Monday, May 29, 2006

An Essay on Irish Political Identity

In the introduction to his book The Two Irelands, David Fitzpatrick states that “Centuries of social segregation, reinforced by episodes of bitter sectarian conflict, has rendered political and religious affiliations almost interchangeable” [1] While this contention of Fitzpatrick’s makes a good platform from which to examine the central question of religious and political identities, it may be worth noting that not all commentators agree that ‘religious matters’ are the central issue.

Brian Walker cites Jürg Steiner as saying “the problem appears on the surface to be a religious one, and the mass media usually speak of civil strife between Protestants and Catholics. But, below the surface, the battle is really between two ethnic groups, the British and the Irish.” [2] Steiner acknowledges that most Catholics tend to identify with Irishness and the Protestants with Britishness, but that it is essentially “a struggle between two cultures unwilling to share the same territory.” [3]

In order to unravel the role of religion as a factor in the evolution of political identity, it is necessary to determine what the external manifestations of this are, and how they can be tracked. If we accept that ‘centuries of …. bitter sectarian conflict’ are a fundamental factor in the creation of fiercely held identities, can we then posit that the creation of the 2 states in Ireland as a result of the Government of Ireland Acts was for the upholding of separate and sectarian entities? If this is not the case, then perhaps we should look to see how each state managed its internal religious demands and accommodated the needs and desires of minority religious groups. The paper will also examine relationships between Church and state, as far as it may be possible to examine them.

Northern Identity
The story of Protestantism in Ireland tends to be discounted among nationalists, almost as if the they are waiting for them ‘to go home’ so they can be written out of history permanently. For example, in 1995 the former Irish government minister Paddy Lalor is quoted in “The Power Game” as saying “I grew up firmly believing that the island of Ireland would never be truly independent until all unionists were expelled- or at least driven into the North Channel on the way.” [4]

This extraordinary attitude, which is undoubtedly rooted in anti-Treaty sentiment, demonstrates a large gap in understanding the tradition, identity and rights of the Protestant people of Ireland. Little wonder that there was a feeling of isolation and siege among them, leading to the formation of defence associations in the 18th century. Associations such as the Peep o’Days boys played an active role in defence during disturbances: it was following such a skirmish in 1795 in Loughall, Co Armagh that a group of combatants “formed a circle, joined hands and declared their brotherhood in loyalty to the Crown, the country and the Reformed religion.”[5] And so the Orange Institution was born and was “set for the defence of Protestantism.”[6] Although initially the Order attracted members of labouring and artisan classes only, it grew very rapidly throughout the country and social classes.

Although not all Protestants are members or supporters of the Orange Order, it can be argued that this organisation that was founded in defence of protestant ideals quickly came to visually symbolise a protestant identity. The Deputy Grand Master of the Orange Order, Rev. Stephen Dickson described the Order as “the nerve that runs through Protestantism” on the BBC Hearts and Minds programme on April 27th 2006, a very apt and resonant description.

The Orange Order was founded in their certain knowledge that the ultimate aim of Catholics was to drive them from their land. Given the earlier quote from a leading 20th century politician, it is difficult to argue that this perception was groundless. A further indication of Protestant embattlement was the creation in 1912 of the Ulster Volunteer Force. This militia was created to preserve the Protestant identity from the “domination and control of a Parliament in Ireland”[7]

Although the Protestant identity included loyalty to the Crown, there is little dispute that there was also a proprietorial sense of Irishness. Conor Cruise O’Brien argues that the “axis of preoccupation ran East to West not North and South”[8] Indeed, O’Brien appears to have great devotion to Parnell, a Protestant leader of a Catholic people who saw himself as an Irishman. O’Brien argues that this sense of identity was regional and easily reconcilable with Britishness.

The palpable sense of identity within Protestantism was publicly illustrated by the signing of the Ulster Covenant in 1912 and provides us with an overwhelming sense of the loyalty felt by the people equally matched by their resistance to being ruled by a Dublin Home Rule Parliament. Over half a million men and women came out in a tremendous show of strength in defence of their Protestant, British and Loyal identity.

While the Stormont government from 1921 appeared initially to offer an inclusive state, perhaps taking this depth of passion into account we may be able to see that accommodating a separate catholic identity within the partitioned section of Ireland was not going to succeed. Indeed, Craig signed an agreement in London on January 21st 1921 guaranteeing the safety of the Catholic minority in the 6 counties. However, FSL Lyons contends that since the government had “no real wish for self-government, the actual form ….reflected not the striving for autonomy usual in the newly emerging state, but rather a deep seated desire to disturb the close relationship with Britain as little as possible.[9]” The suggestion here is clearly that enough was done to ensure the smooth running of affairs without any far reaching or idealistic motivation informing that governance.

It is clear to us today that the identity of the 6-county state continued to be determinedly Protestant. In 1933 Sir Basil Brooke issued a rebuke to a “great number of Protestants and Orangemen who employed Roman Catholics. He felt he could speak freely on this subject as he had not a Roman Catholic about his own place. He appreciated the great difficulty experienced by some of them in procuring suitable Protestant labour, but he would point out that the Roman Catholics were endeavouring to get in everywhere and were out with all their force and might to destroy the power and constitution of Ulster. ... He would appeal to loyalists, therefore, wherever possible to employ good Protestant lads and lassies.’[10] Once again, we can see the sense of siege manifest in this statement and the residual fear that the Catholics continued to try to ‘destroy’ Ulster.
How did the minority fare within this context? Brian Walker tells us that although Irish symbols and culture were often ignored, ‘Northern Catholics retained a strong sense of their Irish identity. Organisations such as the Gaelic Athletic Association and the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the catholic school system were important in maintaining group identity.’ [11] In the same chapter, Walker records an editorial in the Irish News in 1934 about the Catholic Truth Society: “North and South are forever tied by the unbreakable bonds of their common faith, which is their proudest heritage”. Within the Catholic population, this was a reminder that religion was the key component of their political heritage, destiny and identity.
In an essay for “The Course of Irish History” JH Whyte makes some very interesting points about the change within the catholic population of Northern Ireland in the 1960’s. In particular, he notes that the formation of NICRA (Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association) heralded a group who were not looking for the termination of the Northern state, but an end to the abuses against Catholics within that state. Indeed, Whyte goes on to say “the descent into turmoil was not inevitable, the forces making for conciliation seemed as strong as those making for conflict.” [12]
As we move into the 21st century, will it be possible to construct a new, pluralist Northern state? One can only be heartened by the comments of the deputy leader of the DUP, Peter Robinson at the British Irish Inter Parliamentary Body in Killarney, Co Kerry in April 2006. Although unapologetic and confident about his identity: “We are unionists – by birth, by desire, by conviction – unapologetically, unflinchingly and unalterably. We are not nationalists who have lost our way. We are not a temporary aberration. We are not the past. We are the present and, like it or not, we are the future.” He also goes on to hold out an orange branch: “Unionists want a stable, peaceful and democratic future. We want to co-exist in Northern Ireland with those who share our homeland even those who hold a different, and conflicting, political ideal. We want to have a co-operative and harmonious interaction with our southern neighbours and we want to develop better relationships North/South and East/West.”

Identity in the Republic of Ireland
Although it may seem a simpler subject, the issue of religion in the political identity of the Southern state is potentially as problematic as that in the North, but for a different set of reasons. In the Proclamation read out from the GPO in 1916, it was declared that “The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all of its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.”
The men of 1916 derived their authority from previous generations and appear to have had a plan for the future state they wished to create. This was apparently a state where gender equality, equal rights and opportunities were going to be present. Although God is mentioned by name in An Phoblacht, there is no further information as to which particular God the Republic is being dedicated. Writing in the Sunday Journal on April 17th 2006, Eamon McCann made the claim that the Rosary was said every half hour on the roof of the GPO during the Easter Rising, in support of his dubious contention that the Rising was a catholic occasion for a catholic state.
The early years of the Free State were completely absorbed with the technical process of constitutional change, implementation of new governance and ultimately Civil War. It is not difficult to argue that there were more pressing matters than community relations in the early 1920’s. However, the specter of catholic Ireland was never too far away. DeValera’s constitution of 1937 enshrined the special position of the Catholic Church. His 1935 St Patrick’s Day speech also re-enforced this idea, when he spoke of Ireland being Catholic since St Patrick, as did his close personal friendship with Archbishop John McQuaid.
In this period in Ireland, there were several other notable cases that highlighted the potential intolerance of non-Catholics. While it is not the purpose of this paper to demonise any individual politician, it appears that deValera also intervened in cases such as that in County Mayo, stating that as the population there was 98% Catholic, they deserved a Catholic librarian. This was in addition to laws censoring books and films deemed unsuitable, prohibition of contraception, divorce and abortion: none of which started to change until the 1960’s.
Protestants were not the only religious group who were facing intolerance. In his maiden speech to Dáil Éireann in 1943, he asked: "How is it that we do not see any of these Emergency Orders directed against the Jews who crucified Our Saviour 1,900 years ago and who are crucifying us every day of the week? There is one thing that Germany did and that was to rout the Jews out of their country. Until we rout the Jews out of this country it does not matter a hair's breadth what laws you make. Where the bees are there is honey and where the Jews are there is money."
Although Flanagan was an independent TD and later went on to join Fine Gael, his views represented the single Catholic Irish identity. One final example of the intertwining of Church and State was the uproar over the Mother and Child scheme proposed by Dr Noel Browne in 1950. It was met with swingeing opposition from the Catholic Church, notably Archbishop McQuaid and the scheme was abandoned. McQuaid feared that this introduction of a socialised scheme would open the door for contraception and abortion, both practices abhorrent to the church. It should be noted that the Catholic Church controlled most of the schools and hospitals in the country at the time and retained a very powerful position. Patrick Lynch[13] notes the uproar over the Mother and Child scheme was the only time that there was such discord between Church and State, which potentially tells us everything we need to know about the State being run to the satisfaction of the Church.
When did this iron grip of Church and State begin to loosen? Many commentators argue that the increasing exposure to outside influences began the process of secularising the state. Oliver J. Flanagan famously said on The Late Late show that there had been “no sex in Ireland until television.”
Increasing economic success since the 1990’s, has been another significant factor in the decline of the Church as a defining characteristic of the Irish identity. Success is more likely to be defined by the location of your house or the size of your car, as opposed to the 1950’s when having “a son a Priest” was the ultimate definition of social respectability and achievement. There is little doubt that the long running scandals involving religious orders and various forms of abusive behaviour have also had a very deleterious effect on the perception of the Church in Ireland. Church attendance has decreased significantly, as has entrance to seminaries and convents. Several religious orders are in the process of investigating ways of ‘winding up’ their affairs as there are no successors in their wake.
Ireland now perceives herself to be a modern, cosmopolitan country and some would argue that this includes a European component as opposed to the older notions of Irish identity. The stores offer a range of foreign comestible items as well as other consumer goods. The contrast to the earlier part of the 20th century is stark, when there was an acceptance of a homogenous identity with great disfavour facing anyone who did not fit within that rigid framework.

The aim of this paper was to illustrate that religion played a key role, indeed in many cases it was the determining factor in the political identities of both the Northern and Southern states in the 20th century. As a result of the Northern Troubles, religion continues to play a key role in the political identity of the state, while the role of religion is decreasing in the South.
In an article for History Ireland, Paul Bew asserts that “Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Fein denied that Professor Tyndall, the great Carlow-born scientist could be considered Irish because he was a Unionist”[14] On the other hand, an earlier quote from Peter Robinson demonstrates his feelings for his “Homeland”. While religion has been so decisive in creating or excluding identity in the past, there must be hope that there is a future that can be shared by both ethnic traditions while respecting the religious traditions that have remain important.
[1] The Two Ireland 1912-1939 Fitzpatrick, D. Oxford University Press 1998Oxford
[2]Walker, B (1996) Dancing to History’s Tune, Belfast p.120
[3] ibid
[4] The Power Game- Fianna Fail since Lemass Collins, S. O’Brien Press Dublin 2000( p.11)
[5] 27.4.06
[6] ibid
[8] States of Ireland O’Brien, CC Panther Press, Herts. 1972 p.49
[9] Ireland since the Famine Lyons, FSL Fontana Press p.697
[10] Reported in: Fermanagh Times, 13 July 1933;Quoted in: Hepburn, A. C. (1980), The Conflict of Nationality in Modern Ireland, London: Edward Arnold (Documents of Modern History series). Page 164

[11] Walker, B (1996) Dancing to History’s Tune, Belfast p.120
[12] Ireland 1966-1982, Whyte J.H. (The Course of Irish History) Mercier Press 1961, Cork (p.343-344)
[13] The Irish Free State and the Republic of Ireland, Lynch, P The Course of Irish History, Mercier Press Cork, 1967 (p.332)
[14] “Why did Jimmie die?” Bew, P: History Ireland,. March/April 2006 (p.39)

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