Ireland’s open wounds

A century after partition, the island can't escape its history

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May 10, 2021

On the morning of 15 November 1985, a small group of Irish journalists was taken to Dublin Airport and from there, on a short flight, to Belfast City Airport. We did not know where our final destination was, but it turned out to be Hillsborough Castle in Co. Down, the residence of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

The weather was reasonable; we walked in the lovely gardens, to find there were Unionists outside the gate carrying placards denouncing what was about to occur. The Royal Ulster Constabulary and the British Army were protecting us from them. Among the protestors was Dowager Lady Brookeborough, the widow of Lord Brookeborough, who had been Prime Minister of Northern Ireland from 1943 to 1963.

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In 1933, addressing an Orange rally, Lord Brookeborough had famously declared: “Many in this audience employ Catholics, but I have not one about my place. Catholics are out to destroy Ulster … If we in Ulster allow Roman Catholics to work on our farms we are traitors to Ulster … I would appeal to loyalists, therefore, wherever possible, to employ good Protestant lads and lassies.”

Now, the man’s widow was outside protesting. It struck me that maybe something serious was about to transpire. Soon, we learned that the Dublin government was to have an advisory role in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland. It seemed like the first step in a longer process that would lead to the further integration of the two parts of the island. The Agreement was signed by Margaret Thatcher and Garret FitzGerald, the Irish prime minister.

After a first round of comments by the political leaders, the journalists were handed the agreement and given a short time to read it before Thatcher and FitzGerald would return. As Thatcher passed my row, she turned her fierce attention on me and the pressman beside me, a well-known radical. She looked at us as though she knew we were trouble. She was very, very intimidating.

Up to then, it was generally acknowledged that Ulster Unionists would resist to the death any move to let Southern Ireland be involved in their affairs. They had made this clear in April 1914 when the Ulster Volunteer Force had imported 25,000 rifles into Northern Ireland, thus to strengthen them against the possibility of Home Rule. After the First World War, they had emphasized that they would never accept the inclusion of Ulster in an independent Ireland. At first, they wanted only the four most Protestant counties included in a separate state, while others wanted all nine counties of Ulster, including their sizeable Catholic population. The state of six counties that became Northern Ireland was a compromise.

In 1973, the Unionists successfully opposed the Sunningdale Agreement to establish a power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland by calling a general strike, forcing the British to cave in and abandon the agreement. Thatcher, despite private misgivings, made clear that she intended to stand over the Anglo-Irish Agreement. There was a massive protest in Belfast; 400,000 Unionists signed a petition against the Agreement. James Molyneaux, Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, spoke of “universal cold fury” towards it; Ian Paisley said that Thatcher was “Jezebel who sought to destroy Israel in a day.”

As Thatcher stood her ground, it occurred to me how different Ireland would have been had earlier prime ministers — Gladstone, Balfour, Lloyd George, Bonar Law, Harold Wilson — been as clear-eyed and determined.

In other words, what would Ireland be like if the British government had decided in 1921 and 1922, or indeed before, that Home Rule would be granted to all of the island of Ireland, and that the country would not be partitioned?

In the short term, this decision would have been disastrous. The sectarian attacks against Catholics that happened in Belfast in 1921 would likely have been more ferocious. The reaction of the British government to these attacks and to Unionist militarisation would have been crucial. Also crucial would have been the type of electoral system to be used in the new Ireland. In the Republic of Ireland multi-seat constituencies and proportional representation are used. In a five-seat constituency, for example, you vote for candidates in order of preference. This means that the fifth seat, or even the fourth, can often go to a small party or an independent candidate. Parliament can thus be made up of many shades of opinion.

On the presumption that, even though there would have been no civil war, two main parties would still have emerged in the South, then it is probable that the Unionists would have controlled the balance of power in Dublin. It is also probable that Unionists and Nationalists in Northern Ireland would, on local issues, have joined forces in Dublin. And Unionist politicians would have had the chance to become government ministers in an independent Ireland.

What we need to imagine is Lord Brookeborough as Foreign Minister or Minister for Defence with Michael Collins, who was in fact assassinated in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, as Prime Minister, and Éamon de Valera, who was Prime Minister for most of the time between 1932 and 1959 and President thereafter until 1973, as Minister for Finance. This is strange, but not as strange as what eventually happened — Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness chuckling together as First Minister and Deputy First Minister.

The power of the Catholic church in southern Ireland would have been diminished by a united Ireland in some ways, but not in others. On certain sexual matters — such as homosexuality and abortion — the Unionists and the Southerners would have been equally conservative. But they would have divided on the right to divorce. They both would have wanted separate schools for Protestants and Catholics. But the Unionists would not have tolerated church involvement in government on a day-to-day basis. It would simply have been anathema to them.

Also, because Belfast was a more commercial and industrialised city than Dublin, it would provide a bigger and more diverse gene pool to sit on boards and work in semi-state companies. One of the problems the Republic of Ireland has had is the density of political space. People in the circles of power often know each other too well. It makes for coziness and laziness and lack of accountability.

But the Unionists would have brought something else to Dublin that Dublin needed. Their speech tends to be direct; they don’t prevaricate. They also are viscerally opposed to arbitrary authority and have a fundamental belief in parliament and in law and in the idea of an autonomous conscience.

It is likely, then, that they would have been appalled at the prospect of the Catholic church running orphanages and homes for unmarried mothers without any serious regulation.

The first real division between Unionist and Nationalist would have occurred in 1939. The Unionists would have wanted to join Britain in the war. Seventeen years of sharing power in Dublin would not have lessened their passionate connection to the Crown and the Empire. While more than 40,000 citizens of a neutral Éire actually enlisted in the British Army, there would still have been serious opposition to declaring war. But while Éire was officially neutral, it tended to be neutral on the side of the Allies. If a British airman came down over Southern Ireland, for example, he was immediately repatriated, by being sent over the border. If a German airman came down, on the other hand, he was interned for the duration of the war.

It is not impossible that Ireland might have actually joined the Allies, especially after the Americans became involved. In that case, Dublin would have been bombed, and the limited infrastructure of the country badly undermined. In the aftermath of the war, had Ireland been involved, the country would have been reconstructed with Marshall Plan money.

After the war, almost everything that happened in Ireland North and South would have been different in a United Ireland. For example, in 1948, the Irish Free State was declared to be the Republic of Ireland. With Unionists in Dublin, it is unlikely that this could have been so easily done, and more probable that Ireland would have remained within the Commonwealth.

Another example is education. Northern Ireland benefitted from the Education Act of 1944 which gave students free secondary education. This did not happen in the Republic of Ireland until 1967. In a United Ireland, with much of the energy of the Labour Movement in the North subsumed into sectarian differences, it is hard to imagine any great urge to create a free and modern health service or equality in education. It is also unlikely that an NHS would have been set up in a United Ireland until much later than in Britain.

Just as the late Sixties saw a new crop of politicians on the nationalist side in the North — figures such as John Hume, Eamonn McCann, Bernadette Devlin, Austin Currie — it is possible that the lure of high office would have attracted a similar set of politicians on the Unionist side. That does not mean Ian Paisley and his supporters would not have been powerful. But their voices in the Irish parliament would merely have been among many from Northern Ireland.

The big question as we imagine a United Ireland over the past 50 years is what would have happened to the men and women who, in the real world, became IRA volunteers or Sinn Fein leaders. I like to think that they would have directed their energy and sense of grievance not against Britain — since Britain had deftly stepped aside — but against inequality in Ireland. I like to imagine that they would have joined forces with the Labour Party and the trade union movement in Dublin.

This would have meant that the campaign of murder and terror against Protestants by the IRA, especially in the border region, during the Troubles, would not have happened. Also, the British Army would have had no business in Ireland. And there would have been an all-Ireland police force.

In the meantime, the establishment parties would have become good Europeans. Ireland would still have joined the Common Market in 1973. Its leaders would have become skilled at applying for grants. Dublin and Belfast by now would be connected with a fast train system and a good motorway. This corridor between the two cities, taking in Drogheda, Dundalk, Newry and Portadown, would have become a powerhouse of innovation. South Armagh would be a sought-after site for new industry. The area would have attracted intense foreign investment in the very years when, in the sad real world, the northern side was tearing itself apart. Ireland would be a different country.

Dreaming about this is just a game or a futile exercise. Trying to imagine an Ireland that was at peace with itself after 100 years of slow political integration allows us to see that partition itself was probably a great mistake. But looking at the problem through the lens of the Troubles allows us also to realise that attempting to dismantle partition after 100 years would not be simple and would come with considerable risks. In 100 years’ time, our descendants will know what we should have done.