One hundred years later, Partition v Brexit

Opinion by Gerry O’Shea

Image of Members of the first Dail Eireann. Plunkett is the bearded gentleman in the front row. Photo from

When just over 100 years ago, on 3 February 1918, George Noble Plunkett was elected to the seat of Roscommon in a by-election, he became the first Sinn Féin candidate to take a seat in Dáil Éireann. Radicalised by his young son, Joseph Mary Plunkett’s execution after the Easter Rising and his own jailing, he enjoyed the support of young men and women. He was, ironically, at 67, the oldest member of the Dáil.

A century later, much has changed, and youth, both in the Republic and in the North, may have a much stronger say in the fortunes of Sinn Féin. In the most recent election in Northern Ireland, the DUP and Sinn Féin were neck and neck. Voters in the Republic in all age groups up to 65 in 2021 ensured Sinn Féin was the ‘most popular party’. If only part of that vote applies in the Northern Irish Assembly election due in May 2022, it is worth keeping in mind that 51% of the electorate is between 20 and 29 years of age, and a further 26% between 40 and 59 (statistics derived from Statista).

In 1973, Ireland joined what is now called the European Union (EU). Today the EU stands with the Irish government as British Prime Minister Johnson tries to wriggle out of the controversial Irish protocol, a central part of the Brexit negotiations. Under the protocol, goods coming from Britain to anywhere in Ireland (including Belfast or Larne in NI) will have to undergo checks; however, there will be no checks on the border between north and south in Ireland. For purposes of trade, the EU effectively regards Ireland as a single entity, a position agreed by Westminster!

David Lloyd George, the British prime minister a century ago, assured the unionists then that he would not implement the Third Home Rule Bill which passed the House of Commons in 1912. That Westminster Act granted a parliament in Dublin for the whole island, the long-sought goal of Irish leaders going back to Daniel O’Connell.

Instead, the PM and his unionist friend, Walter Long, proposed two deliberative bodies in Ireland, one in Belfast which would legislate for the province of Ulster while the other covered Munster, Leinster and Connaught. They also suggested a Council of Ireland where representatives of both legislatures could work together on issues concerning the whole island.

In 2018, another Tory leader Boris Johnson attended the Democratic Unionist Party annual conference and proclaimed that an Irish Sea protocol would turn Northern Ireland into ‘a semi-colony of the EU. No Conservative government could or should sign up to that.’

After Johnson’s landslide election victory in 2019 and the Conservatives no longer needing unionist votes in Westminster, he signed off on the hated protocol. Johnson’s nonchalant attitude in dealing with today’s Belfast loyalists is reminiscent of the words of Edward Carson, the unionist leader who negotiated Irish partition with Lloyd George but still warned ‘I was only a puppet, so was Ulster, so was Ireland, in the political Conservative power game.’

It was Carson who insisted that three counties be excluded from the proposed Bill that divided Ireland. His supporters in Belfast warned him that including the nationalists in Monaghan, Cavan and Donegal could lead to a very precarious parliamentary situation for Loyalists.

No nationalist leader was consulted about this momentous political decision to divide the country along sectarian lines. Today’s protocol is about trying to manage the continuing division of the island, but now the Tory government has to deal with strong nationalist voices backed by leaders in Europe, supporting their fellow-members in Dublin.

Economic exuberance in the Belfast area in the early 20th century was due mainly to the massive expansion in the shipyard and the extensive linen industry in neighboring counties. By comparison, Dublin and all the southern cities were in the doldrums with high unemployment and low wages.

The reasons ascribed for this sad situation by Loyalists included the belief that Catholics lacked the Protestant virtues of industriousness and frugality. The famous historian, William Hartpole Lecky, a graduate of Trinity College Dublin, where the chair of History still honours his name, wrote that even the most down-and-out Protestant was convinced that he was superior to the richest well-educated Catholic.

Today, while the economy in Dublin is booming, driven by investments by multinationals, the people living in the northern statelet are heavily dependent on welfare payments from central funds to maintain a decent standard of living. Brexit has caused a major challenge in this regard because Brussels subsidized the North with various payments amounting to over a hundred million pounds sterling every year while Westminster only transmits eleven million – a huge loss of nearly 90 million in a small economy.

Fifty-six percent of the people in the North, including 40% of unionists, voted against Brexit, and after the protocol was agreed just 19% of businessmen in the area wanted it abolished. Now, while long queues gather in mainland Britain outside petrol stations and shoppers face empty shelves in supermarkets, the Single European Market, guaranteed by the protocol, keeps life in Belfast humming along with almost no interruptions.

Amazingly, the four unionist parties have come together to warn the British government that if the protocol is not removed, they will walk away from the Belfast Parliament and lead agitation in the streets. This bluff worked against the Third Home Rule Bill a hundred years ago and was used again by Ian Paisley when things were not going his way. Today, European leaders are very unlikely to buckle because of sectarian turbulence in Belfast.

At the very beginning of the Brexit negotiations, Donald Tusk, then president of the European Council, said that any proposals by the United Kingdom that would not receive a nod of approval from Dublin would be rejected in Brussels. All the indications are that this assurance still holds.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), whose support comes mainly from farming and blue-collar Protestants, has won the most votes in the province for many decades, including in the last election. However, they have fired two leaders in the last year. An August poll showed them at a mere 13%, about half of their percentage in the last assembly elections.

The demography in the North is changing all the time. Older people, nationalist and unionist, remain true to traditional loyalties, but polls show that young people under 40 have different priorities. The Northern Ireland Assembly statistics claim it to be the youngest population in the UK, average age 38.5 years in 2017. Today, unlike when the state was founded, only Lisburn – of the five recognized cities in the North – has a significant Protestant majority, and, in just two of the six counties, Antrim and Down, are Catholics seriously outnumbered.

In 1921, the Loyalists in the North were well-organized and ready to use their armed militia to get their way. At the same time, nationalists had to deal with daily police harassment and indeed to endure pogroms in Belfast.

The situation is very different today. In the recent poll, Sinn Fein maintained their vote at 25% and so Michelle O’Neill, currently leader of Sinn Féin in the Northern Ireland Assembly, may well be the next First Minister. The Assembly is due to go to the polls in May 2022, and the prospect of a Sinn Féin First Minister would likely be viewed as an abomination by all unionists. How would they deal with a Catholic at the top in their country?

The Catholic Church in Ireland went from strength to strength after 1795 when the British government allowed the development of a national seminary in Maynooth. Throughout the 19th century, it got control of the schools educating its own members, and expanded parish life in every town and village.

Paul Cullen, Archbishop of Dublin and Ireland’s first Cardinal, fully supported the strong ultramontane tendency in the 19th-century church in Europe. This meant full tribal allegiance to Rome with no room for dissent. The Latin expression in common use among clerics in those days encapsulates their subservience to the Vatican, Roma locuta est; causa finita est. Rome has spoken; the case is closed.

Looking to the possibility of a Home Rule parliament in Dublin in the 19th and early 20th century, the main reason the Protestants in the North gave for their unbending opposition was that Home Rule would amount to Rome rule. They had every reason to fear that outcome, and, indeed, the Catholic hierarchy played an outsized and detrimental role in Dublin politics for the first seventy years of the Irish state.

The liberalisation of divorce, same-sex marriage and abortion in Ireland during the last 20 years clearly indicate a sea-change in the power of the church in the country. The old religious shibboleths no longer apply and this is a factor for some young Protestants in their deliberations about a border poll that may lead to a united Ireland.

Gerry O’Shea is a retired teacher, living in New York. He is a regular contributor to the Irish Echo and The Irish Voice. He blogs at

One thought on “One hundred years later, Partition v Brexit

  1. Gerry O’Shea’s analysis of the situation in Northern Ireland presents several facts suggesting reasons for optimism that Ireland’s troubled past will not dictate its future. Importantly, the situation now is unlike the one post World War 1 in that there is no Carson, and the British Army is less influential. I am very happy about that.
    However, my joy is not unmitigated. Accompanying my joy is sense of gloom stemming from a history of past expectations of victory being snatched away at the last minute. That the present outcome again depends on a Conservative Prime Minister is itself an ominous sign. That the person holding office as Prime Minister seems to regard policies as very malleable entities suggests reason for both concern and optimism. Prime Minister Johnson’s tribal instincts might be expected to motivate decisions favouring Protestant separatists.
    However, his decisions will ultimately be made with a view to winning the next British Election. Ultimately then, no Irish group should rest assured of Prime Ministerial support. Considering history, current events, and the record of the incumbent British Prime Minister, I believe that any nominated future outcome for Ireland remains a nicely-balanced even-money bet.

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