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Civil unrest
     The Craigavon years
     World War II
     The Brookeborough years
     Conciliation and confrontation

Direct rule

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The Craigavon years: 1921-1940

The leader of the Unionists in Ulster in 1921 is James Craig, who has been Carson's loyal and able assistant in the political struggles of the previous ten years. After the war Carson devotes himself to his legal career, as a lord of appeal in the house of lords, so Craig is the natural choice for prime minister in Stormont, the new parliament of northern Ireland.

He has a large majority, with forty Unionist seats and only twelve on the nationalist side (six representing Dillon's Nationalist party and six Sinn Fein). This already commanding position is made absolute when the nationalist side refuse to take their seats. They also boycott the northern Irish police force, now to be known as the Royal Ulster Constabulary.


The nationalists are pinning their hopes on the Boundary Commission, promised by Lloyd George and set up in 1924 by Ramsay MacDonald. They assume it will result in their main areas of strength, adjacent to the border but on the wrong side, becoming part of the new Irish Free State. However the Commission turns out to be ineffectual, merely serving to reinforce the status quo.

The result is that northern Ireland settles into a rigid pattern, symbolized by the long term of office of James Craig. He serves as Unionist prime minister in an unboken spell of nineteen years (from 1927 as Viscount Craigavon) until his death in 1940.


A sense of unchanging rigidity in northern Ireland derives from the impression (hard to avoid in the circumstances) that the Unionists are the natural ruling party. In the inevitable nature of power, this results in discrimination - much of it real, and even more perceived - against the large nationalist minority within the established borders.

There are many extra factors to add to the discontent which would be inherent anywhere in the world in this scenario. One is that the ruling Unionists originate, centuries back, from England and Scotland - nations which have combined in history to persecute Ireland and to seize Irish land.


Another, even more corrosive, is the fact that the communities are divided along sectarian lines - Protestant majority, Catholic minority. Religion, historically the most divisive form of idealism, can be relied on to accentuate any element of hostility. Finally, though this applies only to relatively few among the minority, there seems to be a more desirable nation just over the border - and one which, under de Valera's new constitution of 1937, specifically includes the six northern counties within Eire.

However on this particular issue, for most Catholics, the greater economic strength of northern Ireland makes union with Eire unappealing. The industrial clout of Belfast is particularly evident in the years of World War II.


World War II: 1939-1945

Belfast is of enormous importance to Britain during the war, for both strategic and industrial reasons. Strategically its port compensates for the neutrality of Eire and the recent loss of British rights in the deep water harbours of southern Ireland. A naval base in Belfast means that both sides of the Irish Sea are protected, enabling the vital estuaries of the Mersey and the Clyde to function without danger of attack from the sea.

Belfast itself is in their league for its shipbuilding potential. During the war its yards (and in particular Harland and Wolff) produce 123 merchant ships and 140 warships, including six aircraft carriers and three cruisers.


The Brookeborough years: 1943-1963

Another long unbroken spell, reinforcing the sense of an inflexible Unionist grip on northern Ireland, begins in 1943 when the mantle of prime minister passes to Basil Brooke (from 1952 Viscount Brookeborough). He outdoes by a year even the previous Craigavon record, remaining in power for an unbroken twenty years until his resignation in 1963.

Known from his speeches for an anti-Catholic attitude, and deeply distrustful of Ulster's minority, Brookeborough's prejudices are reinforced between 1956 and 1962 by the first sustained campaign of IRA terrorist violence north of the border.


The border itself has in 1949 received reassuring support from Westminster. In that year Eire finally severs its last link with the British crown and Commonwealth. The Attlee government, needing to tidy up the loose ends, introduces an Ireland bill. It declares roundly in one of its clauses that 'in no event will Northern Ireland or any part thereof cease to be part of His Majesty's Dominions and of the United Kingdom without the consent of the Parliament of Northern Ireland'.

In the event it is the parliament itself which proves vulnerable after Brookeborough's departure.


Conciliation and confrontation: 1963-1972

Brookeborough's resignation in 1963 is partly the result of his refusal to listen to younger Unionists who argue for a more inclusive attitude to the Catholic minority. He is followed in office by Terence O'Neill, the first prime minister of northern Ireland to distance himself from the triumphalist rituals and marches of the Orange Order.

O'Neill is himself criticized by liberals for being insensitive to Catholic grievances, but it is a measure of how much ground needs to be made up that he causes something of a sensation by visiting a Catholic school. More significant, and equally startling, are his two unprecedented meetings in 1965 with his opposite number in the republic of Ireland, Sean Lemass.


Meanwhile contemporary pressures are forcing the pace faster than the Unionist party can cope with. This is the era of the civil rights movement in the USA. Following this example, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association stages a march in October 1968 to publicize discrimination against Catholics in local housing.

The march takes place in Londonderry (or Derry to the Catholics, for in Ulster even a place name can be controversial). The authorities, believing that the route will prove provocative to Protestants, instruct the police to halt the march. The Royal Ulster Constabulary do so with baton attacks and water cannon, seen world-wide on television. Ireland is on the brink of its second prolonged bout of Troubles.


In November reforms are rushed through by the northern Irish parliament at Stormont to meet some of the campaigners' demands, but they are too late to stem a rising tide of sectarian confrontation. Another civil rights march, in January 1969, is ambushed and attacked by 200 Protestants at Burntollet bridge south of Derry.

These events provoke the reappearance of the IRA in the form of the Provisional IRA (or Provisionals), a splinter group advocating the renewed use of terrorism. Their activities in turn prompt the formation of Protestant (or 'Loyalist') paramilitary groups. And the acts of violence by both sides cause the British government to send troops to the province to maintain order.


It proves an almost impossible task, as riots and terrorism flare up spasmodically in the two main cities, Belfast and Derry, over the next two years. The defining moment comes in Derry on 30 January 1972, subsequently known as Bloody Sunday, when British paratroops open fire on a banned civil rights march, killing thirteen people.

The British government decides now that Stormont, the northern Irish parliament which has run the province for just over half a century, has lost control. The parliament is suspended indefinitely. Direct rule is imposed, under a secretary of state for Northern Ireland based in Westminster. An impasse has been reached which it takes the rest of the century (and perhaps more) to resolve.


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