The type of partition which the Anglo-Irish Treaty of the 1920s unleashed on the island of Ireland was ultimately bad for the long-term future of the Union and Unionism as an ideology must seriously consider the concept of an all-island identity if it is to be politically relevant in future decades.
For many years, as a Unionist commentator, I have been urging that Unionism must start thinking ‘outside the box’. In practical terms, it must stop seeing itself as a purely six counties ideology under the banners of ‘No Surrender’ and ‘Not An Inch’.
Unionism must face the bitter reality that it is losing the numbers game. Indeed, if the last three elections in Northern Ireland are taken into consideration, Unionism is now a minority ideology in its own land.
This is why the pro-Union community must now seriously consider my ideology of Revolutionary Unionism which urges Unionism to develop its historical all-island identity dating back to the Glorious Revolution of the late 17th century.
It was the influence of my excellent lecturers both at Queen’s University in Belfast and Ulster University during thesis research for my Masters and Doctorate degrees who encouraged me to ‘think outside the box’ and analyse why I am a Unionist and where I wanted my Unionism to go in the future.
That was why I formed the think-tank, the Revolutionary Unionist Convention, to prepare the theoretical, academic, ideological and even theological ground work for the aims of Revolutionary Unionism to enter mainstream political thinking.
Perhaps, like my investigation of allegations of collusion in the late 1980s and early 1990s, mainstream media was not ready for such probes, so too, mainstream Unionism was not ready to face the prospect of having to develop an all-island identity.
Here’s the link to that article I penned for The Blanket 17 years ago.
The Glorious Revolution established the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland and laid the foundations for modern parliamentary democracy throughout the geographical British Isles.
However, for 21st century Unionists to fully understand why they need an all-island identity, they must first come to terms with the failure of partition. The fledgling Northern Ireland as agreed in the 1920s only survived because of the Irish Civil War in which pro and anti Treaty republicans butchered each other instead of planning for a full scale invasion of the new state.
The vote in Dail Eireann in support of the Treaty on passed by 64 to 57. The ensuing civil war claims the lives of senior republican commanders - Michael Collins from the Free State forces and Liam Lynch from the anti-Treaty IRA. Dan Breen, one of the IRA’s top operatives during the earlier War of Independence against the British, had to flee to the United States.
Had the Treaty passed through the Dail with a much greater majority, such as 101 to 20, then the Irish Civil War may not have erupted and republicans would have united under a military plan to invade Northern Ireland.
The eventual partition arrangements did Unionism no favours, so why was it done and how could it have been different?
While the vast majority of Unionists were located in the geographical Province of Ulster, and their main political vehicle was the Ulster Unionist Council founded in 1905, and the main Unionist militia opposing Home Rule for Ireland was the Ulster Volunteer Force formed in 1912, why did partition only include six of the nine Provincial counties of Ulster?
An obvious observation by the British delegation at the talks which resulted in partition was that these six Ulster counties had Unionist majorities, while Irish nationalists held the numerical balance of power in the three remaining Ulster counties - Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan.
While on paper, it made sense to base the new Unionist dominated Northern Ireland on only those six counties with Unionist majorities, in terms of a practical defence of the new Northern Ireland, the fledgling state needed all nine Ulster counties.
It was inevitable that no matter what version of partition was implemented, there would be sectarian pogroms of Unionists driving out Catholic families and republicans burning out Protestant families.
A nine-county Northern Ireland based on the entire Ulster Province would have allowed the new Northern Ireland security forces, especially the B Specials, to use parts of Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan as a ‘buffer zone’ or ‘No Man’s Land’ as well as a geographically shorter border to defend or patrol.
Perhaps the British delegation was not prepared to give more territory to the Northern Unionist population because it was embarrassed by a public backlash in mainland Britain against the activities of the notorious Black and Tans units of the British Army in combating the IRA during the War of Independence.
Given that the IRA had been forced to the negotiating table because of the brutal activities of the Black and Tans and that the republican delegation was split over political strategy - going for an all-out 32-county democratic socialist republic in one go, or Irish unity in stages beginning with a 26-county Free State like the dominion of Canada as a starting point - the British always knew they had the upper hand in any such Treaty negotiations.
An Irish civil war of another type was avoided in 1914 between the Ulster Volunteers on the pro-Union side and the Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army on the other with the outbreak of the Great War, when Unionists and nationalists forgot their differences and joined the British Army to fight the Germans and Turks.
Perhaps London did not want to give full independence to Ireland in recognition of the military role played by many Irish regiments in World War One. Likewise, there was also the fallout created by the British decision to execute the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising rather than simply imprison them.
In reality, Dublin Catholics spat upon the rebels as they were being marched into captivity, only to do an about turn and treat them as heroes when they faced British firing squads, especially the death of James Connolly, who although wounded in the Rising, was strapped into a seat for his execution.
Perhaps, too, British Establishment opinion at the end of the Great War was divided between - give the Irish their republic and let’s be shot of them, and - if we give the Irish full independence, will be face further nationalist demands for independence from other nations in the Empire?
So was the six-county partition not so much to placate opinions among Unionists and nationalists in Ireland, but to pacify the Empire loyalists within the British mainland Establishment who did not want to face a series of Russian-style revolutions throughout the Empire.
After all, the Bolshevik revolution in Russia had witnessed the murder of Tsar Nicholas II and his family by the revolutionaries.
In theory, the real partition of Ireland which would have suited Unionists was not just the Ulster Province, but to divide the island in two, giving each political camp 16 counties each. In this case, Northern Ireland would have comprised the nine Ulster counties, Sligo and Leitrim from the Province of Connacht, as well as the Leinster Provincial counties of Longford, Westmeath, Meath and Louth. This would have provided a geographical border which would have been easier for either side to defend and patrol.
The underlying analysis of all these solutions which were either open to the British delegation, or the eventual partition arrangements, require Unionists to understand that partition as it happened was not in their long-term interests.
Indeed, gone are the days, too, when a Unionist politician could face disciplinary action for straying across the Irish border to formally attend a function in the Republic.
In understanding the need for Unionism to use the Northern Ireland centenary commemorations, celebrations, or commiserations to map out a realistic way forward for the Union in terms of the all-island identity, Unionists need to clearly understand the depth of anti-Sinn Fein feeling among the Irish civil war parties in the Republic.
In the aftermath of the past Dail General Election in the Republic, both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail buried their historic civil war bitterness to form a unique coalition partnership in Leinster House to keep Sinn Fein out of government.
In short, Unionists must understand the history of partition, recognise it was not a practical long-term anchor for Unionism, and that developing an all-island identity for Unionism is not a recipe for Irish unity as envisaged by the 1916 Proclamation.
Listen to Dr John Coulter’s religious show, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 9.30 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM, or listen online at www.thisissunshine.com