A brief history of the UK’s brutal colonisation of Ireland, and its troubled aftermath

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After centuries of previous military incursions, the 17th-century conquest of Ireland by Protestant mass murderer Oliver Cromwell made Ireland a British colony. In 1800 it became part of the newly named United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

Several horrific famines and brutally suppressed rebellions later, the Irish Home Rule movement resulted in the the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty. The colony ended and Ireland was partitioned.

The main part of Ireland gained independence as the Irish Free State, and in 1937 was established as Ireland (or Éire). Ireland was officially declared a republic in 1949.

Six counties in the northeast of Ireland chose in 1921 to stay in the UK and became known as Northern Ireland. In 1927, the UK was renamed the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

In Northern Ireland there’s been constant conflict between the mostly Protestant unionist majority and the mostly Catholic republican minority.

The unionists take their name from their claim of loyalty to the United Kingdom.

The indigenous republicans want Northern Ireland to join the Republic of Ireland (officially known as Ireland or Éire) in a united Ireland – a policy known as unification.

It’s important to distinguish between unification (sometimes wrongly called reuinification – Ireland’s never been formally unified, so can’t be reunified) and unionism. It’s not at all confusing. Or Irish.

The Protestant unionists are mostly descendants of English ‘settlers’ who migrated during the 17th-century colonial ‘Plantation of Ulster’.

The Plantation of Ulster reinforced the colonialisation of Ireland. British landowners were given land in the north of Ireland, mostly stolen from the Irish. The new landowners imported English tenants and workers.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, more British settlers came to the north of Ireland from Scotland, forced out by the theft of land known as the Highland clearances.

(Regarding the theft of land by the aristocracy, see my blogpost, The super-rich – law and order.)

Protestant ascendancy in Ireland was consolidated in 1690 by the crucial Battle of the Boyne (fought for control of a ford on the River Boyne near Drogheda, north of Dublin) when the forces of Protestant King William defeated those of the deposed Catholic king, James.

William III, AKA William of Orange (he formerly ruled the Dutch Republic), had recently become king of England and Scotland, deposing James II in the so-called Glorious Revolution.

Having lost the battle, James fled to France. The defeated Irish ‘Jacobites’ were allowed to practice Catholicism if they swore loyalty to William.

In Northern Ireland, the Boyne victory by William – popularly known by his supporters as ‘King Billy’ – is commemorated annually by Protestant unionists with Orange parades.

The parades face opposition from Catholic republicans, who see them as sectarian and triumphalist.

In the 1960s, violent unrest known as the Troubles broke out in Northern Ireland. 30 years of armed conflict between republican and unionist groups and the British army ended in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement, which brought an uneasy but lasting peace.

In 2020, a Northern Ireland opinion poll showed 47% in favour of staying in the UK, and 45% in favour of a united Ireland. (The same poll was run in Ireland: 71% favoured unification.)

On the whole, the rest of the UK couldn’t care less about Northern Ireland – it’s an embarrassing colonial hangover. And NI Protestants, despite their proclaimed ‘loyalism’, couldn’t really care less about the UK – they just want to preserve their postcolonial privileges.

Considering this horrible history, it’d be better and fairer all round if Ireland was unified. Sure, the Protestants would protest, but they’d be fine. They’d be a protected minority – in an EU country, lucky sods.

    Note to Taoiseach: take Northern Ireland – I mean, actually take it, please!

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This post is a footnote from my longform post Brexit and free movement – the east European elephant. The footnote was written in the context of the problematic impact of Brexit on the Irish border. (The solution: unification!)

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