Northern Ireland: Stability through Immobility, 1923–1939

Northern Ireland: Stability through Immobility, 1923–1939

In the early 1920s the greatest threat to Northern Ireland’s separate existence remained the Boundary Commission, which was created as stipulated by the Anglo-Irish Treaty consequent to Northern Ireland’s decision to opt out of union with the Free State. Belfast chafed at cooperation, but the commission held its first meeting in London on December 6, 1924. Free State officials and nationalists in the North were confident boundary makers would redraw lines to the benefit of the new nation. Aware of the danger, Northern leaders declared their resolve not to surrender one bit of land. The commission duly found in favor of the Free State, but the adjustments that were suggested were relatively minor. The proposed terms were leaked to the Morning Post, a conservative London daily, in an article disclosing only small changes were contemplated and these largely in favor of Northern Ireland. They caused a furor in Dublin. The official report remained unpublished (until 1969), and the Free State government, anxious not to incite a new round of violence while preoccupied with laying the groundwork of the new nation, hastily arranged meetings in London. The Anglo-Irish Treaty was amended, and the existing border confirmed in an agreement signed in December 1925, which, because it accorded with their fondest wishes, representatives of Northern Ireland were happy to ratify.

Partition was now officially confirmed. The Belfast government relaxed its guard—the Special Constabulary was partially disbanded—but only just a bit. Northern Ireland was too small, too dependent on the whims of the parliament in Westminster, whose interests did not always converge with its own, for officials to let their defenses entirely down. Most especially, the danger from Dublin could never be discounted. Articles 2 and 3 of the 1937 Constitution of Ireland spe-cifically stipulated that the whole of Ireland formed a single “national territory,” and an advance column of supporters of a united island stub-bornly resided in the six counties of Northern Ireland.

Fully one-third of Northern Ireland’s population was committed to its demise. They were easily identifiable because the nationalists were, without exception, Roman Catholics, religion the one certain marker by which to distinguish their sentiments. A fully functioning parlia-mentary democracy never developed in Northern Ireland because the very basis on which such a democracy operates—the legitimacy of the government—was never accepted by the nationalist side. It was incon-ceivable for nationalists, who aimed not to change the government but to destroy the state, to play the role of loyal opposition. Political parties committed to advancing various causes and issues could not emerge where there existed no floating blocks of voters to whom to appeal. Only two broad coalitions existed—Protestant unionists and Catholic nationalists—that bound together people of all ranks, includ-ing both middle and lower classes, where in other places they might have splintered along differing social and economic interests. Elections were determined solely in terms of on which of these two sides of the political line electors found themselves aligned.

The Boundary Commission having failed to effect geographic change, nationalists grudgingly ended their boycott of parliament, and minority political and religious leaders worked for the betterment of their constit-uents’ interests. In May 1924, their parliamentary leader, Joseph Devlin (1871–1934) formed the National League of the North to unite national-ists, but without, he affirmed, the intention to force unionists into the Free State. Political operations were set up at central and local levels to seek justice and equitable treatment, but because rank-and-file nation-alists never abandoned their ultimate goal to achieve islandwide unity, unionists never wavered in their wariness. Nationalists had, by word and deed, shown their hostility to the ruling authority and could not be given positions of trust in government, unionists argued, and so Catholics were excluded from positions of power and avenues of advancement, and their political representatives were marginalized.

Sectarian violence, especially in Belfast, swelled and subsided, but it was never altogether absent during the interwar years. Extreme Protestant organizations, such as the Ulster Protestant League, grew in importance in the 1920s and 1930s, helping to keep tensions sim-mering and occasionally bursting beyond the boiling point. In 1931 an IRA attack on an Orange Order demonstration sparked reprisals. In June 1932 Ulster Catholics traveling to and from Dublin to attend a eucharistic congress were assaulted, the security forces providing little protection. Riots in Belfast in May, June, and July 1935 culminated on July 12 when Orange Order marchers, defying a government ban, were fired on, precipitating 10 days of mayhem. The IRA launched a series of attacks in England itself from January 1939 to March 1940. The con-tinuing violence provided a justification for the government to retain the Special Powers Act, which was made permanent in 1933, to give it the legal basis on which to deal with outbreaks.

The political system remained rigidly inflexible. Housed in new premises completed in November 1932 and known as Stormont because of its location in the Stormont area of Belfast, the Northern Ireland parliament counted usually 40 percent, and often 60 percent, of its members returned unopposed in elections, and personnel who staffed the government changed little. Viscount Craigavon served as prime minister from 1921 until his death in 1940. His successor, John Miller Andrews (1871–1956), appointed octogenarian veterans of Craigavon’s administration to his cabinet. Offices were held almost exclusively by wealthy landed gentry and industrial magnates. At the national level, usually all but two of Northern Ireland’s 13 seats at Westminster were held by unionists, who voted consistently with Britain’s Conservative Party. Over time, the government developed a copycat pattern of adopt-ing laws that aped British legislation.

Never a viable, self-sufficient economic entity, plagued by distance, lack of raw materials, and without an available source of cheap power, Northern Ireland constituted one of the United Kingdom’s most depressed regions. The Belfast government faced an intractable prob-lem of securing sufficient funding, its ability to raise revenues limited, while striving to keep social benefits up to U.K. standards. The Great Depression that began in 1929 hit the urbanized, heavy industry–domi-nated economy hard. The traditional activities of shipbuilding and textiles declined in line with worldwide drops in production. Although agricultural output grew and diversified, encouraged by policies that gave preference to exports to British dominions and imperial domains, and the area profited briefly from the economic war with Éire, the prov-ince presented a picture of dire distress in the 1930s. Unemployment rose from 13 percent in 1927 to 28 percent in 1931 and still stood stubbornly high at 20 percent in 1939. Health and sanitary facilities were neglected. Housing remained substandard, the industrial slums of Belfast famed for their squalor. Poor relief schemes and government relief efforts were niggardly. In effect, Northern Ireland existed entirely as a dependency of the United Kingdom, its administration kept afloat by regular injections of funds from London, doled out by an often reluctant British treasury, which viewed partition as a persistent drain on its resources.

In the late 1930s aircraft production began to relocate to the prov-ince, the one major industry to do so. In addition, Ulster’s role in Britain’s marine defenses was boosted when in 1938 facilities were moved north after Dublin secured the return of harbor installations at Cobh, Berehaven, and Lough Swilly that had been retained by Britain under the 1921 treaty. Ironically, these brighter prospects for the local economy emerged at the same time that developments darkened the European scene as the Continent moved steadily toward war.