Magazine article History Today

Times and Tides

Magazine article History Today

Times and Tides

Article excerpt

* Marches at Drumcree, along the Lower Ormeau Road, marches ending in Protestant riot or in Catholic riot, marches cancelled, re-routed, gone through with. Everything which Northern Ireland signifies in the normal English mind is summed up in Winston Churchill's remark about `the dismal steeples of Fermanagh'. Was there ever a time when we didn't have Northern Ireland and its off-Balkan resentments as a permanent obligato to the news?

Well, there were intervals like the long domination of the Craig-Brooke dominion, 1922-to the mid-1960s, when only the unemployed or worse employed Catholic working class had a bad time.

But broadly, Northern Ireland began to be an on-off, semi-permanent feature of the news in 1886 when it functioned as a bone in the throat of Gladstone's attempt, through Home Rule, to end a similar role for the whole island of Ireland! The part played by Conservative politicians then, whether seeking party edge or sincere in their virulent Union nationalism, helped create the mentality of today. Ulster Protestant triumphalism is a dragon, a dragon with a point of view which would have given trouble if all mainland parties had behaved coolly, but it was the Tories who held a lighted match to the air the dragon breathed out.

When Gladstone undertook to solve the problems of Ireland -- hubristically but magnificently -- he was taking on the accumulated grief running from the Famine through the beginnings of Fenianism, `outrages' (barrels of gunpowder exploded in mainland Britain), Irishmen hanged for such outrages, and the rise of the Land League with its campaign of boycotting aimed at Ascendancy landowners. He was also recognising Charles Parnell, the Irish leader challenging England in the Union Parliament using a brilliant campaign of obstructive talk to lay a roadblock before all legislation.

Gladstone was imaginative enough, perhaps great enough, to see in Parnell and his party representatives both of a just cause which should be met and symptoms of a force which would bubble into civil war if it were not met. Home Rule, coupled with land reform, was ardently embraced by Parnell as the great imaginative leap of understanding to bind England and Ireland together. For a few months it seemed that the creative course had been found, the exception to all the blindness of our relations with Ireland.

Gladstone feared the outbreak of civil war in five years time. His Conservative opponents perceived either something which could not happen or, according to the historian, James Anthony Froude, something to be restrained by twenty years of military dictatorship! Civil war actually came thirty years after Gladstone's warnings, with the Easter Rising and the subsequent half-war of street killings, skirmishes and a football crowd fired upon, by which Irish Independence was conceded. At that time, a version of Froudeism -- imposition of irregular troops, the Black and Tans, soldiery reminiscent of the German Freikorps -- failed in disgrace, adding another self-comforting legend to the debilitating catalogue of cherished Irish wrongs.

Gladstone had been superbly right in substance and vision, but he had been grievously wrong in the particular which mattered, Ulster Protestant resistance. Ironically, so quiet had Ulster been in the nineteenth century, that both Gladstone and Parnell saw the province historically. They looked back to the 1790s, the time of the United Irishmen when discontent with England had been shared by Protestant northerners, when of all people, Robert Stewart (later as Lord Castlereagh a palladin of sardonic reaction) had been a rebel. Both Parnell and Gladstone underestimated religion and the pride and resentment akin to racial feeling which that hundred years period had created.

Catholic ireland was now more Catholic, and in a political, nationalist way, not least as a result of the long mid-century influence of Cardinal Paul Cullen. …

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