Preconditions for an Irish Peace

Garret FitzGerald

When Ireland was divided politically by the Government of Ireland Act 1920, this event was taken much less seriously by most Irish people than might have been expected in view of the generation-long political turmoil that had preceded it. The decision was taken in an effort to reconcile the divergent aspirations of the Nationalist majority in the island as a whole and of the Unionist minority largely concentrated in the six north-eastern counties.

The Nationalist majority in Ireland, then engaged in a struggle for the independence of the whole island, was not greatly impressed by the establishment of a provincial parliament and government in the North, especially as the attempt to implement the remainder of the Act by establishing a similar parliament and government in the South was an abysmal failure. Opinion may also have been affected by the fact that the opening of this Northern Parliament was the occasion for a speech by King George V, owing much to his personal initiative and offering an olive branch to the Irish Nationalist tradition that quickly led to a Truce, and, five months later, 6 December 1921, to a Treaty between the United Kingdom Government and the separatist administration – those who had been operating an ‘underground’ government throughout most of Ireland for several years past.

The Treaty recognised the whole of Ireland as a unit to be accorded sovereignty as a self-governing Dominion of the British Commonwealth a year later, albeit with an option for the six north-eastern counties to quit this new all-Ireland state within one month of its establishment, by the vote of a majority of the Northern Provincial Parliament. The vote was passed on the very day following the establishment of this all-Ireland state.

The stormy debate that ensued in the Dail – the democratically-elected Parliament of the new state which had emerged from clandestinity after the Truce – centred on the monarchical form of the proposed state, and specifically on the Oath of Allegiance to the Crown. Only a couple of speakers from the North adverted to the political division, which appears to have been assumed by all concerned to be purely temporary in character, partly because of a fallacious belief that Northern Ireland was too small to be viable, and partly because the concept of a divided Ireland was too unhistorical to be taken seriously. In the North also, there existed a widespread, but not publicly proclaimed, belief among Unionists that the division of the island would be temporary, and would give them a breathing-space during which to prepare to live with their neighbours within a single political framework.

Some reflection of this widespread assumption of the temporary nature of the division, and of the continuing acceptance of a broader unity within the island, is to be found to this day in the fact that so many Irish institutions continue to be organised on an all-Ireland basis: not merely the Churches, Roman Catholic and Protestant, but also the trade-union movement, the banking system (despite the new phenomenon of currencies with two different parities), and sports like rugby and hockey. Certain organisations which existed before 1920 have, of course, split on a North-South basis for one reason or another, and almost all new organisations coming into existence since then have been organised separately in the two parts of the island: but the important symbols of a basic unity remain intact, and are not found anomalous by the vast majority of Northern Unionists. Why, given this background, has the division between North and South proved so long-lasting, and, in the past decade, such a potent source of violence?

First, the division created its own new vested interests, as should have been, but was not, foreseen. Second, the two new political units moved fairly rapidly away from each other in important respects. Partly at least, this reflected the difference in ethos between the Christian denominations to which the majorities in the two areas gave their allegiance.

In the North, quite apart from a desire to maintain and indeed intensify the Protestant character of society in the area, there was a deep fear of the Nationalist minority within their borders, and of the island-wide Nationalist majority, and this led its exclusively Unionist governments to discriminate against Catholics with regard to employment, and – in some cases with a view to enhancing their local parliamentary majority – with regard to the location of housing, and, arguably also, its availability. As a result, because differential unemployment induced differential emigration, the threateningly large minority of Catholic children – approaching 50 per cent of the total – never converted itself into an equivalent proportion of the adult population, the Catholic proportion of which has, until very recently, remained only a little above 30 per cent.

In the South, with a population which, when the first Census was taken in 1926, contained only 6 per cent of Protestants, the new state insensibly, and insensitively, allowed itself to drift towards a Catholic, Gaelic ideal which corresponded to the aspirations of the great majority of its people. Great care was taken to protect the rights of the Protestant minority: by giving them half the seats in the relatively powerful Senate or Upper House in the early years, by protecting their lives and property against attack by extreme elements during the Civil War that followed the Treaty in the South, by leaving untouched the possession of all pre-Reformation church property by the Anglican Church of Ireland, and, for example, by providing additional grants for school transport for Protestants in view of their dispersion at a low density throughout the rural population.

Protestant opinion in the South was reassured by these measures, and was reluctant to protest at changes in the Constitution or laws which had no directly damaging effect on their interests, but which introduced Catholic teaching in various forms: contraception was banned in 1935, and a bar on divorce legislation was introduced in the new Constitution of 1937. Other laws made the Irish language an essential element for the School Leaving Certificate, and for entry into the public service: provisions designed to repay the debt due by the Nationalist political movement to the Irish-language revival of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, through which many of the Nationalist leaders had come to know each other and to develop their ideas of a separate Irish state. These were provisions which made the new state more alien still to Northern Protestants.

What had been separated by Britain was further divided by Irishmen largely unconscious of the significance of their acts. One other factor helped to make the political division more lasting than it might have been: the South remained neutral in the Second World War, fearful lest participation on the Allied side might have rekindled the ashes of the post-Treaty Civil War, which had ended only half a generation earlier. Some would argue that the ending of Ireland’s membership of the Commonwealth by the declaration of a Republic in 1949 further divided South from North: but common participation in the Commonwealth in earlier decades had not done much to foster reunification.

Such is the background to the crisis of the past decade. Obstacles to a normalisation of political relations within Northern Ireland and to a rapprochement between North and South – the latter attempted in the mid-1960s – had been twofold: the reluctance of the Northern minority to participate in the institutions of the Province, extending at periods to abstention from its Parliament; and a recurrent ‘anti-partition’ campaign emanating from the Republic, and designed either to persuade, or through international pressure, to force, Britain to reunify Ireland, whatever the wishes of the majority of its population.

These phenomena, combined with a sense of themselves as the real minority in the island of Ireland as a whole, had encouraged the perpetuation and even intensification of a siege mentality among Northern Unionists, whose ‘Establishment’ saw advantages in encouraging working-class Protestant fears of Catholics as a means of diverting attention from any potential movement to the left among the mass of the workers.

Against this background, two preconditions for progress towards political normality were, first, a decision by the Northern Nationalist minority to accept the existence of the Province and its administration as a fact, and a willingness, not merely to work with this system, but to insist on their rights within it; and, second, the abandonment by political parties in the Republic of both of their (in any event mutually contradictory) policies of trying, on the one hand, to construct a Gaelic, Catholic state that would be totally alien to Northern Protestants, and, on the other hand, to secure British coercion of the Northern Unionists into an all-Ireland state.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, these preconditions began to be fulfilled. The Nationalist minority in Northern Ireland turned away from the sterile politics of intermittent abstentionism, and the enthusiasms of a new generation that had benefited from post-war free education were channelled into a civil rights movement inspired by what was happening in the United States. By demanding civil rights within the existing political context, this movement was in fact accepting this context, at least until a majority in Northern Ireland should decide in favour of a united Ireland, whenever that might be.

The opportunity thus provided for reconciliation in Northern Ireland, with an agreement to differ as to a future relationship with the Republic, was not grasped or understood by the Unionist leaders, who felt threatened by the demand for equal rights from the minority and who, in August 1969, directed their local forces of order to intervene against the civil rights movement with such violence that the British Army had to be sent in to restore order and to protect the minority from the police, and from Unionist mobs who followed them on a rampage of destruction.

Out of this situation emerged two new political forces. The first was a Nationalist political party in Northern Ireland which has ever since commanded the support of the vast majority of Northern Nationalists. The SDLP rejects the old Nationalist stance. It advocates participation in the institutions of Northern Ireland, and reunification with the Republic on a basis of the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland. The second force to emerge was the Provisional IRA, which, at the end of 1969, broke away from the Marxist Official IRA, and, in the summer of 1970, began to secure some minimal support, or at least tolerance, in Nationalist ‘ghetto’ areas after the British Army’s curfew and search in a major Nationalist area of Belfast. This was carried out in a manner that decisively alienated many among the minority from the force which had come to their rescue, at the request of several of their lay and religious leaders, less than a year before.

In the Republic, the events of 1969 had a traumatic impact. After some initial uncertainty in the face of the massive violence in Belfast and Derry in August of that year, the political parties in the Republic rapidly faced realities to which they had closed their eyes for decades. They opted – immediately and decisively in the case of Fine Gael and Labour (then in opposition), and more slowly and ambivalently in the case of Fianna Fail (then, as it is now once again, in government) – for a policy of reunification only by consent, rejecting the older policies of attempting to persuade or to force Britain to ‘hand over’ the North against its will.

So the two preconditions for a start to a solution of the Irish problem were fulfilled, both in the North and in the Republic. But the activities of the Provisional IRA represented a new and disturbing element, which made it very difficult to reap any benefits.

Moreover, two crucial events supervened which altered the whole scenario. First there was the internment by the Northern Unionist Government in August 1971 of some hundreds of Nationalists, the majority of whom turned out to be innocent of any involvement with the IRA, and about half of whom were brutalised – a small number by methods which included psychological techniques later found by the European Commission on Human Rights (but not, on appeal, by the Court) to be torture. Second, there was the killing in Derry, at the end of January 1972, of 13 young men by soldiers of the Parachute Regiment. This event was filmed and televised throughout Ireland and the world, and, because of the close links that existed between local British Army leaders and the provincial Unionist administration, it had a decisive effect on British politicians’ attitudes towards the retention of this administration. Within two months the British Conservative Government abolished the provincial Parliament and Government in Northern Ireland, and introduced direct rule from Westminster, pending agreement on some more equitable and successful method of self-government for the Province.

In this new situation, there were two further preconditions for success – additional, that is, to the continuation of the preconditions already referred to with respect to the Northern Nationalist minority and the political parties of the Republic. These were, first, that Northern Unionist politicians should be convinced of Britain’s determination never to permit a restoration of self-government without at least a period of power-sharing, so that the Nationalist minority could gain a sense of participation in the running of the affairs of the community to which they had been unwillingly attached over half a century earlier; and, second, that the IRA should be convinced of Britain’s determination to refuse any dealings with them in any circumstances, and of the British Government’s determination to retain its political responsibility for Northern Ireland until an internal solution was found.

Neither of these two new preconditions has been realised. This has produced the deadlock which we now face. The Conservative Government of Mr Heath succeeded in securing agreement at Sunningdale, in December 1973, to a power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland, and to a consultative Council of Ireland to bring together Northern and Southern politicians. But this agreement (whose effective implementation had not been helped by an overemphasis by some politicians in the Republic on the significance of the Council of Ireland as a harbinger of future unification) was undermined by the resistance of some Unionist politicians who had excluded themselves from this consensus, and, above all, by the failure of the new British Labour Government, under Harold Wilson in May 1974, to face what in its early stages was a very shaky Workers’ Strike against the new Executive.

The consequent collapse of the Executive, as its Unionist members became aware of Britain’s failure to suppress the rebellion – for that is what it became – had a traumatic effect on the whole Northern Ireland situation. The weakness of will then demonstrated in support of an existing power-sharing administration was widely interpreted as evidence that the will would be lacking to bring into existence any other similar type of devolved government in the future.

The situation that followed was not necessarily irretrievable, as may be seen from the almost fortuitous way Unionist politicians subsequently impaled themselves on an anti-power-sharing hook, and by the efforts a number of them made at different stages to get off this hook. What has prevented any progress towards this aim in the years since then has in part been the half-hearted way the British Government of the day pursued the principle of ‘no devolution without power-sharing’. Particularly unfortunate was the ambivalence of its attitude towards Northern Unionist representatives at Westminster during the period of the ‘hung’ Parliament – from the spring of 1976 especially, when discussions between representatives of the Labour Government and Westminster Unionists destroyed the credibility of this already somewhat tattered principle.

There was no way in which devolutionist Unionists in Northern Ireland, frustrated at their exclusion from any political role, could give vent to this frustration by ‘unhooking’ themselves from their anti-power-sharing position, so long as their colleagues at Westminster were reporting back success in efforts to wring from the Labour Government a promise of extra seats at Westminster for Northern Ireland after the subsequent General Election. These Westminster Unionist MPs could also report an apparent weakening of the line on ‘no devolution without power-sharing’ on the part of both the main parties, who were competing for the support, in some cases the abstention, of Northern Ireland Unionist or Loyalist MPs, in a Parliament where the Government was in a minority.

One of the two additional preconditions for a settlement was eroded, therefore, because of the exigencies of domestic British politics. This was the process which later drew from Speaker ‘Tip’ O’Neill the metaphor: ‘making Northern Ireland a football in British politics’. While hardly technically accurate, his language nevertheless correctly reflected the unhappy fact that domestic British interests had taken precedence over those of Northern Ireland at a crucial period for that Province.

The result, predictable to almost anyone close to the Northern Ireland scene, was the erosion of the Unionist Party itself, divided between apparently successful Westminster integrationists and clearly unsuccessful domestic devolutionists, and devoid of the kind of imaginative leadership called for by such a difficult situation. Dr Ian Paisley’s extremist Democratic Unionist Party was the inevitable gainer: British failure to pursue unambiguously the clear-cut policy of ‘no devolution without power-sharing’ had played straight into his hands.

The second precondition for a resolution of the Northern Ireland problem after the abolition of the Stormont Parliament and Government was that the British Government would be equally unambiguous in rejecting discussion or negotiation with the IRA. The capacity of the IRA to sustain a guerrilla campaign year after year depends upon access to arms and explosives – all too easy, this, in a world where all the great powers lavish them competitively on regimes of every kind – and upon the maintenance by the forces of order – through forms of interrogation at Castlereagh Barracks, for instance – of a sufficient element of alienation among at least a proportion of the Nationalist minority. But the continued activity of the IRA depends most of all upon the hope that at some point a British government will seek to negotiate a cease-fire with them, on terms involving an agreement that Britain will withdraw from Northern Ireland, with or without the consent of a majority of its population.

This hope has been generated, and kept alive, by successive British politicians. The process started when, as Leader of the Opposition, Sir Harold Wilson visited Dublin, allegedly to meet the leaders of the democratically-elected government of that state and of the opposition parties, but, in fact, to make direct contact with leaders of this murderous conspiracy against the Irish state and against the peace of Northern Ireland and its people. Feelings in Ireland were bitter at what was seen as a betrayal of hospitality and an undermining of the Irish democratic system by a political guest. Courtesy towards Britain and the Leader of its Opposition may have inhibited the full expression of this resentment. It was, however, made very plain after the subsequent decision of the Conservative Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr William Whitelaw, to invite the leaders of the IRA to meet him in London: a serious mistake by a British political leader who otherwise distinguished himself in this most exacting portfolio, and came nearer to solving the Irish problem at Sunningdale in December, 1973, than anyone before or since.

The process of building up the hopes and expectations of the IRA continued regardless of Irish protests under Mr Whitelaw’s successor, Mr Merlyn Rees, who authorised discussions by his officials with what were described as members of the political party representative of the Provisional IRA, Sinn Fein. These discussions gave rise to a widespread and demoralising belief that agreements were reached which promised a measure of immunity, for a period, to certain IRA leaders in Northern Ireland.

The damage done by these repeated contacts with terrorist leaders or representatives can scarcely be underestimated. The boost to the morale of the IRA, with whom no government of the Republic has had truck, was inestimable, and it is hard to say how many years of refusal of further contact will be required to undo this damage, and to convince the IRA that their violence is futile, and that no future British government will discuss or negotiate with them.

It is the failure to meet the two preconditions – a resolute pursuit of the policy of ‘no devolution without power-sharing’, in order to bring the Unionists to terms with reality, and an equally resolute pursuit of the policy of no dealings with terrorists over the heads, or behind the backs, of the democratically-elected politicians of the two parts of Ireland – which has led to the present impasse.

Even the maintenance hitherto, in the face of these events, of the two other preconditions for a solution – support by the vast bulk of the minority population for a party which is prepared to work devolved government in the present context, pending agreement among the people of Northern Ireland as to a new political relationship with the rest of the island, and a firm commitment on the part of all the democratically-elected political parties of the Republic to the proposition of reunification only with the consent of a majority in Northern Ireland – is insufficient to provide of itself the basis for a solution when the other two preconditions have been so undermined.

What kind of way forward can one envisage? First, a clear-sighted recognition that there can be no ‘military’ solution in advance of a political solution. The conditions which favour the persistence of IRA activities – including those aspects of the handling of security in Northern Ireland which continue to alienate a section of the minority from ‘law and order’ – can be removed only by the coming into being in Northern Ireland of an administration which draws its authority from the consent of the great bulk of both sections of the community.

The Loyalist ‘veto’ on this – the insistence of the Official Unionist and Democratic Unionist Parties that they will accept no form of devolution that does not permit them to govern by a simple majority, and thus, for an indefinite future, to exclude the chosen political representatives of the Nationalist minority from any role in government, as they were excluded from 1920 until 1972 – has been encouraged by British weakness in 1974 at the time of the Workers’ Strike, and since then by the role of the Unionist and other Loyalist MPs who held the balance of power in the ‘hung’ Parliament at Westminster.

A determined effort will be required to undo the effects of these acts and omissions. The IRA hope to divert attention away from this focus of political action and towards the security issue, and to embroil the United Kingdom and Irish Governments in fruitless arguments about the details of security co-operation, which is already closer than between any other two countries I can readily recall. Wise politicians on either side of the Irish Sea are unlikely to fall into this trap.

There is one fact to which the British Government could usefully direct its own attention. The vast majority of people in Northern Ireland are sick of the violence of the past ten years, and would accept any reasonable way out of their present situation. Whatever ‘hooks’ some of their politicians may be on, the people are ‘unhooked’, and are relatively open-minded. It cannot be without significance that despite the negative attitudes to power-sharing of the political parties whose candidates they choose as their representatives at election times, the great majority of Northern Protestants have responded favourably to questions about the acceptability of some form of power-sharing on every one of the five occasions when such questions were put to them in public opinion polls between 1973 and 1978. A sizable proportion of Catholics have also expressed themselves as being satisfied to remain in the United Kingdom, for the time being at any rate, and to leave the issue of North-South relations to be determined when peace has been restored.

A British government seeking a political solution may thus decide to be guided by two considerations: the avoidance of further repressive action likely to alienate those whose consent to a solution is needed, and the direction of political efforts towards enabling the modest and moderate aspirations of the great majority of people in Northern Ireland to find appropriate expression – through channels that cannot be blocked by politicians’ vetoes.

In the meantime, the Republic has its part to play: not merely, as it is currently fashionable to emphasise, in security matters, where the interest it has in preserving its own democratic system against terrorism is a sure guarantee of performance, but also in reassuring the beleaguered Northern Protestant population that what the vast majority in the Republic at present seek is nothing but peace, reconciliation, and such political links between North and South as a majority in Northern Ireland may in time freely decide to be beneficial to their part of Ireland.

Not everyone in the Republic is reconciled to these objectives, and they are admittedly more limited than those that have been expressed over many decades, without much thought of the consequences, by generations of political leaders who have never fully faced the reality of a politically-divided Ireland. A recent speech by a young Government party deputy, the granddaughter of Eamonn de Valera, Prime Minister of the Irish state for periods of over twenty years, has given expression to the frustrations of a minority in the Republic who hark back to the simplicities of irredentist nationalism. While prompt and decisive counter-action by the Prime Minister Jack Lynch within his Fianna Fail Party preempted this threat to the maintenance by the Party of these objectives, which are in harmony with those of the two opposition parties, the persistence of an unthinking irredentism among a section of that Party, and of Irish political opinion, cannot be ignored, and could once again become a significant factor in Irish politics if a resolution were not found within a measurable period to the problem of devolved self-government in Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland too, the persistent failure to resolve the problem of devolved self-government deprives of any role all politicians save the dozen who get elected to Westminster, and places a great strain on the SDLP’s ability to hold the support of the great bulk of the Nationalist minority for its moderate policies.

Quite apart from the atrocious effects of a continued IRA campaign of violence, and the evidence that this is now for a second time provoking a backlash of counter-terrorism from Loyalist paramilitaries, there is the danger of a general degradation of the political situation in Ireland if the new British government does not act decisively to halt the drift of recent years, and to give to the people of the North, in the face of the intransigence of some of their politicians, a form of devolved self-government that will command the consent of a majority of the members of both sections of the community. The achievement of this difficult task has been notably aided by the visit of the Pope, by the passionate and unambiguous way in which he denounced the attempt to find a solution to the Northern Ireland problem by violent means, by the extraordinary endorsement his words secured among the several hundred thousand Catholics from Northern Ireland present at his address, and by the positive reactions of many Protestants to his speech. The longing for peace of the minority within Northern Ireland, as of the majority, is now manifest, and provides a more favourable atmosphere for a new political initiative than anyone could have expected at this time.