Northern Ireland: Past, Present, Future

Northern Ireland: Past, Present, Future

By David Runciman and Catherine Carr

 In the latest in our series on the fate of the Union, we talk to historians Richard Bourke and Niamh Gallagher about the history of Northern Ireland's relationship to the rest of the UK. From the Anglo-Irish Union to partition to the Troubles to the Peace Process to Brexit and beyond, we discuss what makes Northern Irish politics so contentious and whether consensus is possible. Plus we ask if Irish re-unification is coming and what it might look like.

Talking Points: 

The Anglo-Irish union was a response to the 1798 rebellion. It was a means of pacification through incorporation.

The union in Ireland came before Catholic Emancipation, which took place in 1829. By then, a political movement based on disaffection had already commenced.In material terms, the union added 5 million new subjects (England at that time had a population of roughly 8 million). It also added a new dimension of grievances.

The home rule movement was seeking a devolved administration, but failure to deliver that made the Irish Catholic movement more committed to independence.

Meanwhile, Northern opinion became more alarmed about being subject to Southern jurisdiction.The Government of Ireland Act in 1920 formalized partition.Many politicians at the time hoped to see reunification within the context of the British Empire, but that did not come about.

In Northern Ireland, proportional representation was abolished in local elections in 1923, and in general elections in 1929. In practice, Northern Ireland became a single party state with a large, disempowered minority.

Political activism in the 1960s was also influenced by the civil rights movement in the US and the increase in the Catholic student body in universities. 

At some point during the 20th century, the dynamics of Northern Ireland became seen as a problem that didn’t apply to the rest of Britain.

The 1998 solution was creative: the talks were taken out of the UK context and put into a wider context with the United States and the EU.The Good Friday left the categories of nationalists vs. unionists intact. 

Today, Unionism in the North has become a new phenomenon focused on its own domestic welfare and constituency. 

The worst nightmare of Unionism is coming true: when the Troubles started, 33% of the population was Catholic. This summer, there will probably no longer be a culturally Protestant majority.Brexit has revived talk of unification. But reunification could take many different forms.

Mentioned in this Episode:

Niamh’s book, Ireland and the Great War: A Social and Political HistoryRichard’s book, Peace in Ireland: The War of IdeasThe Good Friday Agreement

Further Learning: 

David McKittrick and David McVea, Making Sense of the TroublesAlvin Jackson, The Two UnionsMarking the centenary of Northern Ireland

And as ever, recommended reading curated by our friends at the LRB can be...

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