Northern Ireland: 100 Years Of Resilience & Success

Johnny Andrews

12 July 2021

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After years of deliberations seeking solutions to the’ Irish question’ the Government of Ireland Act was given Royal assent (Dec 23 1920), which as JM Andrews, Northern Ireland’s first Minister of Labour, observed was ‘an earnest attempt to solve the Irish problem’. Equally, as unionism’s leader, James Craig, also its first Prime Minister, said; the state was created to ensure that the North had ‘freedom to manage its own affairs and protect its civil religious liberties’ which would have been threatened by an all-Ireland parliament.

However, Northern Ireland only officially came into being on May 3 1921 amidst considerable civil unrest both in the North and the South (war of independence), making the security situation very precarious, consequently ‘the new government set out to stabilize its security, its borders and its finances’ as a priority. Westminster even considered delaying implementation of the Act due to the deteriorating security situation, but Carson and Craig with their influence at Westminster and close relationship with Bonar Law (leader of the Conservative majority in Lloyd George’s coalition government were firm in persuading him to continue with elections in May 1921.

In fact this was successful and the fledgling state was able to establish itself on a firm basis after a potentially threatening start, with Westminster supporting the new state militarily and economically. Not only had Ulster’s industry been important for the war effort but they had also been reliant on British capital, markets and raw materials.

Meanwhile, organised labour looked to Westminster for industrial legislation and welfare. All these factors not only helped the fledgling state settle down, despite IRA attempts to destabilise it. They then reasserted their importance in the Second World War, where close relations between Stormont and Westminster had ensured financial parity, thus underpinning Northern Ireland’s position within the UK. Post-war the welfare state that followed was entirely due to NI’s contribution to the war effort within the UK, a point particularly important since all of its provisions ensured equally to all unionists and nationalists, and still do.

This has done much to underpin the state’s longevity and position within the UK and help create a shared community of interest.

Northern Ireland thus has a greater success and stability record (despite terrorist efforts to destroy it) than the chronically economically failing Southern state which suffered depopulation (until the 1990’s) when it reversed most of the policies it had been founded on (Whitaker Report, 1958).

If the North is insecure it is largely because a minority of republicans wouldn’t accept reality, deliberately refused to recognise the state and sought to wreck the place (Stevenson, We Wrecked the Place). Witness the almost continuous IRA threat since 1921, which has inevitably led to security dominating much of Northern Ireland’s agenda.

Here a sense of security for the majority had to be tempered with a desire not to alienate the minority in the midst of often tit-for-tat violence. It is notable, when the RUC was established, that a third of its places were reserved for Catholics and the first Lord Chief Justice (Sir Denis Henry) was a Catholic.

The state did try and overcome sectarian differences from the beginning; it tried to introduce integrated education, but the Catholic Church threatened to boycott it (most Protestant Churches weren’t keen either). Conversely Nationalists boycotted the new state at both local authority and government level, until the south refused to fund the boycott, eg pay teachers salaries.

Intermittent IRA campaigns were met with growing indifference from the Catholic community. Indeed during the war the IRA joined forces with Nazi Germany, although more indicative of Catholic sentiment was Ulster’s only VC, a Catholic from the Falls Rd, (Able Seaman James Magennis). Following this the IRA’s border campaign (1956-62) failed for lack nationalist support.

The main reason for this was the success of Northern Ireland, so well established by pre-War liberal unionist politicians like JM Andrews, who ensured parity of treatment for Ulster with Westminster, through Ulster’s vital war role in the defence of the free world (also protecting the South’s independence). This was epitomised by regiments such as the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, whose forerunners had their barracks in Enniskillen Castle.

Ulster’s role in both wars alone gave her claim to the benefits on the UK welfare state, dramatically improving everyone’s quality of life in the province, eg. the NHS and free secondary education. This greatly aided the decline of old anti-state attitudes, witnessed in the rise of the Northern Ireland Labour Party in the 1950’s and 60’s (taking 32% of the Nationalist vote in Londonderry).

Meanwhile, the same period saw new integrated housing estates, e.g. the Garvaghy Road, being built, signifying more progressive times, where O’Neill visited Catholic Schools and met the Republic’s Prime Minister (Lemass). A brave new minister of Commerce (Brian Faulkner) was internationalising Ulster’s industrial base, and bringing in foreign investment.

Nothing was perfect and many problems and old animosities remained, but things were ‘on the up’. And as the American academic Richard Rose observed, in the first major research conducted into the ‘troubles’ (Governing Without Consensus) there was no evidence of systemic discrimination against Catholics, although working class living conditions in general were amongst the worst in the UK. Despite this, the evidence would suggest that those opposed to the state were steadily declining and that Northern Ireland was increasingly accepted as a ‘better place to be.’

In addition there were new economic developments in aerospace, synthetic fibres and electronics, plus free education and a second (Ulster) university, with student grants assisting everyone. This indicated a rather successful Province that heralded a bright new future for all. Perhaps this was what some just did not want.

Northern Ireland always recognised its economic dependency on the UK and did not turn its back on it as the South did when declaring itself a Republic, outside of the Commonwealth (1948). Ten years later the South virtually accepted failure and had to begin re-bargaining its position with the UK (free trade agreements) and then the Common Market, to survive. Concurrently, Ulster prospered to the advantage of everyone.

Of course the ‘troubles’ have clouded the success, but should not be allowed to eclipse it. Most of the reforms the civil rights movement wanted were already going through Stormont when the ‘troubles’ broke out. Stormont was a functioning democracy and the Northern Ireland Labour Party was beginning to break the mould of Nationalist versus Unionist politics.

Real success was being cemented.

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