The Nature of the Minority Question in Northern Ireland: 100 Years of Ethnic Conflict

Emmanuel Dalle Mulle's picture

H-Nationalism is proud to publish here the seventh post of its “Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspectives” series, which looks at majority-minority relations from a multi-disciplinary and diachronic angle. Today’s contribution, by Brian Girvin (University of Glasgow), takes a look at a hundred years of majority-minority relations in Northern Ireland.

 

It is 100 years since Northern Ireland was established as a devolved region of the United Kingdom under the terms of the Government of Ireland Act, 1920. It was never an independent state, but was able to act like one because the British government refused to intervene in its internal affairs. Britain retained sovereign rights but choose not to apply them. Thus, despite the long-term stability of Britain, Northern Ireland has been a zone of confrontation, conflict and violence throughout that period. The Northern Ireland experience provides an important comparative case study of how a majority addresses the ‘minority question’ within its territory. Why was the situation so intractable?[1]

At face value there is little difference between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. However, religion, national identity and the constitutional future of the region have been the main features of political conflict and competition since 1920. Protestant unionists comprised two thirds of the population, while Catholic nationalists accounted for one third. Irish nationalism considers Irish unionists to be part of the Irish nation, while unionists insist that their primary loyalty is to Britain and that their identity is British. Polling has consistently found that Protestants consider their national identity to be British, while Catholics identify most closely with an Irish identity.[2] Furthermore, Protestants vote overwhelmingly for unionist parties while Catholics provide similar levels of support for Irish nationalist parties. There has been little middle ground for moderate parties at any time over the past 100 years, though the Alliance Party and the Green Party have more recently offered non-confessional options.[3]

Governments have a wide range of options available to address ‘minority’ issues, ranging from accommodationist and conciliatory policies to active repression of minorities. What is surprising is how few governments seek out accommodationist policies, especially when addressing national minorities. Northern Ireland was born in violence and conflict. While the unionist leadership promised to govern in an even-handed fashion, the reality was radically different. The nationalist minority refused to recognise the new government and abstained from parliament at first in protest at the partition of the island. The Unionist party used its political success to exclude nationalists from political influence. Northern Ireland was never a ‘normal’ democratic polity nor was it liberal. Unionists won every election and successfully maintained its vote within the unionist block, despite occasional left-wing and progressive challenges. In effect, Northern Ireland became an ethnic democracy on majoritarian grounds, with one-party rule and permanent exclusion of the minority.

The new government abolished proportional representation in local government elections in 1922 and gerrymandered constituencies where nationalists were in the majority. Proportional representation was also abolished in elections to the Northern Ireland parliament, reinforcing the majoritarian message that the government would not share power. The new government remained deeply suspicious of nationalists and Catholics. Indeed, it has been said of Sir Richard Dawson Bates, the Minister for Home Affairs (1921-43), that he considered all Catholics to be nationalists and all nationalists as traitors and not simply political enemies.[4] While unionism should not be seen as an undifferentiated movement, fears concerning the nationalist minority and insecurities in respect of the irredentist demands of the Irish state allowed hard line positions to be maintained.

Equilibrium was established during the 1920s between the majority and minority in Northern Ireland, but it was one that reinforced and perpetuated the political divisions between unionists and nationalists. Northern Ireland was not a normal democracy in terms of policing or judicial matters. The Royal Ulster Constabulary was a para-military armed force, dominated by Protestants; it was supplemented by a paramilitary reserve force, the B-Specials who were seen by nationalists as particularly sectarian in their operations. The primary focus of policing was the defence of the constitutional status quo. This focus was reinforced by special emergency legislation, which at first was renewed annually but later made permanent. The legislation was permissive and repressive. Emergency rule became the norm, reflecting the majority view that Northern Ireland was always under ‘siege’.

The judiciary and the civil service were also dominated by Protestants and the labour market was deeply segmented. Indeed unionist leaders encouraged employers to hire Protestants rather than Catholics in their firms. These and other features created two distinct communities (nations?), which were accordingly ‘socialized into conflict’ as Rose put it.[5] Majority and minority have very different historic memories and in Northern Ireland they have been conflictual. Successive generations have been socialised by inter-community conflict, political violence and repression. The two communities also inhabit distinct residential spheres, work separately and engage with different media outlets. Inter-community marriage has been rare, the communities are educated separately and they worship in different churches.

This status quo remained in place for fifty years. Unionists were convinced that successive UK governments would not intervene and they could ignore pressure to reform what had become a deeply divided sectarian society. Sharing power was never considered an option by unionists. A poll in 1978 reported that two thirds of Protestants agreed that ‘since Protestants are a majority, they should have the last word in how Northern Ireland is governed’, whereas Catholics were far less likely to adopt this position.

As a consequence the unionist government was ill prepared for the challenge to its dominance that the Civil Rights movement posed in the 1960s. By concentrating on reform and equality issues, the Civil Rights movement sought to by-pass the constitutional question. This appealed to liberal elements within unionism, who favoured reform and accommodation. These efforts were thwarted by hard-line unionists who perceived the challenge as an existential threat to the existence of Northern Ireland.

The protests and violence of the late 1960s brought the UK state directly back into Northern Ireland for the first time since 1920, deploying the British army in 1969 and taking increased responsibility for governing the area. During the crucial three years after 1969, the unionist leadership failed to address the demands for inclusion made by moderate nationalist leaders. They maintained that reforms had been put in place and that what remained were security issues to be dealt with as previously. Successive investigations and commissions revealed the deep sectarian disparities in the society and the one sided nature of the regime, undermining any residual unionist legitimacy.

The violence and intransigence of a significant section of unionism also provided the impetus for a new and extremely successful military campaign by the Provisional Irish Republican Army. It was to take nearly thirty years and over 3,000 deaths in the conflict that followed to achieve an outcome that was satisfactory to nationalists and tolerable to a majority of unionists. The British and Irish governments sought to establish a political framework for reconciling majority and minority interests within Northern Ireland. The power-sharing executive established in 1973 and the Sunningdale Agreement (December 1973) appeared to achieve this. However, a majority of unionists became disillusioned with the Agreement and the Ulster Workers Council strike in May 1974 led to the collapse of the executive. Notwithstanding this, the British government acknowledged that its commitment to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland was conditional, urging the unionist majority to compromise.

Yet unionists remained in the majority electorally and demographically into the 1990s. Moreover, their interests could not be ignored, but neither could they have a majoritarian veto over possible agreements. Negotiations to achieve a settlement had to achieve agreement between the two sovereign governments, between the two communities in Northern Ireland and within each of the communities. The Good Friday Agreement (1998) achieved the first and second of these objectives, but the unionist community split on the issue. In a referendum to ratify the agreement in May 1998, seventy-one per cent voted in favour, while twenty-nine per cent voted against. It is estimated that ninety-nine per cent of Catholics voted in favour, while just fifty-one per cent of Protestants did so. In elections to the new Northern Ireland Assembly, parties that supported the Agreement received seventy-five per cent of the vote. This was also the first election when a nationalist party became the largest party.

The Good Friday Agreement is a sophisticated arrangement to achieve consensus and cooperation between the two communities in Northern Ireland. It effectively undermines the concept of majority and minority for the purposes of governing, by providing a consociational model for power sharing, political cooperation and conflict resolution. The two nationalities are considered equal; eschewing majoritarianism to decide outcomes. Each nationality has an effective veto over legislation and outcomes. Consent and consensus building is at the heart of the Agreement, while power sharing at the executive level is mandatory. Decisions within the Assembly must reflect cross-community agreement. There must be a majority among both nationalist and unionist members for a simple majority to apply. Otherwise, a decision can be taken with the support of forty per cent of both unionists and nationalists, but only if the overall vote equals sixty per cent. All parties to the Agreement recognise Northern Ireland’s existing constitutional status, but the agreement also provides for a referendum on this question under specified circumstances. Other important features include a strong North-South Ministerial Council, improved human rights and legislation to enhance equality between the two communities. Institutions were also established to address issues related to policing, the judiciary and related matters.

The Agreement and its subsequent iterations have had a profound impact on Northern Irish politics and the relationships between majority and minority. The most immediate impact was the decline in violence and the ‘normalisation’ of policing and security. Co-operation between the unionist and nationalist parties at the Assembly and in the Executive, though often difficult, provided an opportunity for political and social change without violence. Ironically, one unintended consequence of the Agreement was that the more intransigent Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein now dominate the Assembly and the Executive due to their electoral success. However, this has shown the strength of the Agreement rather than its weakness, as cooperation between these two parties would have been considered unthinkable without the institutions in place. Critics have emphasised that the Agreement institutionalises the divisions between unionists and nationalists, privileging their interests over those of others. There is some truth in this, but it ignores the continuing importance of the division itself and the Agreement’s success in managing the relationship.

In the twenty years since the Agreement was signed, Northern Ireland has changed in many ways. Nevertheless, politics continues to reflect the deeply segmented nature of the society. Denomination and national identity continue to determine how people vote. The unionist and nationalist blocks attract over eighty per cent of the votes at each election, while non-aligned parties remain marginal to this division. Furthermore, each denomination/nationality remains loyal to its respective national block. What has changed is the balance between the two blocks. At the 2017 Northern Ireland Assembly elections, each block captured the same number of seats, though unionists received more votes. Furthermore the question of majority or minority has not gone away but the context has changed. For the past hundred years Protestants were in the majority but this has been eroded. There is evidence that Catholics will be in the majority for the first time after the 2021 census and may already be so.[6] Demographic change may already be having a political impact. In a 2019 poll the united Ireland option was favoured by forty-six per cent over forty-five for staying in the UK.  This opens up the prospect of new majorities and minorities within the island of Ireland.

 

Brian Girvin is Professor of Comparative Politics (Emeritus) and Honorary Professor in Politics at the University of Glasgow. Brian’s research interests focus on the inter-relationship between democracy, nationalism and religion in a comparative context. He has published on conservatism in the twentieth century, majority nationalism in India and Ireland, the history of reproductive politics in Ireland and on political culture and modernization in the 19th and 20th centuries. Brian is completing a book length study, ‘Political Independence, Nationalism and Democracy since the French Revolution’.

 

The Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspective series is organized by the Myth of Homogeneity Research Project at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva. For more information, please visit: https://themythofhomogeneity.org/

 

For previous posts published in this series go to: https://networks.h-net.org/node/3911/pages/5740772/minorities-contemporary-and-historical-perspectives-monthly-series

 

Scholars interested in contributing to the series can contact:

Emmanuel Dalle Mulle: emmanuel.dallemulle-at-graduateinstitute.ch

Mona Bieling: mona.bieling-at-graduateinstitute.ch

 

 

 


[1] There is a considerable literature on Northern Ireland, partition and ethnic conflict in Ireland: Paul Bew, Ireland: The Politics of Enmity 1789-2006 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); David W. Miller, Queen’s Rebels: Ulster Loyalism in Historical Perspective (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1978); Brendan O’Leary, A Treatise on Northern Ireland: Volume I-III, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019) provide different perspectives on the complex issues involved.

[2] Richard Rose, Governing Without Consensus: An Irish Perspective (London: Faber and Faber, 1971) and Edward Moxon-Browne, Nation, Class and Creed in Northern Ireland (Aldershot: Gower, 1983); https://www.ark.ac.uk/nilt/2018/Political_Attitudes/IRBRIT.html

[3] See Paul Mitchell and Rick Wilford (Eds.), Politics in Northern Ireland (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1999) for a detailed discussion of these voting patterns and cleavages.

[4] Patrick Buckland, A History of Northern Ireland (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1981), 33.

[5] Rose, Governing Without Consensus, 327-55.