Relic or Portent: The View of Northern Ireland from Britain?

by | 23 Apr 2021

Time shows both the diagnosis and prognosis regarding Northern Ireland offered in the Break-Up of Britain to be well wide of the mark. That Nairn’s view from Britain is inaccurate is not that surprising to those used to hearing about Northern Ireland (and the wider island) from Britain. His analysis, based on an essentialist view that suggests issues are of the island’s own making and will be resolved by one group alone is, again, unsurprising. On the three dates of returning to the text, even after events demonstrated that the ‘Great Powers’ must be involved, that John Hume’s moderate prescription provided a workable solution (and the opposite of that offered in the Break-up of Britain), the commentary remains steadfast in its essentialisation. Such analysis, while frustrating, becomes problematic when the analysis and history (including inaccuracies) become a totality, placing the extreme ends of a problem at its centre. When commentary centres the extremes, it gives credence, power and control to those extremes and silences all the others. It grants the narrative and veto on history to those extremes, downplays community, feminist, and with Northern Ireland in particular, non-sectarian voices, to suit a particular view. It folds all identities into the extreme identities.  

The title of the chapter on Northern Ireland, ‘Relic or Portent’, is well chosen, but perhaps not as Nairn intended. Both the characterisation and discussion of Northern Ireland are a relic of a Britain-based view and also a portent of how such opinions, shared by many, led to dismissals of what Northern Ireland’s many overlapping, shared and unique identities meant for Brexit and the whole UK. Within the Break-up of Britain, Northern Ireland is a problem to be resolved in order to tidy up the narrative. Northern Ireland’s intricate identities and aspirations do not fit and must be simplified down to religion, making other analyses – post-colonial, socialist – which Nairn suggests is near impossible. The first iteration of the book in 1977 came towards the end of the first decade of the Troubles, while the first postscript acknowledges the work of the 1976 Peace Movement and calls attention to Catholic Northern Ireland, but the account remains steeped in an essentialist diagnosis. By 2003, additional text relegates Northern Ireland’s evolution to mostly a footnote, but it remains entirely essentialised.

The ‘Breakup of Britain’ as a phrase strikes at the heart of the complication of the multiple Northern Ireland views of what Britain encompasses. For some, being British, it is inclusionary, affirming a core identifier, but also threatening since it suggests that this may disintegrate, leaving behind those who hold that identity as integral to themselves. For others it describes the entire negative space that Northern Ireland holds within the UK, where Britain comes to mean all the Atlantic Isles, but also encapsulates hopes that such claims, such as they are, are loosening. For those that consider themselves Northern Irish, it suggests another future evolution of the various constitutional structures across the island, but without foreclosing possibilities. For some in Ireland, it typifies the lack of understanding of the entire island from Britain, but also carries a menace, that a break-up would inevitably mean a united Ireland, something that must be outwardly proclaimed as desirable but nonetheless indefinitely put off. 

Writing this in the aftermath of rioting in Northern Ireland in April 2021, I am very aware of this specific context is vivid. The rioting was partially about Brexit, about a funeral, about continuing paramilitary control, about youngsters trapped within a pandemic but also about the economic, educational and societal peace dividends that those rioting were supposed to gain following the 1998 Good Friday/Belfast Agreement. Much of the trite commentary put the rioting to the use of the pro/anti Brexit camps, got lost in apocalyptic talk of the end of the 1998 Agreement or saw it as a useful way to quash talk of united Ireland. Community activists point to what could be done to help those young people; listening to women on the ground in these areas is particulalry illuminating, but much of ‘paying attention’ that Northern Ireland often seeks results in ‘hot takes’ of little substance based entirely on essentialist critiques. In the chapter on Northern Ireland, Nairn argues that if certain trends across Europe continue, Northern Ireland would no longer be ‘an outlandish exception to all the rules.’ Northern Ireland is unique, but it is only outlandish if reduced to stereotypes. Working class youngsters in Northern Ireland are similar to working class youngsters anywhere and require the same solutions to the manifold problems they face. 


The Othering processes undertaken in the book create such a negative space that normal social analysis is nigh impossible. The ‘socio-legal bogs of the island of Ireland, with its Catholic bit of ‘peasant, the priest and the potato’’ and its ‘Protestant workers … [with their] fascistoid bigotry and backwardness’ is quite the dystopia. By the 2003 footnote, ‘Ulster Protestants’ are upgraded to a potential future where they are ‘invisible and impoverished fleas on a monkey’ – that monkey being the rump of the UK. The book almost entirely relies on Protestant and Catholic as identifiers rather than Unionist, Loyalist, Nationalist or Republican. Nevermind working-class Loyalist or Big House Unionist or socialist nationalist or rural Republican, and it also ignores feminist, LGBTQ and other identities, all of which were alive and well in 1970s Northern Ireland. Women are absent from the book even though women across the island and in cooperation were organising in the early 1970s to demand reproductive rights and were capable of doing so regardless of religion. During this period, Jeffrey Dudgeon, a Unionist gay activist took one of the most famous cases on gay rights to the European Court of Human Rights. That support of the archaic laws was often rooted in religion is undoubted, but that a gay Unionist led the legal changes is likewise critical to understanding Northern Ireland. Traveller/Mincéir communities are absent, a flaw that continues across Irish and UK discourses and remains problematic. Ivan Cooper, May Blood, Eamon McCann and Bernadette McAliskey embody strong socialist views of where the solutions for Northern Ireland lie, and while electoral breakthroughs are infrequent, nonetheless there is a clear socialist political dynamic in Northern Ireland. Breaking through electorally is challenging not only because of sectarianism but also due to the forms of essentialism that side-line these voices for the poles.

Within the book, the Protestants of Northern Ireland are a single homogenous group on their own – an island within an island. But Unionists, including some Catholics, possess class and gender dynamics as well as critical rural/urban divides which are replicated throughout the island. The interplay and continuum between rural and urban economies remains a feature of political dynamics, especially at the border, which is largely rural. Northern Ireland’s (and Ireland’s) politics are tied to that dynamic as well as the broader class undercurrents that often manifest most obviously in urban areas but are present everywhere. While the stereotypes represented by the riots in Belfast and Derry paint a picture of urban violence, rural Northern Ireland is an equally political space. In the book, upon partition, Northern Ireland is industrious, even though it was in the main as rural as elsewhere on the island, and what became the Free State is rural even though the 1913 Dublin Lock-out (involving around 20,000 industrial workers and 300 employers) contributed to the movement toward independence.

Pivotal constitutional moments and the multiple parliamentary crises regarding Home Rule and land ownership leading up to the 1912 Ulster Covenant, the 1913 Dublin lock-out, the 1916 rebellion and eventual war of independence or, civil war, are oft forgotten moments within Britain’s politics of break-up. Political links of a variety of hues were strong across the Atlantic Isles. James Connolly, Scottish-born, was one of the socialist leaders of the 1916 rebellion alongside James Larkin – and both were urban rebels, not the peasantry of Nairn’s account. The Gore Booth sisters were both leading suffragettes and socialists across Ireland and Britain, and were members of the Ascendancy; again, not the peasants of Nairn’s account. From Lord Wellington to Edmund Burke to Daniel O’Connell to Charles Stuart Parnell to Edward Carson, important Westminster Parliamentarians came from Ireland, and to not claim them as Irish is to give into the form of isms within nationalist politics that Nairn seeks to eschew. Perhaps they are the Irish ‘butlers’ to their Scottish counterparts as outlined within Nairn’s introduction, but Ireland of 1921, and indeed today, is a far more complicated place, economically, politically, religiously and culturally than Nairn suggests. 


Before continuing, the critique that follows is not intended to deny the role of the Catholic Church, or Protestantism on the island, regarding the many harms that flowed, especially to women and LGBTQ and other minorities. It is not to deny the grinding poverty that many lived through on the island, some because and some despite government of policies in Dublin, Stormont and Belfast. It does not deny sectarianism, nationalism, religiosity, or hatred. All those things are true. What it is denying is the imperialist, simplistic descriptions of Edmund Spencer’s Tudor era Irish as Scythians, the Scottish international lawyer James Lorimer’s 1884 discussion of the Celtic problem as insoluble or Blair-era Jonathan Powell’s description of Ireland as priest ridden and poverty stricken. Ireland does not fit the neat narrative of colonialism or industrialisation; of Hobbes, Locke or Marx; or of Anglicisation – but we should not meet this with essentialisation. Ireland repeatedly dominates major political eras of “Britain’s” politics. What happened to Gladstone and Disraeli, happened again to May and Johnson. This cut-through also occurs in academic accounts that through a variety of means attempt to make it both exceptional and not of import to the future constitutional status of Britain, nevermind that it has repeatedly shown itself to be just that. 

There are several factual errors in the book that surprisingly are not picked up in reissues. Nairn categorises the island’s two parts, Northern Ireland, and ‘Southern’ Ireland as historically apart. According to Nairn, Norman feudalism as assimilation only occurred in England, though the 1367 Statutes of Kilkenny tell a similar story in Ireland. Nairn argues that after the reformation, English overlordship in Ireland ceased to be aristocratic. This runs counter to the successful plantations that occurred throughout Ireland, not just in Ulster (where the greatest resistance to English rule always lay), that resulted in aristocratic (often absentee landlord) government under Grattan’s Parliament in Dublin. Nairn states that ‘[f]aced with the rise of peasant nationalism in 19th century Ireland, the Protestants chose the British connection.’ In the aftermath of the Great Hunger, most nationalism centred around Butt and Parnell and the Land League, but the closest political movement to Nairn’s so-called peasantry was not entirely nationalist. Rather, the peasantry derisively dismissed by Nairn succeeded in regaining their land from aristocratic ownership, a process that never occurred in Scotland. The Irish Parliamentary Party was extremely popular until the executions of the leaders of 1916 Rising, and the leaders of that Rising were socialist Dublin-based activists like Larkin or Connolly, were middle-class teachers like Pearse or de Valera, or were members of the ascendancy like Markiewicz and, yes, they also included rural Ireland. Leaders of Unionism in what became Northern Ireland were a similarly mixed group of working class, middle class and ascendancy. The leaders of the Gaelic Revival were likewise both Catholic and Protestant and from across the island. The revival of the Irish language was supported by the (much-maligned in the book) Orange Order and the Presbyterian Church. Today in Belfast, figures like Lynda Ervine are reclaiming that language heritage for the Unionist community. Yet the book misses these many entanglements and complications. 

Nairn points to de Valera’s theocratic 1934 Constitution. The 1937 Constitution was written in close consultation with the Church, its prominence in education and healthcare provision a consequence of economic weakness and London’s historic lack of investment. But that does not make it a theocratic constitution, or is Ireland a theocracy today, given that it operates under an only partially altered document? Nairn discusses ‘Sinn Féin protectionism and isolation’ as part of Irish Government policy. Since 1922 Sinn Féin has never been in Government in Dublin, though recent electoral successes mean it may very well be soon. While most political parties have Sinn Féin DNA, neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fáil share economic policies with Sinn Féin. Splitting from Sinn Féin in 1926, De Valera created Fianna Fáil, and upon becoming Taoiseach in 1932 he commenced to dispute the payment of land annuities following the Land League’s successful campaign of land reform. While De Valera’s protectionist policies did not boost the economy as intended, it is strange to see a left-wing account arguing for free trade and an open economy akin to policies found at the IMF or World Bank Group for ‘developing’ states.

Nairn states that ‘[i]n the partitioned North… an equally odious regime answered Catholic nationalism with its own variety of devout spite and discrimination,’ though no evidence of devout spite on the part of Ireland is demonstrated. A discussion of the rationales for contemporary Unionist fears, and the experience of Unionists who remained in the Free State, gives better insight into today’s political identities. The myth of atavism is rightly dismissed by Nairn and he is also correct that the past is itself not to blame. But what blame is he pointing to here – blame for people’s identities or for the violence? Ireland, one supposes both parts, might indeed have ‘passed through an era of something like atavism’ post the first break-up of the UK, but the multiple realities across the island were far more complex than what is described. 

Of relevance today?

Much outside commentary on Northern Ireland must contend with volte faces and sleights of hand. Dublin is theoretically in favour of a united Ireland, but increasingly invents unfeasible ‘tests’ before it could happen. For instance, that the 1998 Agreement must be fully operational or more than a majority must be in favour. Critically, Dublin’s position accepts that it is the ‘middle ground’ in Northern Ireland, possessing identities that are nowhere to be seen in Nairn’s book, that must be persuaded to alter the current constitutional settlement established after the 1998 exercise of self-determination. It is thus almost as if Dublin’s elites are less enthusiastic about the potential for a united Ireland than would be supposed. On the other hand, since the Brexit vote and all of the upheavals surrounding Northern Ireland, there has been a surge of support from some quarters of British commentariat for a Border Poll. Coming from supporters of Brexit on the left and right, this support is couched in ‘self-determination’ and rectitude for colonial harm, casting the 1998 exercise of self-determination in reconstituting Northern Ireland aside as unimportant. It is almost as if the Union is not as important as it is oft claimed to be, and that for English self-determination through a “full” Brexit to occur, Northern Ireland must be dropped. Northern Ireland must exercise self-determination on England’s timescale. The UK Government, while making grand claims regarding not returning to the borders of the past and importance of the Union, also relies on stereotypes and uniformed analysis, making its claims regarding Northern Ireland’s place in the Union sound hollow. Both Dublin and London pull in opposite directions, but not the directions which might be supposed by a simplistic analysis. In both contexts, Unionists, Nationalists, Travellers, Feminists, the Queer Community, the BME Community, the Farmers, and the working classes of Northern Ireland are inconveniences to be ignored. 


Towards the end of his chapter on Northern Ireland, Nairn says that self-determination is a moral right, but one for the Ulster Protestants alone. Back in 1977 Nairn stated that, ‘[s]even years of warfare have only shown that they, and they alone, can solve the problems of their own nation.’ That it is theirs and their alone is the ultimate abdication of responsibility. It is a kind of its shrug of the shoulders that suggests that Ireland’s complications are its own. We saw a similar reaction to the riots in Belfast of recent weeks. That the 1998 Agreement says the opposite is its own answer, as in reality it took the US, Ireland and Dublin, London and the EU, following the lead of constitutionalist voices like John Hume, to ultimately resolved the conflict, puts paid to Nairn’s analysis. That unrest continues to emerge within Northern Ireland’s politics is of course true, but they are again in part the product of external impetus. To suggest otherwise is an atavism of its own, but perhaps one that never disappeared from Britain’s commentariat. 


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