Fergus Finlay: We can’t vote away the fear and sectarianism built into the border

Partition built sectarianism into the polity of Northern Ireland. But it is through the Good Friday Agreement — not a border poll — that we will progress to a future built on consent 
Fergus Finlay: We can’t vote away the fear and sectarianism built into the border

The recent unrest in the North may be driven by the same tribal fear that underpinned that brutal sectarian state — but the bit of the country that had partition forced on it has transcended that. Picture: Peter Morrison

SO, WE’RE approaching the 100th anniversary of the partition of our country. Big centenary that. And I want to ask you something. Just between us — I won’t tell a soul.

Are you a partitionist?

Let me put it another way. Let’s suppose we’re going to have a vote tomorrow — we’ve already had a long debate and all sorts of political campaigning, and tomorrow is the day, in the secrecy of the ballot box, when you get to vote for a united Ireland.

If you live down here, in the Republic, it will have become clear over the course of the debate that your vote might well cost you a few bob. Pretty quickly, if we all vote yes, Britain is going to start phasing out its massive subsidy to the North. And the North depends utterly for its way of life on that subsidy.

A mural thanking the NHS on Ballyregan Rd in East Belfast may serve to remind us of the entirely different level of state care provided to people in Northern Ireland. 	Picture: Brian Lawless
A mural thanking the NHS on Ballyregan Rd in East Belfast may serve to remind us of the entirely different level of state care provided to people in Northern Ireland. Picture: Brian Lawless

Somebody is going to have to pay. Europe will help a bit, but the reality staring you in the face in that dark little ballot box is that in all likelihood your taxes are going to have to go up to carry the North through.

Suppose you live up there, in the North. The minute you vote yes, you’re going to lose your lifelong access to the NHS. Your children are going to lose their access to free schoolbooks. Your childcare is going to cost an awful lot more. Your health system will be a two-tier one — you’d better start lashing out on health insurance pretty quickly.

So you might have to struggle to persuade yourself that the ending of partition is a core value. 

Many may decide we're not ready

Getting the British out of Ireland has been the prime motivator for all sorts of politics throughout our lifetimes. It’s been the stuff of leaders’ speeches at party gatherings down through the years. 

And it’s been at the heart of darker matters too. There could be no justification for the carnage known as the armed struggle without the overriding principle of anti-partitionism. Bobby Storey’s funeral would have been a much smaller and more law-abiding affair if he hadn’t been one of the secret leaders of the anti-partitionist struggle in Ireland.

So there is at least the possibility (and maybe a lot more than that) that if we were faced with the decision to end partition, a majority of us might well decide, not just yet. We’re not quite ready. There are more arguments to be had.

You can have an argument too, I’ve discovered, about when the partition of Ireland started. Some say it was when the Government of Ireland Act was passed — that would be 100 years ago last December. Others would argue you have to wait until the anniversary of the act’s coming into effect — that will be 100 years ago next month.

And there are proponents for other dates well, such as when King George V arrived in Stormont to open the new parliament there. One way or the other, this year will mark the centenary of the partition of Ireland.

Tribal politics

For the last couple of nights, we’ve been watching riots on the streets of Belfast and Derry and other parts of the North. Stones and bottles hurled at police, cars set alight, petrol bombs being used.

At the weekend, eight people were arrested in connection with the trouble in the Sandy Row area of Belfast. The oldest of them was 25, the youngest 13

They’ve been rioting either about the Northern Ireland Protocol? Or the Bobby Storey funeral? Yeah, right. 

These are kids in the main. Youngsters. They’re not rioting about politics. They’re rioting because somehow or other they believe there’s this thing called the Northern Ireland Protocol, and Catholics or nationalists are going to use it to do them down.

Zero-sum game

I don’t know what you call that. Bigotry? Sectarianism? Or just the same old zero-sum game that has characterised the tribal politics of the North throughout our lifetimes? The unshakeable belief that if you’re doing well, it can only be at my expense. If you’re winning, I’m losing.

I’m no historian, but I’m always struck by the ironies around partition. It wasn’t conceived in Britain as a way to punish us, but as a compromise — a way of giving the Irish something.

The War of Independence was in full swing and, despite its superior force, the Crown was taking something of a beating. And they were faced with the real threat of unionist violence if they conceded too much.

But the compromise they developed ended up being born in bigotry. Hardline unionists insisted they didn’t want the nine counties of Ulster, only the six counties where they believed they had an
inbuilt majority. Although loyalists and Paisleyites have always called their bit of the island Ulster, Ulster it has never been.

Built-in discrimination

But the control they were given in six counties was exercised ruthlessly and often brutally, with Protestant discrimination against Catholics part of the polity of the system. The argument in favour of partition started out as a sort of Protestant fear that ‘Home Rule would be Rome Rule’ but quickly transmogrified into a hard-edged system that oppressed the group they claimed to be afraid of.

The other great irony, it has always seemed to me, was that the partition of Ireland wasn’t originally seen as particularly controversial. Partition began a few months before a truce was agreed in the War of Independence. The act of parliament that brought partition into being was referred to in the Treaty.

When the treaty was debated in the Dáil, over many days, and in a highly charged atmosphere — you can still almost hear the emotion in Collins’ and de Valera’s voices at the end — the subject of partition was barely mentioned.

De Valera opposed the treaty because it created a status for Ireland that was less than a full republic, and also because of the oath of allegiance to the British monarch. They were the things that caused the Civil War, and not particularly the partition of Ireland.

The principle of consent

Of course, the final irony is that, ultimately, the partition of Ireland was replaced by the principle of consent.

Our Constitution now says, in effect, that the North will remain British as long as a majority want it so. We voted for that, overwhelmingly. We consented to the partition of the country until a clear majority of both communities vote for it to end.

It’s weird, isn’t it? The opponents of partition see it as a vehicle for the oppression of a minority. The proponents of partition have always argued that without it they would be the oppressed minority.

Arguments about partition have always bedevilled and soured Irish politics. And yet, oddly, it has
always seemed to me that the bit of the country that had partition forced on it (the Republic) has managed to transcend it.

The bit of the country that wanted it is still trapped in the dependent mess it created for them.

So we might mark the centenary whenever it happens.

I’m pretty sure we won’t want to celebrate it. But I’m equally sure that, if we get the chance any time soon, very few of us will vote to change it.

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