Crisis in the North: Three centuries of exploitation
GLADSTONE REFERRED to Ireland in his private papers as " Ireland, Ireland island in the West, that coming storm." For the English, Ireland has been the source of intermittent gales for five centuries and now again Britain is watching the massing of clouds and the rumbling of thunder. Ireland has been the primary source of political discontent and trouble since the reign of Henry VII. It has been the area where the imperialism and exploitation of the growing power of Great Britain has been at its most marked and most savage.
Northern Ireland proves this in microcosmic form. It shows the folly of British imperialism and its arbitrary power. Tim Pat Coogan called the history of the North" that of a sorrow agreed upon." The history of Northern . political life is not divorced from the rest of Ireland, But it contains and has institutionalised the bitterness and sorrow of Ireland's love-hate relationship with Great Britain.
David Quinn has described of late, the beginning of this long road. In the sixteenth century Ireland was made up primarily of communal land. Its people were semi-migratory and pastoral. It was an archaic society based on the Brehon Laws and deep, complex, and sacred family ties. The Elizabethans who came to Ireland for religious and exploitative reasons were fascinated and disgusted with the laziness and bucolic habits of the Irish. Ireland preserved what is technically called the Atlantic Seaboard Society. Ulster was the most gaelicised of the country, Its great families were to form the centre of resistance to the initial assaults of British Imperialism.
Ulster provided a military base for a national resistance and its families the ethnic and cultural leadership of Gaelic Ireland. From 1595 the whole issue of British power in Ireland revolved around the fight of the Ulster Earls. The fight was led by the great Earls, O'Neill of Tyrone and O'Donnell of Donegal and their flight in 1607 marked the end of initial resistance.
The Tudors, during the sixteenth century, went to Ireland for two reasons: they wished to stop it acting as a recruiting centre for claimants to the British throne such as Lambert Simnel, and they saw in Ireland enormous wealth which could be reaped.
Plantation: New World Style Their policy, continued by the Stuarts, was twofold. Firstly, all over the country they forced landholders to become dependent on the British throne. Then they set about gradually displacing them and confiscating their territory. In the North a different policy was implemented. The New World had been discovered and with it a new form of conquest was developedplantations. Ulster bore the full brunt of this new policy, much more so than the tiny plantation in Virginia, U,S,A.
Scottish presbyterian small-farmers occupied the land and English merchants took over the towns. This policy never worked properly. Many Scottish yeomen returned home and the charter given to the citizens of Bristol to develop Derry was revoked due to its poor implementation. Thus Ulster developed a characteristic and ominous social position. The towns formed a centre of protestantism in a province which remained overwhelmingly catholic. The dominant farmers were presbyterian. They had the best land and the best titles to their land. Yet in no area did they erase the native Irish and there were poorer and smaller catholic farmers and agricultural labourers living in bitter competition with the protestants for existence all over the province. The presbyterian farmers were scattered in most of the province and formed a barely dominant, close-knit cultural group with strong contact with Scotland.
During the seventeenth century this social difference in the North was the underlying basis for the events which created the greater part of the Unionist mythology three centuries later. The Stuarts and the Hanovers fought for the throne in Ireland and the support they got mirrored the social privilege of NorthernIreland.Duringthe famous siege of Derry the citizens of the city were fighting for their very social privilege in alliance with William of Orange, The massacre of protestants in 1641, which has been grossly exaggerated, was in fact a fight between rich and poor peasants, when the weak constitutional position of Charles II started a minor land war in the North.
In the South the small farmers were totally subdued by a few huge landowners. They became labourers on small plots of land dependent on the whims of British protestant landed gentry, established by the vast dispossession of the old Irish aristocracy by Cromwell and continued in the early days of the Penal Laws. Thus, by the beginning of the eighteenth century the system of landholding in Ulster differed from the rest of the country.
The eighteenth century was a bitter time for Ireland. "Overpopulation and poverty," Arthur Young described as the main features of Irish life. In Ulster the two peasantries lived and emigrated together.Huge numbers of protestants went to the Calvinist communities set up in North America. For a period, according to Beckett, the number of protestants emigrating was as high as fifty thousand a year. Often catholics were too poor to be able to emigrate. Thus the ratio of catholic to protestant became higher. Agricultural prices were low throughout the century. Catholics and protestants fought each other for the land. Big landlords encouraged this and the poorer catholics were a constant threat to the strict traditions of tenure built up among the presbyterians. Both sides formed secret societies to protect their land from the rapacity of the landlords and the greed of the other side. The presbyterian "Heart of Oak" and catholic " Defenders" often fought viciously and bitterly at fairs and evictions.
The United Irishmen
This century did produce the last non-sectarian republican movement to emanate from Ulster: the United Irishmen. This group was inspired by the great bourgeois revolution in France in 1789. Its membership was drawn from the towns. Its intellectual sources, however, were foreign to the catholic and protestant peasantry. Wolfe Tone is an example of a typical United Irishman. His beliefs were drawn from the Enlightenment and in his famous pamphlet "A Plea from a Northern Whig," he could plead for toleration for catholics but at the same time could gleefully predict the death of the Papacy. Tone also was an intellectual follower of the brilliant intellectual Paine who to most Irish was a notorious atheist. He himself showed strong inclinations, like many of his society, to Deism, or rational belief in a deity.
Thus Ulster, while producing a higWy radical movement which was at its strongest in almost totally protestant towns such as Belfast, remained bitterly divided. The United Irishmen had no base, intellectual or otherwise, in the peasantry. It idealised the peasantry and hated the feudal economic overlordship of Ireland of the aristocracy, but the patterns of sectarianism remained,
The Orange Order
Indeed at this very time, when the non-sectarian claims of the Irish middle classes were being widely disseminated in pamphlets and at public meetings, a society that has disfigured Irish life for nearly two centuries was formed: the Orange Order. In 1795, after a bitter faction fight between protestants and the Defenders at a fair in Armagh, the Order was created. Unlike other secret societies this Order was dominated immediately by the aristocracy.
In 1795 the threat of invasion from France was grave and the catholic peasantry were in arms all over the country, Thus a unique organisation aligning different and hostile classes was formed on a sectarian basis, Catholic attacks on presbyterian small farmers were growing enormously and the latter aligned with the aristocracy which feared for its very existence under a revolutionary Bonapartist regime. This powerful organisation was to be a continuing force for conservatism in the following centuries.
In the year the Order was founded there was a small landing of French soldiers in Bantry Bay. If the whole of the fleet which arrived had landed it would have been a formidable challenge to Britain. Ireland entered the nineteenth century with an embryonic state in Ulster. It became progressively more divorced from the political life of the rest of Ireland. Irish catholic politics was to utilise in the 1820's the only available middle-class national organisation in the country-the Catholic Church.
O'Connell- the Church - Politics
Daniel O'Connell brought the priest into politics. O'Connell was at best a conservative whig. At no stage did he, as a big landlord, have any capacity for tackling the land tenure problems of Ireland, Thus he skilfully mixed mass politics with conservative solutions. His method of doing this was to push specifically catholic issues such as Emancipation. This finally alienated the presbyterians of the North.
The South had huge problems: if a peasant improved his land he had his rent raised; he could be evicted at will; and the tremendous growth in population forced constant subdivision of land into tiny lots which often meant that half an acre had to support a whole family. The people lived on the border of famine, Major famines occurred in 1817, 1821, 1826 and 1846, Industry in the South was utterly destroyed by free trade, The thriving industries of glass, wool and leather all suffered a rapid death. Finally, the Great Famine eliminated any possibility of a unity between peasant radicalism and the constitutional British connection. The dithering cabinet of Russell and the Famine Queen became symbols of the inert, callous, exploitation of the absentee landlords.
Ulster by comparison was wealthy. Its peasantry could sell improvements in their land. This privilege (Tenant Right) was granted to the whole of Ireland only in 1870 by Gladstone's first Land Act, The land was less congested and emigration dropped, Furthermore industry survived, The linen industry grew and kept seasonal agricultural wages high. Ulster at this period had developed the two crucial features of its present political consciousness, It had a religious division within itself and both parties in this division were consciously outside Irish political movements and were consciously more privileged.
None of the quasi-insurrectionary movements based on peasant destitution (Young Irelanders, Fenians and the Irish Republican Brotherhood) were strong in Ulster. The Nationalist Party of Parnell attracted the catholics, but only sporadically, and the tone of catholic politics in Ulster was definitely constitutional and conservative.
In 1884 Gladstone attempted for the first time to give Ireland a measure of Home Rule. This brought the issue of a separate state for Northern Ireland into the open on a parliamentary level.
Leading industrialists in the North were afraid of the effect of giving economic power to a predominantly rural, catholic middle class, The working class was afraid of a sharp drop in wages and the big landlords who led the Orange Order were rightly convinced that under Home Rule their estates would be compulsorily broken up and occupied by small farmers. The Orange Order brought all these groups into the streets for giant loyalty rallies, Randolph Churchill led this campaign. The British Conservative Party from the time of Disraeli had too main policies: the first was imperialism and the second was pragmatism. Ulster was a perfect Tory issue for the Tories rightly saw that the opposition to Home Rule among the working classes of Great Britain would be enormous. They also foresaw that it would split the Liberals which it did rapidly with the defection of Joseph Chamberlain and his followers. The success of Churchill's famous jingle "Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right" created the Unionist Party, the political wing of the Orange Order.
The Liberal Party, in coalition with the Nationalists, tried to implement Home Rule in 1884, 1892, 1906 and 1912. It failed because the Liberals were not prepared to risk their parliamentary majority on this issue or challenge the House of Lords on a matter which was not close to the hearts of the electors.
In 1918 a situation of uncontrollable gravity had come about after the Great War. The old Nationalist Party had been annihilated by the electors. Both catholics and protestants were armed to the teeth, the latter with the connivance of the Tories. Sinn Fein economic policy was even more repugnant than its predecessor's to the Northern industrialists. Nobody wanted partition. On both sides the idea had not even been mooted, and effort was concentrated on entrenchment of old positions. Ulster elected 27 Unionists in 1918 and the political void became even greater as the Unionists sat in Westminster while the 69 Sinn Fein members abstained.
By 1919 it was evident that the old Home Rule Act of 1914 was out of date. A new Bill passed slowly through parliament while full scale guerrilla activity commenced in Ireland. This Bill, the product of Lloyd George, provided for the setting up of two parliaments in Ireland on the present basis. Typicaily shrewd, Lloyd George knew that powerful vested interests in the North would like this solution, even though they could not initiate it. He also knew that the Unionist leaders were well aware the fight to stop Home Rule was being lost in the battlefield of the South and that world sympathy was behind the Irish struggle. The popularity of this scheme in the North can be seen in the results of elections under the Government of Ireland Act of 1921. Forty Unionists were returned and only twelve Nationalists and Republicans.
It is surprising that in the Irish parliamentary debates of this time the issue of partition was not very important. Critics of the Treaty were more concerned with the Crown, the Oath and the Empire. And speeches that referred to the Six Counties were not concerned with their loss so much as with the potential military role of the North should Britain decide to reimpose its rule,Thus Ulster was separated painlessly, Partition had enormous support in the North and the South allowed it to happen without much protest, It was indeed the culmination of a pattern of economic and religious behaviour of three hundred years and the deep wound it imposed on the Irish consciousness was only to come to the fore in a later decade. The dominant mentality of political Unionism which is at once British and separatist, confident and reactionary, was created during this time.