The Creation of Northern Ireland


The partition of Ireland that took place in 1921 was a logical outcome of the British attempts since the 12th century to achieve dominance in Ireland. One key feature of these attempts was the use of 'plantations' of settlers on the island as a means of control. Large tracts of Irish land were confiscated and then given to British soldiers who had fought in Ireland, or to groups of people who wished to improve their lot, economically or religiously, by relocating to Ireland. Many of these people and their families, especially those who arrived during the earlier plantations, eventually integrated their lives with the lives of the native Irish. Others, however, mostly those who came to settle in the north of the island in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries from Scotland (including some from England) retained both their religious and political distinctiveness. These were Protestant planters, whose religion was the result of the recent Reformation, which had split Christendom, and in particular the British Isles, where only the island of Ireland remained loyal to Roman Christianity / Catholicism.


Throughout the centuries, insurrections and rebellions by the native Irish against British rule had been common. Pressure on the British government to grant independence to the island continued to increase and after the great war of 1914-1918 Britain agreed to limited independence. The pressure for 'Home Rule' in Ireland had been firmly resisted by Protestants in the north who wanted to maintain the union with Britain. They feared their absorption into a united, mainly Catholic Ireland, where they believed their religious freedom would be restricted. Protestants also feared the poorer economic state of the rest of the island, compared to their own relatively prosperous region. Most Catholics, living in the northern region, who were the descendants of the indigenous people who had been displaced by the settlers through the plantations, wanted independence from Britain and a united Ireland.


The unionists threatened to use force if they were coerced into a united Ireland and began to mobilise private armies against such an eventuality. In an effort at compromise, the then Prime Minister of Britain, Lloyd George, insisted that the island be partitioned into two sections, the six counties in the north-east would remain part of the United Kingdom while the other 26 counties would gain independence. Each state would have its own parliament. Irish nationalist leaders were divided over this suggestion, but the offer was eventually accepted by those leaders who were sent to conduct treaty negotiations with the British, as they were anxious to avoid a return to an increasingly bloody conflict in Ireland. It was also accepted by the unionists, although reluctantly, as their first wish was for the whole of the island to remain within the United Kingdom.

The decision to partition the island led to bitter civil conflict between those nationalists who accepted partition and those who rejected it. Eventually, in 1923, those who accepted partition achieved a bloody victory, and with the consent of Dublin and Westminster the Irish Free State was formally created. The Irish Constitution of 1937 adopted the title Eire (the Irish word for Ireland) for the state. The state then declared itself a Republic on Easter Monday (April 18) 1949; the official title is therefore the 'Republic of Ireland'.


Green and Orange States


The majority of the citizens in the newly formed Republic of Ireland were Catholics, a fact that has been consistently reflected in the laws of the state since independence. For example, contraception only became legally available in the 1980s, divorce only became available in 1995 and abortion is still illegal. At the time of partition 10 per cent of the population of the new Free State was Protestant. This number dwindled to a current figure of 4 per cent partly due to the Catholic church's insistence on the children of mixed marriages being brought up as Catholics. The Catholic ethos of the state has, however, been eroded to some extent in recent years.


Northern Ireland has a population of about one and a half million people. At the time of partition in 1921 Protestants / unionists had a two-thirds majority in the region. The first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Sir James Craig, described the state as having a Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people. The state effectively discriminated against Catholics in housing, jobs, and political representation. Membership of the Orange Order, a wholly Protestant society, which was often essential for progress in politics and business, was forbidden to Catholics. Most local councils were dominated by unionists. Many unionists believe that such discrimination arose because many Catholics did not want to co-operate with the new state, and because unionists felt that the very existence of their state was threatened by what they saw as a subversive minority.


Such distrust was reinforced by the fact that it was possible for many people from one side of the religious / political divide to live, study, pray, work, and socialise, almost completely apart from people of the other side of the divide. Almost all children are educated separately. Even where contact happened - more commonly among the middle classes, who have greater access to shared work and leisure facilities - such contact was usually notable for its often polite, but calculated, avoidance of any acknowledgement or discussion of differences, in the belief that such discussion is bound to be contentious. In the words of Seamus Heaney, the Nobel prize-winning local poet, the key priority for most such conversations was `Whatever you say, say nothing.' Such separation, with parallel discrimination, inevitably led to significant distrust and prejudice between the communities.                                     Mari Fitzduff, Beyond Violence: Conflict Resolution Processes in Northern Ireland