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And Ulster Will Be Right

And Ulster Will Be Right

Mini Teaser: Protestant Irish nationalism needs to be taken seriously if the whole island is to avoid a Bosnian-scale civil war.

by Author(s): Peregrine Worsthorne

The Irish problem does not arise out of a clash between Irish and British nationalism. If it did, there would be no problem because British nationalism, being nowadays so relatively compliant, would give Ireland everything it wants. Unfortunately it is not as simple as that. For the Irish problem is a clash between two Irish nationalisms, that of Catholic Republican Ireland and Protestant Northern Ireland (Ulster), and since the first has been long celebrated and mythologized, and the second both rejected and derided, world opinion, particularly American opinion, tends to think that the first is the more deserving and the more potent. I would like to try to correct this dangerous misapprehension; dangerous because in my view it is the second nationalism, Protestant Irish nationalism, which today needs to be taken most seriously, if the whole island is to be spared a Bosnian-scale civil war.

It needs to be taken seriously because in the peace process upon which London and Dublin are now engaged, aided and abetted by Washington, it is the most likely to be infringed and violated; and although weak and dormant nationalisms can be infringed and violated with impunity and without bloodshed, vibrant and potentially violent ones, such as Ulster's, certainly cannot. Let me put it like this: Whereas it is impossible to imagine the British people, at the end of the twentieth century, fighting to prevent rule from Brussels, it is impossible to imagine the Ulster people not fighting to prevent rule from Dublin. When in 1886 Lord Randolph Churchill, Winston's father, warned that Ulster would fight and Ulster would be right, Gladstone's liberal government was also engaged in a peace process designed to appease Catholic Irish nationalism--a Home Rule Bill envisaging a united Ireland incorporating Ulster. Initially Lord Randolph was dismissed as madly alarmist. Only when twenty-five years later one hundred thousand Ulstermen sprang to arms to resist the same threat were the Liberals forced to realize that it was they who were mad, not Lord Randolph. At that point the massive distraction of the 1914-18 war intervened, taking Ireland off the boil. But the lesson had been learned and when the Irish Free State was eventually set up in 1920 the postwar British government reluctantly agreed to leave Ulster out. They really had no choice. It was the lesser of two evils. Whereas the majority of the people of the Republic, as it later became, were unwilling to fight, except among themselves, against partition, the Northern Ulster Irish would have fought against unification to the last man.

That basic fact of life remains as true today as it was in 1920; even more so, in one respect, as the IRA, whose members are prepared to fight for unification, represents an even smaller minority in the Republic now than then. But while the extent of Irish Republican nationalism has decreased, Ulster's Protestant nationalism is arguably as strong as ever. It may not look like that because IRA terrorism gets all the publicity, which makes it seem as if Southern Irish nationalism is the irresistible force and Ulster nationalism the moveable object--if placed under enough pressure. In fact, the opposite is nearer the mark: Today the moveable object is Southern nationalism, while the irresistible force is Ulster nationalism. If progress is to be made, therefore, pressure needs to be put on the former rather than on the latter--a conclusion which seems never to have crossed Washington's mind. This is not only a counsel of prudence, but also of justice. Lord Randolph, remember, did not only warn that Ulster would fight but that Ulster would be right to do so. In his view it was more than simply unwise to provoke Ulster; it was wrong. Here, too, much American opinion may be misinformed, being as ignorant of the reasons for respecting Ulster nationalism as for fearing it.

Why should Ulster be right? Because, for the Protestant majority in the province, the thought of being governed by the Republic of Ireland is more than flesh and blood can be expected to bear. The roots of this state of mind lie deep in history; so deep as to be ineradicable except by the most brutal and destructive of excavations.

It all goes back to 1609 when King James I of England, who was King James VI of Scotland, offered his Protestant subjects grants in land to settle in Ulster. Settlements of an unofficial kind there had been since time immemorial (as there had been settlement of Irishmen in Scotland). How could it be otherwise with Scotland, at the narrowest passage, only twelve miles away from Ulster? But this royal settlement, which came to be known as the Plantation, was quite different. It was specifically designed, for reasons of state, to establish a self-consciously Protestant presence in Ireland, in case Ulster's natives, whose chiefs had opted for the Pope in the great post-Reformation religious divide, allowed their country to be used by the Catholic powers of France and Spain to force Britain back into the arms of Rome.

By this time, the beginning of the seventeenth century, the whole of Ireland was already massively settled by the English who were virtually running the country, as indeed they had been doing since the Middle Ages. But because pre-Reformation settlers were of the same religion as the Catholic natives, the two had tended to mix without intolerable friction. There was friction, bitter friction, over land, of course, since the native Irish were often dispossessed to make way for the new owners. But these material grievances had not yet been inflamed further by religious rivalry. Indeed, some of the pre-Reformation English settlers had begun to show signs of going native, seeing themselves as more Irish than the Irish. Before the Reformation this did not matter. But after the Reformation, with the Irish and British bitterly divided about religion, it obviously did. Hence the Ulster Plantation, which was Britain's attempt to ensure that at least a little bit of Ireland could be relied upon as unquestionably Protestant and loyal.

The Plantation's Scottish element was particularly significant in this regard. For being Presbyterians they were about as anti-Pope as it is possible to be, far more so than the relatively milk-and-water Anglicans. If the Plantation had been made up only of English Anglicans it might in time have blended with the rest of Ireland. But with the Presbyterian-Calvinist strain so predominant there was never a chance in hell. (For once the phrase is appropriate.) In other words, the special feature about this settlement was not that it was an incursion into a foreign land, the English having been doing that for centuries, sometimes even with Rome's blessing--the medieval equivalent of a UN mandate. No, the Plantation's special aspect was the purpose behind it. Unlike those many generations of earlier settlers, these, the forefathers of today's Ulstermen, were expressly chosen because they could be trusted never to integrate; they had, indeed, made a solemn covenant not to do so. Ulster's separateness, its resistance to absorption, therefore, is not some mysterious modern quirk or perversity. It was expressly planned--"programmed", in modern parlance--from the very beginning four hundred years ago; it was the province's veritable raison d'tre.

But it was badly planned, despite the easy availability by then of Machiavelli's blueprint for princes contemplating such an operation. "Where states are acquired in a province different in language, in customs and in institutions . . . the best expedient is to establish settlement in one or two places; these will, as it were, fetter the State to you." So far, so good. King James I, "the wisest fool in Christendom, who never said a foolish thing and never did a wise one", certainly took that advice--but not the next bit. For Machiavelli went on to write: "And it has to be noted that natives must either be pampered or crushed, because there can be revenge for small injuries but not for fatal ones. So any injury a Prince does a man should be of such a kind that there is no fear of revenge."

Ulster's story would have been different had James I followed that advice. As it was, the injuries done to the Irish, being neither small enough to appease nor fatal enough to crush, left them not only wanting revenge but retaining the strength to get it. In many cases they were left in possession of their land, there not being enough settlers to take it up. Far from the Anglo-Scottish Plantation settlers forcing the great mass of the Irish natives to flee--as their more ruthless settler equivalents in America forced the great bulk of the American natives to flee--many of them remained undisturbed, willing and able to fight another day. And in due course that day came.

Eighty-one years later, in 1690, exactly what King James I feared, and set up the Ulster Plantation to prevent, took place. The Catholic powers did try to use Ulster as a base from which to force Britain back into the Catholic fold, by helping King James II to land an army there after he had been deposed from the British throne for having himself gone over to Rome. Not only did the Catholic powers do what the Protestants had feared, but so did many of the settlers in Southern Ireland. Instead of rallying to Britain's new King William, formerly Prince of Orange, they supported the deposed Catholic king whose armies marched north and might well have been carried by French ships triumphantly back to England had not the Ulster Protestants, with great heroism, held them at bay. For over one hundred days besieged in Londonderry they refused to surrender. Why the new King William's fleet took so long to break the siege has never become clear. But delay it did, arousing Ulster's suspicions of British perfidy which have lasted to this day.

It was during those months of siege, in which four thousand settlers died, that Ulster's sense of nationhood was born. As the rest of Ireland, native as well as British, turned traitor, only Ulster quite literally held the fort. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the great British historian Macaulay wrote:
"Five generations have since passed away; and still the wall of Londonderry is to the Protestants of Ulster what the trophy of Marathon was to the Athenians . . . the anniversary of the day on which the gates were closed, and the anniversary of the day on which the siege was raised, have down to our own time been celebrated by salutes, processions, banquets and sermons."

Nothing has changed. Nor is this is in the least surprising. Many nationalisms rest on less glorious folk memories than those of Protestant Ulster. Charged at the beginning of the seventeenth century with upholding the Protestant cause in Ireland, it could justifiably claim, by the end of the century, to have fulfilled this obligation to the letter, with little help in its hour of peril from anybody else.

But the defeat of James II's Catholic armies, while it ended Protestant England's dangers, did not end Protestant Ulster's dangers. Far from it, as the redoubtable historian Alistair B. Cooke has recently demonstrated. Londonderry remained almost as vulnerable to the unsubjugated Irish outside its gates after the siege as it had been during it. But at least after the final Protestant victory at the Battle of the Boyne in July 1690, the Protestant backlash against the Catholics was so repressive throughout the whole of Ireland that for the first time Ulster felt no need to take extra precautions. In any case, by the second half of the eighteenth century British wealth and power were such as to render any idea of further Catholic trouble in the foreseeable future almost unimaginable. Indeed so dormant did the Catholics seem that even Ulster's siege mentality began to melt, to the point where the more radical and liberal among them began to grow more resentful of imperial London's interference in local affairs, and Dublin's corruption, than fearful of Catholic treason. In this, of course, they were much influenced by the example of Protestant settlers in America, who were also challenging George III.

Needless to say, the independent Ireland they began to dream about was a Protestant and non-conformist Ireland, free of both London and Rome. True to the spirit of the eighteenth century Enlightenment--particularly of the Scottish Enlightenment--they persuaded themselves, with typical optimism, that the Catholic peasants were bound to be rational enough to prefer independence even under the wrong religion than no independence at all. Convinced of this, Wolfe Tone, their leader, formed an ecumenical movement, the United Irishmen, which, further encouraged by the success of the French Revolution, staged three uprisings throughout Ireland, all of which, including the one in Ulster, were brutally put down. But not before the great bulk of the Ulster Protestant farmers and landlords had been given a scare terrible enough to revive their siege mentality; even to make it worse, since henceforth it was not only Catholics whom they regarded with profound suspicion but also liberals and radicals who, in their naivete had awakened the dormant Catholic dogs. The United Irishmen Movement was Ulster's one great experiment in cross-border Protestant-Catholic all-Irish cooperation, and it ended in bloody disaster. Intended to free Ulster from its seventeenth-century past, its unrealistic idealism only succeeded in giving that past a new lease of life.

During the course of the nineteenth century, Ulster nationalism, hitherto largely fed by fear, was given a more modern source of strength: economic pride. For while the rest of Ireland was stuck in an agricultural rut, Ulster's flourishing new shipbuilding, engineering, and linen industries--all run by Protestant disciples of Adam Smith--carried the province triumphantly into the modern world. If, before, the Protestant Ulstermen had seen themselves as different from the rest of Ireland by reason of their religious convictions, now they saw themselves as different--and incomparably superior--by reason of their economic dynamism. In many ways it was an unfair comparison since it was Protestant repression in the whole of Ireland that reduced the Catholic population to passivity and made sure that such energies as did exist went into the priesthood, subversive politics, and literature, rather than into the professions, trade, or industry. But unfair or not, the notion took hold. Rule from Dublin would be unacceptable not only spiritually but materially. To the old fear that it would drag Ulster down to the slime of superstition was added the new fear that it would slow down the rate of economic growth.

That was the state of play when in 1886 Mr. Gladstone, the Liberal prime minister of the day, tabled his aforementioned Home Rule Bill proposing to include Ulster in a United Ireland. It was a mad decision from which the Liberal Party never fully recovered. Mad, but at the time understandable, since then, as now, Irish Republican nationalism was deemed to be a far more serious threat than Ulster nationalism. So it was, in narrow political sense, since there were far more Irish Members of Parliament in the British Parliament than Ulster MPs. While the Irish MPs could bring a British government down, Ulster's could exert no such leverage. But in another, much more fundamental sense--in its capacity to inspire a fighting spirit--Ulster's nationalism was quite the equal to that of Catholic Ireland. That is why, as we have seen, when it came to the crunch, Ulster's separateness was recognized. The rest of Ireland became independent of Britain in 1920 but Ulster remained a province--largely self-governing within the United Kingdom. Then as now the Irish Republican Army refused to accept Ulster's exclusion and fought a civil war within the newly independent Ireland to prevent it. But they lost that civil war. Even when Irish nationalism was at the very peak of its emotional fervor--after the famous Easter Rebellion of 1916, in which so much sacred patriotic blood was spilt--it stopped short of coercing Ulster and coerced instead those on its own side who refused to abide by this decision. In those early days of independence Irish governments were not frightened of the IRA and did not hesitate even to hang its leaders.

What has changed? How is it that after seventy years the present Irish government dares not even intern the IRA leaders, let alone hang them? How is it that Ireland's irredentist claims on Ulster, which were not strong enough to succeed at the very height of Republican nationalism in the 1920s, seem nearer to success now than they were then? To a great extent, I fear, this is America's doing.

The importance of the American dimension in Irish nationalism was recognized as far back as the late nineteenth century. Conor Cruise O'Brien, in his book States of Ireland, quotes the then-British home secretary, Sir William Harcourt, as follows:

"In former Irish rebellions the Irish were in Ireland. We could reach their forces, cut off their reserves in men and money and then to subjugate was comparatively easy. Now there is an Irish nation in the United States, equally hostile, with plenty of money, absolutely beyond our reach and yet within ten days sail of our shores. . . ."

Most of the Irish in Ireland, only too aware of what Irish unity would mean in practice, have abandoned the cause. Only the American Irish, far enough away to escape the bloody consequences, feel inclined to carry on banging the drum. And as long as this powerful section of opinion in the world's only remaining superpower carries on banging that drum, what hope is there of any Irish government daring to sound more muffled? Nevertheless, such attitudes fly in the face of reason. For the Republic of Ireland today is a happy, tranquil society, at ease with itself as it has never been before. The old Protestant Ascendancy oppressors have been assimilated, their lands, for the most part, divided and sold; indeed today the Protestant minority in the Republic is so small--only 2 percent--as to pass almost unnoticed. There is less ethnic and religious strife in contemporary Ireland than in almost any other country in the world. At the United Nations, and in the European bureaucracy in Brussels, its officials enjoy great respect and prestige. Why then shatter this success story by pursuing even non-violently--and doing so very little to stop the IRA pursuing violently--an irredentist claim to Ulster which, if successful, would introduce one million alien and hostile Ulstermen to this green and peaceful isle? Even if a modest percentage of Ulstermen were to agree to some form of incorporation--of which there is not even the remotest chance--Ulster's many men of violence would not. So the only result of pacifying the IRA, by giving them a united Ireland, would be to produce an Ulster National Army which would bomb Dublin and Cork instead of--as is the IRA's way--Belfast, Londonderry, Birmingham, and London. The last thing most of the Irish want, at least with their heads and in their sober moments, is a unification that would simply transfer the violence from Britain and Ulster to the Republic itself.

But what about the half million Catholics still languishing in Ulster; does not the Republic have a sacred duty to rescue them? For most of this century it could have been argued that it did. Discrimination in jobs and housing was disgraceful, as was the gerrymandering which went on to ensure that Catholics never got their hands on the levers of power. The Ulster police, too, were far from even-handed. After decades of such treatment, Catholic grievances about civil rights eventually, in 1969, exploded into violent demonstrations that were brutally suppressed. Had not the British army intervened, much to the Catholics' relief, there would have been a real danger of inter-communal massacres. It was at this point that direct British rule from London was re-imposed, and a whole raft of reforms set in train which, in the course of the last twenty-five years, have cumulatively put an end to civil rights discrimination.

In short, the Ulster Catholic minority now gets a square deal and, because of the general social benefits they enjoy as British citizens, are much better off economically than they would be as citizens of the Irish Republic. While they may dream of Irish unity, in their conscious waking hours very few would wish to trade the present arrangements, from which they receive great benefits, for an uncertain future. They might have wanted to do so twenty-five years earlier when discrimination was still rife, but not any longer, as the opinion polls confirm.

Where the Republic of Ireland has far more justification for concern is in the matter of political power-sharing. At the moment the province is run by British officials. But were power to be devolved again, as it had been before 1969, the Catholics would clearly be due a much larger say in how it is used. So far, however, all proposals toward this end have broken down, due not so much to Protestant intransigence as to the refusal of the Ulster Catholic political parties, notably the Social Democratic Party, to accept partition. So long as the Ulster Catholic leaders continue to affirm their primary loyalty to the Republic of Ireland, so long must they be excluded from political power. On that principle the Ulster Protestants take their stand and will not budge. Who can blame them? For while loyal minorities have a right to share in government commensurate with their numbers, it is hardly reasonable to argue that disloyal ones do too.

Nor is it just a matter of the Ulster Catholics refusing to accept partition. Neither does the Irish Republic, which still refuses to amend the clauses in its constitution laying claim to sovereignty over Ulster. So if Ulster's Protestants did agree to share power with their Catholic fellow citizens, not only would they be sharing power with men and women determined to put an end to Ulster's separate identity, but with men and women known to be in active cahoots with a neighboring foreign power committed by its constitution to assisting them in this struggle. The very idea of the Ulster Protestants ever agreeing to such an arrangement is absurd--less sinister than Hitler's order to the Czech government in 1938 to share office with the Nazi leader of the SŸdeten German minority, but not much less certain to be refused. Power sharing the Protestants might agree to; but if this really is the concern of the Republic's government and of the Ulster Catholic leaders, the best way to achieve it would be to accept partition rather than to reject it out of hand.

So, as I say, these irredentist claims make no sense. Not only do they prevent improvements in the lot of the Ulster Catholics here and now but, if they were realized, would bring fire and the sword--or rather AK 47s and bombs--to the whole island. Some irredentist campaigns obviously do make sense, even when pursued to the point of murderous terrorism. The Palestinians were a case in point. Driven out of their homeland and living in refugee camps, they had nothing to lose. But the Irish have everything to lose. That a few IRA fanatics might still see Irish unification as a cause for which to kill and die is not altogether surprising. Every nation has a minority of nationalist fanatics. But Irish irredentism is not just the aim of a few fanatics. It is still the official aim of the Irish government itself, the only difference being that the government, unlike the IRA, does not approve of violent means to that end. But it does precious little to stop those who do, in spite of earlier Irish governments having shown that this can be done.

What is going on? Here the political analyst needs to call in the aid of a psychologist. For Irish nationalism today is not so much a state of mind, for which reasons can be adduced, as an emotional condition that has ancient rhymes to support it--plenty of them--but not a single contemporary rationale. But nobody says so. The British government does not say so; still less does Washington. So romantically powerful is the mythology celebrating Irish nationalism, and so compelling the literature, that nobody--except for Conor Cruise O'Brien--has the irreverence to challenge it. The British government, with its rightly guilty conscience about past misdeeds in Ireland, has an excuse for treading respectfully. So does the American government, with the Irish vote to consider. So what I am suggesting may not be practical politics in an American election year. But sooner rather than later an American president, emulating the little boy who tells the emperor he has no clothes, must tell the Irish government that Irish nationalism, or at any rate Irish irredentism, is equally naked. Such a statement, given bluntly by an American president, could be just what is needed to bring Irish--and American--politicians and public to their senses.

In particular the president should ask the Taoiseach--the Irish Republic's equivalent a of prime minister--why he does not clamp down on the IRA--at any rate to the degree that Arafat, whose problems are incomparably greater, clamps down on Hamas. The Taoiseach will have no answers. He can't say that his electorate would not wish him to because the polls suggest that they deeply deplore the IRA. He can't say that clamping down would be useless, because everybody knows that Irish internment, unlike unilateral internment by Britain, is the only medicine the IRA fear. So what could he say? Nothing, since the true explanation is something that the Irish people know to be true but hate to admit: that they are a nation whose governments are more enthralled to patriotic ghosts from the past--Pearse, Connolly, and the rest--than to today's electorate. De Valera and his immediate successors could and did lock up the IRA and defy their irredentist fanaticisms because, having spilt British blood themselves, they had the credentials required to defy those ghosts. But today's generation of ministers, being far too young to have played any part in the Easter rising--when Yeats' "terrible beauty was born"--dares not defy them.

I am not underestimating this problem. The national habit of listening to ancestral voices rather than to the voice of reason may be impossible to break. But it becomes particularly difficult to break if the rest of the world also pays homage to those ancestral voices. Unfortunately that is what the rest of the world, and in particular the United States, has been doing. While the demands of Irish nationalism are accepted as fair, progressive, and looking to the future, the resistance to those demands by Ulster nationalism is dismissed as reactionary, bigoted, and rooted in the past. Not for a moment are the Irish people told that if they continue to adhere to an ancient, anachronistic nationalism that has no place in the twenty-first century, they will be casting the gravest possible doubts on that modern, politically-correct nationalism on which they, particularly the younger generation, now set such stock. It is time they did hear that message. For if they don't soon hear it, and act on it, Ulster will fight, returning the whole of Ireland to the savagery of the seventeenth century when it all began.

Essay Types: Essay