By James Winder Good
Originally published in Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Volume 11, Number 42, June, 1922
THE Northern Parliament was formally opened in June, 1921. If it is not possible to arrive at a final verdict on a legislative assembly as the result of twelve months' working experience, one can at least form some conception of its probable course of development and of its ability to handle its problems. A year ago admirers of the new Parliament stifled doubts and drowned criticism by the noisiest and most vainglorious blowing of their own trumpets. Not only were Sir James Craig and his colleagues confident of success, but they insisted that their success would break all known records. The Parliament was to be a model of smooth-running efficiency which would transform the Six Counties into a new Utopia. Administrative skill was to be combined with legislative wisdom in a fashion hitherto unknown. Mr. Coote, for instance, promised, merely as a beginning, a complete overhaul of the poor law system ; development of scientific research in industry, with a college chair and liberal scholarships ; root-and-branch reform of the educational system, with better buildings, better equipment, more highly-qualified and highly-paid teachers ; improved transport and waterways ; and a comprehensive recasting of the licensing laws. All these things were to be done not only without increasing expenditure, but with a sensible reduction in taxation ; and Mr. Coote was not alone in prophesying that in happy Ulster the more the Government undertook to do, the fewer the number of officials required to do it.
Of these bright hopes scarcely a shadow remains. Sir James Craig's dithyrambs have become jeremiads. His Chancellor of the Exchequer, who last summer was protesting that it was the basest kind of treason to look an English financial gift-horse in the mouth, now publicly deplores his own simplicity in assuming that he could rely upon the pledged word of British Ministers. Independent members denounce the Administration as "a model of extravagance." The cost of policing the Six counties is already twice as heavy as the total expenditure on the R.I.C. in four provinces a few years ago; and next year it is forecasted that the Constabulary estimates will be between £4,000,000 and £5,000,000. Economists are bound to be voices crying in the wilderness when the salaries drawn by Ministers in this tiny enclave are equal to those paid for the whole Australian Commonwealth. Placemen are multiplied in Parliament at a rate that would scare even Mr. Lloyd George, with the inevitable result that members who do not figure in the salary list, instead of constituting, as was boasted, a band of brothers, devote all their energies to snarling rancorously at their more fortunate fellows. There is scarcely a pretence of constructive legislation. After a few academic debates, in which concrete proposals of any kind were barred, education, housing, and schemes of temperance reform have been dropped like so many hot potatoes. The one measure that aroused any real enthusiasm was the Flogging Act--less, I need say, on account of any merits it possessed as an instrument for repressing disorder than for its possibilities as a scourge for the backs of political opponents. In popularly governed States the first step taken in times of crisis is to summon the elected representatives of the people. It gives the measure of the futility of the Northern Government that, when a difficult situation arises, Sir James Craig invariably, and almost it would seem automatically, moves the adjournment of his Parliament. And this reversion to executive autocracy has never provoked even the faintest protest. The Orange taxpayer in the Six Counties openly gibes at his Parliament as an incubus which drains him of money without making any return.
What is the explanation of this bewildering change? As in most political developments the result has been brought about by a complexity of causes, but one in particular leaps to the eye. Ulster critics are fond of insisting that they did not want the Act of 1920, which they accepted, according to themselves, merely as a pis-aller because there was no hope of maintaining the Union. And as their utterances at the time make clear, the main reason that impelled them to take the gift offered by Sir Hamar Greenwood was the belief that it would serve as a spoke to thrust into the wheels of Sinn Fein. When the measure was finally passed through the British Parliament, the Orange Press, instead of describing it as a charter of self-government for the Six Counties, blazoned on their posters: "Repeal of the Home Rule Act." In the same spirit the route along which Lord Fitzalan passed to open the first Home Rule Parliament was spanned by arches upon which the supporters of the Parliament had inscribed, apparently with no sense of incongruity, the Carson war-cry: "We will not have Home Rule." It was a crowning example of the fatal obsession of Ulster politics since the Union, which has led its champions to regard opposition by the rest of Ireland as the best recommendation of proposed legislative changes.
I do not believe that under any circumstances the Greenwood Act could have been applied so as to benefit the Six Counties. The measure was devised solely to give effect to the principle of Partition with the object of compelling the South to surrender at discretion. But if the South declined to be coerced into submission the scheme was so constructed as to deprive the North of all freedom of action. As it happened, the Act came into force under circumstances which, from the Orange point of view, intensified its worst defects. The opening of the Northern Parliament by King George was made the occasion for overtures by the British Government which resulted a few weeks later in the signing of the Irish Truce. Had Sir James Craig possessed the courage to take the statesmanlike line this development would have enabled him to escape from the worst of his difficulties, and acquire a prestige that might have ranked his name high amongst Irish leaders. To him peace was an even greater necessity than it was to Mr. Lloyd George. For a year conditions in Belfast had been growing steadily worse. Murder stalked the streets; sectarian passions, fanned by reckless incitements to a devastating flame, threatened to reduce the city to chaos. In its most populous districts the rattle of the sniper's rifle had superseded the roar of traffic; security for life and property no longer existed; mob law, backed by rifles and revolvers, decreed the economic ruin of thousands for no other crime than that of professing a different faith. Obviously, with the foundations of society cracking under these assaults, the difficulty of building up a new State, formidable enough under the most favourable circumstances, was increased a thousandfold. The first thing to do was to restore at all costs something approaching normal conditions. The Truce between England and Ireland opened up for the Six Counties a plain way of escape. It was in the power of Sir James Craig to declare, as Mr. Lloyd George had done, that bygones should be bygones, and to inaugurate a new departure. An announcement that mob rule was an invasion of the rights of the Northern Parliament, a restoration of workers expelled on the ground of religion, coupled with a proclamation that action on political grounds could in future be taken only by legal authorities in a legal fashion, would not only have gone far to set Sir James Craig right with the outside world but would have enormously strengthened his hand at home.
Prudence as well as magnanimity demanded a gesture of this kind. Apart from its horror, the sort of war that is waged in the back streets of Belfast reacts fatally upon the prosperity of a highly organised industrial community. In addition to paralysing the ordinary operations of business, it destroys credit, saps prestige, and bars any hope of commercial stability or progress. So far from being in a position to indulge in the luxury of civil conflict, Belfast's plight demanded the most careful nursing of its resources. A vast amount of money had been made during the war, but the greatest part of this had been squandered in senseless wild-cat gambling. It was estimated that on the shares of one company alone Belfast speculators dropped inside a few months between five and six million pounds. Inevitably this had the effect of making it more difficult to obtain financial support for legitimate ventures at a desperately critical juncture.
Never was money more badly needed; for post-war developments had dealt a crushing blow at the two great industries which are the backbone of Ulster's commercial prosperity. Shipbuilding on the Lagan was destined to suffer like shipbuilding everywhere else. It is ironical that Belfast, which joined so lustily in the cry "make Germany pay," should have failed to realise that the first consequence of seizing Germany's mercantile marine would be to deprive Ulster yards of orders, and turn thousands of workers into the streets. Nor could Belfast find any comfort in the thought that German competition, which hit her so hard in pre-war days, was definitely eliminated. Hamburg might be out of the running, but the new yards created by America and Japan constituted a still more formidable danger. The last and worst blow was dealt by the Washington Conference. It is true that Belfast, except during the world-war, had not specialised in the building of warships, but the Washington agreement, with its wholesale reduction of armaments, meant that yards which formerly competed for naval contracts will be hunting in future for merchant vessels.
Bad as is the outlook for shipbuilding, the plight of the linen industry is even worse. The war robbed it at once of its best markets and of the principal sources from which it obtained its supply of raw materials. Russian and Austrian flax is not available, and even if it were, America no longer clamours for Irish linen. Belfast drew its big profits not from coarse textiles but from embroidered goods and superb damasks. These are luxuries, not necessaries; and though the people of the United States have the money, they are not so ready as they were to spend it in luxuries. There is no doubt, I am convinced, that the linen industry will in time recover lost ground. Like all luxury trades, it is subject to violent fluctuations, but the quality of the article produced is so superior that in the long run Belfast has always been able to come out on top. My point is that in an industrial crisis which demanded above all things ameliorative measures and elimination of friction, the Orange leaders, instead of easing the load, kept piling on new burdens and scattering all kinds of stumbling blocks in the path of their followers. It is contended that the boycott, which was adopted as a protest against the pogroms, does not hurt the Six Counties. Personally, I believe the boycott, however justifiable the wave of feeling that led to its application, to have been a bad mistake. Had it succeeded, as its advocates hoped, it would have strengthened instead of weakening the case for Partition by demonstrating that the Six Counties were a separate economic entity. If in practice its blow could be parried, this meant that those at whom it was aimed would claim that the attempt to injure them constituted a justification for the injury they inflicted on others. At the same time it is nonsense for Unionists to pretend that the boycott did not add to their difficulties. It may have hit directly only a small section of the population, but in the abnormal situation created by the slump in shipbuilding and textiles its indirect effects have been decidedly serious. The northern distributing trade was forced out of its most profitable market; and though the Belfast banks did not lose nearly as much as was generally believed, the fear that they might not be able to function much longer in the Southern counties led them to call in money advanced to local speculators, with the result that these were compelled to sell their securities at a ruinous loss in a falling market.
While there were novel features in the situation, the plight of the Six Counties was in the main that of all the new European States which had been called into existence by the Treaty of Versailles. Hard facts speedily forced these States to realise it was essential to their economic stability that they should enter into working arrangements with their neighbours, however strongly political prejudices urged a different policy. Peace was the most vital need of Carsonia, as her leaders in their sane moments admitted; yet instead of welcoming the hope of peace held out by the Anglo-Irish discussions all their energies were concentrated, during the five long months of negotiation that preceded the signing of the Treaty, in a series of frantic attempts to destroy any hope of a settlement. These attempts would have been foolish enough had they been confined to ordinary political manoeuvres; but in the hope of advancing political intrigue Orange politicians repudiated the Truce and deliberately speeded up the reign of anarchy in their city, loosing destructive forces which, as events were to prove, they were wholly unable to control.
The signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December, 1921, confounded English Die-hards and Northern extremists alike. All their schemes appeared to have been brought to naught, and for the first time those elements in the Six Counties whose interests demanded a cessation of the insensate strife were able to exercise pressure upon their leaders. The heads of the commercial community had tolerated, and indeed encouraged, the confusion so long as there seemed a chance of making political profit out of it; but they were shrewd enough to see that it could not continue interminably without fatal results to themselves. Made painfully aware by experience that while the Act of 1920 established Partition in theory, in practice it could be enforced only at a ruinous cost to the Six Counties, they decided, not without reluctance and many misgivings, to take the first step towards a peaceful settlement of the issues in dispute with their fellow-countrymen. The Craig-Collins pact of January last was never given a fair trial. Though the Belfast boycott was promptly withdrawn by Dail Eireann, Sir James Craig failed to fulfil his obligations. I do not believe that this was due to conscious bad faith on the part of the Northern Prime Minister. There is little doubt that he was genuinely anxious to settle, but he had placed himself at the mercy of forces which declined to listen to reason; and as bad luck would have it, events in the South gave these forces a great accession of strength at a critical juncture.
Mr. de Valera's campaign against the Treaty was hailed by the Orange extremists as a proof that the Provisional Government was beaten before the fight began and that the Free State would never be permitted to function. Armed with this argument, they assailed the Pact all along the line, and unfortunately developments in the rest of Ireland appeared to play directly into their hands. I know it is held in some quarters that the Pact was a device engineered by England to secure recognition of Partition by the South, while at the same time freeing Sir James Craig from any responsibility for delivering the goods. It is impossible to square this explanation with the fact that the Six Counties were seething with the fiercest resentment against Great Britain for her betrayal of the Orange cause. The British National Anthem was barred; the toast of the King was ostentatiously omitted at public dinners attended by members of the Northern Government; England and all things English were damned with a heartiness that few uncompromising Republicans could equal. Had it been possible for the rest of Ireland to take advantage of this mood, not only could differences with the Six Counties have been amicably adjusted, but the worst of the stumbling-blocks that bar the path towards Irish unity might have been rolled away.
Unfortunately the golden chance was not seized, owing to the fact that we were more absorbed in bickering amongst ourselves than in utilising the opportunity to win the Ulster majority by persuasion. And as our differences deepened into antagonisms that threatened to wreck all the gains that had been secured, Ulster stalwarts, taking heart, decided that it might still be possible to make English influence a factor in their game. I have discussed the question with scores of Orangemen, and all of them without exception admitted that the Irish people, by accepting the Treaty and thus placing themselves in a position to secure English neutrality in Irish quarrels, would soon be able to force the North to enter into a working arrangement which, whatever formula might be adopted, would mean in practice co-operation in all essential things. Orange opponents of the Pact based their hopes on the rejection of the Treaty. In their view England in this event, instead of declaring immediate war, would allow a state of affairs to develop in the Six Counties which must provoke an attack from the South in the interests of Northern Catholics; and would then take the field, protesting to the world that she was acting not as an aggressor but as the champion of a weak Government assailed by a powerful neighbour. Should the Treaty party secure a majority and set up an Administration, Orangemen argue that Republican opposition will be pushed to such extremes that the Northern area will not only be strong enough to hold its own, but by taking advantage of the paralysis brought about by the conflict of factions in the South may succeed with luck in imposing its will upon them.
I doubt if Sir James Craig, in spite of his speeches, seriously entertains the view that English aid, however liberally given, would end the trouble in his enclave. The business men whose pressure led to the conclusion of the first agreement with Mr. Collins had even fewer illusions. They saw that, while with English aid they might in the long run succeed in smashing the South, the economic ruin of the Northern industries would be completed before the struggle came to an end. Fear of this disaster was strong enough to induce them to make terms; but having made them, inability to control their own extremists led them to play fast and loose with their honourable obligations. With the object of keeping the mob on his hands, Sir James Craig took an early opportunity of picking a quarrel with Mr. Collins on the border question. The idea of some of his principal supporters was to use this dispute as a proof that no real surrender would be made, while at the same time they insisted in private to Northerners who desired peace that the other clauses of the Pact remained intact. Unfortunately nothing was done to keep in check Orange extremists, who acted as if the terms of the agreement had never been signed. After a few weeks' peace sniping and bombing were resumed as vigorously as ever in the streets of Belfast, and provocative raids and arrests by Specials in the border districts produced, as those who authorised them knew they would produce, counter-raids on a formidable scale. Instead of the security for which Sir James Craig had manoeuvred, he found himself confronted with a border crisis that threatened to develop into open war, while anarchy reigned supreme in Belfast. The terrible massacre of the MacMahon family startled even rampant Orangemen into sanity for a moment, and the decision to reopen negotiations with the Provisional Government was received in the Six Counties with general relief as the only way of ending an intolerable situation.
Had the London Agreement which was signed at the end of March been honestly enforced it would have gone far to modify, if not to eliminate, dangerous friction between North and South. By it the Six Counties admitted for the first time that their interests demanded peace not only inside their own enclave, but throughout the whole of Ireland. Even the most embittered Orangeman no longer denied that the plan of cutting the Six Counties out of Ireland, which was the beginning and end of Carsonite policy, had failed. He might prefer political union with Great Britain, but events were steadily forcing him to recognise that his economic interests made it imperative that he should secure a working arrangement with the rest of Ireland. Obviously the framing of such an arrangement would require no small measure of diplomatic tact and skill, and before diplomacy could get to work it was essential that a new atmosphere should be created. The London Agreement held out the hope of creating such an atmosphere. Applied with goodwill on both sides, it could not fail to weaken prejudices and dissipate suspicions, and by providing common ground upon which both parties could meet it might have aided in establishing an understanding upon larger issues than those expressly dealt with in the document.
These high hopes were not destined to be realised. As too often in Irish history, the desire of making capital for a political party was permitted to run counter to the real interests and needs of the nation. It is not necessary to attribute bad faith or lack of patriotism to those on both sides of the border who set themselves to make the London Agreement a scrap of paper. But it was a piece of sheer bad luck that the signing of the Pact should have coincided with the most violent and critical phase of the campaign against the Treaty. A section of the I.R.A. led by Mr. Roderick O'Connor had repudiated the authority of the Dail; and Mr. de Valera had announced that the political aims of the heads of these forces were, so far as he knew, identical with his own. On the day following the publication of the peace terms concluded between Sir James Craig and Mr. Collins and Mr. Griffith, Mr. O'Connor and his colleagues took the extreme step of renewing the Belfast boycott in defiance of the London Agreement and of the specific decree of Dail Eireann. Nor was the declaration confined to a gesture. Trains from the North were held up and large quantities of goods destroyed; Belfast commercial travellers were ordered back to their own territory; shopkeepers and merchants who had given orders to Northern distributors were fined; Belfast firms outside the Six Counties were compelled to close down; threats were made of billeting Catholic refugees upon Southern Protestants. It would be demanding altogether too much from a politician in so difficult a plight as that of Sir James Craig to expect that he would not take the fullest possible advantage of this lamentable state of affairs. He did not actually decline to fulfil his obligations under the Agreement; but where he had reason to fear opposition from his die-hards he relied upon the activities of the anti-Treatyites as a complete excuse for his failure to enforce the terms of the Pact.
The inevitable result has been that conditions in the Six Counties are going steadily from bad to worse. Anarchy in Belfast does not, as some short-sighted people appear to imagine, merely concern Belfast. Apart from the fact that Catholics are the heaviest sufferers, the ruin of Ireland's greatest commercial centre is a matter which affects all Irishmen. Even if it were possible, and no one seriously believes it is, to restore peace by turning the city into a desert, the country could not afford to pay the price either in a material or a spiritual sense. T. M. Kettle once described the conflict between England and Ireland as "the tragedy of two fools"; should North and South, in despair of a reasonable solution of their differences, batter one another to pieces in a frenzied fight for supremacy, the outside world will dismiss the horror as "the tragedy of two lunatics."
Supporters of the Treaty, it is argued, acknowledge the right of the Six Counties to secede, and therefore endorse the principle of Partition. Have opponents of the Treaty an Ulster policy which will enable us to get round the hard fact that there is a Northern Government in being backed by formidable armed forces, and commanding inside its own enclave the support of a strong majority who, whatever their other defects may be, are admittedly not of a strain that submits easily to coercion? I can find no trace of such a policy in the utterances of these critics. Conceivably a military campaign on a large scale might after prolonged fighting break the resistance of the Northern Unionists. Ireland has neither the men nor the money for such adventures; and even if she had, the most lavish expenditure of blood and treasure would be of little benefit to the minority in the Six Counties.
A declaration of open war inevitably means that such checks as now restrain the activities of the pogromists will be abolished, with results that no man who possesses a spark of humanity can contemplate without a shudder. If it is a national duty to end the persecution of Northern Catholics, it is a still more imperative duty to ensure that a course shall not be adopted which could hardly fail to make persecution take the form of wholesale expulsion and massacre. On this question the views of the Ulster minority cannot be disregarded. They were prepared to accept the London Agreement as a working arrangement, and the repudiation of this Agreement by certain elements in the South was made not merely without their sanction but in defiance of their opinion. They saw clearly from the first that professed champions who sought to exploit their sufferings for party purposes, instead of extending a helping hand, were in reality putting a knife to their throat. As I have shown, every attempt since the Irish Truce was signed last July to establish better relations inside the Six Counties has broken down, less because there is any insuperable difficulty in composing differences between Protestants and Catholics, than because the furious political controversies that have distracted the rest of Ireland played directly into the hands of the relatively small band of Orange extremists who are determined, if they can manage it, that there shall be no peace north of the Boyne.
It is arguable that to make a pact with the Northern Government is to recognise the principle of Partition. But it is a much more important political fact that the setting-up of the Northern Government and the application of Partition in practice have been the strongest influences in revealing to Belfast politicians the hopeless inadequacy of their cherished shibboleth. So long as Partition was a war-cry Ulster Unionists were prepared to die in the last ditch rather than consent to any modification of the principle; once it became a concrete fact affecting their concerns at every turn the process of disillusionment speedily set in. A year ago Sir James Craig scarcely ventured to breathe in a whisper the possibility that it might be necessary to have certain dealings with the rest of Ireland, and insisted that no transactions of the kind could take place until the South donned the white sheet of repentance and sued meekly for favour as an undeserving suppliant. To-day Sir James Craig's Minister for Labour is pleading earnestly with the Provisional Government that political friction ought not to be permitted to interfere with co-operation upon economic issues. It adds another to the paradoxes of Irish politics that just as the logic of events is opening the eyes of its former devotees to the drawbacks of Partition, some Irishmen are endeavouring to impose a policy the inevitable effect of which would be to compel the majority in the Six Counties to remain Partitionists in spite of themselves.
JAMES WINDER GOOD.