Simply... A Brief History Of Britain's 'adventures' In Ireland

new internationalist
issue 255 - May 1994

Simply... a brief history of
Britain's 'adventures' in Ireland

1 Beyond the Pale
Gaelic Ireland’s relatively egalitarian social system holds land in common, elects its kings – and its culture produces the oldest vernacular epic in west European literature, the Tain Bo Cuaihge. From 1169 Ireland is invaded for the first time by the Normans under King Henry II of England, who has already been ‘given’ the country by Pope Adrian IV (an Englishman). Dublin is captured and colonized but English control over the next three centuries seldom extends further than the small strip of land around Dublin called the Pale. Henry VIII makes more headway, forcing local kings to trade in their native titles for anglicized ones – so Conn Bacach O’Neill of Tir Eoghain becomes the first Earl of Tyrone. Still Ireland is hard to subdue. The colonizing of Ulster, first disastrously attempted by the Elizabethans, takes off in 1607 – the same year as the first boats of colonists leave for the New World. Colonizers, who include everyone from fugitive criminals to City of London financiers, are required to clear their estates completely of native Irish but in practice find they need them as labourers.


2 The judgement of God
All colonists have to take an oath of allegiance to Protestantism as a condition of getting their land. The dispossessed native Irish are Catholic, which gives them a double reason for resentment. In 1641 this turns to rebellion – 12,000 settlers are killed, most from exposure and hunger as they straggle towards safer territory. The Catholic rebellion is put down the following year but real revenge comes after the English Civil War when Oliver Cromwell’s army puts all but 30 people of the town of Drogheda to the sword – 2,600 of them. ‘I am persuaded,’ he says, ‘ that this is the righteous judgement of God upon those barbarous wretches...’ He swiftly follows it with another massacre at Wexford. Between 1641 and 1651 the Irish population is halved – 616,000 die as a result of conflict, hunger and disease, while 100,000 are transported, mostly to the West Indies. All Catholics in Ulster have their land confiscated. By the 1680s the plantation of Ulster has succeeded.

In 1685 James II embarks on a vigorous programme to recatholicize his kingdoms. His blundering leads the English aristocracy to invite the Dutch Prince of Orange to become King William III. The showdown between James and William takes place in the north of Ireland. The Protestant towns of Derry and Enniskillen hold out bravely against siege by a Catholic army. Then King William himself leads his army to victory at the Battle of the Boyne in 1691. Victory is consolidated the following year at the even bloodier battle of Aughrim whose anniversary, 12 July, is still the most important celebration in the Ulster Protestant calendar.


3 Fury and famine
From 1691 onwards penal laws dispossess Catholics and dissenting Protestants of their land and deny them religous freedom, voting rights and access to education. Ireland becomes a colonial economy, run by a small Protestant landowning caste who extract rent from the peasants in the form of foodstuffs and export it to England. The first idealistic rebellion is staged in 1798 by the United Irishmen, whose leading lights are Presbyterians passionate about winning political rights for Catholics. They pursue legal reforms until the Government decides against Catholic emancipation but then take up arms. Despite initial success the insurrection is savagely crushed and 30,000 die. Two years later the Act of Union of Britain and Ireland is passed and the Irish Parliament abolished – though Catholic emancipation is finally won in 1829. The revolutions that sweep Europe in 1848 produce a tiny echo in the Young Irelander movement. But their call to arms has no chance of success in a country gripped by an appalling famine. The potato crop, on which the rural Irish depend, fails through blight from 1846 onwards. The Great Famine is not purely a natural disaster, though: peasants produce enough food but must sell it to pay their rent; throughout the Famine ships leave Ireland for England laden with grain and cattle. More than a million people die and at least as many emigrate to the US.


4 Fenians and home rulers
By the 1860s half of Ireland is owned by just 750 people, nearly all of them Protestants. Tenant farmers are regularly evicted to benefit the landowners. It is against this backdrop that the Fenian and Land League rebellions take place. The Fenians originate in New York but spread as a secret oath-bound movement in Ireland during the 1860s. In 1867 a group of American Civil War veterans travel to Ireland and inspire the declaration of an Irish Republic. The rebellion is easily put down but the movement achieves greater notoriety later by violent attempts to free its members from English prisons. ‘Fenian’ remains a common term of abuse applied by Protestants to nationalist Catholics to the present day.

The Irish Land League formed in 1879 secures its goal of fair rent and fixed tenure for farmers largely by nonviolent direct action. Protestants are prominently involved in the land campaign but from the 1880s onwards the religious divide widens as the campaign for ‘home rule’ gains momentum. In 1884 voting rights are extended to most adult men in the UK and from then on Irish nationalists regularly win 80 per cent of Irish parliamentary seats. Because they often hold the balance of power at Westminster they are promised home rule – devolution of some powers to an Irish Assembly.


5 The Easter Rising and the Free State
The first two Home Rule bills are voted down – the British Conservative Party has now taken on the name Unionist and made continued rule over Ireland a fundamental part of its identity. But in 1912, as Irish Nationalists again hold the balance of power, the Liberal Government introduces a Home Rule bill which seems certain to become law in 1914. Outraged Irish loyalists launch the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and recruit a 100,000-strong paramilitary force pledged to seize control of Ulster if home rule becomes reality. The Government concedes that special arrangements will be made for Ulster once the First World War is over.

Now it is nationalists’ turn to despair. Convinced that constitutional methods are doomed to failure, a small group of republicans stage the Easter Rising in 1916, seizing key buildings in Dublin and holding them for a week. The execution of 15 of its leaders (together with conscription for the killing fields of France) rallies Irish public opinion behind the rebels: the republican party, Sinn Fein, wins the first post-war election in 1918 by a landslide. Its members refuse to go to Westminster and form their own parliament, Dail Eireann. A guerrilla war ensues between the Irish Republican Army and British forces, with the IRA controlling much of the country.

Britain’s political response is the Better Government of Ireland Act of 1920, which divides Ireland in two (the three most Catholic counties in Ulster are left out of the new statelet to ensure a Protestant majority). A year later Sinn Fein representatives negotiate a treaty under which Britain withdraws from the new Irish Free State. The IRA leader Michael Collins also signs up but a year-long civil war follows between pro-treaty and anti-treaty forces. Collins is assassinated but his side wins the day.


6 Civil rights in the Orange state
Northern Ireland is now a province of the UK but is ruled by its own parliament, Stormont, which is dominated by Protestants not just because the border was designed to leave them in a two-to-one majority but also because they use every means to entrench and expand their power at Catholics’ expense. Catholics suffer systematic discrimination in employment and housing. Stormont gives itself draconian security powers, enforced by an overwhelmingly Protestant police and judiciary.

In the 1960s the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association – organized on non-sectarian lines – is formed, inspired by Martin Luther King and the black battle for civil rights in the US. Its demands for one person one vote and freedom from discrimination meet with widespread support but also with violence from extreme loyalists, who attack civil-rights marches and relaunch the paramilitary UVF.

Pro-civil-rights feeling in working-class Catholic areas runs ever higher and when rioting breaks out in Derry and Belfast the British Government sends in troops as a temporary measure to restore order.


7 Bloody Sunday
The British start trying to end discrimination in housing and local elections but the rioting increases during 1970 and 1971, not least because loyalist pogroms against Catholics lead to the re-emergence of the IRA. Catholics’ initial welcome for British troops soon dissipates as the Army cracks down hard on civil-rights protest. When internment without trial is introduced in 1971 nearly all those imprisoned are Catholic and even the few Protestants interned are civil-rights activists. Internment sparks further protests and at a march in Derry in January 1972 13 civilians are shot dead by British soldiers from the Parachute Regiment – the incident infamous as Bloody Sunday. Two months later Stormont is suspended and direct rule from Westminster is imposed. This is seen as a short-term measure but Northern Ireland will be governed in this way through to the 1990s.


8 Hunger strikes and handshakes
Britain’s first attempt to restore local rule – shared between Protestants and Catholics – is brought down by a loyalist workers’ strike in 1974. For the next decade Britain sees the problem as one of law and order rather than politics: local security forces are strengthened and IRA and loyalist paramilitaries are treated as common criminals. The latter policy backfires in 1981 when republican prisoners go on hunger strike to demand ‘political’ status. As ten men starve to death without the Thatcher Government giving ground, the republican cause wins significant support worldwide; two of the hunger strikers are elected to the Irish Parliament and one, Bobby Sands, to the British Parliament. The IRA’s political wing, Sinn Fein, takes renewed interest in democratic politics, supplementing the ‘bullet’ with the ‘ballot box’. Partly to counter this new republican threat Britain sets up another elected assembly in 1982 – but this time nationalist members refuse to take their seats. In 1985 the Anglo-Irish Agreement sees the British Government for the first time conceding a special role for the Irish Republic while the Irish Government agrees that the country can be reunited only with the consent of the majority in the North. The Agreement is reached without consulting unionists: their sense of betrayal increases, as does loyalist paramilitary violence. Talks between the constitutional parties founder and Northern Ireland seems stalemated – until talks between nationalist leaders John Hume and Gerry Adams, followed by the Downing Street Declaration at the end of 1993, reawaken hopes that the conflict can be resolved.

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