December 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the Government of Ireland act. A time when we look back at the history of the state of Northern Ireland and can, sensibly, conclude that it is nothing less than a failed state.
It has failed its citizens (Protestant as well as Catholic), it has failed economically (being heavily subsidised by the UK government), it has failed socially (divisions are now more rampant than ever) and it has failed politically (a one party state for fifty years, and a series of coalitions in-between suspensions for the last twenty two).
However, like all big events in history, the jagged edges are smoothed out over time. Not only to ensure that participants come out in the best possible light (which applies to every side) but also the vagaries and inherent twists may not seem relevant to the participants, but tell a very different story in retrospect.
Unsurprisingly, this very much applies to the first five years of the state of Northern Ireland.
Although this convoluted history has been written about extensively (most recently in From Partition to Brexit ) Canadian academic James A. Cousins has made a point of studying the varying range of opinions from that period (be they Irish Parliamentary Party, Sinn Fein, Unionist, British, urban and rural) via newspapers, speeches and meetings. Through this, he has been able to piece together a fractured picture of Northern nationalism as it was let down and side tracked by internal differences and civil war.
Beginning with a swift overview of the Home Rule campaigns led by Charles Parnell and his IPP, Cousins sets the scene for the most tumultuous time in recent Irish history, highlighting the divisions between the likes of West Belfast MP Joe Devlin with his moderate, democratic method and Sinn Fein's forceful, confrontational one. While Devlin and his acolytes had The Irish News and popular opinion on their side, it was the IRA that upped the stakes and went straight into the history books as victors.
What was a surprise to me was that a good proportion of Northern nationalists and the Catholic Church were initially in favour of the 1921 deal struck by Michael Collins and David Lloyd George which would copper fasten partition. Cousins writes that:
The border press keenly welcomed the Treaty. The Derry Journal praised the Irish plenipotentiaries for their prudent, skilful and earnest work and declared the agreement free of any contradiction with Ireland's 'National struggle' ... Cognisant of the renewed hope that the Treaty would provide nationalist border regions ...The Derry Journal was thus convinced that the Treaty had 'obliterated partition' and given Ulster Unionists every reason not to exercise their option in this regard.
Undoubtedly, the ambiguity surrounding the Boundary Commission was the main reason for ones in border areas to feel optimistic, due to their high population of nationalists. Indeed, Cousins even posits the theory that the Irish negotiating team believed that the Boundary Committee would reduce the North to such an unworkable level that unionists would seek reunification (hence the notion of Protestants being loyal to the pound, rather than the Crown coming into the collective psyche of republicans), although events would show that this severely underestimated the depth of unionist determination to hold off the South.
A chilling wake up call to those who think that a post-Brexit hard border will secure reunification within a few years.
Collins, often portrayed as the reluctant signee of the Treaty and protector of Northern nationalists, comes across as much more guarded and ambiguous in his relation to the North. There's no doubt that he was horrified by the Belfast Pogroms (epitomised by the murders of the McMahon family) but his actions also led to the failed Northern Offensive which led to the Stormont government introducing the infamous Special Powers Act.
To conclude, Cousins has done an exemplary job of examining how this tragedy played out in real time, holding up every contrary view and every contradiction to the reader as it crawls to the inevitable conclusion. It becomes clear that the entire process was an exercise in futility. Unionists clearly had little to no interest in relinquishing anything, the South feigned interest but kept putting it off and the Northern nationalists were left on their own.
Read it and weep.
James A. Cousins, 2020, Without a Dog's Chance: The Nationalists of Northern Ireland and the Irish Boundary Commission 1920-1925. Irish Academic Press ISBN-13: 978-1788551021
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.