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February 02 Issue


Dermot Sullivan
Time is nearly up for Northern Ireland. It would be very surprising if it lasted another twenty years.

Last Saturday the Ulster Unionist leader and First Minister of Northern Ireland surprised many and called for referendum on whether the six counties of the north should leave the United Kingdom and become part of a united Ireland. It was an unexpected move to try and wrong foot nationalists and to play to the unionist audience. All it really does is highlight what the problem with the six county statelet is in the first place.

The ‘Irish Question’ as it used to be referred, was how to find accommodation between the majority Catholic population of the country who wished to be independent of Britain, and what to do with Protestants in the northern province of Ulster that wished to part of the United Kingdom. The descendants of Scots settlers they were even opposed to self-government within the Empire. Their cry was ‘Home Rule is Rome Rule’. Papism was their enemy.

In 1912, led by Dublin-born lawyer Edward Carson and Scots-Canadian Unionist (Conservative) MP Andrew Bonar Law (later to become Prime Minister Britain), some 470, 000 Ulster men signed a covenant pledging the allegiance to King, Country and the Protestant faith.

After the Irish War of Independence finished in 1921, Michael Collins IRA delegation met with the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and future Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Lloyd George gave Collins an ultimatum: either all out war on a scale never seen in Ireland, or partition of the north. Not surprisingly there was only one option to this blackmail: to accept it. Twenty-six counties in the south were granted autonomous home rule. This was known as the Irish Free State, which several years later became the Republic of Ireland (which is how it stands to date).

If there are twenty-six counties in the Republic, that means there are six left. Edward Carson was a clever negotiator, and demanded all nine counties in Ulster. Nationalists pointed out that there were Catholic majorities in Counties Monaghan, Donegal and Cavan, so this meant that only Counties Down, Fermanagh, Tyrone, Derry, Armagh and Antrim became Northern Ireland. Naturally this is exactly what Carson wanted because it secured a Protestant majority for the foreseeable future. Coupled with skilful act of gerrymandering was a pogrom in 1922 forcing out many Catholics from their homes, along with an arcane and (by 21st Century standards) bizarre electoral system. There was no universal suffrage in Northern Ireland, no ‘no man, one vote’. A person had a certain amount of votes depending on whether he owned properties and businesses. As Protestants owned the vast majority of businesses Catholics were largely disenfranchised.

Part of the 1921 Treaty stated that there was to be a proportional representation based voting system in Northern Ireland, but by 1922 Lloyd George had been ousted, Andrew Bonar Law was British Prime Minister and this was all quietly forgotten. Ireland has already become yesterday’s problem and would remain so until 1969.

David Trimble’s call for a referendum on the future of Northern Ireland is ridiculous. All of unionism knows that with the change of demographics Catholics will soon be in the majority in Northern Ireland. The census figures for 2001 will be published later this year, but Sinn Féin believes that around 46% would class themselves as Catholic. If the vote were held today then naturally the majority would vote to remain part of the United Kingdom.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement that all the main political parties have signed up to allows for a referendum to take place. It also states that another one may not then follow until seven years have past. Also all the signatories of the Agreement must abide by the principle of consent. Historically Sinn Féin would have been opposed to this. They would point out that there is no country called ‘Northern Ireland’, just a line drawn on a map, so that Unionists could control their little piece of land to the detriment of the Catholics. However, Sinn Féin called Trimble’s bluff and said that it would welcome any vote. To not do so would be to fall into a political trap.

Time is nearly up for Northern Ireland. It would be very surprising if it lasted another twenty years. Sinn Féin are winning at the ballot box both north and south of the border, something unionism finds very difficult to deal with. Perhaps it is time to work for their fair share of Ireland, instead of trying to delay the inevitable. There are many problems that affect the Republic that Protestant community can help with. In a country that will have to recognise the views and wishes of a million or so extra Protestants, the decline of the Catholic Church in Ireland will accelerate. Divorce has only recently been legalised in the Republic but abortion has not, despite the views of those living in Dublin (a third of the population) and the majority of the young. In a country that has proportion representation the unionists will hold the balance of power.

First Minister David Trimble has remained strangely quiet since Saturday. He is in America at the moment for the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. It’s unknown whether he will now push his referendum idea. Let’s all hope he sees sense. Happy St. Patrick’s Day to you all!

© Dermot Sullivan March 17th 2002

OSCARS : A Night for Projectile Vomiting.
Dermot Sullivan
on a rant - The Oscar for least interest in awards goes to...
we feel compelled to stop and stare at it, just like we do at the most horrendous car crash

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