Tired Titan

A.B. Cooke

  • The Factory of Grievances: Devolved Government in Northern Ireland, 1921-1939 by Patrick Buckland
    Gill and Macmillan, 365 pp, £13.00

Most British politicians were distinctly uninterested in retaining control of six Irish counties while giving up the rest of the country. Nevertheless, strange and misleading interpretations were placed on their behaviour in 1921-22, when withdrawal from Ireland at last became a practicable policy in Britain. Lloyd George’s Cabinet was accused of deliberately creating a puppet regime in Belfast, charged with the duty of seeking to influence events throughout Ireland as a whole, in the name of British imperialism. No very strenuous efforts were made in Britain to refute such misconceptions, which were sedulously fostered by Irish Republican leaders, partly in order to reconcile their followers to the disagreeable necessity of partition. In London, the growth of yet another Irish legend could be tolerated, if it helped to shore up the Irish settlement of 1921-22.

British pragmatism, then as now, suggested that it was altogether too much to expect Republican politicians to admit openly that Ulstermen, not Britain, blocked the path to a 32-county state. In conniving with Dublin in this way, however, Britain not only permitted wide misunderstanding of the true facts of the situation in Ulster to flourish, but also concealed most effectively from the public at large her lack of interest in playing any important part in Irish affairs in the future. In this work, Patrick Buckland, previously known for his books on Irish Unionism, shows how weary the Titan had become of the whole Irish burden by 1921.

There was not even a substantial right-wing movement (as distinct from the odd diehard) bent upon saving Ulster from the wreckage of the Anglo-Irish war. British Unionism, as it was understood in the great houses of England (if not on public platforms), had always accepted the possibility of total surrender: it made little or no provision for partial defeat. Men as temperamentally dissimilar as Arthur Balfour and the 15th Earl of Derby had agreed that Pitt’s Act of Union provided a framework for the government of Ireland which deserved, on its merits, to last for ever: but they also recognised that the time might come when Irish recalcitrance could make it necessary to undo Pitt’s handiwork. That point was reached in 1921. Since the campaign which had been lost had attempted to save all Ireland for the Union, the whole country should, if possible, be included in the new order. The authentic tone of British Unionism as it resigned itself to total surrender in Ireland is captured in this book. The much-abused reactionary Home Secretary Joynson-Hicks, whom no one ever accused of a lack of patriotism, is quoted as saying in 1925 that ‘Englishmen including himself were tired of paying money to Irishmen.’ Austen Chamberlain, more explicitly, denounced Northern Ireland as ‘illogical and indefensible … You could not raise any army in England to fight for that as we could for Crown and Empire.’

British Unionists were not to be deterred from staging an Irish retreat by the existence of a different kind of Unionism in Ulster, with which they had never in any case felt a deep sense of kinship because of its intolerance and sectarianism. The 1920 Government of Ireland Act, which was in reality no more than a fairly modest measure of devolution, came to be regarded in Britain as a formula for withdrawal. The Northern Ireland Government was expected to balance its budget as best it could. A part of the United Kingdom from which Britain had largely withdrawn should not be allowed to sponge off the British taxpayer. (That at any rate was the theory, though in practice hand-outs were grudgingly provided from the earliest days.)

It was not felt that the province should play any part in the formulation of British economic or social policy: its task was to reconcile itself to the consequences of decisions taken in the interests of Great Britain, even if, as a result, the linen industry should collapse. Just occasionally, eyebrows were raised in Westminster at the supposed excesses of the Northern Ireland Government, particularly where the Catholic minority was concerned. In 1922, protests were lodged: but only to placate the Southern Government during sensitive negotiations. The British Government never imagined that it was any part of its function to encourage the growth of a non-sectarian, liberal democracy in Ulster, so that the province could be integrated more closely into the life and traditions of the rest of the United Kingdom. Whenever possible, it was treated as no more than a nominal British responsibility.

Indeed, by their indifference, particularly in 1921, the British helped to retard still further the prospects of achieving ‘British standards’ of tolerance and good will in Ulster. They set the stage for the creation of a sectarian security policy. Policemen in Ulster could not deal adequately by themselves, in the summer of 1921, both with a continuing IRA campaign (after a truce had been enforced elsewhere) and with the Protestant backlash which that campaign inevitably provoked. Yet, on the orders of the outgoing British administration in Dublin, the British Army in the province did its best to remain invisible, leaving the Police to cope as best they could. Since they lacked the resources for a war on two fronts, their reputation for impartiality in dealing with terrorism was lost. As one police officer wrote in 1922: ‘Any drastic action in loyal areas for the sake of punishing a few rogues might incite an outbreak of outrages on a large scale.’ Drastic action, therefore, was not taken.

In Buckland’s view, the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was held together chiefly by red tape. Officials from Ulster had regular and convivial meetings with their counterparts in Britain: their respective political masters rarely met. It was the civil servants who settled the details of the little schemes and expedients which kept Northern Ireland solvent in the pre-Keynesian age (apathetic Chancellors of the Exchequer did what they were told). Again, it was Ulster’s bureaucrats who stood guard over the province’s industry and agriculture. The politicians were quite unable to manage such matters properly on their own. When the Prime Minister, Lord Craigavon, insisted on working out by himself Ulster’s price for acquiescing in the 1938 Anglo-Eire Treaty, he achieved much less than his officials would have done if they had been allowed to marshal their well-argued briefs.

The Northern Ireland Civil Service is the hero of this book. From the province’s departmental archives of the inter-war period, which he was the first to use, Buckland has fashioned a fine memorial to the one institution in Ulster which has managed to escape censure and reproach. It was not that the Civil Service succeeded in creating the equal partnership between Protestant and Catholic which has consistently eluded the politicians. In 1943, only 6 per cent of the senior administrative posts in the province were held by Catholics. Nevertheless, officials fearlessly pursued the common good. At the Ministry of Agriculture, for example, they transformed the habits of Ulster’s deeply conservative farmers through their compulsory marketing schemes, achieving a measure of control and discipline unknown in England. At least one blot was removed from the fair name of Ulster: its exports of eggs and bacon ceased to excite the contempt of the housewives of England.

But how much more might have been done but for the moral cowardice of politicians and the parsimony of ratepayers! It is at this point that Buckland reveals a clear didactic purpose. He is not one of your unassuming historians, cultivating a reputation for impartiality by refusing to say anything distinctive about the present. In his view, Ulster should avoid recreating legislative and executive institutions, through which, in the past, it lost far more than it gained. It should instead seek salvation by means of administrative devolution.

Under such a system, local politicians would be denied opportunities to repeat the mistakes made by their predecessors: mistakes which would not have been avoided by power-sharing (had anyone ever thought of such a thing before 1971?), since Nationalists were no more capable than Unionists of measuring up to the high standards set by the civil servants. The case against Parliamentary devolution in Northern Ireland has hitherto been argued mainly by people like Mr Powell who are deeply concerned about some rather abstruse constitutional points. Conventional wisdom on the matter – enthusiastically upheld in the Northern Ireland Office at present – has now been called into question by what the archives have to tell about Ulster’s problems during her first two decades of devolution. Buckland lends no encouragement to the kind of political initiative that is being canvassed. He believes that Ulster’s needs could be satisfied if it had its own version of St Andrew’s House in Edinburgh, where the administrative branch of the Scottish Office is located.

Here, then, is a manifesto based on a study of devolved government in Northern Ireland, as seen from the Stormont Cabinet room after the Ministers have departed, leaving the civil servants to gather up their excellent briefs, which will now have to await the arrival of an appreciative historian like Dr Buckland before their full value is savoured: for the Ministers, as usual, have hardly glanced at them. There is no suggestion in this account that anything significant ever happened at a Cabinet meeting, or even that important political discussion went on out of earshot of the officials.

It would be interesting to know what the Ministers thought of the province’s little tin gods. Unfortunately, they have left no more than a few unrelated and fragmentary documents to set against the detailed and well-ordered archives of the bureaucracy. The one fairly substantial political diary on which Buckland has been able to draw was kept by the Permanent Head of the Ministry of Finance. Accidents of this sort mean that Ulster’s civil servants are able to deliver posthumous judgments on the Ministers for whom they worked, while the Ministers are unable to reply. The politicians will continue to be known chiefly for the vices popularly ascribed to them: as men who fostered ill-feeling and betrayed their trust. In reality, they were probably much like politicians elsewhere – preoccupied mainly with the job of keeping their parities together (a difficult task in Ulster). So far, those Ulster politicians who have shown ‘courage’ by affronting their supporters with unpopular ideas have merely destroyed their own influence.