‘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.


About Féilim Ó hAdhmaill

Dr. Féilim Ó hAdhmaill is a Lecturer in Social Policy in the School of Applied Social Studies, University College Cork, Ireland. His subject areas are Comparative Social Policy; Conflict Transformation and Peace Building; Community Development and he is Programme Director for the Masters in Voluntary and Community Sector Management. University profile http://research.ucc.ie/profiles/A012/fohadhmaill For information on the Masters in Voluntary and Community Sector Management http://www.ucc.ie/en/cke75/ He has a long background working in community and voluntary sector and as a political activist in the North of Ireland. He is a former republican prisoner who spent seven and a half years in prison. He was released from jail in August 2000 under the Good Friday Agreement. He has lectured in social policy at Queens University Belfast and Ulster University and have been a lecturer in University College Cork since 2006.
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