Ethnic Cleansing in the Free State

By Wheatcroft, Geoffrey | New Statesman (1996), July 10, 1998 | Go to article overview

Ethnic Cleansing in the Free State


Wheatcroft, Geoffrey, New Statesman (1996)


After partition, Irish republicanism exacted a brutal revenge on the old tribal enemy

Writing in 1965, A J P Taylor described the Irish settlement embodied in the 1920 Government of Ireland Act and the Anglo-Irish Treaty of the following year as "a great achievement". Ireland might have ruined Lloyd George as it had ruined Peel and Gladstone before him, Taylor wrote, but "at least he was ruined by success, they by failure" - a verdict that was to seem painfully complacent within a few years of its publication.

But Taylor said something else besides. With the creation of the Free State, "the southern unionists, whose security had once been treated as a vital British concern, were abandoned without protection, though, as things turned out, they became a prized and cosseted minority - a contrast indeed to the condition of the Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland."

The lamentable treatment of the Ulster Catholics in the half a century after partition is all too well known, along with its consequences. But what of that other minority, the Protestant unionists of 26-county Ireland which became the Free State in 1922 and is now the Republic? Were they in fact "cosseted"; or was that belief- once very widely held -just as complacent as Taylor's assessment of Lloyd George? Two important new books raise those questions, and give some answers.

Now in his 85th year, the eminent Irish historian R B McDowell looks back at the story of the southern Protestants in his own lifetime. They are among the defeated to whom history can say alas, but cannot help or pardon, to borrow a phrase; McDowell's task, to borrow another, is to rescue them from the condescension of posterity.

One short answer to Taylor's glib phrase is statistical. Between 1911 and 1991, Catholics rose as a proportion of the population of Northern Ireland from 34 per cent to at least 38 per cent (by some reckonings now substantially more). Over the course of this century, McDowell points out, the number of Protestants in what is now the Irish Republic fell from more than 10 per cent to less than 3 per cent. If those figures applied to minorities in any other two adjacent territories in Europe, it is hard to believe that any historian would claim it was the latter minority that had been cosseted.

McDowell, by origin a Belfast Protestant, writes with sympathy but objectivity, and without self-pity, recognising that his fellow Protestants in southern Ireland were the victims of history (as those in the North may yet be). They became one of those communities left behind by receding imperialism, "who have for generations upheld its authority and flourished under its aegis - Germans in Bohemia, Swedes in Finland ... Greeks in Asia Minor, Muslims in the Balkans" - and who were not warmly embraced by triumphant nationalism.

A warm embrace wasn't to be expected. If the story of Ireland in the 16th and 17th centuries had been the brutal defeat of the Gaelic Catholics in "wars that were dynastic, social, cultural, national and religious, all at the same time", to quote Conor Cruise O'Brien, then the story of the past three centuries "has been the recovery of the Irish Catholics: the Catholics getting their own back, in more sense than one".

They didn't get their own back without a struggle. Unionists fought a rearguard action, holding back Home Rule, with the help of their English allies, for more than a generation, possibly to their own ultimate detriment. But the political precariousness - or the political absurdity - of the unionist position within Ireland as a whole became clear once the franchise had been extended and the secret ballot introduced. In 1892 unionists were unable to win more than two seats in the southern three-quarters of Ireland (St Stephen's Green and South County Dublin, apart from Trinity's university seats).

While McDowell rightly takes the unionists seriously and tries to see them in their own terms, he also shows how arrogant and overbearing they often were.

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