We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

The birth of Northern Ireland and a big “if only”


In an ideal world we wouldn’t have states. But we don’t live in an ideal world and so we do have states and the borders that exist between them.

In the run up to the First World War state power was on the rise. For reasons I don’t entirely understand but I suspect are related, nationalist movements were springing up all over the world. Irish nationalism was one of them.

In 1912 the British government, which was dependent on Irish nationalist support began its third attempt to grant Home Rule to Ireland. This would have given Ireland a similar status to the one Scotland enjoys today – autonomy but not independence. Unionists objected.

On 1 January 1913 Edward Carson, the leader of Irish unionism, moved an amendment to exclude Ulster. This can’t have been easy for a man who as MP for Dublin University represented a non-Ulster constituency. It is significant because it marks the moment when Unionists accepted that Home Rule in some form was going to happen. What they were trying to do was to salvage something – as they would have seen it – from the wreckage.

The Times of 2 January 1913 explained the situation:

Ireland is a geographical expression. Statesmen have to deal with things as they are, not with the names of things, if they wish their work to stand. Politically, socially, and economically there are two distinct communities inside the geographical area we call Ireland. These two are not merely different, but sharply opposed in their ways, their ideals, their character, and their material conditions.

This is something that was recently echoed by Ruth Dudley-Edwards:

As a Dubliner from Catholic, nationalist stock (albeit by then an atheist), the biggest problem I faced when I began to cover Northern Ireland as a journalist two decades ago was that I couldn’t understand the thought-processes of most Protestant unionists. It took me a while to grasp that one of the biggest differences between the two tribes is that Catholics are naturally hierarchical, and Protestants aren’t.

John Redmond (leader of the nationalists) thought exclusion was absurd.

The proposal for the exclusion of the four counties of Ulster had some characteristics which enabled men to use more or less plausible arguments in its favour. But, if they were to give Unionist representation to these four counties, why not also give representation to the Nationalist minorities in Belfast?

Frankly I rather wish he’d been taken up on his suggestion. But anyway, the disturbing part is that he didn’t accept Ulster’s exclusion. Why not? Was it really so difficult to accept that there are two nations in Ireland and still are? Was it really so difficult to accept that if the Irish had a right to independence from Britain then the Ulster British had a right to independence from Ireland? Had Redmond accepted it he would have saved us all a lot of trouble. There would have been no Rising in 1916, no martyrs, no IRA campaign and no subsequent myth that the IRA were responsible for Ireland’s independence.

So, why the resistance to Ulster’s exclusion? Money may have been a factor. Then, as now, Ulster was much richer than the rest of the island. Revenge may have been another. This would have been revenge for lands nationalists felt they had lost three hundred years previously, although one dreads to think quite what form this revenge might have taken.

One of the baffling aspects of what was going on was the utter refusal of the British government to take note of the strength of opinion in Ulster. Half a million people signed the Ulster Covenant committing themselves to resisting Home Rule. The following 18 months would see large-scale gun-running, the foundation of an Ulster militia and an army “mutiny”.

Bringing this all up to date a recent poll suggested that only 7% of Northern Ireland’s population want unification with the Republic immediately and only 32% in 20 years’ time. It does rather beg the question why 45% or so vote for explicitly nationalist parties.

By the way I couldn’t help noticing that this historic parliamentary debate took place on New Year’s Day. In 2013, the politicians didn’t turn up until the 7th.

21 comments to The birth of Northern Ireland and a big “if only”

  • Lee Moore

    Hmm. So if Redmond had accepted Ulster’s exclusion, there’s no chance he would have been more-nationalist-than-thou’d by anybody else ? After all, whenever Irish leaders do make a deal with the Brits, every Irishman falls in behind the compromise, right ?

  • I have to say that view of Ulster Protestants—as naturally disputatious and resistant to hierarchy—helps explain the part of the American character that comes from interior southerners. Albion’s Seed discusses the peculiar character of what used to be called “Scotch-Irish” American settlers in a way congruent with this account.

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    Why would any Protestant want to unite with a ‘Republic’ which favours the Catholic church? Or has the Irish Constitution been secularized?

  • Nick, I don’t think the Ulster conflict is primarily about religion.

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    But am I right in thinking that the Irish Constitution favours the Catholic Church? Because I think that religion is a large part of the mix.

  • Paul Marks

    William H. Stoddard is correct.

    The “dissenting” “Scots Irish” (i.e. Irish Protestants) were the backbone of the American War of Independence and provided the best soldiers for every other scrap.

    They also became dissenters in America quite quickly – the Whiskey Rebellion.

    And they were the backbone of those who put Jefferson into office (and swept away internal taxation) in 1801.

    Catholics were persecuted in 18th century Ireland by the “Penal Laws” – but so were “dissenting” Protestants.

    But they reacted in different ways.

    The Scots Irish tended to react as individuals and families – the Catholic Irish were more likely to react as a group.

    Even in the 19th century Irish Catholic tend to leave Ireland in large groups – and settle together in the big cities (where they built the Democrat “Machines” – gradually taking over the Democratic Party in these areas – hence the use of words like “caucus” in Democrat circles, and saying like “vote early and vote often” – that is an Irish saying).

    The “Scots Irish” tended to go off into the frontier – wherever it was, from northern New Hampshire to the vast expanse of the West.

    Although there was an interesting mutation in America – the Calvinist doctrine of predestination (central to the Church of Scotland and to dissenting Protestants in Ireland) was largely dropped in America – where such Churches as the Free Will Babtists and “Cumberland” Presbyterians became popular.

    As for me?

    My Jewish side does not exclude an Irish side – and it is (people who think the above is biased will be surprised to learn Catholic Irish, my grandfather’s name was James Power (his people came from Waterford).

    It should also be pointed out that the Scots were an IRISH tribe – who had been crossing the narrow waters between Ireland and Scotland for thousands of years.

    People who think the Ulster Protestants are “aliens” are fools.

    Nor has Ireland ever been “united:” – other than under the British Crown.

    Even before 1170 – anyone who (for example) told the O’Neils in Ulster that they were “subjects” of some Southern King, would have got his head cut off.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Very interesting new-to-me info about the Catholic vs. the Protestant Irish and how they approached things here.

    I remember the subject of predestination being addressed once or twice from the pulpit when I was a kid. I don’t remember that it was a viewpoint that was pushed, although it may have been. Especially after the time of the merger with the Evangelical and Reform Church–up until then, I don’t think many theological positions were pushed.

    Thanks, Paul. :>)

  • The University of Dublin (which is essentially the same thing as Trinity College, Dublin) was historically a protestant institution. Although Catholics were allowed to study there in 1913, they generally didn’t. (The Catholic Church forbade its adherents from studying there without permission of their bishop until 1970). Therefore, Edward Carson’s constituents were likely almost entirely protestants, and (as graduates of the university received the vote, subject to certain qualifications) were probably also dispersed throughout Ireland.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Is Ulster still richer than the Republic?
    I thought that the latter had overtaken the UK in GDP per capita (at PPP) and I shouldn’t think that Ulster is significantly richer than the UK average.

  • Was it really so difficult to accept that if the Irish had a right to independence from Britain then the Ulster British had a right to independence from Ireland?

    By the same line of reasoning, if Bosnia had the right to independence from Yugoslavia, the Bosnian Serbs had a right to independence from Bosnia.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    I guess the point about the relative prosperity of Ulster vs the Republic takes more or less force depending on whether one starts at the beginning of the so-called Celtic Tiger period or after the bust of 2008, when the property markets of Dublin and other places went into freefall.

    Very interesting analysis from Patrick.

  • Paul Marks

    “An Irishman is seldom rich for long – if he does not lose the money in a wild gamble, he will give the money away”.

    Still my (Jewish) father was just the same – a highly intelligent man who always fell for a hard luck story, and could never stand to see anyone suffer.

    And the “Rednecks” do not measure things by money anyway.

    If told that someone has a million time more property than them – their response is likely to be (if they respond at all) “so what?”

    Which must be frustrating for leftists.

  • Paul Marks

    Bosnian Serbs.

    If even a little village wants independence – and does not bother other people, I have no problem with that.

  • Nick Gray,

    I believe the “special position” of the Catholic church was removed from the Irish constitution in the referendum of 1972.

  • Paul Marks

    An independent Ireland – an interesting idea, so when are they leaving the E.U. then?

    Surely rule from Brussels is no more “independence” than rule from London.

  • Laird

    “Politically, socially, and economically there are two distinct communities inside the geographical area we call Ireland. These two are not merely different, but sharply opposed in their ways, their ideals, their character, and their material conditions.”

    Sounds like a pretty apt description of the US today.

  • Paul Marks

    Only two?

    In the South (where Protestants virtually no longer exist) there are still rival tribes.

    Which side your great grandfather faught on in the Civil War (the one of the early 1920s) still has a big influence on whether someone is FF or FG.

    And that leaves aside S.F.

    “Oh that Robert Heinlein – he gets everywhere”.

    If only that is what SF stood for.

  • An independent Ireland – an interesting idea, so when are they leaving the E.U. then?

    I would point out to Paul Marks (as he is probably too young to remember), that the reason why Ireland became part of the EU in 1973 along with Denmark and the failed bid by Norway was that these economies were deemed to be so intertwined with the economy of the UK that they had no choice but to apply to join the EU during the 1973 ascension.

    Given the investment made by the EU into Ireland during the 1980’s and 1990’s (as Ireland was the poorest member of the EU prior to Greek ascension in 1981) I would say that Ireland has done pretty well out of being in the EU although it is unlikely to benefit in the future.

    Given the Irish constitutional requirement for a referendum on any major transfer of powers to the EU, this has given Ireland disproportionately greater bargaining power when new treaties come along than the much larger countries. In the event of an exit from the EU, they would inevitably be reliant upon the charity of the UK in future EU trade negotiations.

    So in short, the Irish may have given up sovereignty to the EU, but this also allows them greater strength when dealing with the UK than might be possible on a purely bi-lateral basis.

    I hold both Republic of Ireland and British Islands: Isle of Man passports, so carry no torch for the UK Government.

  • Paul Marks

    Well the free trade treaty between the UK and the Republic was in 1965?

    The people of Norway rejected EU membership – wise choice (the people of the Republic of Ireland should have done the same – ditto the UK).

    And the Isle of Man is not a member of the E.U. – and nor is Guernsey and Jersey.

    People from all these places do a lot of trading with people in the U.K.

    So I ask again.

    An independent Republic of Ireland, an interesting idea – when is it going to leave the E.U?

    After all rule from Brussels is no more “independence” than rule from London.

  • Your 20/20 hindsight is working great today Paul.

    Maybe you should run for the Dáil, lead your party to a successful election win, become Taoiseach and then force through a bill (likely against the wishes of the majority of the electorate) to exit the EU under Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty?

    The Irish people still need to learn their lessons on the EU, they haven’t learned yet. More time, pain and agony are required, unfortunately.

  • Paul Marks

    Hidesight is indeed wonderful John – and I know quite well I am being unfair.

    However….. (and here Paul puffs himself up like the ugly bald toad he is) I opposed Britain staying in the EEC during the referendum, against the opinion of both my parents.

    And in 1975 I was only ten years of age – I had hair and everything.

    Pain and agony – yes we all in for that, on both sides of the Irish Sea.