What can the matter be?

Denis Donoghue

  • Ulster Politics: The Formative Years, 1868-86 by B.M. Walker
    Ulster Historical Foundation/Institute of Irish Studies, 327 pp, £15.00, February 1990, ISBN 0 901905 40 2
  • Ireland 1912-1985: Politics and Society by J.J. Lee
    Cambridge, 754 pp, £55.00, January 1990, ISBN 0 521 26648 3

‘We feel in England that we have treated you rather unfairly,’ Haines says to Stephen Dedalus in the first chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses: ‘it seems history is to blame.’ But he doesn’t say which history. The history that accounts for the sporadic but endless killings in Northern Ireland begins no later than 24 December 1601, when Lord Mountjoy’s forces defeated Hugh O’Neill’s at the battle of Kinsale. After the ‘flight of the earls’ to the Continent in 1607 the way was clear for the confiscation of land throughout the country. There was a particular plan for the North. In 1610 the English and Scots Privy Councils started the Plantation of Ulster, an arrangement by which settlers were established on the best land in the northern counties of Ireland. These settlers – or ‘undertakers’, as they were called – started arriving in September: they were to build towns and fortify them, making them the centres of trade. As a case in point, the walls of Derry were completed in 1618. Catholics, ‘a threatening majority’, as Roy Foster describes them in Modern Ireland 1600-1972 (1988), were not allowed to live in the town, so they clustered in the Bogside beyond the walls.

On 12 August 1969 the (Protestant) Apprentice Boys held their customary triumphalist march through the streets of Derry, and were pelted with stones and bottles by the Catholics from the walls along the Bogside. The ‘battle of the Bogside’ continued into the next day, when TV cameras presented to a dismayed world the image of the Police (the RUC), the B-Specials (part-time Protestant constabulary) and sundry Protestant yobbos beating up the Bogside Papists. The Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of the Republic of Ireland, Jack Lynch, appealed to the UN and said, evidently referring to the Irish Army: ‘We will not stand by.’ The wise knew what Lynch meant: we will huff and puff and do nothing. Fools thought he meant – and Unionists in the North pretended to think he meant – that he would send the Army across the Border to protect Catholics from the Protestant mobs. In August and September 300 Catholic families were burnt out of their homes in Belfast. It seems history is to blame.

B.M. Walker argues in Ulster Politics: The Formative Years, 1868-86 that in 1868 politics in the North might have continued along the conventional British line, mobile Parliamentary conflict between Liberals and Conservatives, but that by 1886 this was irrelevant. There was now only one question: Home Rule for the whole of Ireland, and the determination of Unionists to oppose it by any and every means: ‘Within Ulster, a unionist movement emerged, of former liberals and conservatives, to face the new nationalist movement which had appeared throughout Ireland. The religious division between protestant and catholic became the single most important social feature of the new political scene... The conflict that emerged at this time between the powerful forces of unionism and nationalism, with their associated religious divisions, led to partition in 1921 and has provided the basic source for the troubles today in Northern Ireland.’ Walker proves his case – not that I can imagine anyone disputing it – by a study of the general elections and by-elections in Northern constituencies between 1868 and 1886. But he hasn’t shown to what extent Catholics in those constituencies, in the years before Home Rule appeared on the Westminster agenda, felt that their interests were accurately represented by disputes between Liberals and Conservatives. My own sense of the matter is that hostility between Catholics and Protestants has been an incorrigible feature of life in the North since the Plantation. It would be erroneous to deduce from Walker’s book that this hostility started with the General Election of 1885 and Gladstone’s announcement of a Home Rule Bill on 8 April 1886. Since 1610, most Protestants in the Northern counties have believed that they, unlike their Catholic neighbours, are decent, sober, hard-working, trustworthy people, an innately superior breed: they have always regarded most Catholics as intellectually and morally inferior, a slovenly lot, feckless, unreliable, mendacious. In turn, most Catholics have regarded Protestants in the North as hard-nosed, cruel, imperious and imperialist; and besides, not Irish at all.

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