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 colony finally fractured in 1921 when Ireland was partitioned.

The main part of Ireland gained independence and became known as Éire, the Irish name for Ireland. Éire 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 Catholic Republican minority and the mostly Protestant Unionist majority.

The indigenous Republicans want Northern Ireland to join the Republic of Ireland (officially known as Éire or Ireland).

The Unionists claim loyalty to the United Kingdom. They’re mostly descendants of British ‘settlers’ who migrated during the 17th-century colonial ‘Plantation of Ulster’.

The Plantation of Ulster reinforced the conquest of Ireland. British landowners were given land in the north of Ireland, mostly stolen from the Irish. The new landowners imported British 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 Battle of the Boyne, 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.

The decisive battle was fought for control of a ford on the River Boyne near Drogheda in Ireland. James eventually fled to France. His defeated ‘Jacobite’ followers were allowed to practice Catholicism if they swore loyalty to William.

The Boyne victory by William (popularly known by his supporters as King Billy) is still commemorated by Protestants in Northern Ireland with annual Orange parades.

The parades face opposition from Catholics and Irish nationalists, 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 Protestant 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.

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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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