Opinions & Ideas

A Difficult Birth: the early years of Northern Ireland, 1920-25

We are approaching the centenary of the coming into existence of Northern Ireland, whose Parliament was opened by King George the fifth on 22 June 1921. This event took place just three weeks before the Truce of 11 July 1921 that ended the Irish War of Independence.

 The creation of the Parliament of Northern Ireland had already been authorised by the Government of Ireland Act of 1920. It had also authorised the creation of a Parliament of Southern Ireland, with similar devolved powers.

 Elections to both parliaments were held on 24 May 1921, but the Southern Parliament only met once, because the Sinn Fein members refused to sit there, and sat instead in what constituted itself as the second Dail. The Dail was considered to be an illegal assembly by the UK authorities.

When the Northern Parliament met, a substantial majority of those who were elected DID take their seats.  The Unionist Party had won 40 seats of the 52 seats with 66% of the vote, against 6 seats each for Sinn Fein and for Joe Devlin’s constitutional Nationalists who had respectively won 20%, and 11.8%, of the vote. The size of the Unionist victory caused surprise in some quarters, although the voting had taken place against a background of continuing violence. The Sinn Fein and Nationalist MPs did not take their seats in the Northern Parliament at this stage.

The powers of the Northern Ireland Parliament were quite limited, as pointed out at the time, by Lord Donoughmore  and others.

 He said it was “unsound” to set up a Parliament without the usual powers of taxation. Over 90% of the taxes in Northern Ireland (NI) were, he said, to be set and collected by the Imperial Parliament in London.

 To grant the new NI Parliament the power to spend, without also having the responsibility of raising taxes to finance that spending, lent itself to gesture politics and to the systemic avoidance of responsibility. That problem remains to this day in Northern Ireland and other devolved UK administrations.

The Unionists, led by Sir James Craig, who became Northern Ireland’s first Prime Minister, did not regard the establishment of Northern Ireland as an end in itself. In theory at least, they would have preferred if there had been no devolution of powers at all, and if the whole of Ireland continued to be governed directly from Westminster. In establishing an administration in NI, Ulster Unionists saw themselves as taking on a duty, rather than enjoying a newly conferred freedom.

While they had opposed Home Rule for a united island of Ireland, they were willing to live with Home Rule for two separate parts of Ireland, as provided for in the Government of Ireland Act of 1920.

This arrangement prevented their part of Ulster being subject to Dublin rule, which was their overriding objective.  

Northern Ireland did not enjoy a peaceful birth, as we all know. Violence had  already commenced in 1920. The first casualty was a Clareman, Denis Moroney, an RIC sergeant, who was killed by the IRA in Derry city on 15 May 1920.

But the violence was more overtly sectarian, and lasted much longer, in Belfast. It was am intensification of six similar sectarian outbursts that had occurred at different times in the 19th century.

There were particular reasons for the outburst after the end of the Great War.

Military recruitment had led to a labour shortage, and many Catholics had been recruited, during the War, to fill jobs in Belfast that had previously been filled by Protestants, in places like the ship yards.

The end of the war in November 1918 meant that many Loyalists returned from the Front, and wanted their jobs back. This led to violent evictions of Catholic workers from their jobs. The Dublin Castle government refused to intervene, on the ground that these were “trade union issues”, and the displaced workers were even initially denied unemployment benefits.

This led to retaliatory attacks on trams carrying Loyalist workers to or from their jobs, whenever the tram route passed through a predominantly Nationalist neighbourhood. Once one knew the terminus of a tram, one could work out the likely religious affiliation of most of the passengers on it!

Several Protestants, who worked in predominantly Catholic workforces, such as the docks and the brewing industry, were also edged out of their jobs.

The IRA murder of RIC commander Gerald Smyth in Cork in July 1920 led to retaliations against the small Catholic community in Banbridge, Smyth’s home town.

Catholics and Protestants in mixed neighbourhoods were burned, or intimidated, out of their homes.

As in the early 1970’s, fugitives sought refuge in Dublin and Cork.

 An ill judged and ineffective boycott of goods manufactured in the North was organised in the South, as a response to the attacks on Catholics.

Under the Truce of 11 July 1921, the IRA had agreed that attacks on Crown forces and civilians were to cease, and there was to be no interference with Government or private property.

Apart from some score settling and house burning, the Truce held in the South until the outbreak of the Civil War a year later. This Truce created space in which it was possible to negotiate a Treaty that led to the creation a Free State government for Southern Ireland (a government that did have the responsibility of raising taxation!).

 But the Truce of July 1921 did not hold in Northern Ireland.  In fact the conflict intensified there, for reasons partially explored in this book.

 Attacks on Catholics continued, and the James Craig’s government took little effective action to stop it. They did establish special constabularies, but these were recruited mainly among the Protestant community.

 In fact, some noteworthy sectarian killings were carried out by people wearing police uniforms.

 60% of the fatalities in this conflict were Catholic, although Catholics were only 35% of the population. Thanks to the pre War gun running, the Loyalist community had more arms and ammunition than Nationalists had.

In early 1922, after the signing of the Treaty, but before the outbreak of the Civil War here, meetings were arranged between Michael Collins and James Craig, in an attempt to reduce the violence. The very fact of such meetings taking place place showed political courage on the part of both leaders.

 In return for an end to the boycott of Belfast goods in the South, they agreed that there would be a reorganisation of policing on non sectarian lines. A Police Committee and a Conciliation Committee were to be set up.  But grassroots Unionist opinion did not take kindly to the pact.

 Neither Collins nor Craig was fully in control of their own side. As a result, false hopes were raised.

 The “Irish Independent” even hoped that the Collins/ Craig pact would be “a great and decided advance towards Irish union”. This optimistic interpretation was without foundation, but it was guaranteed to annoy Unionists. The same excess of optimism is being repeated in some quarters today, in respect of the Northern Ireland Protocol. It could have similar malign results.

 In fact, sectarian killings intensified in the wake of the Craig/Collins pact, on an escalating tit for tat basis.

Six people, some elderly, were killed in Lisdrumliska near Newry by the IRA in June 1922, in an attempt at ethnic cleansing of Protestants from that townland. Three Catholics were shot dead in Cushendun by police, in a futile search for arms.

 When the Civil War started in the South, in August 1922, with the shelling of the Four Courts, the trouble subsided somewhat in the North, as many (but not all) of the Northern division of the IRA (like Charles Haughey’s father) went south to join the pro Treaty National Army.

Alan Parkinson gives a thorough account of the suffering on all sides in these years.

 He gives the victims a name, and in so doing restores their humanity. They are no longer just statistics, but people who came from somewhere, lived a life, and then had that life deliberately cut short, by someone who still enjoys the unearned privilege of anonymity.

The circumstances of its birth determine what Northern Ireland is today. Those pressing for a border poll should read this book.

Print Entry

Previous

HOW TO COPE WITH CHINA’S RISE

Next

CAREFUL THOUGHT NEEDED ON BORDER POLLS

1 Comment

  1. David O’Mahony

    Very informative as was your input on the Claire Byrne show tonight (22). We in the South would be horrified at the cost to us if Partition ended.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén