History and ‘the inevitable’

Published in Editorial, Issue 1 (January/February 2022), Volume 30


Exactly a century ago, on 7 January 1922, after nine days of acrimonious debate, Dáil Éireann narrowly approved, by a vote of 64 to 57, the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Interestingly, that vote did not legally ‘ratify’ it; that had to await a vote, boycotted by anti-Treaty TDs, of the previously moribund ‘Parliament of Southern Ireland’ on 14 January 1922, which also nominated Michael Collins as chairman of a provisional government. But did this mean that civil war was inevitable? That is a question to be discussed and debated over the coming months.

After all, a decade previously Home Rule had seemed inevitable, particularly after the passing of the 1911 Parliament Act which removed the House of Lords veto, but it was not to be. A combination of the threat of armed opposition from Ulster unionists, the outbreak of the First World War and the 1916 Rising put paid to it, and John Redmond and the previously dominant Irish Parliamentary Party sleepwalked their way into support for an imperialist war and their own political oblivion.

And, in our own time, is a united Ireland inevitable? Recent demographic and political trends, in particular the prospect of Sinn Féin in government—North and South—as the largest party, would seem to suggest so. And is there an equal and opposite inevitability in unionist opposition to such a prospect? How else can we explain the DUP’s support for a ‘hard’ Brexit and their ongoing opposition to its consequence, the Northern Ireland protocol, but as an attempt to sabotage the Good Friday Agreement, to pull up the drawbridge, and push Northern Ireland closer to the UK and away from Ireland and the EU?

But there is nothing inevitable about this zero-sum scenario: Northern Ireland voted Remain; its business leaders have expressed satisfaction with recent EU concessions on the protocol; and unionist parties are now in a minority. Opinion polls, however, suggest that Northern Ireland is a long way short of majority support for a united Ireland. The latter may still be inevitable, even desirable, but it is not imminent.

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