Boris Johnson flew into Belfast last summer to announce plans for a celebration on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Northern Ireland state in 1921. A special commemoration committee has been established with £3 million of public money earmarked for the occasion. Instead of a celebration, there should be an occasion of shame.
The Northern Ireland state was created through a Government of Ireland Act, passed by the British parliament in December 1920. This partitioned Ireland against the democratically-expressed wishes of the Irish people. In December 1918, the first election involving all men over the age of 21 and a limited vote for women was held on an all-Ireland basis.
Sinn Fein stood on a platform of national independence, the creation of a republic and opposition to the Irish Parliamentary Party, known as the Home Rule Party. It supported limited self-government for Ireland and had caved to British demands that Ulster, northernmost of the four provinces of the island, be excluded from Home Rule.
Sinn Fein won 73 out of 105 seats, wiping out the Home Rule Party which only gained six. Unionists won 26 seats, two in Dublin—for Trinity College and Rathmines—and 24 in Ulster. In any democratic society, this was a clear mandate for independence, yet the rulers of the British Empire had no intention of respecting Irish democracy. Their failure to do so led to the Irish Republican Army launching the Irish war for independence. The response of the British Empire was repression and partition.
In 1919 the British ruling class was confronted by wave of revolts, among workers at home and people in the colonies. In Egypt over 800 people were murdered because they dared to stand up to British rule. In Amritsar, India, over a thousand people were shot dead by British soldiers.
In Ireland, the British authorities unleashed the paramilitary “Black and Tans” and the Auxiliaries on the population. They launched murder squads against known Irish republicans and inflicted collective punishment on whole towns, such as Balbriggan and Cork, as reprisals for republican resistance. The other element of the British strategy to suppress Irish independence was partition, and its key instigators were the Tory party.
The origins of the Tories’ love affair with Ulster Unionism date back to the British Liberal government’s attempt to pass a “People Budget” in 1909. Its mild proposals included taxes on land to fund welfare programmes. This infuriated the “ascendancy”—a minority of powerful landowners who dominated Ireland—and they used their power base in the House of Lords to veto the budget. In response, the Liberals introduced the Parliament Act to remove the Lords’ veto over laws passed in the House of Commons. This turned the conflicts within the British ruling class to an outright conflagration. As the Liberals had the support of the Irish Home Rule Party, the Tory leader Bonar Law forged an alliance with Edward Carson.
Carson was a fanatical defender of the ascendancy’s role in the British Empire. He was known as “Coercion Carson” for his role in charging tenants who resisted landlords under a special Crimes Act. He attacked the Trade Union Disputes Act 1906, which gave the unions some immunities so that they could not be sued for damages incurred during strikes. Famously, he won the legal case against Oscar Wilde, sending him to jail for homosexuality. Carson was also an enthusiastic support of Dr Jim Jameson, an associate of Cecil Rhodes, who staged a raid on the Boer republic of Transvaal to expand British rule in southern Africa. As Carson’s biographer explained, both men were inclined to “flout the law for the good of the empire”.
“Tory leader Bonar Law forged an alliance with Edward Carson who was a fanatical defender of the ascendancy’s role in the British Empire.”
The crisis within the British ruling class came to a head in 1912 when another Home Rule Bill was introduced to the House of Commons.
It was a very modest measure which gave Ireland limited powers within the empire. Carson, however, began to preach open sedition, promoting an Ulster Covenant signed by over 218,000 people. It pledged to resist Home Rule by “all means” and “to refuse to recognise the authority of such a parliament”. These were no idle phrases. A provisional Ulster government was established, enlistment began in an Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and a business committee, chaired by a leading shipbuilder, was charged with procuring arms. Thirty thousand rifles and three million rounds of ammunition were bought.
The Tory party tore apart the facade of parliamentary democracy and supported naked physical force to destroy their opponents. When the Tory leader Bonar Law reviewed the mass ranks of the Ulster Volunteers, he told them explicitly, “You hold the pass for the Empire.” And in words not heard since the English Civil war, he denounced his government as “a revolutionary committee which has seized power by fraud upon despotic power”. “In our opposition to them,” he said, “we shall not be guided by considerations which would influence us in ordinary political struggle. We shall use any means to deprive them of the power they usurped.” As if that was not clear enough, a future high-ranking Tory minister, FE Smith the Earl of Birkenhead, talked gleefully of ministers “swinging from the lampposts of London”.
This rhetoric encouraged mutiny among British Army officers stationed in Ireland in 1914, when they were asked to move against Unionists. It demonstrated again that you could “flout the law for the good of empire”. While the Liberal government was willing to send the army in to shoot down strikers in Liverpool and Llanelli in West Wales in 1911, they backed off before this revolt. The Home Rule Bill was eventually postponed due, apparently, to the outbreak of the First World War.
When it re-appeared, it was linked to the partition of Ireland. Faced with an enormous social and political revolt after 1919, the British elite took a strategic decision to both repress and partition Ireland. But how exactly was the line to be drawn?
The moment of truth came when the British government charged Walter Long with “solving the Irish question” in 1919 by chairing a committee to draft a Government of Ireland Bill. He was a former leader of the Irish Unionist Parliamentary Party. And, as one of his biographers noted, he ‘“held the Catholic Irish in contempt, thinking of them as clearly inferior to the English, both racially and culturally”. His parliamentary secretary was James Craig, the future prime minister of Northern Ireland. He regarded the Sinn Fein rebels, who had launched a struggle for an independent Ireland, as “vile criminals” who “must be exterminated”. Long was motivated by how best to defend the British Empire when faced with rebellion in Ireland.
He proposed a parliament for a nine-county Ulster that would sit alongside a Dublin parliament. This, he regarded, as a temporary arrangement, a prelude to the reunification of Ireland within a more federated British empire. However he got a clear message about the reluctance of Unionists to this proposal. And in a memo to Lloyd George, he noted their concern that “the inclusion of Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan would provide such an excess of strength to the Roman Catholic party that the supremacy of the Unionists would be seriously threatened”. In other words, they thought that the loyal, British part of Ireland could not encompass all of Ulster. Or as Craig put it, the six counties were the largest area where there was “a decisive Protestant majority in which Unionist power could be guaranteed, in perpetuity”.
The new state was born in violence and it could hardly have been otherwise when a third of its population did not want to be part of it. This became evident in local elections held in January and June 1920, which were conducted under the proportional representation system, just before a Northern Ireland parliament was established. In the six-county area, nationalists won control of ten urban councils, including Armagh, Omagh, Enniskillen, Newry and Strabane and thirteen rural councils. In Derry, a city with a mythological status in the history of unionism, nationalists took control.
More significant in some ways was the emergence of the Labour Party in Belfast which, with thirteen seats, became the main opposition to the Unionist Party. Labour’s breakthrough followed a wave of working class militancy which culminated in a massive strike in 1919 for a 44-hour week involving 60,000 workers. These twin opponents of unionist hegemony would have to be smashed if a stable unionist regime was to be established—and this was achieved through systematic violence and state repression.
Carson used the annual procession by the loyalist Orange Order deliberately to inflame the situation. He adopted his familiar stance of pressing for stronger action from the British Empire. “If the British government are unable to deal with these matters, they ought to ask somebody else to deal with them,” he said. “We know well that the real battlefields of Ireland in relation to a republic must be Ulster … We in Ulster will tolerate not Sinn Fein.”
Shortly afterwards, the Belfast Protestant Association called a meeting in the Harland and Wolff shipyards for all unionist and Protestant workers. Thousands showed up and passed a resolution not to work alongside those who were “non-loyal”. A mob then assembled to chase out Catholics and “rotten Prods” who had shown insufficient loyalty to the empire. Among the latter group were leaders of the 1919 strike. As one of them, James Baird, stated, “Every man who was prominently known in the labour movement… was expelled from his work.” The expulsions spread to the main workplaces in Belfast and by the end of it an estimated 10,000 workers—or about 10 percent of the nationalist population of the city—were driven out.
The birth of the Northern Ireland state coincided with attempts to terrorise the minority who did not want to belong to it. The period from 1920 to 1922 saw escalating violence, reaching its crescendo in May 1922 when 66 civilians were killed—44 Catholics and 22 Protestants. Despite the fact that the violence was often led by the illegal UVF, this force was soon integrated into the official apparatus of the British state.
A new legal force was composed of a full-time A Specials police and B Specials and a C Specials reservists. By the end of 1922 it comprised 48,000 members and was fully paid for by the British state. Approximately one in five Protestant males were to serve in this force, which gained a reputation for extreme sectarianism. While the A Specials were disbanded in 1926, the much larger part–time B Specials continued right until 1970.
Coinciding with a strong security apparatus, the Northern Ireland state introduced legislative measures to ensure nationalists had a second-class status. In April 1922, 21 nationalist–controlled councils were suspended. The proportional representation system was also abolished. This would ensure, as Craig put it, a ‘“simple system” that would elect “men who are for the Union”.
The system was designed to eliminate the threat from Labour. Teachers and state employees had a make Oaths of allegiance. Electoral boundaries were changed to produce artificial Unionist majorities at local level. The aim was to set up a system which facilitated discrimination in housing and jobs, administered mainly through local authorities.
Through these mechanisms, two key victories were achieved for Unionism. First, violence and legal authority intimidated the minority population and forced them to accept their role as second-class citizens. Second, Unionism was consolidated into a single homogenous bloc. As socialist Eamonn McCann put it, “The significance of the Holy War which erupted in Belfast in July 1920 was that it welded the classes within the Protestant community together”. It did not stop in that year because there were recurring waves of violence directed at the Catholic population in subsequent years. This helped to discipline the Protestant population. The measure of that success was that the Unionist Party remained in power from the state’s formation in 1921 until the abolition of Stormont parliament in 1972—a feat unparalleled in the Western world. In that time, only one opposition bill was passed—the Wild Birds (Protection) Act in 1931. These birds, it seems, were neither Catholic nor Protestant.
Kieran Allen is a member of People Before Profit. He is the author of a forthcoming book, 32 Counties: The Failure of Partition and the Case for a United Ireland, which will be published by Pluto Press in April 2021.
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