The History of this Conflict

An American audience may find it difficult to comprehend the sense of history which is in the Irish conflict. It goes back to the 1920s when the island was partitioned, and Catholics in Northern Ireland believed that they were on the wrong side of that border, and believed that they had been done out of their political heritage.

But Protestants have a sense of history which goes back to at least the seventeenth century, where from the time of the plantation of Ulster at the beginning of the 1600s, they have had to look to their own resources to ensure that they remained in control in the north of Ireland because they'd lost control in the rest of Ireland.

So what you have are two sides with a very strong sense of history, a history in which they believed themselves to be victims, Catholics believed themselves to be victims, Protestants believed themselves to be victims, so they had two clashing senses of history.

And as long as they had that selective sense of history, then they could do anything in the present and use history as to justify what they did in the present. And that is why history is such a potent force in the Irish conflict.

You must remember that Ireland had been Britain's oldest colonial problem, oldest unsolved colonial problem. She was dismantling empire here, there and everywhere; the one question she could never settle satisfactorily was Ireland. And from the beginning of the 20th century, Ireland loomed larger in the British political scene, to such an extent that there was a serious problem, that British politics were going to be polluted by the Irish question.

During the First World War, the British were being embarrassed by the Woodrow Wilson administration to do something about Ireland because the war effort was being interfered with, because Britain couldn't act with one voice during the war.

By the 1920s, the British political establishment decided it was time to get out of Ireland, militarily, politically, psychologically, but she could not get out of what became known as Northern Ireland because the Protestant majority there were convinced that they were British and they represented the majority.

Partition

So, the best deal that Britain could do in 1920 was to partition the island of Ireland, and make the northeast of Ireland into this new entity called Northern Ireland, and leave the rest of the country as a separate entity, which was still part of British jurisdiction but had a great deal more autonomy.

Britain had no real solution other than partition. Britain, I think, would have liked to have withdrawn from Ireland, because it had been such a cost, such a drain on its international reputation. But Britain felt it owed allegiance to its kith and kin in the north of Ireland, the Protestant majority, who considered themselves to be British. And this Protestant majority said they would fight to maintain the right to be British. The best solution was a qualified partition, because built into the Government of Ireland Act was the prospect that at some future date, the island could be united again.

So psychologically, emotionally, militarily, Britain withdrew from Ireland in the 1920s. And, just as the northern states withdrew from the southern states after the Civil War, in the 1860s, the same mentality reigned. It was one of "let sleeping dogs lie."

The partition settlement was very much a compromise; it satisfied neither side.

Irish Nationalists in the 26 counties unhappily accepted the compromise of partition, and the argument which the majority used at the time was that it gives them the freedom to achieve freedom.

But a militant minority refused to accept that, and in fact, you had a civil war, in the 26 counties, between the militants and those who had prepared to accept the compromise.

The militants believed that it had to be Irish unity or nothing. They believed that the symbols of the Crown were still evident in Ireland, and that, in fact, they were a sub-regime of the British state.

The militants formed a minority. Most Nationalists and Catholics were prepared to accept partition, and believed that Northern Ireland would collapse of its own volition. They believed that economically it couldn't survive, and that the Catholic majority would at some stage outbreed the Protestants. They believed in a doctrine of Manifest Destiny: God had made Ireland an island which was meant to be united and some day it would be united.

Sinn Fein, which was the governing body, if you like, at the time, inside Irish Republicanism, split on whether they should accept a partition or not. The majority favored partition, the minority didn't. A bitter civil war broke out in which, ironically, more Irish killed each other than had been killed by their British enemy in the War of Liberation.

more


home .  the conflict .  inside the ira .  readings .  poems & songs .  special reports .  chronology .  map .  links .  viewer discussion .  press reaction .  tapes & transcripts

New Content Copyright © 1998 PBS and WGBH/Frontline PBS Online