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Ulster for Beginners – Part VIII

Consequences of a British withdrawal

Many people on the mainland ask themselves why the Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland should be preserved. Wouldn’t the world be so much easier if they just got out?

There can be no doubt that such a withdrawal would be a massive betrayal of a people who feel themselves to be British by a nation that used to be renowned for keeping its word [Why else would foreigners refer to “Perfidious Albion”?]. It cannot be in Britain’s interest to gain a reputation for selling out its friends.

In addition to the objections of principle there are a number of practical difficulties. First of all, Ulster would become a highly unstable area which would be bound to affect Britain in one way or another. Secondly, Britain would have shown that she allows herself to be pushed around by a bunch of terrorists. The lesson would not be lost on others. Running away from problems is no solution – they have a funny habit of catching you up.

Britain’s Role

“Despite the many attributes of the English, a peculiar talent for solving the problems of Ireland is not among them”. So said the Labour politician, Roy Jenkins. He was remarkably perceptive. There are a number of traits of British politicians that have undermined Britain’s ability to deal with Sinn Fein/IRA violence. One of the greatest of these is guilt.

[Quoting Roy Jenkins, Crozier? Bad move.]

England’s initial invasion of Ireland was carried out at the request of the Pope. Yes, the Catholic Church was an English import! The Norman king of the time, Henry II, being a devout Catholic, could hardly have refused a request of the Pope, especially when intrigues by some of his own knights raised the possibility that Ireland might become a base for his enemies.

[Was Henry II devout? Could he have refused the Pope’s orders? Well, one of his sons did try, got excommunicated for his troubles and ended up grovelling back to Rome. See also Niall’s take on this.]

The next source of guilt was the plantation of Protestants in Ulster in the early 1600s. It is important to bear in mind the strategic situation at the time. Reformation England was under threat from the Catholic states on the continent. She could not remain neutral about the allegiance of Ireland, the largest potential base for attacks on the mainland. In the 1600s Ulster, with the backing of its chiefs, had acted as just such a base. Later, in the 1680s, Ireland once again became a base for continental intriguers. If it had not been for the stand that the planters took at Londonderry and elsewhere at the time, it is quite possible that Britain would have been invaded and the parliamentary democracy, which has become the dominant political model of our age, snuffed out at birth.

[I must admit I am a bit puzzled about the strategic importance of Ireland, but the people of the time seem to have been in little doubt. I’ll go with them.]

The belief that the plantation was carried out at the expense of the existing Catholic population also does not stand up. In the case of the lands in east Ulster, most of them were sold. In the case of the lands to the west, these were acquired by the Crown when their owners, the Earls of Tyrone and Tyrconnell, fled. Further to this point, it is debatable whether anything more than a small minority of Catholics were evicted. At the time, most of Ulster was covered by forest, so it was quite possible for the planters to settle without displacing a soul. This can be seen today in the peculiar pattern of Catholic settlements, especially in North Antrim. It is also worth bearing in mind that all land is stolen from someone and the plantations took place before the Mayflower set sail for the United States. In the case of Ulster, the Celts threw out the Cruthin who went on to become the Scots. Hence the plantation can be seen not so much as an invasion, but a homecoming.

[Really? The idea that there weren’t plenty of Irishmen living in the East of Ulster near to Scotland is pie in the sky. And the idea that they were left alone likewise. The real question is whether the force of the state should be used to do something about it. Debating that issue would take an age but my prejudice is “no”. For most of us, inherited wealth is not a big deal. We have to go and earn it.]

Another source of guilt is over the way Catholics were treated under British rule. While it is true that laws sought to suppress Catholicism they were never rigorously enforced. In fact Catholics in Ireland had a far better time than Catholics in England. What is forgotten is that Britain simply could not ignore what happened in Ireland and had to ensure that it remained loyal [or at least cowed]. Irish Catholics had consistently rebelled and made common cause with Britain’s enemies. The wonder was that they were not treated all the more harshly.

The final source of guilt is over the Great Famine of the 1840s. Britons are made to feel guilty for a variety of reasons. Firstly, that the way Britain had parcelled out land to the Protestant ascendancy had forced the majority of Irishmen onto marginal land which was only fit for potatoes. Secondly, that when the monoculture was hit by the inevitable blight, Britain did not do enough to help the starving.

On the question of land tenure once again this comes down to Britain’s strategic interests. Britain had to make sure that Ireland was dominated by people she could trust. That is why, after the Battle of the Boyne, many disloyal landowners (but not their tenants) had their lands seized. Although Britain was far from perfect in its response to the famine, there is no evidence for the charge that Britain was engaged in genocide. Famines, were not uncommon at the time and it is unlikely that an independent Ireland could have done any better.


Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V
Part VI
Part VII
Part IX

7 comments to Ulster for Beginners – Part VIII

  • Pole

    a massive betrayal of a people who feel themselves to be British by a nation that used to be renowned for keeping its word

    That ship sailed in 1885 with the Hawarden Kite. And, except in a technical sense, it’s doubtful that Britain can still be considered a “nation”. All western countries are well advanced in the irreversible process of abolishing their historic identities and replacing their legacy populations.

    The Good Friday Agreement has avoided collapse because the intense nationalism of the Irish is passing into history, a few decades behind our own. Future chroniclers might argue over what was the last occasion when Britain asserted itself (I’d choose the Falklands war). At present Britain is a kind of zombie state that cannot even extract itself from the EU.

  • pete

    Ever since the result of the referendum in 2016 politicians from the Irish republic have been demanding special treatment because they know their nation’s economy is very dependent on the UK’s. It is not really an independent nation at all.

    Surly if it would be simpler if the republic rejoined the UK.

  • On the general point of its being absurd for the modern UK to feel guilt over Ireland, I agree entirely but mostly not for Patrick’s reasons. WWII is much more recent, Hitler was much more evil, and de Valera could hardly have more completely spent Eire’s historic claims (however one might assess them) if he’d put them on a bonfire and danced round it. (I made a reference toward the end of this comment.)

    While it is true that laws sought to suppress Catholicism they were never rigorously enforced.

    ‘Never’ is too strong, and ‘rigorously’ must be interpreted in a less than rigorous manner for this to be even mainly true. Under Cromwell, rigour was not lacking. This was a certain amount of rigour in the early post-Glorious Revolution period too. After the very early 1700s, it is true that many of the more ferocious laws were honoured in the breach rather than the observance. They were hard work to enforce, especially in rural catholic-majority areas, and there was no profit in them. When he began his reforms, Burke ignored those laws and concentrated on abolishing the law of informers, not the nominally worse ones, because the informers’ law was profitable (for the informer) and so it got used. (The excluding laws – no catholic lawyers, no marrying of protestant heiresses, strong limits on catholic landowners and the like – were also enforced enough to be no small restrictions till they were abolished at the end of the 1700s, and other laws were enforced in Dublin even if not in rural Ireland.)

    In fact Catholics in Ireland had a far better time than Catholics in England.

    Again, very debatable. Outside Dublin and the north, catholics were too high a proportion of the population to stand out as they did in England but that very fact meant the protestant ascendancy was worried by them in a way that the English authorities were not.

    The difference is illustrated by a case caused by the ‘catholics must sell any cavalry-suitable horses’ law passed in England after one of the Jacobite invasion scares. One farmer explained that a horse that fell foul of the law was ridden by his wife for her health. The embarrassed local authorities eventually auctioned it at midnight in a field where it ‘so happened’ that the only bidder (of sixpence IIRC) was the farmer – exploiting a dubious loophole in the law (the horses had to be seized from catholics and sold at auction but the law failed to specific in wholly unmistakable terms that catholics could not buy them). On the one hand, in contemporary 18th-century Ireland with its catholic majority, probably that particular law could not have been effectively enforced, but on the other hand, a contemporary Irish victim of a law that was enforced had a lesser chance of getting such human sympathy, because the alarm (and prejudice) of the outnumbered protestant minority was more firmly felt.

  • SkippyTony

    Will happily concede those points to Niall. Not sure that in a contemporary context there is much outstandingly good or bad about English treatment of Ireland or that the indigenous Irish were unusual in making common cause with anyone against the great satan etc etc.

    What I find truly bizarre is that if you go to the other side of the world, find a person who was born in Australia, New Zealand or the US of Irish descent and they still become incandescent with rage at anything short of outright condemnation of Cromwell.

    FFS, move on guys.

  • Rich Rostrom

    There was also the period in the 17th and 18th centuries when Britain imposed tariffs and trade restrictions on Ireland, intended to profit Britain, which impoverished Ireland. (And which were imposed unilaterally by the Parliament of England or later Britain, in which Ireland was not represented.)

    For an eloquent discussion of this abuse, see Jonathan Swift, “The present miserable state of Ireland“. Swift particularly noted that Ireland was prohibited from exporting woolen goods. However, there was a significant illicit trade in raw wool with France, by which the Irish got “wines, brandy, and fruit, very cheap, and in great perfection so that though England has constrained us to be poor, they have given us leave to be merry.”

    Swift also noted that places in the civil government and Church of Ireland were almost entirely reserved as sinecures for Englishmen.

  • There was also the period in the 17th and 18th centuries when Britain imposed tariffs and trade restrictions on Ireland (Rich Rostrom, September 30, 2019 at 7:54 am)

    Mercantilism has much to answer for – though very much less than socialism. The American war of independence also benefitted Ireland by curing us of that particular delusion.

    I suspect Swift’s Toryism was not unconnected to the whigs of his day (early 1700s) being foremost in that and some other policies unhelpful to Ireland.

  • Paul Marks

    The British army came into Northern Ireland in the early 1970s to protect the NATIONALISTS – i.e. the people who wanted Northern Ireland to be part of the Republic of Ireland, and for the Republic of Ireland to be transformed into a socialist state.

    The socialist IRA (via its front organisation the “Civil Rights” movement) had, in the late 1960s set off a conflict in Northern Ireland – but the Nationalists were LOSING that conflict, even in Nationalist areas the saying was “IRA stands for I RAN AWAY” the Unionists were WINNING – street by street, they were driving the “Nationalist community” (the people who had started the fight) out.

    But the British government in the early 1970s intervened (just as it intervened much later with the Belfast Agreement – the so called “Good Friday Agreement”) to PREVENT the defeat of the Nationalists.

    The truth is that the “liberal” British establishment has always wanted to get-rid-of-Ulster and never misses an opportunity to stab the Unionists in the back.

    In truth the IRA terrorists and the British “liberal” establishment are de facto ALLIES – and always have been.

    The God fearing Ulsterman, loyal to the Crown (not to the Parliament) and opposed to such things as abortion – if anyone thinks that such people have many friends in the “liberal” British establishment, then I have a nice bridge to sell you.

    Whereas the “Social Justice” stance and de facto atheism of the IRA (they are not really Roman Catholics – any more than Liberation Theology is real theology) has many friends in the British establishment. Just as it has many friends in the modern Republic of Ireland – sadly a very different place from the conservative Irish Republic that existed as recently as the early 1960s.