Or Is Partition Still the Only Answer? : IRELAND

By Wheatcroft, Geoffrey | The Independent (London, England), February 5, 1996 | Go to article overview
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Or Is Partition Still the Only Answer? : IRELAND

Wheatcroft, Geoffrey, The Independent (London, England)

WHY should Ireland be united? For more than a century, nobody has stopped to ask this fundamental question. Yet partition, if not the best answer, might well be the least bad answer. Nationalism or "patriotism" preceded the Union of 1801. But in the 18th century it was Protestant and patrician. In the 19th century, it became Catholic and plebeian. The Union was partly a response to the Irish rebellion of 1798, which was a cry of rageagainst the long oppression of Catholic Ireland. It was meant to cure the complaint by paternalist absorption, to make "Britons" of the Irish, as the Scots had been made in the previous century. But it did not work. Soon O'Connell's campaign for Catholic Emancipation became a campaign for repeal of the Union.

This "Irish nationalism", like its Protestant predecessor, assumed the geographical indivisibility and cultural homogeneity of Ireland. But it was obvious to visitors like the Frenchman Gustave de Beaumont in the 1830s or the economist Nassau Senior in the 1860s that, thanks to the 17th-century settlement of Ulster, there were two nations in the one island. Senior thought they were "among the most dissimilar nations in Europe". All they had in common was that they were ruled by the Protestant ascendancy, fox-hunting, claret-swilling Anglicans, for whom their country was "Ireland" whether it was in County Cork and the land was worked by Catholics or in County Down and worked by Presbyterians. "One nation made, and makes, no sense in any other terms."

A good comparison is with the ancient kingdom of Hungary. This was likewise regarded as one nation by the Magyar gentry who ruled it. But it contained millions of Slovaks, Ukrainians, and Serbs, who were partitioned off at just the same time, after the First World War, that Ireland was partitioned.

All the same, a belief in the indivisibility of Ireland was very widely shared. The unsuccessful Home Rule Bills of 1886 and 1893 both provided for an all-Ireland parliament. So did the Bill brought in 1912 and passed by parliament in 1914 after Ulster resistance had come close to civil war. The Ulster Unionists, whose great leader Edward Carson was a Dubliner, never wanted partition. They wanted Ireland to remain united as part of the United Kingdom. Nor did the English Tories want partition. In the 1880s, Lord Randolph Churchill had "played the Orange card". But this was a very exact metaphor. One card takes a trick by capturing another three: in this case the trump of Orange Ulster was meant to keep the other three provinces of Ireland in the Union as well.

This position was untenable because the majority in the three-and-a-third Catholic provinces of Ireland wanted autonomy. Yet even in the summer of 1916, after the Easter Rising in Dublin, the Cabinet noted that "the permanent partition of Ireland has no friends". In 1919, the Cabinet defined its desired policy as "a united Ireland with a separate parliament of its own, achieved without offending the Protestants of Ulster". Even when Ireland was at last partitioned in 1920, the Government of Ireland Act made elaborate provision for reunification.

The British then simply tried to forget Ireland, both parts of it. Shortly after partition, the Speaker ruled that the House of Commons could no longer discuss the internal affairs of the province, where injustice festered, and Protestant suspicion was matched by Catholic resentment.

The Unionists of Northern Ireland had, as they still do have, a very uneasy relationship with London. It is sometimes smartly said that "Loyalist" is a misnomer for such recalcitrant British subjects, but so for that matter is "Unionist".

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Or Is Partition Still the Only Answer? : IRELAND


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