Ireland: its brutal colonisation and troubled aftermath

A brief history

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Begun 2020 | 950 words | Contents

In the light – or, rather, the Celtic gloom – of the Brexit Irish border problem, a little history is due.

A brief history of Ireland 🔺


Contents: A brief history of Ireland 🔺

Cromwell and the Plantation of Ulster

The Brutish empire

After centuries of previous military incursions, the 1649-53 conquest of Ireland by Protestant mass murderer Oliver Cromwell made Ireland a British colony.

The 1609-52 ‘Plantation of Ulster’ reinforced the colonialisation of Ireland. British landowners acquired land in the north of Ireland, mostly stolen from the Irish under 1652 legislation. The new landowners imported English and Scottish 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.)

In 1800 Ireland became part of the newly named United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

Contents: A brief history of Ireland 🔺

The Battle of the Boyne and Orange parades

King Bully

Following the 1653 conquest of Ireland, the 1689-91 Williamite War consolidated Protestant ascendancy in Ireland.

Protestant William of Orange – he formerly ruled the Dutch Republic – had recently become King William III of England and Scotland, deposing Catholic James II in the so-called Glorious Revolution.

James’s ‘Jacobite’ Irish army, mostly Catholic, hoped to reinstate James and resolve long-standing grievances about land ownership, religion and civic rights.

The crucial 1690 Battle of the Boyne was fought for control of a ford on the River Boyne near Drogheda, north of Dublin. William won.

Having lost the battle and the war, James fled to France. The defeated Jacobites were allowed to practice Catholicism after swearing loyalty to William.

In current-day 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 Catholics and Irish nationalists, who see them as sectarian and triumphalist.

Contents: A brief history of Ireland 🔺

Home Rule and partition

After the rain, the sun – kind of

In 1921, after several horrific famines and brutally suppressed rebellions (including the 1917 Easter Rising, when almost 500 people died and 14 were executed), the Irish Home Rule movement resulted in the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

Ireland ceased to be part of the UK and was partitioned into Ireland and Northern Ireland.

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.

In 1921, six counties in the northeast chose 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.

Contents: A brief history of Ireland 🔺

Northern Ireland: Protestants v Catholics

Proddydogs v cats

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

The unionists – mostly descendants of English and Scottish ‘settlers’ who migrated during the Plantation of Ulster and the Highland clearances – 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 reunification – Ireland’s never been formally unified, so can’t be reunified) and unionism. It’s not at all confusing. Or Irish.

Contents: A brief history of Ireland 🔺

The Troubles and the Good Friday Agreement

War and peace

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 resulted in over 3,000 deaths.

The Troubles ended in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement, which brought an uneasy but lasting peace.

A power-sharing government was set up: the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont in east Belfast. It’s been suspended a number of times. Between 2002 and 2007, Northern Ireland was run from London.

Relations between the two main parties, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the republican Sinn Féin, broke down again in 2017, and the assembly wasn’t restored until 2020. Currently (April 2023), the DUP is vetoing the Assembly in protest against the Brexit NI protocol.

Contents: A brief history of Ireland 🔺

The future

United Ireland

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.

Unification would, of course, also solve the otherwise intractable Brexit Irish border problem.

    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!)