion of unionist ascendancy
There is some confusion about what ‘Northern Ireland’ is exactly? Is a country or a province? It is constantly referred to as one of the nations that make up the United Kingdom of Great Britain. It has an international football team but that team plays under the British national anthem. It has had its own devolved government, the Northern Ireland Assembly since 1998. The Assembly has only limited powers and did not meet for three years after it collapsed in 2017 due to a dispute between the two main parties over the implementation of the agreement that set it up.
In 1921, Ireland was divided into two parts by the British government. Northern Ireland was created by taking six counties of the province of Ulster and forming a devolved government that would remain within the British empire. Later that year the British signed a peace deal with the republicans they had been at war with to create the Free State. It would still be tied to Britain and have a form of colonial status. A hard border was created, with armed police and British soldiers manning check points on all main roads connecting the two areas. It was impossible to police and smuggling was rife.
My family and approximately 400,000 other Catholics were coerced into the new northern state with approximately 850,000 Protestants. The first Prime Minister, James Craig declared: ‘All I boast of is that we are a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant State’. He also boasted that he was an ‘Orangeman first and a politician and member of this parliament afterwards’. He also encouraged Protestant employers to only take on ‘Protestant lads and lasses’ and said: ‘I personally don’t have a Catholic about the place’. So, from the very beginning the Protestant state was not interested in looking after the Catholic population.
I was born and spent my childhood and youth within sight of the beautiful Mourne mountains in County Down. My family were poor Catholics but I have happy memories of those times although there was a tension in the air. From an early age I knew who the enemy was, the Unionist administration in a Protestant State for a Protestant people, the paramilitary police force known as the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and of course, the British government. The Orange Order had a hall in the village where they met regularly and every year they would let us know who was top dog, with their marching bands, Orange sashes and raucous Lambeg drums.
The Protestant state determined every aspect of our daily lives. Everything was shut down on Sundays for example. It was the Sabbath and we were all supposed to stay home and read the bible. When I was about ten years old, my parents took me and my younger brother to visit relatives in Belfast. They lived on the Ravenshill road opposite a large park. It was a Sunday afternoon and bored by the adult conversation, we decided to go out to play. However, when we got to the park gates we found to our confusion and disappointment, that they had large chains and a padlock on them. You were not allowed to enjoy yourself on Sunday. Of course, Catholic/nationalists played Gaelic games on Sundays and made their own enjoyment despite all shops and public houses being closed.
That was the nature of the Northern Ireland that I was born into. A place that was created with an artificial Protestant/unionist majority. Where the electoral system was rigged to maintain Protestant/unionist rule. All state schools were Protestant only and so the Catholic church set up its own schools and so from day one, schools were segregated according to religion.
Even up to the present day, over ninety percent of schools in the six counties remain segregated. In addition to the armed RUC, there was an ‘Orange’ militia, the ’B’ specials armed with rifles and sten guns. I was stopped by these men when riding my bicycle along the road as a child. They asked me my name, where I was going to and coming from. As well as all this, there was also a garrison of British army troops stationed there from the formation of the state.
In the 1950’s and 60’s, unemployment was extremely high across the province. In some places it was almost forty percent. Most of the jobs were in shirt and carpet factories that employed mostly women. Generations of men never worked, they raised the kids and kept house while their wives went out to work. Poverty and discrimination were rife and most young people left for foreign parts as soon as they were able.
Like many others before me, I took the boat for England in 1966 just before the trouble started. I began work as a nurse in the NHS and only ever went back home for holidays. I was always astonished at the lack of knowledge of many British people about Ireland. I discovered that most people in Britain had no idea about Irish geography or politics, they would ask me where I was from and when I said County Down, they would say “Is that north or south”? People would ask me what was going on ‘over there’ and when I tried to explain it to them, they would get upset. I was also puzzled when they would say, “two things you shouldn’t talk about in pubs, are politics and religion”. Where else does the working man and woman gather to discuss those things? They were in fact self-censoring, agreeing to never talk about them at all, hence the level of ignorance.
This book is an attempt to give the general reader a picture of the history of Ireland and Britain that has led us to the current position and hopefully makes the argument that Britain has no right to remain in any part of Ireland.
The tactics Britain used to keep control over Ireland were always unacceptable. The running of death squads during the 1970’s is now well established and in the modern world the Irish people have the right to have the country reunited and take its rightful place among the nations of the world.
* Ireland: A Case For Reunification’ is available from https://www.eddie-mulligan.com