What is Northern Ireland for?

Hands Across the Divide, Derry

From Dublin Review of Books:

For Clifford it was precisely because Northern Ireland was neither a state, nor included in the workings of British democracy (due to an act of “supreme sacrifice” by Ulster unionists in 1920), that the Troubles happened. The British state’s generally successful combination of traditional legitimacy (through the unifying symbol of the Crown) and effectiveness (the workings of responsible government) was short-circuited in Northern Ireland. The “theatrical” show of British sovereignty could only be accepted by the minority if the “efficient” part of its constitution involved them in some meaningful way. Instead the political system froze on one line of division.

In the 1980s, Clifford publicly campaigned for the integration of Northern Ireland into British party politics, suggesting that one consequence would have been Catholics participating in Labour politics as Irish emigrant communities did in Glasgow and Liverpool. This unsuccessful plan could have been a way of “normalising” Northern politics. Since this assumes its politics to be exceptional, it may be useful to compare Clifford’s book with Brian Walker’s, which makes the opposite case. Here the comparison is with independent Ireland, whose ethnic and religious divisions were similarly characteristic of many European states created after 1918. Hence Walker employs a dual comparative perspective to normalise Northern Ireland’s experience. The book is the culmination of a variety of works that compare southern and northern experiences after 1920; whether in terms of formative violence and repression, the struggle for legitimacy, ailing economic fortunes, legal developments, the use of commemorative rituals and symbols, or social attitudes. This body of work has merits, but assumes that the question of what Northern Ireland was can be answered by looking south. Comparative history becomes cross-border history.

Walker begins in 1921 (when the Free State was established) not in 1920, an odd choice since so much violence immediately followed partition, especially in Belfast. He suggests that two post-partition “states”, with diametrically opposed relationships to London, actually developed similarly. North-south not east-west dynamics were decisive. Britain is given no major role in the history of either entity. Indeed the Troubles are blamed on the mutually hostile way identities developed North and South after 1920, and not on the demands placed on Northern Ireland as a consequence of the 1960s and the development of the welfare state in Britain. These demands had the inconvenient quality of posing the question of what Northern Ireland was. Rather than accepting that Northern Ireland fell short of British standards of democracy, blame spreads south. This is no more convincing than explaining the Irish civil war in 1922-23 on events in Belfast at that time. Nonetheless, Walker believes that Northern and Southern Ireland’s ethnic and religious divisions can both be compared to those of the European successor states which emerged after the collapse of empires in World War One. Yet as Clifford suggests, if Ulster Unionists did not really want the unit they controlled, neither its origins or status can compared to states that were the product of independence movements, such as Sinn Féin. Since the Irish Free State gradually became a state, it makes sense to see its political development through the prism of “state-building”, focusing on themes of democratisation, institutional reform, foreign policy, economic development, and constitution-making. Northern Ireland had much less scope in these respects. Rather we need to ask, as Clifford does; what Northern Ireland was for?

In fairness, Walker’s focus is on an area where parallels are strong: studying commemoration is a good means of tracing shifts in identity over time and these shifts have been shaped by cross-border pressures. He documents the evolution of exclusive identities on both sides of the border, showing the extent to which each was steadily reduced to its majority ethno-religious core, and compares how minorities fared along a number of indicators. His research challenges the claim made by former taoiseach Charles J Haughey at Queen’s University Belfast in 1962 that there was no unfair treatment of minorities in the Irish state and never could have been. The counter-evidence is the demographic decline of Protestants since 1921, and the role in this of Catholic laws such as the Ne Temere decree. Here detailed knowledge about both societies and their histories is shown. Given the current enthusiasm for political reform (including decentralisation), it is noteworthy that local power was more likely to be exercised in a discriminatory way in both entities. Yet differences also stand out. In Northern Ireland Catholic political disaffection was reinforced by material inequality. Protestant alienation from the southern state’s Catholic ethos was mitigated by a relatively strong position in commercial and professional life. Their grievances were not those voiced by the civil rights movement in the North in 1969 and did not extend to such issues as policing and the administration of justice.

“States And Nations”, Bill Kissane, Dublin Review of Books