The gods that failed

Northern Nationalism: - Catholicism in Ulster 1603-1983:
April 7, 1995

Staring somewhat anxiously out from the cover of Eamon Phoenix's book is the Edwardian figure of Joe Devlin, old-style Belfast constitutional nationalist, posed against a background of the Irish tricolour, the new flag of the Irish Free State. On the back is a photograph of the southern Sinn Fein leader Eamon de Valera being escorted out of Northern Ireland by the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The juxtaposition neatly illustrates the book's theme. The Catholic minority in the north of Ireland, having played the game by parliamentary rules, saw their leader displaced by revolutionaries from the south whose assurances proved in time to be as brittle as those of Asquith and Lloyd George. However compelling the claims of Ulster Protestants to retain their British heritage, and however justified our doubts about the capacity of a southern Irish state to govern Ulster, it is hard to demur from Conor Cruise O'Brien's judgement that "the Catholics of Northern Ireland have been the principal victims of . . . the political division of the British Isles and Ireland".

Why was there no serious attempt at the time of partition to recognise the ethnic complexity of the north of Ireland and to implement a scheme of minority protection, under the auspices of either Dublin or London? The answer appears to be that successive British governments and later the Northern Ireland government could only envisage compromise in the form of a territorial carve-up between blocs which they pretended were ethnically homogeneous: Asquith offered "exclusion" to the north; Lloyd George offered a boundary commission to the south. The assumption of British policy was that if the Catholic and Protestant Irish would not live together they could simply be separated. There was no acknowledgement that unlike the south, the north was bitterly and inextricably divided within itself. The NI prime minister Viscount Craigavon ought to have known better, but his notorious 1934 statement was in fact an encapsulation of British policy since 1914: "In the south they boasted of a Catholic state ... All I boast is that we are a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant state."

The main concern of Eamon Phoenix's book is why nationalists in Ulster failed to respond more effectively to these circumstances. The key theme is internal division. Devlin's reluctant acceptance of temporary exclusion from an attempted Home Rule settlement in 1916 prompted the first split in the ranks of northern nationalism: nationalists in west Ulster felt that they had a case for being on the other side of any unpalatable border that might be created, and it was this, rather than any mystical vision of a republic, which drew them to Sinn Fein. The pattern was repeated at the time of the boundary commission, when west Ulster nationalists wanted no co-operation with the new Northern Ireland regime, believing that the commission would save them. Meanwhile, the more embattled nationalists of Belfast and the Protestant heartlands, who could not expect to be on the right side of any boundary, pressed vainly for an alternative solution: first for some revision of the treaty itself, and later for a pragmatic recognition of the need to work actively within the Northern Ireland state to secure protection for the minority's rights and interests.

The divisions within northern nationalism were compounded by a growing rift with their southern colleagues. Since the 1890s it had been a fundamental tenet of northern nationalism that its route to salvation lay through participation in an all-Ireland movement. But the defeat of the constitutional movement in the south in 1918 meant that its northern leader, Joe Devlin, was cast aside during the crucial period 1919-22. Northern Sinn Fein, as its leading figure Cahir Healy later reflected, set out to "collar the gods". Eamon De Valera, Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, "the three deities" of southern Sinn Fein, were all elected to parliamentary seats in the north during the period of the Anglo-Irish war and treaty. Collins retained some commitment to the northern problem until his death in August 1922, but the other deities showed little understanding. Griffith "nursed a delusion for years that the beginning and end of that (northern) problem lay in London", thought Healy, while de Valera had "made a civil war" over the question of the oath and membership of the Commonwealth, "but he is not prepared to say 'boo' to (Neville) Chamberlain over the loss of the six counties". The policy of the early Free State was driven by southern considerations arising out of the civil war. Its solution to the concerns of northern activists was to offer them jobs in the Free State army or civil service. It encouraged northern Catholic teachers to accept their salaries from Dublin rather than Belfast in 1922, but when this attempt at destabilisation collapsed the teachers never had their pension contributions returned by Dublin or made good by Belfast.

Eamon Phoenix handles an emotive topic dispassionately, and has organised a remarkable range of primary sources and interviews with great skill. His achievement underlines the narrowly southern focus of much existing historiography, which has seen Nationalist Ireland in these years as characterised predominantly by a conflict over the issue of sovereignty and the oath of allegiance. More than three-quarters of this long book deals with the years 1916-25. The focus is entirely on the politicians and clergy as they struggle to respond to an increasingly hopeless situation, and we see little of the lives of ordinary people. But the political drama, well written and shrewd in its analysis, makes compelling reading. Irish history in recent years has been much preoccupied with a debate over "revisionism", over whether the predominant school of professional historians since 1945 has conspired to "take the pain out of Irish history". Eamon Phoenix has succeeded in producing a major revisionist study which emphatically leaves the pain in.

Oliver Rafferty's Catholicism in Ulster also keeps the pain. Ranging over a subject where research has been limited and patchy, it is sometimes episodic and impressionistic. Written by a member of the Jesuit Order and pronounced free of theological error, it is, thankfully, not free of a critical and challenging tone. The Ulster bishops, in particular, come in for a bashing. Their "obsession with clerical control at every stage in the educational process" restricted opportunity, their general tendency towards loyalty to the crown prior to 1914 "was tempered by an over-seriousness about their own position as successors of the apostles" and, most serious of all, "it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the northern bishops were content to sacrifice northern Catholic interests for their enhanced position as arbiters of public policy in the south" after 1921. If not Rome Rule, Home Rule was in a sense Bishops' Rule. Rafferty's book is stimulating and provocative.

Both writers display a concern for the circumstances of their own Ulster Catholic community. Their work is distinguished from an older nationalist historiography by the ability to combine sympathy with a distanced appraisal, and an informed realism which goes beyond either sectarian head-counting or pigeon-holing of Ulster Unionism as a divisive capitalist ruse and/or an atavistic sectarianism. Ulster Protestant identity, though scarcely mentioned in either book, casts a shadow across both. Recognition of the integrity of the other side's traditions is a key feature of the current approach to peacemaking in Ulster. These books contribute to that process.

Tony Hepburn is professor of modern Irish history, University of Sunderland.

Northern Nationalism:: Nationalist Politics, Partition and the Catholic Minority in Northern Ireland, 1890-1940

Author - Eamon Phoenix
ISBN - 0 901 905 64 X and 550
Publisher - Ulster Historical Foundation
Price - £25.00 and £14.95
Pages - 485pp

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments