Tuesday, March 14, 2006


Unscrupulous unionism and Partition

The unionist position was unreasonable I've been reading a book I've mentioned before here on United Irelander which I highly recommend, The Partition of Ireland: 1911-1925, by Professor of History at UCD, Michel Laffan, and it is absolutely fascinating to read just how unreasonable and unprincipled the conduct of the unionist leader, James Craig, was during the Treaty talks. Even the British government found the position adopted by the unionist leader to be most unfair. I thought I would outline some interesting passages from the book which certainly provides food for thought.

This is from page 84, Chapter 5:

"Lloyd George felt that the unionists would give way when faced with the threat of a boundary commission combined with the prospect of higher taxation if Northern Ireland remained an integral part of the United Kingdom instead of joining the south. Thomas Jones (Lloyd George's go-between) noted that the prime minister had been toying with 'various ways of bringing pressure on Ulster through her pockets' and his mistress's diary reveals that at this stage of the negotiations Lloyd George was deeply hostile towards the unionists. Shortly afterwards he described Bonar Law, their defender, as an Orange fanatic.

"On 10 November Lloyd George proposed formally to Craig that the Northern Irish government should retain its existing powers under an all-Ireland parliament rather than under Westminster. The question of which area would remain under Belfast's jurisdiction would be reserved for discussion but the creation of a national parliament 'would clearly further an amicable settlement of this problem'. (This combination of inducement and veiled threat was as near as he came to mentioning the boundary commission.) He pointed out that Ulster's tax burden as part of the United Kingdom would be greater than if it were part of an Irish dominion."

Now this doesn't seem to be an unfair situation proffered by the British, does it? Indeed as Laffan explains, many of the British delegates had sympathy with the Irish delegates over the issue of Partition:

"At a private meeting of the British delegation...Churchill revealed considerable sympathy with the Irish position:

we cannot give way on the Six Counties because they are fixed ; we are not free agents. It is no use going along that line ; but we can do our best to include the Six Counties in a larger parliament plus autonomy...If they get unity we could press Ulster not to object to holding autonomous powers for the Six Counties from them instead of from us. (p. 83)

All sounds very reasonable, right? But read Craig's reaction to Lloyd George's offer:

"Craig's reply was even more forceful than might have been expected. He rejected any revision of Northern Ireland's frontiers, ruled out any all-Ireland parliament and insisted that no paper safeguards could protect unionists agaisnt Dublin maladministration. To resolve the problem which Lloyd George claimed would result from the existence of two unequal governments in Ireland he suggested that the north acquire the same dominion status as the south."

Can you believe that? So one minute the unionists object to Home Rule - before eventually embracing it themselves for a manipulated territory consisting of six counties, the next minute they are complaining about the Irish desire to separate from the UK - before Craig too asks to leave it just like the Irish Free State! Unbelievable stuff. It just goes to show how unprincipled the unionist stance was at the time. Read the British reaction:

"The British cabinet was infuriated by the proposal. Lloyd George derided the idea of the north obtaining dominion status and ascribed financial reasons for Craig's request ; he wanted 'a six bob tax as against three bob'. (Jones noted Griffith's pleasure that 'the cloven hoof of Ulster's sordidness had shown itself in their willingness to forego representation at Westminster for the sake of a lower income tax'.) The Conservatives were uneasy and Chamberlain was warned there was no possibility of rallying the country behind Ulster ; 'it would not be easy to rekindle the flame which burnt so fiercely before 1914'. The Tory press urged Ulster to make some concessions towards Irish unity in the interests of peace.

"Craig's suggestion of dominion status for Northern Ireland made the unionists intensely unpopular and the British cabinet resented their sabotage of its plans for a settlement with Irish nationalists." (p.85)

Like I said, food for thought! It seems even the British were exasperated at the position adopted by certain unionists. As we all know though, no united Irish parliament was pursued from this point on and instead it was hoped that the Boundary Commission would produce a fair border. Again, we know this was not the case.

What I find most interesting from the above more than anything is Craig's request for dominion status on a par with the Irish Free State. Many unionists today refuse to countenance the demise of Partition on the grounds that it would involve leaving the Union. As if to seek the end of the division of Ireland would go against what unionism stands for. However the unionist position during the Treaty talks was that dominion status and departure from the Union was an acceptable proposition. Therefore I would argue that it is unwise to suggest, as is commonly claimed, that a United Ireland independent of the Union would go against what unionism stands for. It would not. It would merely reflect an evolution of the unionist position.

We are at a point in time now far better than the one 85 years ago. The Anglo-Irish relationship is good and healthy, there is no animosity between Dublin and Belfast and all sides are eager to see the people of Ireland achieve the best standard of living that they possibly can.

These are exciting times we live in. We should all look towards building a future where all Irish men and women, of all races, colours and creeds can live together in peace and brotherhood where they can be secure in their respective identities.

We shouldn't be prisoners of our own history. We should be architects of our own destiny.


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