Northern Nationalism: nationalist politics, partition and the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland 1890-1940 Eamon Phoenix (Ulster Historical Foundation, £14.95) (3:1)

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Spring 1995), Northern Ireland 1920 - present, Reviews, Troubles in Northern Ireland, Volume 3

Reviewed by Michael Farrell

‘You had opponents willing to co-operate… We were willing to help…[but] you went on the old political lines, fostering hatreds, keeping one third of the population as if they were pariahs…and relying on those religious differences and difficulties so that you could remain in office for ever’.

Joe Devlin, the northern Nationalist leader, was expressing his bitterness and frustration after seven years of fruitless participation in the Northern Ireland parliament. Devlin, a parliamentarian all his life and the last political survivor of the old Home Rule Party, led the Nationalist MPs out of the Belfast parliament in May 1932. A year later, he apparently told a Belfast IRA leader: ‘Craig does not fear me, he fears you, the man with the gun’.
Devlin never went back to the Belfast parliament and he died in 1934. His colleagues were left divided and without any clear policy or strategy. Most of them drifted into a kind of abstentionism and it was to be another ten years before they adopted an any way coherent strategy again.
The frustration and disillusion of those early years had a profound effect on nationalist consciousness in Northern Ireland that is still only too relevant today. Eamon Phoenix’s meticulously researched and excellent study of Northern nationalism in the formative years of the Northern Ireland state is more than timely and fills a major gap in the historiography of that state.
1916 was a watershed year for Northern nationalism, just as it was in the rest of the island, but for a different reason. In the six counties that were to become Northern Ireland, it was not so much the Easter Rising as a conference of nationalists in Belfast in June 1916 that was to spark a bitter conflict between the old Home Rule Party and Sinn Féin.
Organised by Devlin and addressed by John Redmond, the conference voted to accept Lloyd George’s proposal for temporary exclusion of the six north eastern counties as the price for the early implementation of Home Rule. But the conference was marked by a clear geographical divide, with the delegates from Fermanagh, Tyrone and Derry City voting solidly against. Within eighteen months, these mid-Ulster nationalists, together with others from nationalist-majority areas along the putative border like south Armagh and south Down, were to form the core of Sinn Féin in the North East.
Quoting extensively from the papers of Fermanagh nationalist Cahir Healy and his contemporaries, Eamon Phoenix establishes this east-west divide as a central feature of Northern nationalist politics for another dozen years. The divide was to be greatly sharpened by the Boundary Commission, which appeared to offer the ‘border nationalists’ the chance to escape from a Unionist-dominated Northern Ireland, unlike their colleagues in the eastern counties.
Anything that smacked of recognising the new Belfast government was seen by the border group as weakenig their case for transfer to the South, whereas some of Devlin’s supporters in the business community and licensed trade in Belfast and among the Catholic gentry were anxious for nationalists to enter the Belfast parliament to represent their interests. It is not clear how representative of Devlin’s own views were some Devlinite businessmen whose negotiations with Sir James Craig in 1922 are recorded by the author.
The confusion and inconsistency of the new Dublin government, which urged a policy of non-recognition and then failed to back it up, only added to the nationalists’ disarray. The long-drawn-out saga of the Boundary Commission preoccupied the border nationalists until the end of 1925, when the whole affair ended with Cosgrave’s ‘damned good bargain’ with the British government and the boundary unchanged.
Cahir Healy and his colleagues were outraged at what they saw as this ‘callous betrayal’ and it transformed them from being among the most loyal supporters of the Treaty into close allies of Fianna Fáil. Meanwhile, Devlin and a colleague from County Antrim had already entered the Belfast parliament after the 1925 election, arguing that the Boundary Commission could not possibly affect their position anyway.
Three more Nationalist MPs—from County Derry and South Down—took their seats in 1926, but the nationalists of Fermanagh and Tyrone were, in Healy’s words, ‘so sore as a result of this betrayal’ that it was another two years before they could bring themselves to enter parliament as well.
Eventually in 1928 a new Nationalist party was launched, led by Devlin and uniting supporters of both the old Home Rule party and of pro-Treaty Sinn Féin. This was the group Devlin led out of the parliament in 1932. Despite promises of generous treatment if they took their seats, they claimed that Craig’s government had ignored their complaints and by abolishing proportional representation for parliamentary elections, had guaranteed Unionist supremacy for the foreseeable future.
Eamon Phoenix skilfully analyses and makes sense of the complex twists and turns in the nationalists’ expectations and tactics. The book only goes up to 1940 but the pattern of abstention, participation and then disillusion did not change much after that. In the early 1980s, this reviewer interviewed the late Eddie McAteer about his experience as a Nationalist MP in the 1950s. ‘It was like banging your head against a brick wall’, he said. ‘Any time any of us began to speak, the Unionists would all get up and go out to the bar. You were just wasting your time.’
The legacy of that sense of anger and frustration may help explain the deep-rooted suspicion among nationalists today about any attempt to set up a new Northern Assembly without the strongest safeguards against a return to Unionist domination.
As well as the personal papers of nationalist politicians and the valuable collections to do with the Boundary Commission, Eamon Phoenix makes extensive use of the papers of the Catholic bishops of the time, notably Bishop, later Cardinal, Joseph McRory. The result illustrates the remarkable and often unconscious intertwining of Catholicism and nationalism in Nationalist politics at the time. Even Devlin, who claimed to be uneasy at a too-close identification of religion and politics, told the inaugural conference of the new Nationalist party in 1928 that ‘before setting out [we] consulted the Northern bishops and secured their approval’. And at a local level, the basic organisation of that party was provided by Catholic Registration Associations.
It was perhaps not surprising that in the polarised atmosphere of the 1920s and following the bitter sectarian violence of 1920-2 in which Catholics suffered disproportionately, nationalist politicians should have seen defence of the Catholic minority as one of their main priorities. But it was both surprising and depressing that while professing to seek Irish unity, they should see no need to appeal to the majority community in the North as well.

Michael Farrell


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