Working towards Irish Unity




Time to face the past

Pauline Hadaway argues that British people need to confront their own history and join with Irish people, from every part of Ireland, to put the past to rights.

“There was a lot promised initially, a lot hoped for…so many things could have happened. We could have had a coin, we could have had a stamp. We were told none of those things could happen for a variety of reasons.”

Rev Mervyn Gibson’s disappointment in Northern Ireland’s centennial programme should come as no surprise. Though nowhere near as calamitous as its 50th anniversary (strapline Ulster 71 – come and join in the fun), the centenary year was far from auspicious. Coming on top of mounting political tensions surrounding the NI Protocol, Covid-19 restrictions dampened plans for public celebrations and political ceremonials, forcing the Orange Order to postpone its Centennial rally and parade. Even the Queen cancelled her visit on medical advice.

Speaking as secretary of the Orange Order, Mervyn Gibson’s complaint of false hopes and broken promises was directed towards the British government for failing to commemorate Northern Ireland’s past in ways that might inspire unionist confidence in its future. The complaint is well grounded. The NI centennial was part of the ‘decade of centenaries’, marking significant events that had shaped Ireland and Britain in the 20th century.  London’s interest in commemorating the creation of Northern Ireland fell far short of the Dublin government’s engagement with the programme of public events, concerts, exhibitions and talks that marked the centenary of the signing of the 1921 Treaty, which brought the Irish Free State (Saorstat Éireann) into being. With not even a commemorative stamp to its name, Northern Ireland’s lacklustre centenary betrayed a remarkable reticence towards recollecting a significant historical moment that had, in the words of NI Secretary of State Brandon Lewis, ‘paved the way to the formation of the United Kingdom as we know it today.’

Britain’s ambivalence towards the centennial commemorations of the ‘precious Union’ speaks volumes about the semi-detached status of Northern Ireland in the Union. The gap between the illusion and reality of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has been made even more glaringly obvious through the operation of the NI Protocol. As one wag remarked on Twitter: ‘nothing says celebration like a border down the Irish Sea’.  Nevertheless, whilst Brexit and the Protocol are the immediate destabilising factors, the problem of Northern Ireland goes far deeper. British politicians like to talk about our responsibility for keeping the peace between Northern Ireland’s warring tribes, but they rarely address the question of how we came to be embroiled in these intractable battles, let alone why we remain. With his reference to the formation of the United Kingdom as we know it today, Brandon Lewis locates the answers in our history.

History does nothing, wrote Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, it possesses no wealth and wages no battles: ‘it is man, real, living man who does all that…history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims.’ By the early twentieth century, British industrialists, businessmen and land-owners had amassed immense wealth and shown great determination defending their interests through waging battles at home and all over the globe.   As a ruling class they were, however, subject to intense fears. Threatened by the forward march of democracy, they feared the popular challenges that would inevitably be raised to their established order.  Facing an increasingly militant working class and with men and women demanding the vote at home and growing resistance to colonial rule abroad, they found themselves on the defensive and paralysed by divisions. It was in this menacing atmosphere, that the Irish Question once again emerged as a testing ground for their determination and a focus for their fears.  

Whilst maintaining the essential integrity of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, the Liberals had adopted Home Rule for Ireland as a strategy for managing discontent and removing the Irish Question from everyday politics at Westminster. The Conservatives regarded calls for self-government in Ireland, even in this limited form, as evidence of a weakening of British power, verging on treason, at a moment of increasing great power rivalry and challenges from subaltern classes in the empire and at home.  These divisions were sharpened in the political and constitutional crisis that followed the House of Lords’ rejection of the Liberal government’s 1909 ‘People’s Budget’. In the General Election that immediately followed, the Liberal government were returned by a narrow majority, with the Irish Parliamentary Party holding the balance of power. Home Rule was pushed back to the top of the government’s agenda, alongside a determination to remove the power of veto, exercised by the Tory peers that packed the House of Lords. The 1911 Parliament Act weakened their semi-feudal legislative veto and, in so doing, removed the backstop for preventing the enactment of Home Rule in Ireland.  

Proclaiming that ‘there are things greater than parliamentary majorities’, Bonar Law, the Conservative leader, said that he could ‘imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster can go, in which I should not be prepared to support them’.  Organised through well-established political networks, the Tory and Unionists’ resistance to parliamentary democracy between 1911 and 1914 went a very long way, mobilising popular support at rallies in Britain and Ireland, arming the 90,000 strong Ulster Volunteer Force and setting up a provisional government in Belfast that would take power after Home Rule. On 24 March 1914, elite British army officers stationed in Ireland declared they would not fight against loyalist Ulster. The Curragh mutiny sent a powerful message that sections of the military were prepared to defy Parliament over Home Rule. Writing in the midst of the crisis, Lenin described this ‘revolt of the landlords’ as ‘a world historical turning point’, where the government, unwilling to appeal to the wider populace in defence of the constitution, yielded to the mutinous officers, giving them written guarantees that troops would never be used against Ulster loyalists.  In The Fatal Path, his illuminating study of British policy in Ireland, Ronan Fanning argued that, ‘after Curragh, even in the unlikely event of the government summoning up the will to impose the democratic verdict of the House of Commons on Ulster, it had no means to do so’.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty, signed on 6 December 1921, created the Irish Free State as a self-governing dominion within the British Empire. Ireland was, however, partitioned the very next day, when the Unionist government in Belfast moved to exclude six of the nine Ulster counties from the settlement.  As Fanning wryly remarked, ‘the Irish Free State was what remained once Ulster had been secured’. The United Kingdom suffered a similar indignity at the hands of the Conservative and Unionist rebels.  Their revolt against Home Rule had not simply ripped the Liberal government’s Irish policy into tatters but robbed the state of the authority to use its own armed forces to implement Parliament’s legislative will. As George Dangerfield observed about this period, in words that resonate for own times, ‘the government was helpless, so too was the Parliament…the destiny of Ireland, whether with the Union or with Home Rule or with some more extreme dispensation was now passing away from Westminster and Whitehall and into the control of Belfast and Dublin’.  Thus, as much as it placed limits on the sovereignty of a unitary Irish nation, Northern Ireland’s founding moment expressed the limits of the United Kingdom’s sovereignty within what it still claims as its own territory.

Commemoration is not history, nor is it a suitable vehicle for historical thinking. By turning history into collective memory and myth, we reconcile ourselves to living as the children of our histories – winners or losers, victims or perpetrators – with no way out except retribution or forgetting. Successive British governments have attached great importance to the history of Ireland, by way of justifying our responsibility to remain as neutral conciliators. Most recently, by associating a return to the bad old days with more generalized perceptions of risk and uncertainty, ‘the tragedies of the past’ have performed an indispensable role as the threatening presence for building consensus around the need to avoid a ‘hard Brexit’.  As Peter Ramsay and myself have argued on this website, Brexit is the proof that Britain’s presence in Northern Ireland is not simply a barrier to peace and democracy in Ireland, but a fetter on its own sovereignty. The British people therefore have a powerful self-interest in bringing the union with Northern Ireland to an end. So too do the people of Northern Ireland since Britain drew a trade border through the Irish Sea and gave concrete shape to the irresponsible and undemocratic nature of its rule there.

Britain’s inability after Brexit to assert either its autonomous law-making powers or any determination to disengage from Northern Ireland is rooted in the history of a union, that grew from the revolt of a powerful elite against democratic forces in both Ireland and Britain. That is the history that British politicians prefer to keep a distance from. And that is the history that British people need to learn from and act upon. The mistakes of the past cannot be washed away through rituals of commemoration, atonement and reconciliation. The past will only be laid to rest when British people confront, what Dangerfield called, ‘one of the saddest and yet most illuminating chapters’ in our history and join with Irish people, from every part of Ireland, to put it right.


George Dangerfield, The Damnable Question, Constable 1975

Ronan Fanning, The Fatal Path, Faber and Faber 2013

V.I. Lenin, ‘The Ulster Crisis’ in British Labour and British Imperialism, Lawrence and Wishart 1969

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works vol 4, Lawrence and Wishart 1975