Three months ago, during the July marches and rallies by the Orange Order, the DUP declared that the centenary of the northern state in 2021 should be a public holiday and a source of celebration.
Democrats, including nationalists and republicans will see nothing to celebrate in the founding of an apartheid sectarian state that from its violent birth was a narrow, intolerant place - a cold house - for nationalists and republicans, for Irish language speakers, women, and the poor.
The northern state is a consequence of English policy in Ireland. It exists because of the partition of our island almost 100 years ago which was connived at by political unionism and their allies in the British Conservative Party. It was established under the threat and the use of illegal paramilitary forces and sectarian violence against Catholics.
When the Liberal government in London introduced the Home Rule Bill in 1912 unionism was outraged and openly defied the British government. Unionist leaders began to mobilise against it. The Ulster Volunteer Force, which numbered about 100,000 was established. It trained openly. In 1914, with the collusion of the British authorities, unionists brought 25,000 rifles and two and a half million rounds of ammunition into the North. The leader of the Conservatives, Bonar Law, made plain where his sympathies lay. He declared: “I can imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster will go in which I should not be prepared to support them.”
At the end of 1919 the British government announced that it would partition Ireland. Unionists had rejected a nine county Parliament because of the large nationalist majorities in Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan. They opted for six counties which they believed could be more easily controlled. The UVF was re-established with the support of senior figures in the British government. Other vigilante and paramilitary groups like the Fermanagh Volunteer Force and the Imperial Guards were also set up. For Catholics living in the six counties this was a terrifying time. They were left abandoned.
On 21 July 1920 nearly five thousand Catholics who were working in the two Belfast shipyards were expelled from their jobs. “Hundreds were surrounded and kicked. Several were thrown into the water, 25 feet deep and pelted with bolts and others missiles as they struggled for life.” Many were seriously hurt. Over the following days more Catholic workers were expelled from the engineering and many of the textile mills across the city.
Around 93,000 Catholics lived in Belfast at that time, many existing in poverty and in overcrowded unsanitary conditions. The financial and human impact on families and communities of so many Catholic workers losing their jobs was devastating.
In the following days Catholic areas of Belfast, including Clonard and Ballymacarrett were attacked by loyalist mobs. According to ‘The Belfast Pogroms 1920-22’ July 22 was “marked by unprecedented looting and burning of Catholic property, especially in Ballymacarrett. The Orange mobs, many of them drunk with looted whiskey, began early and worked late. When all the Catholic shops in the Newtownards Road area were cleaned out, they even looted a few belonging to their own co-religionists.” These attacks continued for weeks afterward.
A report in the Daily News at the end of August 1920 said: “All but a very few of the business premises of Belfast Catholics, except those in the very heart of the city or in the Catholic stronghold known as the Falls, have now been destroyed.”Over the next two years this pattern was repeated. There were attacks daily.
In October 1920 unionist paramilitary organisations were recruited almost to a man into the Ulster Special Constabulary of A, B and C Specials – which eventually formed the bulk of the Royal Ulster Constabulary RUC). Michael Farrell, in his definitive ‘Arming the Protestants of Ulster’ concludes: “The USC was effectively a Protestant force from the very beginning and the British government made no effort to avert this …”
On 22 September 1921 the first session of the Northern Parliament took place. The British transferred ‘law and order’ powers to the new Unionist Parliament in November and the USC was issued with 26,000 rifles.
The violence against Catholics across the North escalated. In one incident, on 13 February a bomb was hurled into a group of Catholic children playing in Weaver Street in North Belfast. Four young girls were killed along with two women. In March 1922, one particularly notorious attack occurred when Specials burst into the McMahon home in north Belfast. They lined up all the male members of the house and shot them. The father, three sons and a barman were killed and two other sons wounded.
This extended pogrom against Catholics,which had by now lasted three yearswas only the beginning of decades of state institutionalised violence against nationalists/republicans and Catholics in the North.
In the first years of its existence the Unionist Parliament moved to consolidate its dominance. This was done through the systematic gerrymandering of electoral boundaries, the denial of the vote in local government elections, and the extensive use of structured discrimination in employment and housing. Catholics were less than second class citizens.
In June 1969 the Campaign for Social Justice (CSJ), a published ‘The Plain Truth.’Itdetailed “the discriminatory injustices from which the minority has been suffering there for almost 50 years.”In the area of voting injustices the CSJ found that “only house holders and their wives have one vote each. This means that in all of Northern Ireland there are at present a quarter of a million people disenfranchised out of a total electorate of less than one million.”
The ethos of the Northern apartheid state is probably best summed up in an oft quoted remark from James Craig, who was Prime Minister of the North from 1921-40. Speaking in a Parliamentary debate on 24 April 1934, Craig said: “I have always said that I am an Orangeman first and a politician and Member of this Parliament afterwards … all I boast is that we are a Protestant Parliament and Protestant State.”
While there have been many changes since the Good Friday Agreement was achieved 21 years ago the fact remains that almost 100 years after partition political unionism continues to oppose basic human rights for many citizens and refuses to embrace the inclusive, equality based ethos of the Good Friday Agreement. Some unionists may choose to celebrate 100 years of partition. Good luck to them. The rest of us in the majority have no good reason to celebrate such a state.