A century ago this week, the island of Ireland was portioned by Britain. The north-eastern six provinces of the island were carved off to create the state of Northern Ireland, which remained part of the United Kingdom.
The idea then was to create a state that guaranteed the majority Protestant population there a permanent state, an integral part of the of the UK, one that would supposedly ensure that they could rule ad infinitum and look after their affairs thought their own parliament in Stormont, just outside Belfast.
The remaining 26 counties of Ireland became independent. The Irish Free State would remain part of the Dominion then — but that quickly ended as it found its feet as a young nation with very old roots.
My grandfather was involved in the War of Independence, a guerrilla-style campaign that began in 1919 and ended 18 months later in a truce and eventual vote that agreed to the partition — it was a take it or leave proposal from the British, who still controlled vast corners of the world.
No time to react
For the Irish, winning at least the Free State was a considerable if not whole victory. When the treaty was signed, Grandad was in prison. He was arrested in a bicycle shop in December 1920 that was actually making homemade hand grenades. Because they didn’t have the proper materials to make fuses, they had to make do with shorter fuses — making the grenades much more deadly once lobbed. There was no time to react before they went off.
Partition, and the divisions it brought, the violence that followed, and sectioning off people from the same nationality but with different religions in new nations was a policy the British would use again — and anyone of Indian or Pakistani heritage knows only too well the horrors of partition. That brought about the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War — an historical fact that was often overlooked as Europe struggled with the flood of refugees coming from Iraq and Syria.
The partition of Ireland also created Europe’s longest-running terrorist campaign before the 1970s and 1990s, one that killed some 3,600 people and injured 36,000 more. Thankfully, those darkest days are behind the UK and Ireland. But the peace is fragile and the tension runs deep. And nothing has done more to bring these volatile differences to the surface than Brexit.
State of suspended animation
Right now, Northern Ireland has been placed in a virtual state of suspended animation. It remains politically part of the UK, it is also different, with the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson agreeing to put the customs border between the European Union and the UK straight down the Irish Sea. In effect, it has economically partitioned off part of its territory to meet the demands of the Brexiteers and sold out the people of Northern Ireland once more.
Naturally, things change over the course of a century. When Northern Ireland was established, it was believed the Protestant community would maintain their 60-40 ruling ratio in perpetuity. That, however is not the case. The strength of religion is waning, so too old values, and, once the results of the 2021 census are finally tabulated and released, they will make for very interesting reading indeed.
The belief is that for the first time, people who classify themselves as Irish and nationalist will be in the majority. That is the hard fact of demographics, and yet another hard fact that the Loyalist community — those who want to stay part of the UK — must face. They are economically isolated, decreasing in numbers — and political relevance too — and no longer have control of the UK government as they did when Theresa May was PM.
She needed the 10 votes of the Democratic Unionist party MPs at Westminster for her parliamentary majority. Boris? He has 80 seats to spare and did whatever it took to get Brexit done — even telling the people of Northern Ireland that there would be no customs border down the Irish Sea. And we know how that turned out.
A party in crisis
The DUP is now in crisis. Its leader, Arlene Forster, has been forced to step down. It campaigned for Brexit when the people of Northern Ireland overwhelmingly voted to remain part of the EU, it opposed liberalisation of abortion laws but was powerless to stop them coming in when forced by the UK government in Westminster, and is seen as having been outplayed and outwitted by Johnson in opposing that customs border.
Last month, there were a series of street riots that hearkened back to the darkest of days and nights of the campaign of violence and there is growing anger and frustration in the Loyalist community at how they have been make irrelevant and isolated.
For Nationalists who lived in that position for many decades of Northern Ireland, it’s hard not to smile wryly at the shoe now being on the other foot.
How will all of this play out is anyone’s guess. But the DUP will only turn further to the right to shore up its hard-line support. And there is always the propensity for further violence — and no one wants that.
But there is also the provision for the so-called “border poll” — a once in a lifetime provision of the Good Friday Peace Agreement that allows for the people of Northern Ireland to vote on a united island of Ireland once more. My grandfather would like that. So would I. And most Irish too. But even that will not remove the threats and divisions caused by partition 100 years ago. If anything, with each passing week, those threats are becoming more real.
And should the Scottish National Party win a majority of seats in elections this week, the very future of the United Kingdom is in peril. That is ultimately what is at play here.