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What if: Stormont had attempted to shape an inclusive Northern Ireland in the 1920s? January 21, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics, Northern Ireland, What if?.

Here’s a question that has long made me wonder, what if with partition the Stormont government and the state in Northern Ireland had been more willing to make the effort to if not share power at least give a greater political space to nationalism? Is it that the two competing nationalisms were too divergent for such, particularly given the divisions between communities (and the manner in which class fed into those divisions?). Was there anything that Stormont could have done? The thought comes on foot of re-reading the interesting book Padraig O’Malley’s The Uncivil Wars from the early 1980s (of which more soon) which examined the North and Ireland and Britain through interviews with various politicians and others during that period and noted that some in Unionism sought something less than power sharing, but an assembly where Nationalists would control committees and therefore exercise some form of authority albeit constrained. It’s something, isn’t it to consider that as recently as the 1980s that was as far as much of Unionism could go towards powersharing, and it wasn’t that far really. But had gestures like that been made from the off was it ever tenable that some sort of modified dispensation – tolerable if unloved – could have been arrived at?

Joseph Lee notes that one education the Catholic Church was deeply hostile to educational reform measures and that:

Craig made a number of genuine if limited attempts to persuade Catholics to cooperate in the new administration. he reserved one third of the places in the police force for them, and invited them to participate on the Lynn committee of inquiry into education. When they failed to respond he seems to have decided that future initiatives for conciliation must come from them.

He also notes that:

Craig appointed Dawson Bates as Minister for Home Affairs to protect his right flank. As secretary of the Ulster Unionist Association since 1905, Bates had acquired an intimate knowledge of local unionist politics, and Craig relied heavily on him to relay grassroots feeling. If he was a useful buffer for Craig against he barbs of the right, however, Craig in return had to allow him a virtually free hand in the area of security. And Bates, aided and abetted by his permanent secretary, Samuel Watt, as well as by other officials, was a confirmed sectarian. He refused to appoint Catholics to his ministry. His Offences Against the State Act in 1924 invested the government with extensive powers of arrest and detention. It was renewed annually until 1931, when it became a permanent adornment of Ulster Unionist political architecture.

In a way the problem breaks down into parts. Was it ever feasible Unionism could be generous enough to make the necessary effort? Was Nationalism/Republicanism able or willing to reciprocate given the nature of the balance of power within the North (for better and worse)? Even had some accommodation been found initially could it have lasted and how would events such as the Economic War, the Second World War and so on impacted upon it. And so on. Of course the further one moves from a divergence the hazier the ability to even attempt to map outcomes.


1. Dr.Nightdub - January 21, 2014

On the first part, unionist willingness to be generous, I think the siege mentality was too deeply embedded in their psyche:
– Fear of their irredentist neighbours to the south, coupled with distrust of any Westminster government that wasn’t Conservative; though having been through PRONI files covering the early 1920s, I would say the degree of paranoia in official circles was enirely out of proportion to the actual threat
– The Special Powers Act having proved its usefulness when first put into practice in the spring of 1922; why be generous when it’s easier to be coercive?
– The abolition of PR in the mid-20s was primarily aimed at thwarting any resurgence in Labour Unionism, as opposed to being aimed at depriving nationalists of a voice, but it indicates the determination to maintain the existing hegemony

On the nationalist side, I’d say they were left reeling from the effects of the Treaty:
– The plan to institute a Boundary Commission had engendered an east-west split in nationalism – those in Tyrone/ Fermanagh thought they had a ticket to the promised land, whereas those in Belfast were basically screwed either way
– The shock of abandonment by their fellow-nationalists in the south – both supporters and opponents of the Treaty felt they’d been thrown to the wolves
– Lack of leadership – Joe Devlin was by then pretty much burnt out physically while the leading republican figures from the War of Independence had fled south

So basically, unionist intransigence plus nationalist demoralisation delivered what actually happened. Unless you open up all sorts of counterfactual avenues, I don’t see that it was ever realistically gonna be any different.


2. benmadigan - January 21, 2014

fantasy politics – or wishful thinking? The orange order played (and still plays) a determining role in NI politics. If you have a look at the patterns of Orange Loyalist violence towards Catholics since 1795, (catholic ex -servicemen dont count, the leopard doesn’t change its spots for example) on eurofree3.wordpress.com you will see there was very, very little, if any, room for accomodating catholics – even if they had won the Victoria Cross, the highest Uk award for valour!!


3. roddy - January 21, 2014

Dr nightclub,are you a disciple of the cruiser.?He described opposition to British imperialism in Ireland as “irredentism”.


Brian Hanley - January 21, 2014

The good doctor is a disciple of soul. Irredentism is the desire to reclaim lost territories I believe. I don’t think its use is offensive. What did you think of what he actually argued in his post?


Dr.Nightdub - January 22, 2014

Roddy, the Cruiser didn’t invent the word – if he had I wouldn’t have used it.


fergal - January 22, 2014

It’s from Italy afaik, when Garibaldi and Mazzini were uniting Italy by bringing its regions together.


4. Political Tourist - January 21, 2014

How long would working class loyalists have listened to Craig etc if the was no national question.
How many seats long term would have Tory/Orange/unionism held on to in Belfast, possibly one out of four (South Belfast)
Orangeism needs a perceived threat to survive.
A tiny catholic population and no national question would have damaged it.


Jim Monaghan - January 22, 2014

I think sectarianism is far more entrenched. In Glasgow where there was no real national question, loyalism and orangism gave the tories a mass workingclass base. Those of an Irish Catholic background backed Labour, a pan UK party.


Political Tourist - January 22, 2014

The term “Scottish Unionist Party” used by the local Tories until 1964 referred to the union between GB and NI.
Strangely enough the Tory support drops starts to drop off from then on and the rise of the SNP begins.
Historically the banning of catholicism in Scotland in 1560 predates the founding of the Orange Order by 235 years.


5. WorldbyStorm - January 22, 2014

Interesting thoughts above. I’m with you Dr.Nightdub. My own belief is that from the off there was no chance that the state or sub-state there could manage things efficiently and equitably. The structures weren’t arranged in such a way as that outcome could occur. And that meant that those with agency, Craig, etc, had no purchase even had they wanted to.


6. Jim Monaghan - January 22, 2014

Could I suggest that in Scotland you have the parallel world where there was no claim (irredentist). And the Orange Order and Loyalism while not as strong is as reactionary as ever.


EamonnCork - January 22, 2014

I’d agree with Jim. Martin Smyth, a very influential figure in unionism, gave a speech in Waterford just after the collapse of Sunningdale where he declared at length his opinion that the Republic was inhabited by unstable and inferior people with a tendency towards criminality and drunkenness. The problem in the North, as he saw it, was that these people were driven mad with jealousy because they were forced to measure themselves against the superior accomplishments of Protestants. I’d imagine this mentality was not untypical and that it made power sharing not merely unlikely but unthinkable.


7. Séamas Ó Sionnaigh (An Sionnach Fionn) - January 22, 2014

Since “Northern Ireland” was simply the historic British colonial state on the island of Ireland shrunk down to a more defendable/manageable size, a northern Pale, I don’t believe that any form of long-lasting communal or political pluralism or stability would have been possible. And to be honest I still don’t.


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