Lord Lexden is the Conservative Party’s official historian. His website can be found here.
It is widely believed that the historical background to Ulster’s troubles is so complicated that it cannot be readily understood. In fact, its principal features can be grasped quite easily.
Furthermore, it is not necessary to study the whole of Northern Ireland’s history in order to see how its deep-seated political problems arose.
Three key episodes provide the keys to understanding the origins of them. The three are: the Plantation of Ulster in the early 17th Century (which created permanent sectarian division); the first Home Rule crisis of 1886 (which determined the shape of Ulster’s divided politics); and the creation of a system of devolved government in Northern Ireland after the partition of the island in 1920 (which inevitably came to reflect the Province’s deep divisions).
Each of them is discussed in turn in the following long essay, which draws in heavily abridged form on a booklet entitled Ulster: The Origins of the Problem, which I published nearly thirty years ago.
The Plantation of Ulster
Normally if historians are asked when a particular era started, or severe unresolved problems began, they give evasive or contradictory answers. As regards Northern Ireland’s problems, remarkably, there is unanimity of view: the starting-point was 1600.
That was when King James I resolved to alter the balance of the population by making extensive grants of land to various Englishmen and Scots, the most important of whom (receiving the most property) undertook to ensure that their estates were occupied and run exclusively by Protestant English and Scottish settlers. The venture quickly came to be known as the ‘Plantation of Ulster’.
James I’s policy was more ambitious than anything conceived before (or, indeed, since). At no other time has Britain tried to intervene so decisively in Ulster’s affairs. The object was of course to bring the Province firmly under direct royal control – something that had never been attempted hitherto.
The Ulster which King James sought to tame was a byword throughout Europe for backwardness and disorder; it might therefore figure prominently in the plans of any aggressor contemplating the invasion of Britain.
The opportunity to take decisive action – in order both to dominate and to improve the Province – came in 1607 when the leading, and largely autonomous, Gaelic chieftans of Ulster went into exile, thereby firmly rejecting the power-sharing arrangements which Britain had long sought as the basis of the Province’s government.
King James found himself in total possession of six of the nine counties into which the Province had recently been divided by British officials. They were: Donegal, Fermanagh, Tyrone, Armagh, Cavan and Coleraine (soon to be named Londonderry).
What now occurred did not represent some totally outrageous intrusion of a kind that had hitherto been unknown. Colonisation had been a fact of Ulster’s history for centuries: immigration from Scotland in particular had been going on since the earliest times.
The 17th Century Plantation differed from all the earlier colonisations that had taken place in two fundamental respects: the scale on which it was organised, and the failure of the settlers to become assimilated into the existing population (hitherto Ulster had proved remarkably adept at absorbing new arrivals). These two features of the Plantation are crucial to understanding the character of the modern Ulster problem. Ulster inevitably became, and remained, a deeply divided society.
The settlers found themselves in a grim and inhospitable land, ravaged by recent warfare. They were much like settlers the world over: their manners frequently left a great deal to be desired. Yet, judged by the standards of the time (particularly as exhibited contemporaneously in North America), the Plantation was no more reprehensible in practice than it was misconceived in intention.
Indeed, it was carried out in a rather humane fashion. In New England, as one of its early settlers put it, ‘opinion varied as to whether the Indians were children of the devil who might be exterminated and their lands appropriated, or whether they were heathen who might profitably give up their lands in exchange for a celestial heritage’. In other words, they were candidates for slaughter – and slaughter duly took place.
In Ulster a gentler, more ‘modern’ approach was adopted. Instead of exterminating the native Irish (or herding them into reservations), Britain sought only to ensure that they were effectively subjugated by British planters who would eventually induce them to become satisfactory members of the British system.
In this they failed dismally. Firm and effective Protestant control was not established throughout the length and breadth of King James’s six Plantation counties, as he himself had intended. Over large areas it proved impossible to put the land into the possession of Protestant settlers, because they failed to materialise in sufficient numbers. Much land remained in the hands of native Catholics.
Yet this created no legacy of gratitude. On the contrary, there is probably not a single nationalist in Northern Ireland today who does not believe that his forebears were forced to flee to the hills, or relegated to the least productive land, by the Province’s cruel, Protestant conquerors.
King James lamented that ‘neither the safety of that country nor the planting of religion and civility amongst those rude and barbarous people’ had been accomplished. Expectations were not, however, disappointed absolutely everywhere. The most eastern regions of Ulster, which lie closest to Scotland, were totally transformed.
Ironically, they were not part of the King’s plans at all. Coinciding with the official, state-sponsored Plantation, a quite separate, private enterprise Plantation was organised by a couple of Scottish adventurers in the counties of Down and Antrim. It succeeded triumphantly, creating large, impregnable bastions of support for Protestantism and thus – in later centuries – for Ulster Unionism.
The well-colonised East contrasted sharply with the partially subdued West. Over the centuries the differences became more, rather than less, marked. The West had smaller, less prosperous farms. However, the effects of the Plantation were identical everywhere in the most crucial respect of all. Among the dense settlements in the East and the scattered communities in the West, religion created a great gulf between the colonists and the native population.
Previous waves of immigration had brought Gaels, Vikings, Normans and Scots to Ulster: all had been successfully integrated. But where the races could mingle, Protestants and Catholics could not. Stern, unbending Presbyterians retained the upper hand within the Protestant community; the Catholics had their strength renewed by the Counter-Reformation, which increased their opposition to the heretics in their midst.
Once such battle-lines are firmly drawn, there is no reason (barring the collapse of religious faith itself) why they should ever be removed. It is much more likely that subsequent generations will find the means of renewing the ancient trouble, and superimpose upon it fresh disputes over the main issues in later Eurporean history, national allegiance and identity. So it was in Ulster – as in large numbers of other European countries, with mainland Britain proving a striking exception.
The First Home Rule Crisis of 1886
Speaking in Birmingham on 21 April 1886, Joseph Chamberlain explained to a largely apathetic Britain that, because of its special characteristics, Ulster could not be successfully accommodated in a controversial plan for constitutional reform that had been proposed by Gladstone earlier that month: Irish Home Rule.
Although Ulster had shown no great enthusiasm for Ireland’s union with Great Britain in 1801, which involved the abolition of its Protestant parliament, the re-creation of a parliament in Dublin, albeit with limited powers, could not command the support of the descendants of the Protestant settlers of the 17th Century since it would inevitably be under the control of Catholic nationalists. Chamberlain said:
“There are two nations in Ireland, two communities, separated by religion, by race, by politics, by social conditions. There are in Ireland at this moment something like one and a quarter million of Protestants, most of them in the Province of Ulster… Now, they are bitterly opposed to this scheme [of Home Rule], and, rightly or wrongly, although under the protection of the British Government, they have lived on terms of amity with their Roman Catholic neighbours, they believe that their property, their religion – ay, even their lives – could not safely be entrusted to a Nationalist Parliament in Dublin… I think that they are entitled to some consideration from the British power they have hitherto unformly supported’.”
If Joe Chamberlain’s view had prevailed in 1886 – or indeed at any point before the First World War – Ulster’s Protestants would have been able to look to the future with settled confidence. It would have been clear that both the Liberal and Conservative parties in Britain recognised that there were two distinct traditions (Chamberlain’s ‘two nations’) in Ireland, and would take them both fully into account when considering the future government of the country.
If this had happened, the Irish nationalist movement, which by 1886 had won the support of almost the entire Catholic population, might have recognised the folly of trying to bring Ulster Protestants under the authority of an Irish parliament. By persisting in that folly, Irish nationalists turned Ulster Protestants into implacable opponents.
In 1886 the Protestants of Ulster were more conscious of their separate identity than ever before. During the previous forty years they had led the Province into the industrial era, which had left virtually all the rest of Ireland untouched. And the areas which had benefited most spectacularly were their own heartlands in the East of Ulster, at the centre of which stood the rapidly expanding town of Belfast whose population had grown from 20,000 to over 300,000 since the beginning of the century.
The success of its three great industries – shipbuilding, engineering and linen – made the Protestants who dominated them even more certain that their future did not lie in a Catholic Ireland.
Some imagined that Protestantism itself would be imperilled; such fears were summed up in the slogan ‘Home Rule means Rome Rule’, which gained plausibility from the active support given by the Catholic hierarchy and parish priests to Irish nationalism. Others believed that their remarkable economic achievements would be wrecked by a wholly unsympathetic administration in Dublin, most of whose members would have no conception of the needs of modern industry and might well regard agriculture as superior to it.
The precise causes of concern might differ, but all except a small handful of Protestants agreed that Home Rule must be resisted. It was certain that that resistance would be extremely formidable, thanks to the new wealth that Ulster Protestants had acquired as part of the British industrial system.
Britain was distinctly unimpressed by Ulster’s case. This was due in large part to the fact that it was not presented in a way likely to win reliable friends and real influence in Britain (and during the 130 years that have elapsed since then, only limited improvement has occurred on this front).
A great deal of time was spent lauding the Protestant character and denigrating Catholics; it was comparatively rare for the argument to be put in the modern, secular vocabulary of nationality and identity, employed so effectively by Chamberlain. British politicians professed to be deeply shocked, even though many of them had direct experience of sectarian bitterness as a result of the anti-Catholicism which was rife in many British cities.
Here, then, was the genesis of the widespread habit in Britain of deriding the cause of Protestant Ulster – a habit which grew steadily in the ensuing years and remains common today. Those who condemned Home Rule were themselves condemned as Orange bigots, and their views indignantly repudiated.
It is the business of practical politicians to form rigorous, clinical assessments of the factors at work in a political crisis, and to exclude other considerations from their minds when they decide what should be done. In this period most British politicians ludicrously underestimated the strength of Protestant Ulster. They allowed their opinions to be swayed by disdain for the manner in which the case was presented.
Britain has paid a high price for this misplaced moral indignation; Ulster has paid an even higher one.
In 1886 no one displayed more contempt for Protestant Ulster than Gladstone, the author of Home Rule. His Liberal party had been doing rather well in the Province, winning nine seats at the 1880 election; and yet Gladstone totally ignored the deep suspicion of Home Rule felt by so many of his largely Protestant followers in the Province. He refused point blank even to receive any deputation from Ulster to discuss the matter, and dismissed the unmistakable signs of widespread Protestant opposition as “momentary ebullitions, which will pass away with the fears from which they spring.”
His intransigence destroyed Liberalism as a serious political force in Ulster. Gladstone also invented the practice, so frequently employed by subsequent generations of British politicians, of lecturing Ulster Protestants on their overriding duty to reach a fair and equitable compromise with the Catholics. That alone, it is always implied, can win them goodwill in Britain. Not surprisingly, the effect of such hectoring on Ulster Protestants has been to infuriate them, and make them less disposed to compromise.
For their part, the Tories regarded Protestant Ulster without enthusiasm. It was given no large role in the defeat of the first Home Rule Bill in 1886, or of the second in 1894. Its representatives were often welcomed by individual Conservative constituencies, where they helped to entertain the party faithful with stories of their experiences combating Irish nationalists. But they were not permitted to make any serious contribution to the Tories’ policy or strategy.
In those circumstances, they drew up their first plans for militant opposition to Home Rule in 1886. That laid the foundations for the armed resistance that threatened civil war in Ireland on the eve of the First World War, when British Conservatives did back Ulster Unionism to the hilt for the first and last time. Close links between them were maintained. Until 1974 the Tories were glad to recieve the devoted support of Ulster Unionist MPs at Westminster, but gave little in return.
Unloved by leading politicians in Britain, the opponents of Home Rule in Ulster naturally set about constructing their own means of defending their essential interests. The year 1886 witnessed the birth of the Ulster Unionist movement, with its own institutions which owed no allegiance to the two established British parties.
The old political mould survived for a time alongside the new, but almost overnight Liberals and Conservatives began to think of themselves as Ulster Unionists, and fought elections under a common banner. In the House of Commons their representatives formed themselves into a separate group in January 1886. When in 1904-5 the Conservative party began to devise plans for administrative devolution overseen by a body in Dublin, the separate political system in Ulster was put into its final form with the establishment of the Ulster Unionist Council, which extinguished all residual traces of the two national parties in the Province.
This self-exclusion from the mainstream British parties created a danger that British politicians would seek to exclude Ulster’s Unionists still further. That is exactly what happened as a result of the third defining episode in Ulster history. A movement orgainised to defeat Home Rule ended up achieving it, though in a very different form than Gladstone had intended in 1886.
Partition and its Aftermath
The partition of Ireland, begun by the establishment of Northern Ireland in 1920 and completed in 1921, has often been misrepresented as the only event that really matters in tracing the origin of the modern Ulster problem, disregarding all that had gone before.
This suits the opponents of Ulster Unionism extremely well. It enables them to present Northern Ireland as an entirely artificial creation, which only exists because Lloyd George’s coalition government (dominated by Tories) wanted a puppet regime in Belfast through which it could try to influence and manipulate what happened in Ireland as a whole after it had conferred dominion status on twenty-six of the country’s thirty-two counties under the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921.
Nothing of that kind happened. Most of the politicians who were responsible for partition in 1920-1 envisaged it as only a temporary phenornenon: they believed that slowly, but surely, Northern Ireland and the twenty-six county dominion of the Irish Free State (which declared itself a Republic in 1949) would draw together and eventually merge.
That has not happened either, but opinion in Britain continues to be much influenced by a widespread feeling that one day the partition of Ireland, which occurred so comparatively recently, will end – though the feeling is so vague that it is not accompanied by any clear view of how, or when, that day will come. This wholly mistaken assumption has been the cause of immense harm.
There has also always been a widely held view that a profound mistake was made in including in Northern Ireland only six counties of the so-called historic Province of Ulster, rather than all nine (the other three are Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan).
If Northern Ireland had been enlarged in this way it would have had no more than a 56 per cent Protestant majority, comapred to a 66 per cent Protestant majority in the six counties. A bigger Northern Ireland would, therefore, have been much more vulnerable to the constant pressure which was certain to be exerted by Irish nationalists, whose one objective was to end partition as soon as possible.
Quite understandably, Ulster Unionists rejected a nine-county arrangement: they saw no prospect of achieving political stability within it.
Two factors above all are crucial to understanding partition. First, no definitive, scientific boundary, satisfactory to all parties, exists, any more than it does between other countries torn by competing nationalisms (one thinks at once of Eastern Europe). Second, the physical division of Ireland is only a reflection of a much deeper partition. As one of the leading post-war Irish historians put it: “the real partition is not on the map, but in the minds of men”.
It was far from self-evident, however, that Northern Ireland needed to be given Home Rule. As has often been pointed out, the Unionists did not want it; they accepted it, in the words of their leader Sir James Craig (later Lord Craigavon) as ‘ the supreme sacrifice’.
Home Rule was thrust upon them by a British Government which, after an inconclusive armed struggle against the IRA, now found the attractions of disengagement from Ireland, North and South, irresistible. As a detailed academic study of the period concluded: “the setting up of a Northern Parliament meant that Westminster could turn its back on Ulster and let others govern the unruly Province…[Partition] took Ireland out of the realm of British politics”. As a cabinet paper noted, ‘all Irishmen would be self-governing’.
Northern Ireland’s devolved government was left almost entirely to its own devices. Until its suspension in 1972, it remained under the exclusive control of the Ulster Unionist Party, which never obtained (and indeed did not seek) significant support among the Catholic minority.
Almost everyone who has assessed its performance has castigated it for failing to adhere fully to the standards which Britain thought should prevail. Yet Britain itself did nothing to encourage the growth of a non-sectarian, liberal democracy in Ulster.
Whenever Northern Ireland’s shortcomings were mentioned, successive Bitish governments looked the other way. But this did not stop British opinion from cursing the Ulster Unionists for failing to evolve as it would have wished when the prolonged crisis, which was to bring so much agony, struck in the late 1960s. Few regimes have been condemned so widely and stongly as the Stormont system.
It is extremely hard to see how harmony and social justice could have been achieved in Northern Ireland after 1920. A completely new beginning would have been needed, and that was never remotely feasible. There was no possibility in the 1920s, or at any subsequent point, that Protestants and Catholics would fall into each other’s arms, weep together over their past differences, and pledge undying brotherhood for the future.
Unionists remained profoundly wary; they were constantly being told that a higher Catholic birth rate would whittle away their majority. The very basis of their beliefs continued to be called in question: as late as 1931 the Roman Catholic Primate of Ireland declared that Protestants were ‘not even part of the Church of Christ’.
If constitutional nationalist politicians in Northern Ireland (who represented almost all the minority) had wanted to achieve a modus vivendi, they could have called for the introduction of power-sharing, and applied systematic pressure on British politicians in order to try and extract it. Not a word was heard from them on the subject. and when power-sharing was first proposed (in rudimentary form) it was a result of an initiative in 1971 by Brian Faulkner, perhaps the most talented of all Unionist politicians.
The nationalists preferred to be seen as the victims of Protestant oppression. They were never short of evidence to shock the consciences of those prepared to listen. As a result of their propaganda handled with much greater skill than Unionist counter-propaganda), Northern Ireland came to be widely regarded as a place where no Catholic could obtain even elementary justice and fairness.
What actually happened is that each community endeavoured to look after its own – which meant inevitably that it discriminated against the other. Such behaviour occurs in most deeply divided societies: in UIster (indeed, in Ireland as a whole) it had been going on since time immemorial.
The way in which discrimination followed almost inevitably from the nature of Ulster life and politics was described in measured terms, far removed from the inflammatory rhetoric of the nationalists, by the Commission, established in 1969 under the Scottish judge Lord Cameron, to investigate the origins of the civil disturbances which plunged Ulster into its long agony. The Cameron Commission concluded that:
“…in large measure the complaints made to us have traditional and historical roots, arising as they do from the permanent divisions in the community, and represent a protest against the tradition that Protestant and Catholic representatives ought primarily to look after “their own” people. In the past, for example, it was considered natural that a Protestant Council would employ Protestants in all senior posts, and conversely that a Catholic-controlled Council would employ only Catholics.”
Nevertheless, 0t was widely believed in the late 1960s and thereafter that the crisis in Northern Ireland was entirely the fault of the Ulster Unionists, who had deprived the minority of some of its basic civil rights. If that had been true, the programme of reform initiated by the Stormont government after 1968 would have contained, and eventually solved, the problem.
Unfortunately, the real nature and gravity of the problem were not properly appreciated until the IRA re-emerged in 1969-70 to organise its murderous terrorist campaign. Then the central issue – the conflict between competing nationalisms and allegiances – was laid bare.
Surveying the world scene after the First World War, Winston Churchill referred in a famous phrase to the divisions between the people of Ulster, describing “the integrity of their quarrel” as “one of the few institutions that have been unaltered by the cataclysm which has swept the world”. Events in Ulster today show the enduring truth of those words.
What is astonishing is that so many people in Britain today are so utterly convinced that Northern Ireland must be governed by a power-sharing executive composed chiefly of two deadly enemies, Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist party, who disagree on all major issues, and that no alternative method of government should even be contemplated. After years of painful negotiations with the Northern Ireland politicians, the greatest Tory expert on Ulster today is convinced that no part of our country is less suited to devolved government.
Any alternative to it would keep all major responsibilities at Westminster, but discharge them in close association with locally elected representatives. That is not just a workable scheme; it has considerable support in Northern Ireland itself.
Over forty years ago the greatest of all Tory writers on Ulster, TE Utley, identified Britain’s dominant vice in the handling of Ulster’s affairs “as an obdurate refusal to recognise the existence of any ultimately and incorrigibly unpleasant fact. This has taken the form of an assumption that in politics there can be no final incompatible aspirations; that there is never a point at which it must be recognised that the wishes of one man are wholly irreconcilable with those of another.”
The fundamental error bred a fatal illusion:that a solution to every problem “will emerge as a result of discussion round a table”. What Ulster needs today is tough-minded Tory realism that will, if necessary, set devolution aside.