Ireland’s Wars: The First Decades For Northern Ireland

We do spend most of this series dealing with events in what we would identify as the lower 26 counties, at this time of discussion the Irish Fee State. Partly this is because of my own bias, which I cannot but acknowledge, as a Limerick-born Irishman currently living in Dublin. Partly it is because the military history of Ireland is one, during this period anyway, that finds much of interest to talk about relative to those 26 counties more than in other places. And partly it is because the history of Northern Ireland in the first few decades after the end of the Irish revolutionary period is not especially interesting. That should not be taken as an insult, merely my own assessment. But it does behove us to keep on eye on the development of the Northern Irish state in those years, as it is vitally important in terms of later events, if just for background and nothing else.

From almost the moment it was created Northern Ireland was designed to be a one-party state. James Craig’s Ulster Unionist Party started as Northern Ireland’s party of government, and it was going to remain in that position for decades. Suitable use of gerrymandering policies throughout the country ensured that areas of nationalist majority were marginalised when it came to electoral politics, while those of a unionist persuasion were able to enjoy a measure of representation out of all reasonable sync with demographics. From 1921 all the way way up to the beginning of the Second World War and beyond, it was only a matter of how big the majority was going to be for the UUP and like-minded MP’s: 33 of 52 in 1925; 40 of 52 in 1929, 39 of 52 in 1933, 42 of 52 in 1938. Craig would spend the better part of 19 years as Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, a tenure where he headed an unassailable political party and could control the direction of the country largely as he saw fit.

And his was very much a Protestant perspective. While he has sometimes been misquoted on the topic, Craig did describe Northern Ireland as “a Protestant state” with “a Protestant Parliament” that he set directly opposite that of the “Catholic south”. Government positions, civil service jobs and nearly all positions of any authority in Northern Ireland were to be filled by Protestants, aided and abetted by an administration that went hand in hand with institutions like the Orange Order. This situation probably helped to increase a certain sense of isolationism that Craig and his government underwent into the 1930’s, as they found their ability to influence Westminster lessened: Craig was not much of a party to the agreement that would end the Economic War in 1938 for instance, and has been criticised for his unwillingness to push for protection of key Northern Irish industries, like the production of linen.

On the other side of the spectrum, those of a nationalist persuasion, or even just non-unionist, found little succour within Northern Ireland’s political system. The Nationalist Party, the successor of the Irish Parliamentary Party, was their main focus, but was of little practical use: relegated to whatever seats the electoral math deigned to let them seriously contest, in the 1920’s and 30’s it was able to return an average of nine to ten MP’s at elections, and nearly all of those in Derry or in border areas. Going through occasional spells of abstentionism, the party was often criticised for being a loose organisation of like-minded individuals who more often than not were focused on their own local areas, where they created political machines that were more for their own benefit than for a national party. The only alternatives otherwise were the Northern Ireland Labour Party, which struggled to maintain its existence during this period, or Independents.

In many ways though it was all completely pointless: the Nationalists and other non-unionist groupings were incapable of generating enough seats to be anything other than a rump opposition to the UUP, not because of their own failures, but because the electoral system largely made it impossible. In such circumstances, the will to create a broad political entity that could present itself on a par with the UUP nationally could not be found. Parties based largely in the south, most especially Sinn Fein, either choose not to make themselves a presence in Northern Ireland for the purpose of elections, or failed when they did try.

Why talk about all of this now? Because it is in all of this that we find the very roots of what would become “the Troubles”, a politically loaded term I choose to use here but which I may refrain from using later. Craig and his unionists felt like they were creating a functioning state that needed what we can only describe as an ingrained Protestant Ascendency to have control over nearly every facet of public life: the legislature, the police, the civil service, everything. Catholics, nationalists and anybody who did not skew towards the Orange Order line of thinking were liable to be left out, an underclass that were practically recognised formally as such. It would take time, but such a situation could not hold without the breeding of a steady but ever growing resentment, that would have the capability of erupting into violence at any given moment. And, when large enough, this resentment would have the capability of erupting into a sustained campaign of politically motivated violence.

That is to come. For now it is enough to note how discrimination on a sectarian basis was a simple fact of life in Craig’s Northern Ireland. Catholics were less likely to be accepted into just about any position that the government had a hand in recruiting; were less likely to be represented in the police force; were less likely to be accepted into anything other than menial jobs, and even those could be quite hard to come by in certain areas; were less likely to live in better areas; were less likely to have access to a higher level of schooling, from a young age all the way to third level; and were less likely to feel any kind of resonant connection to Northern Ireland as its own state. Many who had the opportunity fled south in this time to start new lives in a somewhat (though not totally) welcoming environment, just as Protestants in the south migrated to the north. Others who were not in a position to, or were not inclined to leave their heritage and lives behind them, elected to stay, but those were tough years for Catholics and nationalists, at the mercy of a frequently merciless state machine that had little thought or care for a huge proportion of its population.

Sectarian violence flashed in and out of existence in those times. A particularly notable incident occurred in 1935. The spark was, as it had been in the past and would be again several times in the future, “the Twelfth”. The Orange Order had gotten used to having preferred routes for their marches commemorating the Battle of the Boyne approved and legitimised by the authorities, even if those routes frequently passed through areas of high Catholic and nationalist numbers. In 1935, for whatever reason, the season for marches was especially tense, with numerous incidents of scattershot violence recorded in the days and weeks leading up to the 12th itself, with gun attacks, “invasions” of Catholic areas and general harassment of Catholic workers and communities on an upswing. The violence got so bad that even Craig’s government felt compelled to temporarily ban assemblies and marching, but only for a handful of days, and not on the 12th itself. The IRA stood ready to defend Catholic areas, even if their number in the city remained small.

On the 12th things really caught fire. Orange Order marchers and Protestant attendants clashed with Catholics openly in the streets, with gunfire occurring from either side: a large scale series of riots was the end result. Fighting between sectarian mobs was common across the streets, with all manner of weapons employed. Businesses and homes were the subject of attacks and burnings, and something approximating a pogrom of Catholic workers took place in several areas. The police waded in of course, but predominantly in favour of one side. It took some two weeks for some semblance of control to be re-established over the city, and when it was accomplished ten people were dead, with their funerals simply flashpoints for more violence. Unionists were quick to point out that most of the dead were Protestants, but it is perhaps only fair to point out in response that the violence’s key instigating point was Protestant marches.

It must be pointed out that only three years before Catholic and Protestant workers had gone on strike in the city together, and taken part on the same side of what became known as the “Relief Riots”, in reference to decreasing government commitments to aid those beset by the Great Depression. Such things are evidence that the sectarian divide in the city, and perhaps throughout Northern Ireland, was not as entrenched as it was otherwise perceived. But marching season, in combination with a collaborationist government, was simply too great of a event not to engender severe resentment from both sides of the religious border against each other. In 1935 it got to the point where violence akin to that which had taken place during the War of Independence occurred. It would not be the last time.

We will return to Northern Ireland soon enough, in relation to its experience in the Second World War, but the longer-term outcome of the unionist domination of the new state will have to wait for a while yet. Next, we move back to the south. Eamon de Valera had demonstrated his willingness to upend the Anglo-Irish Treaty and confront Britain on an economic level, but he also had more long-term ambitions to re-frame the political status of Ireland at its core. The result of that ambition would be a new constitution: the military, diplomatic and strategic aspects of that document will be the subject of the next entry.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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3 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The First Decades For Northern Ireland

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Bunreacht Na hEireann | Never Felt Better

  3. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The 1950’s Arms Raids | Never Felt Better

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