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Ethnic cleansing in the free state - Protestants in Republic of Ireland
New Statesman,  July 10, 1998  by Geoffrey Wheatcroft

After partition, Irish republicanism exacted a brutal revenge on the old tribal enemy

Writing in 1965, A J P Taylor described the Irish settlement embodied in the 1920 Government of Ireland Act and the Anglo-Irish Treaty of the following year as "a great achievement". Ireland might have ruined Lloyd George as it had ruined Peel and Gladstone before him, Taylor wrote, but "at least he was ruined by success, they by failure" - a verdict that was to seem painfully complacent within a few years of its publication.

But Taylor said something else besides. With the creation of the Free State, "the southern unionists, whose security had once been treated as a vital British concern, were abandoned without protection, though, as things turned out, they became a prized and cosseted minority - a contrast indeed to the condition of the Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland."

The lamentable treatment of the Ulster Catholics in the half a century after partition is all too well known, along with its consequences. But what of that other minority, the Protestant unionists of 26-county Ireland which became the Free State in 1922 and is now the Republic? Were they in fact "cosseted"; or was that belief- once very widely held -just as complacent as Taylor's assessment of Lloyd George? Two important new books raise those questions, and give some answers.

Now in his 85th year, the eminent Irish historian R B McDowell looks back at the story of the southern Protestants in his own lifetime. They are among the defeated to whom history can say alas, but cannot help or pardon, to borrow a phrase; McDowell's task, to borrow another, is to rescue them from the condescension of posterity.

One short answer to Taylor's glib phrase is statistical. Between 1911 and 1991, Catholics rose as a proportion of the population of Northern Ireland from 34 per cent to at least 38 per cent (by some reckonings now substantially more). Over the course of this century, McDowell points out, the number of Protestants in what is now the Irish Republic fell from more than 10 per cent to less than 3 per cent. If those figures applied to minorities in any other two adjacent territories in Europe, it is hard to believe that any historian would claim it was the latter minority that had been cosseted.

McDowell, by origin a Belfast Protestant, writes with sympathy but objectivity, and without self-pity, recognising that his fellow Protestants in southern Ireland were the victims of history (as those in the North may yet be). They became one of those communities left behind by receding imperialism, "who have for generations upheld its authority and flourished under its aegis - Germans in Bohemia, Swedes in Finland ... Greeks in Asia Minor, Muslims in the Balkans" - and who were not warmly embraced by triumphant nationalism.

A warm embrace wasn't to be expected. If the story of Ireland in the 16th and 17th centuries had been the brutal defeat of the Gaelic Catholics in "wars that were dynastic, social, cultural, national and religious, all at the same time", to quote Conor Cruise O'Brien, then the story of the past three centuries "has been the recovery of the Irish Catholics: the Catholics getting their own back, in more sense than one".

They didn't get their own back without a struggle. Unionists fought a rearguard action, holding back Home Rule, with the help of their English allies, for more than a generation, possibly to their own ultimate detriment. But the political precariousness - or the political absurdity - of the unionist position within Ireland as a whole became clear once the franchise had been extended and the secret ballot introduced. In 1892 unionists were unable to win more than two seats in the southern three-quarters of Ireland (St Stephen's Green and South County Dublin, apart from Trinity's university seats).

While McDowell rightly takes the unionists seriously and tries to see them in their own terms, he also shows how arrogant and overbearing they often were. One Protestant historian unapologetically referred to the Saxons in Ireland as "the stronger race"; another insisted that "Irish history was the history of the English in Ireland and of the civilisation they had brought into that country". Ludicrous as that language now sounds, these people were the heirs of the 18th-century Irish "patriots", who believed that they, the Protestant Ascendancy, were the true Irish nation.

The unionists themselves remained deeply committed to Irish unity: as McDowell shows, they opposed partition almost to the end. The Dublin-born Edward Carson became leader of the Ulster Unionists, believing that resistance in Ulster would kill the separatist movement in all Ireland. This view was endorsed by the southern unionist leader Lord Middleton and by the Irish Times, which argued that partition would be "permanently fatal to every Irish hope and every Irish interest...it would condemn our country to an eternity of national weakness, industrial impotence and sectarian strife."

Some of McDowell's readers may find it difficult to warm to his elegy for the Protestants. Weren't they, after all, landowners and members of an exploitative ruling class? And weren't they, in Taylor's word, "cosseted" in the new Ireland? The answer in both cases is simply no. The 10 per cent figure speaks for itself: no ruling or owning class is that large. There were a few opulent latifundians in Leinster and Munster, with scores of thousands of acres, and a more numerous lesser gentry, the Ascendancy class with which W B Yeats identified, even if he didn't belong to it.

But these were a small minority of the minority. There was also a much larger Protestant professional and commercial bourgeoisie (the class to which Yeats actually belonged). There were many small farmers, some of them as poor as their Catholic neighbours. And in Dublin there was a substantial Protestant lower middle class and proletariat. After independence, many members of all these classes felt that, in the words of one boarding-house keeper, "no Protestant will ever get fair play in the Free State". Many Protestants disappeared by absorption, not least thanks to the Vatican's Ne temere decree (always bitterly resented by Protestants in countries where they were the minority), according to which all children of mixed marriages had to be brought up as Catholics.

Many others, however, had been driven out by brute force, along with some Catholic loyalists who had served in the British army or the Royal Irish Constabulary. But if Catholic loyalists were traitors in republican eyes, Protestants were the tribal enemy. Protestant small businessmen were run out of Monaghan; Protestant farmers around Carrick-on-Shannon were subjected to "continuous persecution", a contemporary report said, and left for the North; near Clonakilty, a Unionist JP and his son were forced to dig their own graves before they were shot by republicans, who then hanged the JP's nephew.

That last was in west Cork, the heartland of the republican insurrection which simmered after the Easter Rising and boiled over in the Anglo-Irish Troubles of 1919-21 and the still more brutal Irish Civil War of 1922-23. The conflict there was at its most brutal, close to ethnic cleansing - and no one can call that phrase excessive after reading the Canadian historian Peter Hart's remarkable and frightening book The IRA and Its Enemies. This is a work of meticulous scholarship based on detailed examination of original sources, as well as oral testimony from survivors. But it is also one of those books that illuminate a much wider area than their seemingly narrow confines.

No Englishman can read about the grosser stupidities of Tory unionism without embarrassment, nor about the Black and Tans' terror campaign without shame. But then, who now defends the Tans, or claims that the Union was a blinding success? By contrast, widespread illusions persist about Irish republicanism, whether 80 years ago or today: above all, the illusion that it was or is non-sectarian.

The Irish know better. In an admirable recent article in the New York Review of Books, Fintan O'Toole described the IRA's campaign of communal violence in Northern Ireland over the past quarter-century. Quite apart from well-publicised bombings in Enniskillen or the Shankhill Road, there was a systematic policy of killing only sons of Protestant farmers in western Ulster, a most effective form of ethnic cleansing.

The story had been similar in west Cork 50 years before the Provisional IRA was even named. More than 200 big houses were burnt throughout Ireland in the lustrum after the first world war, symbols of the ascendancy class swept away in a frenzy of destruction. But the republicans' principal target wasn't Anglo-Irish landlords. During 1919-23 they shot 122 people as "spies and informers" in Cork. That number included 17 farmers, 25 unskilled labourers and 23 unemployed.

 
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