Northern Ireland centenary: Gordon Lucy on a country that was not expected to survive but is still here after 100 years

King George opened the parliament of Northern Ireland on this day in 1921. Gordon Lucy recounts the history of NI since then

Tuesday, 22nd June 2021, 9:10 pm
Updated Tuesday, 22nd June 2021, 9:21 pm
Stormont as it is in 2021, a century after the creation of Northern Ireland
Stormont as it is in 2021, a century after the creation of Northern Ireland

In 1921 few people expected Northern Ireland to survive.

Nationalists and republicans anticipated its early collapse. Some unionists feared the same.

Both pessimistic unionists and ‘optimistic’ nationalists and republicans seriously underestimated the determination, resolve and mettle of James Craig, Northern Ireland’s first prime minister, to ensure the survival of the new institutions.

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The Cabinet of Northern Ireland in 1921 (from left) Dawson Bates, Marquess of Londonderry, James Craig, H M Pollock, E M Archdale and J M Andrews. 'Both pessimistic unionists and optimistic republicans underestimated the resolve of James Craig to ensure the survival of the new institutions'

He overcame both the military and political challenges to the new state’s survival, especially the IRA campaign of 1920-2 and withstood Lloyd George’s efforts during the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations to subordinate Northern Ireland to a Dublin parliament.

Given the limited powers of the new Parliament, Northern Ireland was seriously ill-equipped to weather the stagnation and depression of the inter-war period but JM Andrews, who would Northern Ireland’s second prime minister in 1940, was ‘determined that the people of Northern Ireland should enjoy the same standard of living as those in the rest of the United Kingdom’.

He successfully championed the ‘step-by-step’ policy which ensured the automatic adoption of the main British cash social services. Through his efforts Northern Ireland’s working class enjoyed a higher standard of living than the South’s working class.

Northern Ireland’s varied and multi-faceted contribution to the war effort during the Second World War confirmed the province’s position within the UK and forged — in Winston Churchill’s words — ‘unbreakable bonds between Northern Ireland and Great Britain’.

The historian Gordon Lucy

Basil Brooke, Northern Ireland’s third prime minister, oversaw the extension of the Attlee government’s welfare legislation to Northern Ireland and presided over the material transformation of Ulster in the post-war years.

The Ireland Act of 1949 further entrenched the unionist position by guaranteeing ‘that in no event will Northern Ireland or any part thereof cease to be part ... of the United Kingdom without the consent of the Parliament of Northern Ireland’.

At the time 1950s must have seemed like a golden idyll as Northern Ireland continued to bask in the warmth of Westminster’s goodwill.

The IRA’s border campaign, launched in 1956, failed due to a lack of public support and its repudiation by the nationalist community in particular.

Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast in its heyday. By the 1950s, the narrow basis of the Northern Ireland economy — shipbuilding and engineering, linen and agriculture — was giving cause for anxiety

However, the narrow basis of the Northern Ireland economy — shipbuilding and engineering, linen and agriculture — was giving cause for anxiety. Modernisation of these staple industries entailed the shedding of employment and there was an urgency to diversify.

Serious thought too was being given to bridging the communal divide because the creation of the welfare state was making possible a more inclusive form of unionism. In the early 1950s Brooke sought to educate his party: ‘I told them that the Convention on Human Rights compelled us to be fair and I insisted that I was not going to be responsible for discrimination.’

During the 1951 election campaign Brooke thought that nationalists were beginning to appreciate that life in ‘British Ulster’ was preferable to life in ‘a Gaelic Republic’.

Significant diversification of the economy was well under way in the early 1960s, not least through the introduction of the man-made fibre industry. Economic planning was in vogue. A second university at Coleraine was envisaged. The visit of Sean Lemass to Stormont opened up the prospect of improved relations with the Irish Republic.

Oxford Street bus station on Bloody Friday in July 1972, when the IRA attacked Belfast. "As the legitimate grievances of the Civil Rights movement were redressed fairly rapidly, there was no justification for the descent into violence"

The heady optimism of the 1960s was blown away by the 50th anniversary of 1916 ‘Rising’ (with its subtext of ‘unfinished business’), the Civil Rights movement (although it enjoyed some unionist support and sympathy, many ordinary unionists equated it with republicanism) and the rise of Paisleyism (which was fuelled by rank-and-file unionist anxieties).

Although a man of undeniably decent instincts with a vision for a brighter future, Terence O’Neill, with his Old Etonian drawl, was a poor communicator and lacked the requisite political acumen to meet these challenges.

The same might be said of James Chichester-Clark, his kinsman and immediate successor. Unionist politicians were unaccustomed to explaining their case to an almost uniformly hostile media.

Unionism’s tragedy was that Brian Faulkner, ‘the little shirt-manufacturer’ who was the most gifted unionist politician of his generation, did not succeed Basil Brooke as prime minister in 1963.

When Faulkner succeeded Chichester-Clark in 1971 he had insufficient time to turn things round.

As the legitimate grievances of the Civil Rights movement were redressed fairly rapidly, there was no justification for the descent into the violence which stretched into the 1990s and resulted in over 3,500 deaths.

Modern Northern Ireland celebrities. Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol on stage in front of an image of the boxer Carl Frampton

Unfortunately, some of the leading lights of the Civil Rights movement were more interested in ‘revolution in Ireland’ rather than ‘reform in Northern Ireland’, a point appreciated by the veteran Communist Betty Sinclair, chairman of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, a graduate of the Lenin School in Moscow and a hard-line Stalinist. She recognised that under the guidance of the Trotskyites and leftists in the organisation that civil rights was better calculated to evolve into a prolonged but low-intensity civil war.

In January 1972 troops from the Parachute Regiment shot 13 people in Londonderry.

Although there is no evidence to suggest that the killings were the result of a policy decision by Faulkner, Faulkner correctly anticipated that Stormont would end up carrying the can for the incident. In March 1972 Westminster announced the suspension of the Stormont Parliament and its replacement with direct rule.

The period between 1972, by far and away the worst year of the so-called ‘Troubles’, and the republican and loyalist ceasefires of 1994 was characterised by the search for a political arrangements to replace the Stormont Parliament and an apparently never-ending catalogue of atrocities which are painful to recall. HM government’s blueprint for the architecture of a political settlement was established very early on: power-sharing and ‘an Irish dimension’ giving a Dublin a role in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland.

This was given concrete expression in the Northern Ireland Constitution Act of 1973 and the Sunningdale Agreement of December 1973.

These arrangements did not endure long. All the other participants at Sunningdale had ganged up against Faulkner and pressured him into signing up to a deal he could not sell and for which he got little in return. Kevin Boland, a former Fianna Fail minister, challenged the legality of the agreement in the Dublin High Court.

The Irish government defended the agreement by insisting that the territorial claim was still in force thereby pulling rug from under Faulkner’s feet. Hugh Logue, a SDLP assembly member, also claimed that the Council of Ireland provided for in the agreement would ‘trundle’ unionists into a united Ireland.

The Ulster Workers Council strike of May 1974 administered the coup de grace to Sunningdale and all its works.

The Constitutional Convention of 1975 was essentially a holding operation on the part of the government. In this respect it was rather like the Irish Convention of 1917/8.

As Roy Mason, the tough, no-nonsense former Yorkshire miner who was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland between 1976 and 1979, told the Labour Party Conference in 1976: ‘Ulster had had enough of initiatives, White Papers and legislation for the time being, and now needed to be governed firmly and fairly’. Mason rejected both military and political solutions in favour of ‘justice for all; with equality before the law; and, crucially, with republican terrorism treated as a security problem, and nothing else’.

‘Rolling Devolution’ between 1982 and 1986 was an attempt by the government to nudge the Northern Ireland parties into power sharing while the Anglo-Irish Agreement (AIA) of November 15 1985 was a bid to provide Dublin with a consultative role in Northern Ireland policy over the heads of and without reference to unionists.

The AIA failed to bring an immediate end to political violence in Northern Ireland. Nor did it advance reconciliation between unionists and nationalists. The direct opposite was the case and it killed off ‘Rolling Devolution’.

HM Government expected to secure improved security co-operation with Dublin as a result of the AIA but it famously did not materialise. Little wonder that Mrs Thatcher thought she had been sold a pup.

Sir Patrick Mayhew’s declaration at Coleraine in December 1992, The Downing Street Declaration of December 1993 and the Framework Document (which was leaked in The Times in January 1995) were all about preparing the ground for the Belfast Agreement of 10 April 1998.

The Good Friday Agreement (as it frequently called) had three strands rather than two. In addition to Strand One (the internal arrangements within Northern Ireland) and Strand Two (the North/South arrangements), there was Strand Three (the East/West arrangements and the totality of relationships in these Islands). Other issues – the release of prisoners, policing and decommissioning of terrorist weaponry – were kicked into touch to be dealt with separately.

Very little of the euphoria surrounding the Good Friday Agreement, a document rarely read but regularly invoked in support of a wide variety of propositions, usually relating to the NI Protocol, survives.

It richly deserves a place in Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking-Glass:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

In 1992 the neo-con American political scientist Francis Fukuyama published ‘The End of History and the Last Man’ in which he anticipated the end of history with the impending triumph of liberal democracy and market capitalism.

Some people fondly imagine that the Good Friday Agreement signals the end of Irish history.

The Fukuyama thesis carried more conviction 30 years ago than it does today. The Good Friday Agreement as the end of Irish history never did carry much conviction.

Happily politics do not constitute the sum total of human existence.

Northern Ireland for its size continues to nurture a great many people of talent and distinction in the arts and culture, in a wide range of sports and a great many scientists and innovators.

Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and CS Lewis spring to mind. Local screen icons include Liam Neeson, Jamie Dornan, Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Fairley and Roma Downey. In the world of music there is Van Morrison and Snow Patrol. Northern Ireland has excelled in a wide range of sports as Mary Peters, George Best and Rory McIlroy testify.

Innovators include John Dunlop (the pneumatic tyre), Harry Ferguson (the modern tractor), Sir James Martin (the ejector seat),

Frank Pantridge (the portable defibrillator) and William Dinsmore (Viagra).

Scientists of distinction include Ernest Walton (who split the atom and won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1951), John Stewart Bell (the originator of Bell’s theorem), Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell (for her work on pulsars) and Steve Myers (for the Large Hadron Collider).

Every one of these lists could be expanded with mimimal effort. Other lists could be compiled too.

With the arrival and settlement of Chinese, Indians and Pakistanis from the Indian subcontinent, Polish and other eastern Europeans, and Syrian and Somali refugees, Northern Ireland is a more diverse place than it was in 1921. The demographic balance between Protestants and Roman Catholics has greatly narrowed too in the intervening years.

Those who simple-mindedly equate Roman Catholics with nationalists and Protestants as unionists are eager to predict a nationalist majority in the near future and the end of Northern Ireland.

Yet in 2021 Northern Ireland still exists and is still part of the UK, a position endorsed by a higher percentage of the population than votes for explicitly unionist parties. Perhaps the Union survives and endures in spite of rather than because of the present generation of unionist politicians.

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