Northern Ireland is back in the news. In this 100th anniversary year of the founding of the state, what should have been a moment of celebration for Ulster’s unionists has turned out to be an occasion for bitter recrimination, coupled with a growing sense that their much cherished union may be more in peril than ever before.
The problem started with Brexit—something unionism campaigned for. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the largest unionist party in Northern Ireland, was one of the United Kingdom’s most enthusiastic advocates for withdrawal from the EU: hardly surprising, as the DUP has been rabidly Euro-skeptic since its founding in 1970. The Protestant Evangelical who founded the DUP saw the then European Economic Community, and the subsequent EU, as part of a “Catholic plot.”
Many unionists saw the 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership in the EU as more than a question of cutting free from the “bureaucratic red tape” of Brussels. Crucially for the DUP, Brexit was seen as an issue of sovereignty. Something they felt more acutely than others in the UK as the issue of British sovereignty over the six counties was—and still is—a contentious issue in Northern Ireland and beyond.
The northern Irish state was born in 1921 as a political compromise.
In fact, the circumstances of its birth bear certain similarities to the issues and conundrums thrown up by Brexit for Northern Ireland 100 years on. These include a national vote that has a different outcome for one part of the polity involved. Brexit, for example, appears to have had a different outcome for Northern Ireland than for the rest of the UK. This is similar to how Northern nationalists felt when they were partitioned from the rest of Ireland in 1921—despite a national vote for independence in 1918.
In the 1918 Westminster election, the Irish Republican party, Sinn Fein, won the vast majority of the seats for Irish Members of Parliament. Irish unionists won a mere 22 of the 73 seats. Importantly, though, these unionist seats were concentrated geographically in the east of Ulster, Ireland’s northern province.
Since 1914, there had been Protestant opposition in Ulster to any form of Home Rule (which was dubbed “Rome Rule” by its opponents). The threat of a civil war over possible Home Rule had been averted at the time by the start of World War One. However, as that conflict ended, the “Irish Question,” as it was known in Westminster, returned.
But the war years had changed and confused things further still. That conflict saw thousands of Irishmen—from the north and south, both Catholic and Protestant—fight for the British Empire. They had fought, however, with different hopes and assumptions of what would happen once the war ended. Nationalists fought believing that Westminster would grant some form of Home Rule to Ireland when hostilities concluded; unionists fought believing their “blood sacrifice” would strengthen the existing union of Ireland with Britain and nullify these nationalist calls for Home Rule.
The events of Easter 1916, when Irish republicans led an unsuccessful armed insurrection against British rule, made a fair hearing for the case of moderate nationalism more difficult.
At the same time, the British summarily executed the leaders of the 1916 Rising and, as a result, transformed many moderate nationalists into militant republicans.
The subsequent 1918 election success for Sinn Fein was to prove a turning point—not just in modern Irish history but within Irish nationalism. The more moderate, formerly dominant nationalist Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), which had long argued for Home Rule for Ireland within the polity of the UK, was eclipsed by Sinn Fein. There followed a guerrilla war across Ireland between the armed wing of the party, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and British forces over Irish demands for independence.
By 1919, to prevent a full-scale civil war as much as anything, Lloyd George, then British Prime Minister, was considering plans to partition Ireland with a unionist-majority state in the north that would remain part of the UK. In 1921, to that end, a parliament was set up in Belfast. Only six of the nine counties of Ulster were chosen to be so represented in this new Belfast parliament. This would ensure that there would be a Protestant majority in the new state that would become known as Northern Ireland.
By the end of that year, Sinn Fein and the British government signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty. This treaty ended hostilities between British forces and the IRA, and it paved the way for the establishment of the Irish Free State for the remaining 26 counties of Ireland. With this, the island had been partitioned.
Peace did not prevail, however. A vicious civil war took place in the south over the terms of the treaty and continued British rule in the six counties in the north. Sectarian bloodletting in those counties followed, as mainly Catholics were killed or expelled from Belfast and elsewhere.
The partition of Ireland was a British compromise to an Irish problem. In the decades that followed, the compromise suited no one. Irish nationalists resented it; republicans waged armed campaigns against it from Northern Ireland’s inception. Unionists had their own state, but almost 35% of the citizens living within it were nationalist and were thus perceived as hostile to it.
The most recent version of the northern Troubles began at the end of the 1960s with yet another war between the IRA and British forces that would see thousands dead. This armed conflict persisted until 1998 and the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.
Thereafter, for the first time since its creation, Northern Ireland was to know a period of relative peace and prosperity. Politically, the issue of the Irish border had been eradicated for both the Republic of Ireland—the Irish Free State became a republic in 1949—and the UK, of which Northern Ireland remained part, as all belonged within the EU.
To all intents and purposes, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic were one economic unit. Trade flowed easily between the two parts of Ireland; many laws on both sides of the border were framed by European legislation. The larger European umbrella meant that unionists and nationalists could co-exist with little need formally to differentiate the two jurisdictions on the island. This, coupled with the ending of violence through the Good Friday Agreement, brought about a state of affairs that suited all parties within Northern Ireland.
All that changed in 2016. Brexit meant that one part of Ireland was within the EU and the other was outside of it, within a newly independent UK. Any plan to impose a land border in Ireland was seen by nationalists as recreating the events of 100 years ago. The fact that the land border is over 300 miles long and notoriously hard to police added a practical problem to any idea of any reinstated frontier. As it transpired, by 2020, it became clear that the new “border”—an economic one—was to be placed in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and all of Ireland: both north and south.
As this reality dawned upon Ulster’s unionists, its consequence was seen as a threat to the very sovereignty of Northern Ireland and its place in the UK. There was the obvious unionist sense of grievance at being treated differently from any other part of the UK by means of border checks and tariffs on goods. However, it was not just the inconvenience of this.
There was also something else, if officially unstated, that disturbed unionists even more: namely, the seemingly logical conclusion that an economic union with the rest of Ireland inevitably would lead to a political union.
Today, all unionists seek to be rid of the Irish Sea Border (ISB). In the last months, however, precisely at a time when unionism needed a unified voice to articulate this, the leader of the DUP, Arlene Foster, was forced to resign. Her removal was contentious—and the subsequent power struggles within the DUP have revealed little by way of a political vision for the future.
What is clear is that whoever is in charge of the DUP has little room to manoeuvre when it comes to removing the ISB. For months now, unionists have protested their dislike of it—but Brussels, Dublin, and even London to some extent, remain opposed or indifferent to unionist concerns over customs checks and tariffs. And while growing more impotent from their rage, unionists have been unable to produce a viable alternative to the new customs arrangements that they so detest.
This is not surprising as the predominant politics among Ulster’s unionists is one of drift. They have no clear plan of action for the ISB or indeed for the changing nature of Northern Ireland. They are thus at the mercy of their political enemies—such as Sinn Fein, who have a very clear roadmap for the future, one that results in the end of partition and an Ireland again reunited.
K.V. Turley is an award-winning journalist and author whose work has appeared on both sides of the Atlantic. He writes from London.