Ireland’s Housing and Homelessness Crisis is caused by the failure of successive Governments to take responsibility

The recent (December 2016) rent control measures introduced by the Fine Gael government in Ireland illustrate once again the reluctance of Government in Ireland to take responsibility for the welfare needs of the people.  The measures, aimed, supposedly, at responding to ongoing rent increases by private landlords in two cities in the South of Ireland – Dublin and Cork – are extremely modest, and in the view of many, are simply an attempt to divert attention away from the Government’s inaction over the issue of increasing homelessness.

In essence the measures are aimed, not at reducing private sector rents or building new homes, but simply limit rent increases to 4% a year in the short term.  They do not provide security of tenure for those in private rental accommodation, and indeed include a range of loophole which private landlords may utilise for their own interests (1). Indeed the measures amount to too little too late and only affect two cities in the state..  The real problem, which has been the lack of serious regulation of the private rented sector over many years – leading to massive rent increases and poor overcrowded and unfit accommodation – has not been addressed.  This coupled with the grinding to a halt of new house building in the South of Ireland and the lack of government interest in providing any social housing – with only 75 social housing units being built in the whole of Ireland in 2015 by local councils(2) – has led to a massive shortage of housing and increasing homelessness.

Social housing waiting lists have risen considerable over the past 10 years.  The most recent assessment of social housing waiting lists in May 2013 suggested there were some 90,000 on the waiting lists (3).

Homelessness has also increased with relatively new phenomenon of thousands of families made homeless due to inability to pay rents or mortgages and nearly 2,500 children in emergency homeless accommodation, usually (hostels or hotels) (4).

The main reason for the housing and homelessness problem in Ireland has been successive governments wedded to a neoliberalist ideology (i.e. promotion of the private market to deal with the welfare of the people rather than taking societal responsibility).

An added problem may be that many Government ministers are themselves private landlords with private interests in maintaining a vibrant profit making private rental market (5).  Government policy, whether deliberately crafted to suit the private interests of Cabinet members de facto appears to benefit them.

More recently, some members of the public, supported by some celebrities, have attempted to highlight the lack of government action on relieving the housing crisis by occupying an empty government building in Dublin and attempting to open it up to those sleeping rough on the streets of the capital (6).

Such actions, though highlighting the lack of action by government cannot of course adequately deal with the multiple problems of those who are homeless or the massive problem of lack of adequate, suitable and fit accommodation for people’s housing needs in Ireland.  The state cannot simply wash its hands of such problems and appeal to the market to deal with the need.  It needs to take responsibility itself.  It is primarily due to the neoliberalist deregulation policies of successive Irish governments supported by the EU Central Bank and the EU Commission that Banks failed and can no longer lend, that austerity policies were implemented and made the poor poorer and that private builders are no longer building houses.  It’s the same approach to policy which has meant that successive Irish governments have stood idly by and refused to intervene to provide proper regulation of the private rented sector and take responsibility themselves for the new build necessary to cater for the growing housing need.


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In defence of boycott

Emotions run high when we debate Palestine.  They also run high when Irish republicans and socialists with different perspectives on republicanism and socialism debate anything!  That is probably understandable.  Many have invested greatly in their respective struggles and many have suffered greatly as a result.

The situation in Palestine appals most progressive thinkers including Irish republicans and socialists.  What to do about it however, has often led to disagreement (even among the Palestinians themselves!).  We cannot physically defend the Palestinians or end the Israeli Occupation even if we were prepared to or wanted to invest in doing that.  We do not have the military or physical power.  Probably only the USA and the Security Council could do that and even then we might argue about what the result might be.

In recent years, most Palestine campaigners have come around to the notion that the best approach from the global community is the boycott of Israel.  This involves attempting to build a campaign aimed at isolating and excluding Israel from normal global activities – cultural, sporting, economic, academic, research and indeed political – until such times as that state agrees to abide by UN resolutions on Palestine, UN Human Rights and Humanitarian Law and UN International Law. .  The hope is that as an excluded pariah state, the Israeli people may begin to feel the impacts of the world’s hostility to Israel’s actions and policies and put pressure on their Government for change.  This was the point of the boycotts during the Great Hunger in Ireland in the mid-19th century, when landlords and bailiffs were boycotted by local communities.  It was also the type of campaign which successfully forced Apartheid South Africa to the negotiation table with the ANC. It is a tactic, however, not a principle, and not everyone agrees with it.  It is difficult for decent human beings to isolate and exclude other human beings.  However, for many of us boycott is the lesser of two evils – the other is to allow Israel to continue to operate in the world as a normal acceptable state.

Some, including the UK Government and the EU have argued that the way forward is not boycott but dialogue with Israel.  The view is that by maintaining links persuasion can be used (by one friend on another, etc.).  For many Palestinians and activists however, maintaining relations with Israel has not improved the plight of Palestine but improved and reinforced the control of Palestine by Israel.  Without global opprobrium it is suggested, Israel will do nothing to change its gradual takeover of all Palestine land.

The tactic of boycott is now almost universally endorsed by all Palestinian campaigners and most of Palestinian society.  It allows the global community to play its part in righting the wrongs it created and reproduced historically (and currently) in that region of the world.  It also enables Palestinians to believe that there may be hope of a new dawn via non-violent resistance.  We know that boycott is a tactic, not a principle.  Not everyone will support it.  That doesn’t mean we should reject their support on other levels or drive their support away.  My own view is that we need to win friends and influence people, not turn potential friends away.   The only reason we employ boycott against Israel is because Israel has consistently ignored UN resolutions and attempts by its ‘friends’ to encourage it to end its illegal (internationally) occupation and its ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people.  However, for boycott to work, we need as many people/groups as possible supporting it.  Otherwise it is the boycotters who end up isolated and excluded not the oppressors.

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Uncomfortable ‘truths’ and the Centenary Anniversary of the 1916 Rising in Ireland

A version of this opinion piece was originally published in the Socialist History Journal, 49, May,2016.

How to deal with uncomfortable ‘truths’ from the past has long posed problems for historians and politicians alike and this is exemplified by attempts to ‘deal with’ the centenary anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland.

How do we recognise the revolutionary ‘heroes’ of the past and their contribution to the building of the new ‘nation’ state to which we may pledge allegiance, without exposing the contradictions inherent in the way that ‘nation’ state has transformed, subverted and indeed corrupted many of the ideas for which they fought?

More controversially, how do we honour the actions of revolutionaries in the past which led to death and destruction in pursuance of a grand ideal, while at the same time condemning others today who claim to have been likewise engaged, using similar methods, during the recent ‘Troubles’ (1969-98 and counting)?

Attempts by the Irish state to deal with the centenary seem to illustrate the point.

In many ways the political establishment south of the Irish border would prefer to ignore 1916, but to do so, as it did during most of the years of the recent ‘Troubles’, would be to hand over ownership to political organisations like Sinn Féin – something that cannot be countenanced by their political opponents, given the positive attitude which currently exists amongst the public towards the Rising. Certainly, the government has shown little imagination or enthusiasm – its inaction over plans to demolish Moore Street in Dublin, where the end of the Rising and surrender were acted out, and the ongoing building works (at the time of writing) for a new Luas trackway in the middle of O’Connell Street in front of the GPO, the main site of the Rising, and where the main commemorations would be expected to take place, seem to bear testament to that. However, the prominent use of the Irish Army in commemorative events (including visiting every school with a tricolour and a Proclamation reading) shows the desire to link it to the volunteers who fought in the Rising rather than allowing that mantle to rest on any other competing republican organisations.

‘History telling’ in the Irish state, as in other states, has often been used for political purposes (by both the state and its opponents). It was used for example, to build allegiance to the new ‘state’ and its political establishment, in an atmosphere of division and dissent in the aftermath of the Civil War (1922-23) and in this it was largely very successful. It eulogised the ‘martyred’ leaders of the Rising, linking their sacrifice to the creation of first a ‘Free State’ (1922) and then a ‘Republic’ (1948) of twenty-six of Ireland’s counties. Its narrative spoke of an integrated, united people in the South, homogeneous in thought, culture, language, politics and religion – a conservative, white, Catholic, Gaelic people. Socialists, radical thinkers and writers who challenged the stereotype and the conformity became outcasts. The small minority (5%) of Protestants left in the State after Partition and the rush to leave, may have been tolerated, but they were never viewed as really fully Irish in a state which gave patronage to the Catholic Church’s ‘special position’ and followed its diktats in social policy provision.(1)

However, there was always the nagging historical problem of that ‘unfinished business’ – the incomplete national project. When the 1916 ‘rebels’ proclaimed the ‘right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible’ and ‘the Irish Republic as a Sovereign Independent State’ they weren’t talking about twenty-six counties of it. (Nor were they talking about a ‘republic’ which would then hand over much of its sovereignty to other European nation-states in the European Union).

When the 1916 ‘rebels’ declared that their ‘Irish Republic’ would cherish ‘all the children of the nation equally’, they emphasised, immediately following, that this would be ‘oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government which have divided a minority from a majority in the past’. Their aim, clearly, was to a create society in which both Protestants and Catholics, North and South, would belong equally. It wasn’t to reinforce and reproduce existing divisions by developing two separate confessional states for two separate groups. James Connolly (one of the 1916 leaders) had predicted in 1914, in response to the proposed partition of Ireland that

‘Such a scheme as that agreed to by Redmond and Devlin, the betrayal of the national democracy of industrial Ulster, would mean a carnival of reaction both North and South, would set back the wheels of progress, would destroy the oncoming unity of the Irish Labour movement and paralyse all advanced movements whilst it endured’. (2)

In many ways that prediction came true. The South remained a conservative, paternalistic, Catholic and indeed somewhat reactionary society (when it came to dealing with social or political dissent) for much of its existence. It was slow to introduce ‘equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens’ as proclaimed in 1916, especially in relation to women. It wasn’t until the 1970s and EU entry that it even contemplated its first gender equality legislation. It never succeeded in ‘cherishing all the children of the nation equally’ – today it is one of the more unequal in terms of income and wealth of all EU states.(3) And it never succeeded in creating a society which would be attractive to the bulk of Protestants/unionists north of the border.

In the North, by the time of Partition a type of economic, social, cultural and political apartheid had evolved and while many working class and rural Protestants suffered poverty and deprivation, Catholic/nationalists (initially one third of the population and now nearly half) generally occupied a much more disadvantaged position. Partition was to reinforce and reproduce that disadvantaged position – through the experience of discrimination, gerrymandering and intimidation.(4) It also ensured almost continuous conflict, both violent and non-violent, throughout the existence of Northern Ireland. It led eventually to nearly 30 years of violent conflict from the late 1960s until the late 1990s, during which nearly 4,000 people died from all sides/communities and many more were injured, while thousands lost their homes and an estimated 40,000 were imprisoned.(5) Despite the peace process and the Belfast Agreement (1998) the North remains a deeply divided society and the dream of the 1916 leaders of creating an all-Ireland Republic appears to remain as far away as ever.

In the South, the rewording of articles 2 and 3 of the 1937 Constitution resulting from the 1998 Agreement, and the dropping of the ‘claim’ that the ‘nation’ includes all 32 counties seems to reinforce this. There no longer appears to be a Constitutional imperative to end Partition (though little had been done about it anyway by successive Irish Governments from 1922).

In recent times, some commentators have attempted to deal with the contradictions posed by 1916 for the Irish political establishment by suggesting that maybe the state should now start distancing itself from the Rising. Former Taoiseach, John Bruton, for example, has argued that the Rising and subsequent events from 1916-23 should not be ‘glorified’ as they only achieved, with much suffering and death, what was actually being offered by the British anyway at the time. That may be true of course, but it misses the point. The rebels of 1916 were not fighting for what subsequent Irish governments were to accept. They wanted a 32 County Republic and one that promoted equality amongst its people.

Others commentators have argued similarly to Fr Seamus Murphy, a Jesuit scholar in Loyola University Chicago, that ‘to celebrate the Rising is to celebrate anti-democratic elitism and bloodlust’.

Clearly the Irish people didn’t vote for the Rising so in that sense it wasn’t democratic, but then they didn’t vote for British rule either or indeed World War 1. It may well be that most of their elected representatives –nationalists and unionists – both opposed the Rising and supported the British war effort, but there is a difference between democracy and liberal representative democracy. There is also a difference between a liberal democracy which allows everyone the vote and one that does not. In 1916 for example, large sections of the labouring classes and all women were denied the vote. The present day concept of liberal representative democracy was slow in developing. At the time of the Act of Union (1801) for example, less than 2% of people had the vote (6) and although the franchise was extended incrementally throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries it wasn’t until the 1918 Election that all males in Ireland (over 21) and females (over 30) had a vote. And of course we know how Ireland voted then. Sinn Féín won 70% of seats on a platform opposing conscription, but also advocating abstention from Westminster and the establishment of an independent republic in Ireland. That democratic mandate of course was subverted by a British Government which didn’t want to lose Ireland or witness the start of the break-up of its empire. The result was that the First Dáil was suppressed (1919) and Ireland partitioned (1920).

A treaty was eventually signed in 1921 but only under threat from the British of ‘terrible and immediate war’. The democratic wishes of the Irish people were viewed as irrelevant. In the end there was never any vote on Partition. Most Irish people wanted peace not war and were prepared to give into British bullying, but was that democratic?
It could be argued that the 1918 election was the first and last time most of the people (males over 21 and females over 30) in Ireland, North and South, had a vote which might have affected the constitutional arrangements on the island and they voted for a party advocating the republic proclaimed in 1916. However, there was a vote in 1998, which was similar in many ways. People North and South got to vote on the arrangements decided upon in the Belfast Agreement. The questions asked of course were different on both sides of the border and there were no alternatives offered other than acceptance or rejection of the proposed changes. The Republic proclaimed in 1916 remains unrealised and not voted on.

Thus the uncomfortable ‘truths’ associated with the 1916 Rising remain, in this year of its centenary anniversary. It may take another 100 years before they are finally resolved – one way or another.


1 Census data record that the number of Protestants living in the 26 counties declined by about a third between 1911-1926.

2 James Connolly, ‘Labour and the Proposed Partition of Ireland’, Irish Worker, 14 March 1914.

3 Tasc, Cherishing All Equally: Economic Inequality in Ireland, (Dublin, 2015)

4 E. A. Aunger, , ‘Religion and Occupational Class in N. Ireland’, Economic and Social Review, 7/1 (1976).

5 R. Jamieson, P. Shirlow, and A. Grounds, Ageing and social exclusion among former politically motivated prisoners in Northern Ireland and the border region of Ireland, (Community Foundation for N. Ireland, Belfast, 2010).

6 M. Lavalette and A. Pratt, Social Policy: A Conceptual and Theoretical Introduction, (Sage, London, 1997).

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Is ‘History’ is written by the victors? It is certainly their sources of information that historians have tended to rely upon.

One problem historians face is that they are usually dependent on ‘written’ sources to discover the ‘facts’ about history and historical events. Since the advent of radio, TV and digital sources of information this has been added to by a range of other media sources of ‘information’. This invariably means that that the ‘sources’ or ‘truth’ and ‘fact’ tend to be overwhelmingly those provided by those ‘able’ to write/record and to preserve their thoughts and observations . This in turn usually means that historians are dependent on official state archives or the archival material produced by the wealthy and the powerful in any society.

Current attempts being made by the Universities in the North of Ireland to archive memory about the conflict in the North also reflect the problematic aspects of archival material as a window to the past. Invariably the memories of supporters of the state will be recorded. However, will that not produce a lop-sided view of ‘history’ if memories of those who opposed the state cannot (for legal reasons) be recorded alongside them?

The importance of sources of ‘history’ also comes to the fore in relation to this particular article below. The media is an important source of ‘information’ about the past, sometimes the only source. However, the problem with ‘relying’ on RTE or any other media outlet for ‘factual’ information about Ireland’s past, is that RTE only ever reported a limited version of the ‘truth’ or of the ‘facts’. Long years of state censorship, self-censorship, heavy editing and indeed the bias of the perspectives of many of those employed in RTE (and any other media outlet) mean that RTE archives and those other media outlets have to been considered with a very critical eye by anyone wanting to learn about the past.

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The Changing Landscape of Local and Community Development in Ireland: Policy and Practice

This is the report of a conference held in University College Cork, Ireland, in October 2015 to discuss research carried out by UCC researchers and hear the views of representatives from the wider voluntary and community sector on the impact of both austerity cuts and changes to central and local government funding on the sector.

With the onset of the economic crisis in 2008, a range of austerity measures introduced by the Irish Government led to severe cuts in funding to the voluntary and community sector in Ireland. Accompanying this was an on-going process of policy change since the late 1990s, linked to Government attempts to align the sector with central and local government priorities and agenda. The latter culminated in the passing of the Local Government Reform Act 2014, which attempted to bring the community and voluntary sector under greater local and central government control, and included the introduction of competitive tendering for service contracts established by the State, in place of grants for community sector organisations.

Issues raised by the research and discussed at the conference included the implications of such changes for collaboration and co-operation in the sector in an atmosphere of increased competition for resources, community development as a method of work, the independence of the sector, and notions of participative democracy and grassroots engagement.

A copy of the Conference Report, The Changing Landscape of Local and Community Development in Ireland: Policy and Practice, is available here.

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Cuts to Corporation Tax for Transnational Corporations Alongside Cuts in Welfare Benefits and Services won’t build an Ireland of Equals.

I’m a supporter of a progressive taxation regime. What that means is that the richest in society pay more tax than the poorest in proportion to their wealth and income, This means that richer people pay a bigger percentage of tax on their income and wealth than poorer people. It’s based on the notion – from each according to their ability (to each according to their need when it comes to provision of services, etc., like health, education, and housing).

In a capitalist society where the market decides who wins and who loses, who earns and who doesn’t, who becomes rich and who doesn’t, welfare systems have evolved in European states since the late 19th century, to deal with the inequalities, injustices and socio-economic exclusion which the market foments. In the late 1970s/early 1980s there was a fightback against such welfare systems and the regulation of capital which accompanied them, from old style lovers of the market and neo-liberalism was born with the Thatchers and Reagans of the world. They promoted a rollback of public welfare systems, reductions in taxation which had paid for them, privatisation of provision, a removal of societal responsibility for societal problems and the placing of responsibility on the poor, the marginalised to sort out their own problems. They argued that lowered taxation for the rich would encourage the rich to work harder in order to make profits. This could also be enhanced by deregulation – relaxing public controls on how they made profits, so that they could make profits more easily and quicker. It was such a policy which led to the Banking crisis in the mid-2000s when Banks having loaned money they didn’t have, to make more profit, started to go bankrupt. This in turn led to the nationalisation of private banking debt to prop up the capitalist system and to the global economic crisis from 2008 till now.

The policy of low taxation of the rich was based on a number of premises such as freedom of the individual from government constraints. The argument was that in the pursuit of profit some of the benefits of that profit would trickle down to the punter on the ground, in terms of jobs or cheaper consumer goods. However, there was no notion that this would create a world of equals. Indeed inequality was lauded by Milton Friedman, Hayek, Thatcher and Reagan. Inequality created incentives for the rich to make more money.
A small number of socialists argued against this policy. They said that a society with gross inequalities was a dysfunctional society. It led to poverty, ill-health, poor housing, poor education, on the part of the poor, as well as promoting social exclusion, social divisions and social conflict. It was basically wrong. They argued for greater societal planning and responsibility for social and economic need, greater and progressive taxation to provide for societal needs and greater regulation of profit making ventures to ensure that private greed did not interfere with public need.

By the mid-2000s, a range of academic studies began to argue that growing global inequalities were a threat to global sustainability, health and well-being e.g. Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009. Even the OEDC got in on the act with its monumental report in 2008 ‘Growing Unequal? Income Distribution and Poverty in OECD Countries’, follow in 2015 by ‘In It Together: Why Less Inequality Benefits All’.
In recent years, international concern has been raised about the tax avoidance policies of many transnational corporations. Unlike many small indigenous businesses, many transnationals can invest heavily in lawyers and accountants to develop ways of avoiding tax ‘legally’. The result has been that in many low tax economies such as in the 26 County Irish state, many transnational corporations, making billions in profit, pay little or no tax. Such tax avoidance has led even some supporters of neoliberalism to question the logic of low taxation and low regulation, with the OECD, the US Government and the EU all attempting to develop some level of global agreement of taxation levels for transnational corporation and regulation.

All this leads to the question, why would anyone in an atmosphere of welfare cuts, and public sector cuts leading to reduced services and redundancies argue that transnational corporation, making billions in profits should pay lower tax on their profits?

There is an argument that low taxation will attract transnationals to ‘reside’ in areas of low taxation and regulation. And there is no doubt that the Irish state (26 Counties) has benefited from such a policy in the past in terms of raising revenue that would otherwise have gone elsewhere. However, there are so many social and economic arguments against such a policy it is difficult to understand why they are not being heard.

For example, the problem with lowering tax to attract transnationals is that we engage in a race to the bottom with other poorer countries desperate to outbid us in the taxation stakes. Transnationals by their nature have no national or social responsibility or loyalty. They are solely interested in profit and will go where the profit is greatest. And when they arrive they invariably price small indigenous companies out of the market. Tesco’s becomes dominant and the corner shop a thing of the past. As a result, some European states have attempted to develop different corporation tax levels (tax on the profits of companies) where smaller (mainly indigenous companies) pay less in tax than bigger (often transnational corporations). There’s a logic to this because smaller indigenous companies are more likely to remain due to social and family ties and social and national responsibility.

One problem (of many) of the EU is that local indigenous companies cannot be favoured over other EU companies in terms of taxation (due to EU competition rules), however, smaller companies can be treated differently to richer companies (and the smaller ones are invariable indigenous and more likely to stay and grow if supported). Thus is you want to cut corporation cut why don’t limit it to small companies for a few years till they get off their feet. Alternatively leave corporation tax alone and concentrate on incentivising businesses to locate in high areas of unemployment via cuts in rates, infrastructural and training supports, and supports to encourage increased employment. If the desire is to develop a sustainable economy then whilst that relying on transnational corporations may seem like a quick fix it won’t deliver on sustainability.

Ultimately, the biggest argument against cutting corporation tax for transnational corporations is social. It is socially unjust that at a time of welfare benefit and public services cuts, cuts in taxation are also advocated for the richest people in the world. How can it be right that the lowest paid tax payers should pay a bigger portion of their income in tax than some of the richest people in the world? That’s the question which should be raised and should be discussed.

Wilkinson, R., & Pickett, K. (2009). The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better. London: Allen Lane.
OECD, (2008) Growing Unequal? Income Distribution and Poverty in OECD Countries, OECD.
OECD, (2015) In It Together: Why Less Inequality Benefits All, OECD.

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‘Ireland’ and Partition – What’s in a name? How Terminology can Influence Thinking and Political Perspectives.

‘Ireland’ and Partition – What’s in a name? How Terminology can Influence Thinking and Political Perspectives.

One of the worst insults you can say to an Irish citizen living in the 6 north eastern counties of Ireland is that they don’t live in Ireland. That part of Ireland still controlled by Britain (despite 1916 and all that) is often referred to as a different country, not ‘Ireland’. However, the notion that ‘Ireland’ only refers to the southern 26 counties of Ireland is now deeply ingrained in most of the population south of the Border – a notion reinforced and reproduced by state agencies, NGOs, and media on a daily basis. Recently I read in a CSO publication (the Central Statistics Office is the State statistics office for the 26 County part of ‘Ireland’) that the population in ‘Ireland’ in 1911 was just over 2 million. Of course they were only talking about the 26 County area of ‘Ireland’ which was then part of the whole of Ireland (the whole 32 Cos of it) and ruled by Britain! The whole of ‘Ireland’, at that time, really had a population of about 4 million. Thus, it appears, even history is being revised to reinforce the notion (deliberately or otherwise) that ‘Ireland’ has always consisted of only 26 Cos!

Partition of course, is a reality – it does exist. It has existed since 1920 when Ireland was partitioned by Britain with the Government of Ireland Act, and it was agreed by a slight majority of Irish nationalist representatives in December 1921, after Britain had threatened them with ‘terrible and immediate war’ if they didn’t! As a result, the 6 North Eastern counties of Ireland remained under British control with a sizeable population of pro-British supporters of continued ‘union’ with Britain called unionists (mainly descendants of colonists from the island of Britain from the 17th century on and who tended to b Protestants). However, it also contained a large minority Catholic population (mainly descended from the native Irish population) who felt aggrieved at Partition and wanted to remain part of a new independent Ireland. The 26 southern counties, meanwhile, gained (eventually) independence (to varying degrees depending on one’s perspective).

After Partition, however and certainly for much of the period from 1921-98, most nationalists North and South of the Border argued that Partition had been an unjust arrangement forced on the Irish people, and they advocated for a reunited Ireland. For all his faults, De Valera, first a Taoiseach (Prime Minister) and then President for many years of the 26 County Irish state, did attempt to remind people (largely for his own ‘domestic’ political interests) that ‘Ireland’ did consist of 32 Cos even though the ‘fourth green field’ was still ‘in bondage’. He defined ‘Ireland’ as composed of 32 Counties in his 1937 Constitution. So it remained, as far as the South was concerned, up until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, when that claim was removed as part of the Agreement. De Valera, of course, didn’t do much to help fulfil this Constitutional imperative (make the 6 Counties part of the Irish state in reality). Indeed he only succeeded in further alienating unionists, north of the Border, and suppressing republicans in the South. However, at least, (from the point of view of nationalists) the North was recognised as (naturally and legitimately) part of ‘Ireland’.

Nowadays the official name of the 26 County state is still ‘Ireland’ but there is no mention in the constitution of the 6 counties being part of it, except for a comment expressing a desire to unite ‘the people’ of Ireland (as opposed to the land mass), peacefully. It is no wonder, therefore, that most people in the South refer to the 26 Counties as ‘Ireland’ and think of the North as part of ‘the UK’.
There is no doubt that Partition of Ireland in 1921 had a massive impact on dividing people North and South. For nearly 100 years, people north and south of the Border have by and large lived separate lives, socially, politically, economically and even culturally. That is bound to have an impact on how one views one’s current existence and future possibilities. Constantly referring to the 26 Cos as ‘Ireland’ (and excluding the North) also promotes, reinforces and reproduces in the mind – consciously and sub consciously – the notion that not only is ‘Ireland’ made up of only 26 Cos but that this is normal, legitimate and the way things should be.

The same is true of the term ‘Northern Ireland’, the official term for the 6 County entity which remains under British rule but with a separate Parliament dealing with certain non-fiscal matters. In the past, few in the South referred to the entity as ‘Northern Ireland’ because this appeared to bestow on it some notion of legitimacy as an entity. Along with Northern nationalists, the preferred nomenclature was ‘the North’ or ‘the Six Counties’. Nowadays, however, the term ‘Northern Ireland’ appears to be the norm not just among state bodies, NGOs, and media but also among the general population in the South and indeed the North. Indeed. it is not unusual to even hear republicans using the term ‘Northern Ireland’. For some, especially Northern unionists and those in the South who now view Partition as legitimate (and, in many cases, necessary), this represents ‘progress’ –another word with political connotations. One person’s ‘progress’ is often another’s…….. It is only ‘progress’ if progress means increasing acceptance of the legitimacy and permanency of Partition. For republicans of course there is a continued notion that Partition is illegitimate, unjust, unfair, and unsustainable into the future. Thus for them ‘progress’ would mean an end to Partition and Irish reunification.

Other interesting word often heard, in the context of the political conflict relating to Partition is ‘reconciliation’. A few years ago the then Democratic Unionist Party First Minister in the North, Peter Robinson, in response to a new ‘reconciliation’ initiative announced by Sinn Féin, asked the pertinent question – reconcile us to what? In the North, there are pro-Union (with Britain) supporters who talk about ‘reconciliation’ solely within the context of the North – ‘good relations’. Some of them may also talk about developing friendly relations with ‘our neighbours across the Border’, but in the context of maintaining that Border. For republicans, however, ‘reconciliation’ involves ‘national reconciliation’, uniting all the people of all 32 counties of Ireland. Both ‘reconciliation’ within the North and between North and South is of course needed in this republican perspective and the end goal is different – ultimately ‘reconciliation’ requires and will result in an end to Partition.

My own view, as a republican, is that the biggest obstacle to Irish unity in the future will not be the unionists in the North, but the bulk of the population in the South who see Partition as both natural and desirable. The reality of Partition, the blinkered reporting, misreporting and non-reporting by the media there of both the conflict around Partition and the peace process, the continued use of the particular discourse and terminology referred to above, have all had an effect in my view. Most people in the South today appear to know little about the North (and vice versa) and appear uninterested in finding out about it. Many are grossly misinformed. Some in the South would fear the prospect of having to deal with ‘bigoted’ Orangemen and ‘violent’ nationalists from the North in a new reunited country. Most don’t think about the North as having much to do with them – including most of those in the South who currently vote Sinn Féin, the main party there advocating Irish unity.

Of course there also has to be a desire for a reunited Ireland in the North. Some nationalists, basing their rationale on the fact that Catholics have in the past tended to vote for nationalist parties (who represented their ‘interests’ and who advocated for a united Ireland), have pointed to the 2011 census. The figures from this appear to show that among people aged 35 years of less, there are now more people with a Catholic community background than a Protestant community background in the North. The suggestion is that as the older Protestant majority cohort starts to die out (sorry if this sounds crass, it is!) then a Catholic majority will emerge which will vote for a united Ireland. Interestingly this was the argument promoted by the old constitutional Nationalist Party in the North many years ago. The notion was that larger Catholic families would mean that eventually Catholics would ‘outbreed’ Protestants and become a majority! Of course this didn’t happen. Whilst the Catholic population did grow, discrimination and poverty-induced emigration kept numbers down for many years. Nowadays the Catholic and Protestant birth rates are relatively similarly and whilst the number of people from a Catholic background may eventually, in many decades, become larger than those with a Protestant background, will this mean a reunited Ireland?

It seems to me that outcome of a future Border Poll cannot be predicted for a whole host of varied reasons. For example, how many Catholic Rory McIlroys are there living in the North who would prefer the North to remain as it is? Just because Catholics tend to vote for parties advocating a united Ireland does not mean necessarily that they vote for them because of this rather than because they protect their ‘interests’ within the North. How many ‘nationalists’ will be thinking about (what’s left of) the welfare state, or their pensions, or the potential of violent loyalist resistance to unity, when they vote? It is impossible to predict today how ‘Catholics’ or the descendants of today’s Catholics (and fewer and fewer of them are professing Catholicism) will vote in the future. It is also impossible to predict the impact of increased immigration into the North from other countries. Whilst relatively small at present, in the future minority ethnic communities may have an important say in any Border poll.

Personally I think depending on demographic changes in the North to bring about unity is crass, stupid and indeed sectarian. In my view the only way unity will occur is when a majority in the South and a majority of BOTH Protestants and Catholics in the North agree to it. Each ‘community’ must buy into the idea, not just because of pragmatic concerns both North and South about ongoing or renewed violent conflict and the impact the potential for this may have on a vote, but also because who really wants to create a society in which a sizeable section of the population feels alienated. It was tried in the North with tragic results. Now we have a situation in the North where the bulk of Catholics feel relatively comfortable. They enjoy rights they never had before and whilst some (probably a majority) would still desire a united Ireland, things aren’t bad enough for the majority of them to wish a return to armed conflict in order to achieve it. The recent Labour Force Survey Religion Report for 2014 (published February 2016) shows that in terms of jobs for example, Catholics are now nearly as likely to be employed and in high status jobs as Protestants. Whilst it is still true that 16 out of the 20 poorest areas in the North are Catholic this seems to be more the result of historic inequalities which have not been addressed rather than ongoing overt religious discrimination. It may be that there is increasing inequality but it seems to be between rich and poor rather than Catholic and Protestant. Indeed it seems to me that any appeal for a reunited Ireland needs to be one which addresses such inequality North and South and embraces ‘all the children of the nation equally’.

Whilst reunification may be many years off it seems to me that all of those interested in this idea need to address all elements which are preventing reunification. It means evangelising about the merits of reunification in the South as well as amongst all the diverse communities in the North. It also means challenging the ‘common sense’ everyday discourse and terminology which reinforces and reproduces the notion of the legitimacy and acceptance of Partition in the minds of people North and South.

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