The politics of devolution
The politics of devolution

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The politics of devolution

2.4 Northern Ireland

Ireland was long considered a de facto province of England, a colonial possession dominated politically and militarily by its more powerful neighbour to the east. The English divided Ireland into counties for administrative purposes, introduced English law and established a Parliament in England and Ireland in 1297, within which only the Anglo-Irish were represented. By the fourteenth century Irish discrimination by the English had prompted widespread protests, which had resulted in a revival of the Irish language, law and culture, particularly as English power was seen to diminish. Yet, the recognition of Henry VIII as King of Ireland in 1541 led to the confiscation of monastic property and the isolation of would be rebels, many of whom had their lands confiscated. The beginnings of the Plantation of Ulster, the pronounced migration of Scots to the northern counties of Ireland, Ulster, dates from the beginning of the seventeenth century. Thus Ulster became a province dominated by Protestant, Scottish planters, while the native Irish, continuing to claim allegiance to the proscribed Catholic Church, became landless and displaced by the colonisers. The Plantation of Ulster can be considered as the starting point of an historical process which has resulted in the contemporary ‘troubles’ between Unionist and Republican, Protestant and Catholic.

In 1653 a union of the three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland was secured. By this Act of Settlement, Ireland was portrayed as a conquered territory. By that time Ulster had become the most British and most Protestant part of Ireland, although a large Irish Catholic population was also located there, and the rest of Ireland remained Catholic. James II, a Catholic King of England and Scotland, sought to reverse Roman Catholic discrimination, but was challenged by William III, a Protestant, who defeated him and his Catholic supporters at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, an event still commemorated by Unionists in contemporary Ulster.

Figure 3
Figure 3 Contemporary wall mural of the Battle of the Boyne in Northern Ireland © Nezumi Dumousseau

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Williamite wars reinforced Catholic discrimination by imposing the Penal Laws excluding Catholics from the army, preventing them from taking part in politics and depriving them of access to education (Jenkins, 1997, p. 93). Particularly repressive conditions in County Armagh gave rise to bitter sectarian strife. In 1795 a battle between Catholics and Protestants at the Diamond encouraged the creation of the Unionist Orange Society, which was later known as the Orange Order, organised to protect Protestant interests. The Act of Union of 1801 put Protestants under the formal protection of the British – now the Union – Parliament.

In 1829 Roman Catholics were emancipated, the British Test Act provided political equality for most purposes, but did little to alleviate discrimination in Ireland for all but the landed gentry. Still, the dramatic success of the Roman Catholic Daniel O'Connell's emancipation movement provoked Protestant hostility and led to its violent suppression in 1843. The nineteenth century witnessed a succession of Irish crises. Foremost among these was the Great Famine of the 1840s which desolated the countryside (Hayden, 1997), forcing large numbers of Irish people to migrate to the British mainland, North America, Australia and New Zealand. In Ulster, particularly in the industrial powerhouse of Belfast, Protestants held the monopoly of skilled jobs. Catholics were to be mostly found in non-skilled jobs, a divide which still exists in contemporary Northern Ireland.

The late nineteenth century saw ‘Britain's Irish Question’ elevated to the top of the political agenda. Prompted by a conservative Irish nationalist movement, successive Liberal governments attempted to introduce some degree of Irish self-government in the form of ‘Irish Home Rule’. Unsuccessful in 1886 and 1893, due to the determined opposition of Protestant Unionists and English Conservatives (and Liberal Unionists, too), a bill was finally passed in 1914, only for Home Rule to be postponed once the First World War began that August. Soon, however, the peaceful and conservative Irish campaign for Home Rule found itself displaced by a radical Republican movement for Irish independence, which organised an abortive uprising in Dublin at Easter 1916 which declared an Irish Republic. The harsh British repression of the Easter Rising, which saw the summary execution of the ringleaders of the revolt, lead to the rise of Sinn Fein, the emergence of a guerrilla force, the Irish Republican Army (the IRA), and the Irish War of Independence, 1919–21. Escalating violence further divided the country into the Republican majority and the Protestant minority located in the enclave of Ulster. It led to an unsustainable situation culminating in the Government of Ireland Act 1920 which divided the country into two self-governing parts.

As a result, Northern Ireland was formed by six of the nine counties of Ulster which remained within the British state. Ulster Protestants opposed leaving the UK and rejected the possibility of becoming a minority within a largely Catholic Irish state. The three remaining counties of Ulster, together with the 26 counties of the rest of Ireland, left the UK to become a dominion of the British Empire known as the Irish Free State. Eamon de Valera became its first president. In 1937, de Valera replaced the title of the Irish Free State with the word Eire (Ireland) and in 1949 Britain recognised Ireland as an independent republic and consolidated the position of Northern Ireland as a united province with England. Sadly, the partition of Ireland did little to promote a political settlement between the Unionist majority and the Republican minority in Northern Ireland. This inevitably lead to widespread conflict and a de facto civil war in the 1970s and 1980s, widening a political chasm which the post-1994 peace process and the paramilitary ceasefires have begun to bridge.


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