Patrick J Roche: Archbishop’s comments a moral indictment of unionism

Archbishop Eamon Martin in his contribution to the centenary service in Armagh on October 21, and speaking on behalf of his “community and tradition,” stated that reflection on partition occasioned “a deep sense of sadness and loss”.

By Patrick J Roche
Thursday, 11th November 2021, 6:00 am
Church leaders at the service of 'Reflection and Hope' to mark the Centenary of the partition and the formation of Northern Ireland. 

Photo: Jonathan Porter / Press Eye
Church leaders at the service of 'Reflection and Hope' to mark the Centenary of the partition and the formation of Northern Ireland. Photo: Jonathan Porter / Press Eye

Prior to the centenary service he had expressed solidarity with his Archbishop predecessors in opposition to partition as a “perennial source of discord and strife” (Irish Times, October 19) which he claimed during the service had “polarised people on this island” for a hundred years.

These views coincided precisely with the recent claim by Simon Coveney that “partition was a terrible mistake and caused extraordinary division on the island of Ireland” (Irish Times, October 11).

Partition occurred because unionist commitment to the Union precluded identification with the imperatives of Irish nationalism and hence the refusal of unionists to be incorporated into an all-Ireland state.

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Contrary to the tacit import of the Archbishop’s address, unionist opposition to ‘Home Rule’ from the late nineteenth century was based on entirely rational and legitimate grounds.

They did not identify themselves as part of a Gaelic nation in which being Catholic was considered essential to being authentically Irish.

Unionists were distinct from Irish nationalists with respect to the religion, culture and political aspiration which grounded their deep-rooted loyalty toward Britain and their entirely legitimate demand to remain within the Union. Unionist apprehensions that Home rule would degenerate into ‘Rome rule’ were prescient and well founded.

After 1922 the southern leaders set about constructing a Gaelicised and confessional Catholic state in which the Catholic church was given responsibility for health and education and a ‘special position’ in de Valera’s 1937 constitution.

Catholic moral values were all-pervasive: divorce was not permitted, birth control outlawed, literature advocating contraception banned, films and books censured and the Ne Temere decree was applied to mixed marriages. Protestants in the Free State/Republic were enclosed within a society dominated by a nationalist understanding of history and the pervasive political and moral power of Catholicism.

The Protestant population rapidly declined having been subjected in 1919-23 and again in 1935 to intimidation, vicious attacks and sectarian murder as in the case the Bandon Valley murders in 1922.

But during the first seventy years of partition the Catholic population of Northern Ireland increased while their co-religionists in the Free State/Republic fled in their hundreds of thousands to the British mainland to escape poverty and the cultural deprivations of a theocratic dominance that itself spawned the horrors of the orphan homes and the Magdalene laundries.

The Archbishop’s reference to the ‘sadness’ and ‘loss’ that he claimed his community and tradition had experienced as a result of partition can be reasonably understood as expressive of what has been ironically referred to as the MOPE mentality of the ‘most

oppressed people ever’.

The simple fact of the matter is that the benefits of the Union were made available to all the citizens of Northern Ireland: social security and welfare, educational opportunity, health provision and the availability of public housing.

Despite claims to the contrary by the civil rights activists, Catholics were in fact over-represented in public housing. The system of local government franchise was outdated and should not have been retained after it was reformed in Britain in 1948.

The local government franchise did not apply to Stormont or Westminster elections. This meant that the Catholic population was not disenfranchised contrary to the intended and successful propaganda of the NI civil rights slogan ‘one man, one vote’ – in fact the local government franchise actually disenfranchised more Protestants than Catholics.

The Archbishop’s comments expressed a nationalist antipathy to partition. But his comments also crucially amounted to a moral indictment of unionism.

Here is why.

Partition is the perennial (‘never failing’) source of strife. Unionists secured partition. Therefore unionists are ultimately responsible for the ‘strife’ which the Archbishop attributed to partition.

That is a morally and historically perverse perspective. The truth is that the decades of terrorism originated and was sustained from within the community and tradition with which the Archbishop identified.

The terrorism of the IRA was driven by a nationalist fanaticism and an ideological blindness to the integrity and validity of the unionist commitment to the Union.

• Patrick J. Roche was a Lagan Valley MLA, 1998-2003. He was elected as a member of the UK Unionist Party. From January 1999 remained in the seat as a member of the NI Unionist Party

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