Tag Archives: Ireland

Ireland’s Protestant Patriots

Irish people who have followed Protestant churches have contributed massively to the cause of Irish self-determination, a historical fact which is all too often dismissed by many nationalists and republicans. Anglicans, Quakers, Presbyterians and others have played a real, meaningful part, in numerous, sometimes conflicting ways, on the journey to nationhood and sovereignty, North and South. It is vitally important for us to crush the misconception that Protestant equates unionist, for this sectarian, divisive attitude has been purposefully cultivated by the British government in the past to serve their selfish interests. Today, we look back on just some of the countless ways Irish Protestants have helped nationalism, both culturally and politically.

Henry Grattan, a Dublin-born adherent to the Church of Ireland, stood in the Irish House of Commons at the end of the eighteenth century and was leader of the Irish Patriot Party from 1775 to the Act of Union in 1801. The party pushed for legislative independence and the lifting of the archaic and discriminatory Penal Laws which hindered the lives of Ireland’s majority Catholic population. Grattan proved to be instrumental in the legal processes of 1782 which saw the rescindment of the infamous Poyning’s Law (Statute of Drogheda): “An Act that no parliament be holden in this land until the Acts be certified into England.” The inter-period of 1782 to the Act of Union became known as ‘Grattan’s Parliament.’ Though Grattan was neither a republican nor a supporter of complete independence, his input was nonetheless significant.

It was around this time that the Society of United Irishmen, a political organisation, was set up by a group of liberals in the Protestant Ascendancy – the restrictive ruling class over Ireland at the time. The organisation initially sought parliamentary reform, but later steered its focus on a more ‘radical’ aim – a democratic, egalitarian Irish republic separate from Britain and its governance. The concessions made by King Louis XVI to the revolutionaries in France, coupled with the remarkable success of the American Revolution, the United Irishmen were inspired to pursue a similar endeavour in Ireland. The organisation strove to see religious and denominational tolerance, reinforced by their staunch support for Catholic emancipation. Although it was set up entirely by Protestants in Belfast, the Society quickly spread across different communities across Ireland and a strong secondary branch was birthed in Dublin. An alliance with the so-called ‘Defenders,’ an agrarian Catholic resistance movement, increased Catholic support. Of the most prominent members of the United Irishmen, Theobald Wolfe Tone and Thomas Russell were Anglican, while Henry Joy McCracken, Samuel Neilson, William Sinclair, William Drennan, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, and James Napper Tandy were Presbyterian.

In 1796, the Society were aided by a fleet of 15,000 French soldiers under the command of General Louis Lazare Hoche; however, a sea storm prevented the effective landing of the troops and they were forced to return to Brittany. Two years later, on 24 May, the rebellion was launched in the region in and around Dublin, but due to last-minute intel delivered to the British by informants, the insurrection was not off to a flying start. The rebellion spread to Co. Antrim under McCracken, and the county was almost entirely rebel-held for a brief duration of time. The United Irishmen were most successful in Co. Wexford, but after the defeat at Vinegar Hill on 21 June, the situation dramatically deteriorated for the republicans. On 22 August, another French fleet arrived – this time consisting of 1,000 soldiers under the command of General Jean-Joseph Amable Humbert – large swathes of Connacht were briefly taken over by the rebels, but were defeated. Two months later, 3,000 French soldiers, alongside Wolfe Tone, attempted to land near Lough Swilly, Co. Donegal but were met by a much larger British Royal Navy squadron and fought for three hours in an event known as the Battle of Tory Island. The French/Irish were defeated and Wolfe Tone was captured. He requested death by firing squad but was denied, so committed suicide by slitting his throat. The United Irishmen gradually disbanded after this and the Act of Union was enacted as a result in 1801, which saw Ireland unified with Britain.

In the eighteenth century, following the Act of Union and dissolution of the Irish parliament, the Protestant Ascendancy experienced an identity crisis and many of whom left Ireland for London. Public opinion shifted after a massacre occurred at Scullabogue, Co. Wexford during the 1798 Rebellion. The atrocity was carried out by Defenders against 100-200 (mostly Protestant) unarmed men, women and children who were perceived as loyal to the crown. The event has rightly gone down in history as a shameful, disheartening one, but the way in which the British government used the massacre to reconvert republican Protestants was a major point in Ireland’s story. Those Protestant Irishmen and Irishwomen of Ulster who rebelled lost the desire to secede, primarily due to sentiments of bitterness and resentment towards Catholics. Many Catholics, on the other hand, harboured parallel feelings towards Protestants. The failed 1803 Rebellion in Dublin was led by a Protestant nationalist named Robert Emmet, who was executed after his capture by British forces.

In the nineteenth century, Anglican Isaac Butt from Co. Donegal founded the Irish Parliamentary Party and campaigned for the reintroduction of an Irish parliament. The party was launched as a moderate one, and towards the end of his political career, Butt was opposed to fellow Protestant and party member Charles Stewart Parnell’s advocacy of obstructionism in the House of Commons. Parnell, his indirect successor, also acted as President of the Irish Land League, which called for an end to landlordism and discrimination of tenants. Parnell’s fortitude and defiance, on top of his alleged impressive oratory skills, provided him with the necessary characteristics to stand up for Ireland’s rights.

Culturally, the contributions of Irish Protestants in the literary revival was profound, the participation of W.B. Yeats from Co. Sligo and Lady Gregory from Co. Galway has undoubtedly changed Irish culture forever. Whereas Protestant nationalist Douglas Hyde from Co. Roscommon, who was fluent in Irish and was affectionately known as ‘An Craobhín Aoibhinn,’ stood at the forefront of the Gaelic revival and was the first leader of the Gaelic League. Hyde was also, notably, the first President of Ireland from 1938-1945. Hyde acts as a perfect example of how Irish is not just a language for Catholics, as is absurdly stated by many unionists today. Protecting and embracing the language is not misusing it as a political weapon, opponents are simply making excuses, and rather ludicrous excuses at that. The feminist activism of Protestant-born suffragette Maud Gonne-MacBride and the integral, indispensable involvement of Countess Constance Georgine Markievicz in the 1916 Easter Rising are also certainly noteworthy.

The ‘divide and conquer’ tactics of the British Empire, no different to what was observed on the Indian subcontinent between Hindus and Muslims, cast a diverging rift between the Christian denominations on this island. It is particularly interesting that most Protestants in the North, if not all, can trace some familial connection or another to rebels and activists who fought for Irish nationhood in the 1798 Rebellion. The rift still exists today, but there is hope that reconciliation and mutual understanding will heal the wounds felt on both sides. We, as Irishmen and Irishwomen, regardless of our faith, have plenty to thank the aforementioned Protestant patriots for. Sectarianism is the detriment to Irish unity and should never be utilised by any sane individual, now is the time to eradicate hate – we are all Irish. Make no mistake, Protestants can very well be nationalists, and influential ones at that.

Ireland Is Yours. Ireland Is Mine. Ireland Is Ours.

On 3 May 1921, the island of Ireland was partitioned into two respective jurisdictions, pursuant of the Government of Ireland Act passed the previous year. Six counties were separated from the remaining twenty-six, a minority was divided from a majority. The fact remains, the breaking up of such a small island, geographically and population-wise, was hardly an act of political or economic genius. However, regardless of whether one thinks partition should have been devised and implemented in the past or not, it is completely reasonable and rational to think partition, in this day and age, should not continue. With two separate tax regimes, two separate legal systems, and two separate and competing economic development programmes, accompanied with trade barriers, partition is inhibiting the growth of our island. A Harvard Club study estimates a united Ireland would see a boost of €36.2 billion in GDP in the first eight years alone. Whereas another independent, unbiased study from the University of British Columbia predicts a GDP boost of up to 1.2% (Irish Times, 2015.) Reunification makes legitimate, sound sense; conversely, partition is largely impractical.

To proclaim the many flaws of the North, whilst maintaining the flawlessness of the South, frankly would be wrong and definitely inaccurate. Unity of our island cannot and will not take place overnight, the process will not be a smooth road with an absence of any potholes. However, that is part of the challenge ahead; a challenge that can be an exciting, invigorating one if we open our hearts and minds to those of differing views. A new, transformed Ireland for everyone is precisely what we, at Sinn Féin, are striving for – things cannot merely stay the same. This process will plainly not succeed if it sees the absorption of the North into a stubborn, blinkered Republic, unable to acknowledge and respect the existence of a unionist population. Those of us here in the twenty-six counties must educate our family members, friends, neighbours and acquaintances alike, a united Ireland is for each and every one of us who call this island our home. That includes those of us of different denominations, religions, skin colours, cultural traditions, health conditions, ages, gender identities or sexual orientations. Ireland is yours. Ireland is mine. Ireland is ours.

The foundations upon which partition was built nearly one hundred years ago, concepts of sectarianism, tribalism and conflicting convictions, should no longer reflect the modern day. Less and less young people in Ireland attend Mass or any other form of Christian service, thus, denominational differences are becoming less and less relevant. Just as nationalism should not equate Catholicism, unionism most certainly should not equate Protestantism. As progressives, we believe in reform and positive advancements in our society; to say Sinn Féin is a party just for Catholic traditionalists is simply not accurate or fair. We stand by inclusivity; divisiveness is not on our agenda and it never will be. A significant proportion of the population in the North are of a distinct denominational and ethnic background; in a united Ireland, the protection of such people must be a high priority. Such people are just as Irish as anyone else and their central place in a new Ireland must be echoed in a nationwide debate on unity. As a component of this, Sinn Féin advocate the passing of a Bill of Rights for all citizens and a new national constitution which will reflect the egalitarian nature of our new, united Republic.

Irish unity is already taking place behind the curtains, slowly but surely. Two years ago, former First Minister Peter Robinson, with the support of his DUP colleagues, made calls to the British government to instate a corporate tax rate of 12.5% in the North (Belfast Telegraph, 2015.) Such a form of fiscal harmonisation with the remainder of Ireland is effectively, in the economic sense, a form of Irish unity. How is it that individuals who have resisted so fervently to the cause of reunification for a century now suddenly support such a move? The answer is surprisingly simplistic. Economically, the six counties are a severe drain on the average UK taxpayer and the deep cracks are steadily beginning to show. With the cost of sustaining the North at a current cost of £20 billion per annum, but with contributions of only £9 billion in taxes each year, the situation is unsustainable (Belfast Telegraph, 2012.) Unionist politicians who possess any kind of competence in financial affairs know that the only solution to this worsening situation is harmonising the North’s economy with the South. However, for the six counties to continue to be propped up, this must come in more than just the form of corporate tax – especially now Brexit is processing in the works. Even if President Donald Trump lowers corporate tax to 15% in the US, it is undeniable that the twenty-six counties is significantly more attractive to the investment of MNCs (as an English-speaking European foothold) than a region with a rate of 24%. Though the UK is not technically a net recipient of EU funding, the North received a multitude of benefits from its membership of the latter. In a time-frame of seven years, the EU funded €3.5 billion to the North – in agricultural projects, a clean urban transport scheme and a reconciliation programme with the border counties in the South (Newsletter, 2016.) In addition to this, farmers and rural communities in the North will suffer as CAP accounts for an estimated 80% of agricultural incomes.

All of the aforementioned benefits are now no longer on the table, which will undoubtedly strike profound damage on the already fragile economic climate in the six counties. Perhaps what is most unsettling about this is the fact the people of the North democratically voted against the UK’s withdrawal from the EU (56%), even though their former First Minister Arlene Foster insisted it was in the North’s best interests (Irish News, 2016.) For the sake of exploring all factors which could potentially realise, the prospect of a so-called ‘hard-border’ ought not to be dismissed. If a ‘hard border’ is established along the boundaries of the two political jurisdictions on our island, then all-Ireland relations could, unfortunately, take a turn for the worst. Although all sides of the divide, including Prime Minister Theresa May and President of the European Council Donald Tusk, do not wish to see this, only time can possibly determine this – with negotiations between the EU and UK rapidly deteriorating. Many Irishmen and Irishwomen, North and South, cross the border each and every day to reach their place of employment, to purchase goods and indeed, for social purposes. A ‘hard border’ does not benefit anyone, it would be economically disastrous. Brexit is tremendously punitive in itself, there is no joy in any such knock on effects. An alternative for the people of the North, to vote in a plebiscite on the question of Irish unity, would be a respectful, credible move for the governments of the UK and the twenty-six counties. Arlene Foster, who no longer wields any political power in the North, has stated that a border poll would be ‘destablising’ for the North in such turbulent times (RTÉ, 2017.) If this is the case, then how can Theresa May and the establishment Tories at Westminster justify calling a general election?

Proposals for a border poll are not radical in nature and cannot be fought off indefinitely. The time to discuss Irish unity is now, not tomorrow or the following day– in spite of what some other, self-proclaimed republicans may say… The people should be given a choice following an informed, reasoned and respectful debate on unity. This is the time for all parties and the Irish government to talk, plan and build for unity. Particularly now given the all-clear from the EU that the North could automatically rejoin the organisation by unifying with the twenty-six counties. Change, much like a stream, can only be halted temporarily before the current overpowers you and takes you along with it.

Sources:

Unification of Ireland reports by Harvard Club and University of British Columbia: http://www.irishtimes.com/business/economy/unification-of-ireland-could-bring-in-36-5bn-in-eight-years-1.2435505

Peter Robinson and DUP support fiscal harmonisation with the Republic: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/northern-ireland-corporation-tax-rate-to-be-125-says-peter-robinson-in-west-belfast-31028408.html

Tax consultant warns of the North’s impending economic ‘meltdown’: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/business/news/top-expert-warns-northern-ireland-economy-is-facing-meltdown-28779242.html

How the North benefitted from EU funding: http://www.newsletter.co.uk/news/business/where-do-eu-grants-to-northern-ireland-go-1-7233873

Former First Minister Arlene Foster throws support behind Brexit: http://www.irishnews.com/news/2016/02/22/news/eu-referendum-arlene-foster-joins-theresa-villiers-on-brexit-425429/

Former First Minister calls the prospect of a border poll ‘destabilising’: https://www.rte.ie/news/ulster/2017/0505/872798-border-poll/