Northern Ireland: a Product of Gerrymandering – not Democracy

Tonight The Pensive Quill carries a piece by guest writer Liam o Ruairc, which featured previously in the Sovereign Nation.

Over the past few months the Belfast Newsletter ran a series of opinion pieces on ‘Union 2021’ to mark the forthcoming one hundred anniversary of the creation of ‘Northern Ireland’. On the horizon is thus not just the centenary of the Easter Rising in 2016 but importantly also that of partition in ten years time. This provides the opportunity to restate the Republican case against partition and the existence of ‘Northern Ireland’. It is not a matter of 'irredentism' as Paul Bew and Henry Patterson attempt to portray it. It is fundamentally an issue of democracy. As democracy is the essence of Republicanism, for Republicans the problem is first and foremost that ‘Northern Ireland’ is a product of gerrymandering and not democracy. It is based on a sectarian headcount to maintain supremacy, not equality. It is not based on consent but on coercion. It is not based upon the rule of law but on a system where normal rules of justice can be circumvented.

It was imposed by the British state, not created by the will of the people. It was established by a 1920 British Act of Parliament for which no one in Ireland ever voted. What the British government thought of democracy can be summed by what Prime Minister Lloyd George wrote to Lord Carson in 1916 : 'We must make it clear that Ulster does not, whether she wills it or not, merge with the rest of Ireland.' The people of all Ireland were given no say. The partition of Ireland is not even based on the wishes of the people within the partitioned area. Along the actual border areas were included where the majority wished to be on the other side of the line. There are even some indications that the Unionists did not want partition. Some historians like Clare O Halloran argue that some sort of partition was inevitable. However, it was the British government which chose the way in which Ireland was to be divided and imposed this by force. It is inconceivable that negotiations between Republicans, Nationalists and Unionists would have produced the same settlement, especially of the British state had been out of the equation. The primary responsibility for partition lies with the British government and ‘Northern Ireland’ is kept in existence only by British guns and finance.

It is sometimes argued that partition was legitimate because a majority in ‘Northern Ireland’ wished to remain part of the United Kingdom. But one has to draw a line where the majority for partition begins and where the majority for partition ends. The only recognised constitutional entity until 1920 was the 32-county Ireland. It recognised itself as a constitutional entity prior to Henry II although it had difficulties in establishing a central government. (on this see Christopher Maginn, Contesting the sovereignty of early modern Ireland, History Ireland, November-December 2007) It was governed as an entity for 750 years under English rule. It was the parliament of Ireland that passed the Act of Union in 1800, and it was never suggested that the 32-county Ireland disintegrated itself by enacting the Union. It was governed as a distinct entity under the Union right through until 1920 when the British government over-ruled the democracy of Ireland and split the country. There are therefore serious grounds to take the 32-county Ireland as being the legitimate unit for self-determination. Howevere the historical, geographical or national basis to justify the existence of ‘Northern Ireland’ are more questionable. The six-county ‘Northern Ireland’ is not the nine-county Ulster and there is little that makes its population distinctive from the rest of the island (also not all protestants in Ulster consider themselves to be British or Unionists). To take ‘Northern Ireland’ as a legitimate unit for self-determination has little political, geographic or historic logic. On that basis, if six counties have the right to secede from the thirty-two, then there is no reason why counties Fermanagh, Tyrone and Armagh couldn’t drop out of ‘Northern Ireland’ ! Finally the aggregate verdict is the normal means of assessing an electoral contest so even if a ‘majority’ in the North wished to remain part of the United Kingdom this lacked democratic legitimacy.

In fact ‘Northern Ireland’ did not demand self-determination, it was created to deny self-determination. ‘Northern Ireland’ was created and maintained through the threat of violence and denial of democracy. Its origin was a sectarian head-count as John Whyte explains : « For the border was so drawn as to corral within it not only almost all areas with unionist majorities, but also considerable areas with nationalist ones. If the county is taken as the unit, there were at the time of partition unionist majorities in only four of the six counties of Northern Ireland. If some smaller unit had been chosem then parts of Tyrone and Fermanagh might have been reclaimed for unionism, but considerable parts of other counties would have been lost to nationalism…(Unionists’) only worry was how much territory they would be able to control. The idea that it might be unjust to ask for more territory than was actually unionist apparently never entered their heads. The fact might be used by their critics to argue that unionists sought , not equality, but supremacy. » (John Whyte, Interpreting Northern Ireland, Oxford University Press, 1990, pp.163-164) On that basis, one can seriously challenge the idea that « there is nothing inherently reactionary about…a national frontier which puts Protestants in numerical majority. » (Paul Bew, Peter Gibbon, Henry Patterson, The State in Northern Ireland, Manchester University Press, 1979, 221)

As a result of this the people of Ireland were denied their rights as a majority and an undemocratic system of artifical majority and artificial minority was set up. What made partition ‘legitimate’ was that a majority in the North wanted it when partition had created this majority in the first place ! (therefore artificial ) But since democracy is usually equated with majority rule (something Martin Mansergh would probably call outdated majoritarian thinking), many would argue that it would be undemocratic to force the Unionists, who are now a majority in ‘Northern Ireland’ into a united Ireland without their consent. What this argument ignores is precisely the artificial nature of this ‘majority’. Prior to partition Unionists constituted a minority within the whole population of Ireland. The very existence of ‘Northern Ireland’ is due to the British government and Unionists’ refusal to accept the results of majority rule in Ireland as a whole. To attempt to legitimise that refusal Unionists had to be transformed into a ‘majority’. This was achieved by creating ‘Northern Ireland’ whose borders were deliberately chosen to exclude counties which were predominantly Nationalist and Republican. In this new state Unionists thus enjoyed a clear majority. The fact that within ‘Northern Ireland’ Unionists can outvote Nationalists and Republicans is simply an outcome of the way in which its borders were fixed at the time of partition and says nothing about the justice or democratic nature of their case. The principle of consent for constitutional change only refers to consent within the six counties against the will of the majority of the people of Ireland and has therefore dubious democatic credentials.

The artificial majority set about building ‘a Protestant state for a Protestant people’, a state built on discrimination and bigotry. While ‘Northern Ireland’ was formally democratic, as an entity where more than a third of its population contested its legitimacy, it could not function as a normal democratic state. It was an exceptional state relying on special powers, sectarianism and electoral fraud for its survival. The Nationalist experience of the creation of ‘Northern Ireland’ is an equivalent of the Palestinian experience of ‘Nakba’. Nationalists became an artificial minority and were long treated as second-class citizens. ‘Northern Ireland’ was based on coercion not consent. It is not based upon the rule of law but on a system where normal rules of justice can be circumvented. Many civil liberties taken for granted in other Western countries have always been severely restricted in the six counties. From the moment of its birth, ‘Northern Ireland’ has been in a state of more or less continuous emergency where civil liberties have been severely curtailed. The British state has dispensed with the ‘normal’ process of law and had used ‘special powers’ of arrest, detention, internment without trial and remand procedures. It has used extra-legal methods of ‘shoot to kill’ to eliminate political opponents, collusion, censorship, torture, inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners, abolished trial by jury. All these have been documented by international human rights bodies and organisations. Legal constraints on security forces are minimal. Today, security forces have almost unlimited powers to stop, search, arrest and detain whoever they chose. No-jury courts and ill-treatment of suspects are still commonplace.

The Belfast Agreement has certainly created greater equality for nationalists within ‘Northern Ireland’ and gave it more legitimacy in the eyes of nationalists. The six counties in 2011 are not the same place they were in 1971 or 1921. But to say “that ‘Northern Ireland’ is ‘more stable’ and ‘more legitimate’ is not the same thing as suggesting that it is either stabilised or legitimised.» (Sara O Sullivan (ed) Contemporary Ireland: A Sociological Map, Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2007, 416) Because the fundamental reality is that ‘Northern Ireland’ « is inherently sectarian and undemocratic and the British presence only serves to perpetuate that state of affairs ». (Michael Farrell, Northern Ireland : The Orange State, Pluto Press, 1976, 332)


  1. An opportune time to post this piece Liam, considering the debate taking place on the Quill lately. I'd like to see Roberts take on this for a unionist perspective?

  2. Recommended reading for those who haven't done so and are interested in this subject are Michael Farrell's The Orange State (which Liam references here) and even better the same authors Arming The Protestants. So good I'm going to have another gander at them.

  3. Martydownunder

    Dia dhuit mo chara

    I don’t think you will be disappointed if Robert takes the time or has the time to reply. His point of view is always worth reading.


  4. Liam,

    "The only recognised constitutional entity until 1920 was the 32-county Ireland. ... There are therefore serious grounds to take the 32-county Ireland as being the legitimate unit for self-determination."

    Indeed, you are right; also unionists were quite happy to live in a united Ireland as long as it was ruled from Westminister. However, I wonder if the historical argument can now be made for Northern Ireland. I mean, it has existed for 90 years and has majority support, albeit illegitimately obtained. Something similar could be said about Israel. How long should a state exist and be recognised before it attains a certain degree of legitimacy?

  5. Alfie I keep turning your arguments upon its head but mo cara how long does a people or their nation need to demand freedom before they are listened to? do you not think 800+ years is enough or maybe the time lapse has made you and yours gone deaf

  6. AM

    "It was established by a 1920 British Act of Parliament for which no one in Ireland ever voted."

    This one line sums up the cause of the conflict..

    Its just a shame that so-called 'mainstream republicans' have replaced this act for another - (GFA)

  7. The question is how long will nationalists contimue to patronise the Protestants that they are Irish. They are a self interest group who have no desire to be assosiated with the rest of the people here.

    Since the Grattan Parliament and before they were a group apart. Even Wolf Tone and co. were only interested in partial rights for the taigs in order to strengthen their own greedy hand against English economic controls.

    If one million people were placed in Hokkaido in Japan from China and controlled all of Japan for centuries and could not support a national team without a wee seperate ditty before a game [ rugby ] would the Japs be bending over backwards to woo them? I doubt it.

    The Protestants in the free state get on with life in the same manner as Irish migrants in England, Scotland, USA and British Commonwealth countries. Northern protestants have been let away with a crazy scenario for way too long. Adams and co. have been bought, not brought onside with them.

    Finally, and this is something all dreamers need to address; after 90 yrs of economic embarassment in the free state, do you really think many people care enough any more?

  8. 2012 is the centenary of the Ulster Covenant, then you have the centenary of the Battle of the Somme - to say NI is a creation of the `occupying British State` simply does not recognise the fact that Ireland was on the brink of Civil War between the two major communities in Ireland , hence partition.

    "The artificial majority set about building ‘a Protestant state for a Protestant people’, a state built on discrimination and bigotry." ..again fails to reflect that those words spoken by Northern Irish Prime Minister James Craig were a parody of Eamon De Valera the year previously where he stated Ireland was a Catholic Country!

  9. Marty,

    "I keep turning your arguments upon its head but mo cara how long does a people or their nation need to demand freedom before they are listened to? do you not think 800+ years is enough or maybe the time lapse has made you and yours gone deaf."

    It wasn't an argument; it was a genuine question and I don't know the answer to it. Many other countries, such as the USA and Australia, were established by the dispossession of the native peoples, but no one is seriously calling for these countries to be annulled. The reason for this seems to be that these countries and their citizens are so long established on these lands that they have acquired something like squatters' rights. I'm just wondering how sound a principle this is. I mean, will Northern Ireland and Israel always be illegitimate no matter how long they exist or how many generations of their citizens occupy the respective lands? If so, wouldn't the USA and Australia always be illegitimate as well? Or does a country - regardless of how it was established - acquire legitimacy with the passage of time, say after 50 years, or 100, or 200? I really don't know - that's why I asked the question.

  10. Kilsally-

    Eamon de valera was not a catholic
    he was just a subject- in the same way that the d.u.p's peter robinson
    is not a methodist- he also is a simple subject

    Both sold out their religion for another rung up the ladder- their
    choice to think that they were on the way up.

  11. Alfie,

    "Or does a country - regardless of how it was established - acquire legitimacy with the passage of time, say after 50 years, or 100, or 200?"

    I think the answer to your question lies in the reaction of the international community to any given state or political regime and increasingly in modern global affairs to UN Security Council resolutions.

  12. Alfie, 

    A good number of aboriginal Australians are still opposed to the usurpation of their native land and many of those do not recognize the government of Australia. For many years a 'tent embassy' has stood in Canberra
    Australia has a national holiday on the 26th of January to mark the landing of the first fleet of English settlers, Aboriginals do not recognize it and it declare Invasion Day. 
    The big difference between the Aboriginal claim for return of land and the Irish is that in Australia the Aborigines were all but wiped out. Indeed in Tasmania no full blood natives remain (fascinating history Tasmania, the Aborigine there conducted a guerilla war for years against the invasion 'The Black War' the Brits repaid them with genocide). 
    One thing is for sure Australia will be a republic and in the not to distant future, the land the British seized all those years ago is vastly different in today's multicultural society, LizzieBrit means nothing to the majority of people here as they have no connection with Britain. 

  13. Has any one noticed how close 'gerrymandering' is to 'gerry pandering'?

    (I think I am getting obsessesed by the bearded one!)

    The Six county state is a bastard state, it is absolutely illegitimate! An Phoblacht Abú!

  14. Kilsally,

    You ignored Liam's key point that Ireland was implicitly recognised as a country within the UK and it was governed as a constitutional entity for centuries. This was all fine and dandy for unionists as long as they were governed from Westminister; it only became a problem when the British recognised that the country had a right to self-governance.

    Also, unlike Irish nationalists, Irish unionists did not see themselves as a distinct national group but as a loyal community of British citizens who did not want to be a minority in an Ireland with devolved government. In that sense, they already had a nation state: Britain. So why were they entitled to a gerrymandered statelet?

    Furthermore, since the vast majority of Catholics were nationalists and the vast majority of Protestants were unionists prior to partition, at least two-thirds of the population of Ireland were in favour of some form of independence - this much seems pretty clear from analysis of the 1918 general election. And there was no credible border between nationalists and unionists on the island anyway; indeed, Catholics constituted a larger proportional minority in Northern Ireland (35%) than Protestants did in the island as a whole (26%). As Liam rightly argues, if six counties in Ulster have the right to secede from Ireland, then surely Tyrone, Fermanagh, Armagh and perhaps even West Belfast and South Down have the right to secede from Northern Ireland. Simply put, nations or countries have the right to secede; cities, counties or enclaves do not.

  15. Alfie if for talk sake the indigenous people of Ireland,Australia, or USA, were able fo form an army and aquire the weapons to retake their lands,could you imagine the outcry of the planter stock ,theft is theft, either a £10 pair of jeans or a peoples land,at least the Americans and the Australians have went some way to apoligise to their native people.the sad fact in Australia,s case is that the majority of people held in prison are from the native Aboriginal stock,while the Irish have been in generational war for over 800 years while the ho ray Henrys still occupy stolen lands both north and south.the possible answer to your question is mo cara that we have the power the army the police the laws on our side and there,s f##k all you can do about it.

  16. Alfie mo cara, while pondering on your question, I know its not an answer, but Robert words came to mind no not our Robert but the Baird the other Robert Burns and his Parcel of Rouges in a Nation ,if I may quote a few lines,
    What force or guile coud not subdue.
    Through many warlike ages.
    Is wrought now by a coward few.
    For hireling traitors wages.
    The English stell we could disdain.
    Secure in valours station.
    But English gold has been our bane.
    Such a parcel of rouges in a nation.

  17. Marty, 

    This is the same Burns who in the recently rediscovered Ode To Hibernia's Sons versed-

    'Tis Liberty's bold note I swell, 
    Thy harp, Hibernia, let me take. 
    See gathering thousands, while I sing, 
    A broken chain, exulting, bring, 
    And dash it in a tyrant's face! 
    And dare him to his very beard, 
    And tell him he no more is fear'd, 
    No more the Despot of Hibernia's race. 
    A tyrant's proudest insults brav'd, 
    They shout, a People freed! They hail an Empire saved. 

    Doubt Kilsally and the brethren will be quoting that at the next cultural night down the lodge

  18. Could it not be said that 1919-22 was a parting of the ways brought on by the rise of romantic nationalism in the previous century? Afterall the definition of Irishness at the time was pretty much Gaelic and Catholic.

    Also the implication that one people has a veto over the existence or development of another on account of the rather arbitrary benchmark of age (or any other for that matter) doesn't really sit well with declarations of equality.

  19. Martydownunder really enjoyed that,I was in Aberdeen last year for tartan day, did my heart good to see people proud to dress in their national costumes and listen to the pipes,all proud of their nationality.I,m sorry to say that I,ll not live to see the likes of tartan day here,

  20. P.S. Martydownunder I posted before I was finished, grandkids eh! anyway I meant to say about tartan day was that all religions and none just proud to be Scottish.

  21. Marty-

    Proud to be scottish under the brit rule are they

    No bravehearts there now- a- days

    They can dance all weekend yet forget about their country

    Hell have no fury like a nation scorned

  22. Why do Scottish ceilí dancers dance with their hands up, but Irish ceilí dancers keep theirs down?

    We haven't surrendered yet!

    (This isn't quite so funny in the GFA era!)

  23. Mickeyboy yip mo cara thats the only down side to what I,ve witnessed in Scotland,while I have met highlander,s who are fiercely in favour of independence if and when it comes it will now be through the ballot box, its one thing the last pira campaign has taught them that the only way to break the connection is through the political path,John thats a cracker! its being told all round Aberdeen and Dundee as we speak,

  24. Liam,
    I agree with MDU..."this was a timely piece" and it helped to reinforce my beliefs on this issue. Good article and thanks.

  25. Elliot,

    I'm sorry, but most Irish Protestants didn't give a tuppenny fuck about the "existence or develepment" of their Catholic neighbours for centuries. They didn't think much of equality either; their opposition to even very limited self-government in Ireland showed that much. I doubt there would ever have been any discussion about partition if it were the other way around and unionists had a 3-to-1 majority in Ireland. Then we would have heard lots of talk about respecting both democracy and the integrity of the Irish state. Moreover, it is strange that in 1920, unionists felt perfectly entitled to govern Northern Ireland on the basis of a 65% majority in the six counties but at the same time denied that nationalists had the right to govern the whole of Ireland even though nationalists had a 74% majority in the 32 counties.

    Do you think the nationalist minority in Scotland has the right to its own state in the areas where they are a majority, such as the north-east? Do you think that the Serbian minority in Bosnia & Herzegovina, which was both proportionally and numerically larger than the unionist minority in Ireland, had the right to carve up that state, especially since there already existed a Serbian nation state (Serbia) for those Bosnian Serbs that did not want to live in a country where they were a minority? There already existed a British state too, you know. Why create a British statelet?

    Ireland was considered a country and a constitutional entity within the UK. It was a single country when it was forced into the Union - why should it have been any different when Ireland decided to leave? Most unionists did not consider themselves to be a distinct nation with aspirations to their own nation state; they saw themselves as loyal community of British citizens who should not have to endure Irish democracy. I know this sounds harsh, but if unionists did not want to be a minority British community within Ireland, they always had the option of going to live in Britain. Of course, unionists had the right to stay and the right to demand a non-sectarian, secular government in Ireland. However, they did not have the right to carve the country up. Minorities should be respected, but not pandered to.

  26. Alfie

    You ignored my question and your first paragraph essentially boils down to a of revanchism which, understandable though it may be, is little better a mindset then that of whomever brought it on which was the thrust of my second statement.

    In answer to your own questions I would say that if the nationalist minority in Scotland had found themselves surrounded by an idea of Scottishness that largely excluded them and held them as outsiders when they and their grandparents had lived there all their lives then I'd wish them the best of luck if they decided to take the Highlands on their own way. As for the Serbs if Albanians can wonder off with Kosovo (and why not? They're the ones who mostly live there) why shouldn't they? Why the British 'statelet'? Because mostly British people lived there and had done so for generations and didn't want to end up like the bunch in Cork, though I personally beleive it should have had four counties rather than six.

    Yes Ireland was in the UK which puts the no take backs approach to Ireland's constitutional development on rather shaky ground. By that benchmark I could claim that it was the South that had actually 'carved up the country' as a pandered to minority who could not endure a British democracy that had voted to stay united, ridiculous I'm sure you'll agree. The fact is is that territory is not immutable.

    My two cents. I imagine we'll agree to disagree

  27. Elliot,

    [Part 1]

    "Could it not be said that 1919-22 was a parting of the ways brought on by the rise of romantic nationalism in the previous century?"

    Sorry for ignoring your question. I believe that a "parting of ways" between Britain and Ireland ought to have occurred, but not one in which Britain took a chunk of Ireland with it. Unionists could have ensured that the Irish state would not be merely Gaelic and Catholic by negotiating with the British government and the Irish Parliamentary Party within the parameters of all-Ireland Home Rule. Safeguards could have been put in place to maintain Ireland as a secular state.

    "As for the Serbs if Albanians can wonder off with Kosovo (and why not? They're the ones who mostly live there) why shouldn't they?"

    Like Ireland, Kosovo had many of the attributes of a separate political entity. When it joined Serbia in 1945, it did so formally of its own free will, by a vote of its provincial assembly. It did so on the understanding that it was simultaneously part of the federation of Yugoslavia. Therefore, the only reasonable course of action would have been to permit Kosovo’s assembly to decide what its status should be in the new circumstances following the break-up of the federation. This is an entirely different situation to that in Bosnia & Herzegovina in 1991, where a Serb minority started a war in which over 100,000 were killed because they did not want to be a minority in a state that had existed for centuries and had voted for independence.

  28. Elliot,

    [Part 2]

    ”By that benchmark I could claim that it was the South that had actually 'carved up the country' as a pandered to minority who could not endure a British democracy that had voted to stay united, ridiculous I'm sure you'll agree.”

    You're implying that the UK was a single, seamless country, which was obviously not the case. It was a union of countries into which Ireland was forced. Ireland was implicitly recognised as a country within the UK – it was referred to as such in the Act of Union. It had its own administration, police force and regiments in the British Army. Until 1800, Ireland had its own parliament and had been governed as a constitutional entity since the Norman invasion; even before that, as Liam pointed out, it had recognised itself as some sort of political unit. Furthermore, nearly three-quarters of the people in this entity supported some form of independence. So there were very good grounds for treating Ireland as a distinct state within the UK rather than as an inseparable part of Britain; similar grounds did not exist for the six counties. You claim that four counties should have been allowed to remain in Britain, but at the time, three of these counties contained larger percentages of nationalists than the percentage of unionists in the island as a whole. Even in Antrim, 20% of the population were nationalists. Did they have the right to partition Antrim? I mean, if you can partition a country, why not counties and cities? If the unionist minority in Ireland had the right to opt out of 32-county Home Rule, why shouldn't the nationalist minorities in each of the six counties have been allowed to opt out of Northern Ireland?

    ”Why the British 'statelet'? Because mostly British people lived there and had done so for generations and didn't want to end up like the bunch in Cork”

    But mostly nationalists lived on the island as a whole. Mostly nationalists now live in West Belfast and Derry City, but is anyone seriously proposing to create republican statelets within Northern Ireland?

    The killings in Cork occurred during a war which was fought to force the British government to accept the will of the majority of people on this island. Unionists had rejected Home Rule long before these killings occurred, so the killings themselves cannot be the reason for the rejection. Civilians should not have been killed, but it is arguable that those who spied for the British became combatants by their actions.

    I believe that if a country within an empire or federation has a long history as a distinct national entity (especially prior to its entry into that empire/federation), if it has a reasonable population size and if it is viable as an independent state with substantial majority support, then its integrity should be respected and it should be the unit of self-determination. That’s just my opinion; I’m sure we will have to agree to disagree in the end.