Dev, Ulster & the Commonwealth

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Devalera & Fianna Fail, Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2009), Letters, Volume 17


—In your entertainingeditorial on the perils of putting names to places in Ireland, you saythat nationalists find obnoxious the use of ‘Ulster’ for NorthernIreland (‘Up the Republic/Commonwealth!’, HI 17.3, May/June 2009). Butthat was not always the case. De Valera, for example, in August 1921,when questioned in the Dáil about possible talks between Sinn Féin andthe new Unionist government in Belfast, described the difficulty thus:‘Ulster would say she was as devotedly attached to the Empire as they[Sinn Féin] were to their independence . . .’. In December he told DáilÉireann: ‘ . . . we should simply say as regards Ulster that we offerto meet them . . .’. And in 1927: ‘When Ireland flourishes as aRepublican Ireland would flourish, Ulster will be attracted and seekreunion’. (Quotes from John Bowman’s De Valera and the Ulster Question(1982).) It should be noted, though, that in print de Valera usedquotation marks around the word ‘Ulster’.
BBC Radio recentlybroadcast an audio clip of Edward Kennedy speaking in 1972 (in aspot-the-voice quiz!) in which the US senator referred to Britishpolicy ‘in Ulster’. But it is true that these days nationalists,ironically, cling tenaciously to an old British version of Ulster,namely the nine most northerly counties of the 32 into which Irelandwas divided in the eighteenth century [33 if you count ‘the County ofthe City of Dublin’—Ed.]. This version, of course, did not reflect theboundaries of Gaelic Ulster, which ebbed and flowed with war and peace.What is clear is that Northern Ireland is the bulk of Ulster, by anydefinition—fluid Gaelic or static British.
Incidentally, Ulster waskey to why de Valera was relaxed about Éire remaining in the BritishCommonwealth after 1937. He believed that as long as this arrangementdid not impinge on the sovereignty of the Irish state, it would providea link with Britain that might prove important should the ‘Ulstermen’decide to join the South. He may in this respect have been, to borrowyour own phrase, flogging a dead horse. But his confidant FrankGallagher reported that when Costello broke with the BritishCommonwealth de Valera was ‘troubled . . . for he believed harm wouldcome to the cause of unity from the bridge to the North East beingdestroyed . . . The decision was taken and announced without consultinghim . . .’. Gallagher said that the Fianna Fáil leader did not publiclyvoice these views for reasons of Irish solidarity.
If de Valerasaw benefits from Ireland’s having links with the now-defunct BritishCommonwealth (the formal name for the empire), why should today’s IrishRepublic not join that voluntary association of equal nations that isthe modern Commonwealth, encompassing, as it does, so much of the Irishdiaspora? (The words ‘you’, ‘never’ and ‘know’ spring to mind!)



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