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)