Ryle Dwyer, an American living in County Kerry, writes a weekly column in the Irish Examiner. From time to time his column deals with aspects of Irish history. Against a backdrop of progress towards the resumption of power sharing in Northern Ireland this week’s article looks at the hypocrisy displaeued in the past over the over the issue of Irish partition (to access the full article, go to opinion then select Ryle Dwyer, The article in question is dated today, 14 October)
An intriguing aspect of the talks in St Andrews is that there has been no mention of resolving partition. This distinguishes the current talks from most of those over the last century when the partition question inevitably overshadowed all Anglo-Irish negotiations. It was the great red herring that was used to obscure some of the greatest political failings and thus distort and poison our politics for much of the century.
Eamon de Valera, who led the fight against the 1921 Treaty (note: this treaty led to the creation of the Irish Free State, now the Republic of Ireland but left 6 of the 9 counties of Ulster as part of the UK) that culminated in the civil war, recognised the necessity of partition even before the Treaty negotiations began. He warned members of the Dáil on August 22, 1922 that if they refused to recognise the rights of Unionists, Irish nationalists would lose international support and the British would be given a free hand in Ireland. .
However, he harped so much on partition, he managed to generate a whole series of myths about the issue: that it was the cause of the civil war; that the 32 counties were one, united “nation from the dawn of history”; that Britain was totally responsible for partition; that the issue had nothing to do with religion; that a united, politically-stable Ireland would result if the British withdrew from the Six Counties.
In seeking to highlight the partition issue, de Valera was one of the few politicians anywhere to oppose the 1928 Kellogg-Briande Pact, which sought to outlaw war. He objected to the pact because, he contended, Britain would use it to hold people in subjugation by insisting that signatories of the pact should not support struggles of national liberation within the British Empire.
The two largest counties (of Northern Ireland) — Fermanagh and Tyrone — each had a nationalist majority. If the unionists of the North were entitled to partition, the nationalists there had an even greater right to re-partition. While de Valera was in power, however, he never asked for the transfer of those two counties or the other contiguous areas in which nationalists were in the majority. He was content to abandon those people and those areas in order to perpetuate a legitimate nationalist grievance, and thus keep the partition issue alive.
In diplomatic circles he quietly suggested what is now called ethnic cleansing, by advocating that those Ulster unionists unwilling to accept the 1937 constitution should be transferred to Britain and replaced by Catholics of Irish extraction from Britain. At the start of the second world, de Valera contended that the existence of partition left his government with no choice but to remain neutral. But in 1940 when the British offered to declare Irish unity in return for the use of Irish bases, de Valera showed no interest in the offer. (to be fair it is unlikely that Churchill ever had any real intention of letting Ireland become a united island). When European unity was being discussed after the war, de Valera decried any Irish interest in becoming involved.
“I am sure,” he told the Council of Europe, “you can understand with what a cynical smile an Irish citizen would regard you, if you spoke to him about uniting into a huge state the several states of Europe with their diverse national traditions, so long as he contemplates his own country be kept divided against his will.”
It was one of the great tragedies that he made no real effort to bring about a normalisation of relations but just exploited the issue for his own ends and so left a distinctly unstable situation after him. Although Seán Lemass and Jack Lynch tried to normalise relations, the green wing of Fianna Fáil resorted to de Valera’s old tactics when the Northern troubles erupted in the late 1960s.
It was not until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 that nationalist Ireland recognised unambiguously the right of the people of Northern Ireland to a separate existence, as long as the majority there desired it. This was a major step in establishing decent relations with the majority in Northern Ireland. Hopefully another step can be taken in the coming weeks, in the interests of all.