A Difficult Birth: The Early Years of Northern Ireland 1920-25, by Alan F Parkinson, Eastwood Books, 388 pp, €25, ISBN: 978-1838041625
Born in Belfast, Alan Parkinson has spent most of his academic career in England. His historical interests, however, have remained strongly rooted in his home place. In his latest book he has given us a very valuable study of events here one hundred years ago which is authoritative, readable and balanced.
He provides both great detail and strong analysis. He is also willing to make judgements. In his comments on the birth of Northern Ireland, he is critical of the leadership provided by Sir James Craig, as well as of the refusal of the Catholic minority to participate in the workings of the new state, and threats from the South. At the same time, he shows an awareness of the very real difficulties which people faced in the circumstances of the period. National and religious divisions within the North and between North and South presented significant challenges. In these years other states were established in Eastern and Central Europe, such as Poland and Czechoslovakia, which also suffered from such divisions, creating serious majority/minority problems.
In his introduction, Parkinson sets out the context, local, national and international. The chapters that follow are organised chronologically, but within each there is an examination of various themes and issues. He looks at controversial subjects, such as the role of the Ulster Special Constabulary and the impact of the IRA. The influence of sectarianism is analysed. Notorious events from these years, including the McMahon murders and the Altnaveigh murders, are recounted. The parts played by politicians such as Sir James Craig and Joseph Devlin are described. An important section records the recollections of ordinary citizens, including the author’s father, about trying to go about their daily lives at this time.
Violence from one side often led to violence by the other. Although not as badly affected as Dublin or Co Cork, Belfast was the site of the vast majority of fatalities. Parkinson records that the Catholic community suffered disproportionally in this violence, experiencing some 350 deaths in Northern Ireland over the period, June 1920-June 1922, that is more than 60 per cent of total deaths, although they were only a third of the population.
The author rejects the view that this violence can be described as a “pogrom”, the term originally used to describe large scale attacks on Jews in Tsarist Russia. He is critical of the lethargic response of unionist political leaders to the violence but argues that there is little evidence that they planned such outrages. He points out that there were also hundreds of Protestant casualties, as well as serious financial and commercial losses, borne primarily by members of that community. It can be noted that the Catholic population in Belfast was over 2,000 greater in numbers in 1926 than it had been in 1911.
Of course these years witnessed considerable violence in the rest of Ireland. The recent book The Dead of the Irish Revolution, edited by Eunan O’Halpin and Daithi Ó Corráin, records the names of all those 2,346 persons who died as a result of political violence in Ireland between 1917 and December 1921. A table of fatalities by county shows that such deaths in the six counties which became Northern Ireland, although accounting for 28 per cent of the Irish population in 1911, numbered some 15 per cent of the total.
Following the Anglo Irish Treaty, the citizens of the twenty-six counties were deeply divided, not because of partition but due to the failure of the treaty to deliver a republic. The result was a devastating civil war which caused the deaths of over 1,500 people in 1922 and ’23, again much higher than the number, of around 300, who died in Northern Ireland in 1922.
The author draws attention to the tough emergency legislation adopted by the Northern Ireland government in 1922 in response to the IRA campaign but points out that the Irish government adopted even harsher measures against its opponents in the civil war. The Northern special powers act provided for internment and the punishment of flogging on top of a custodial sentence for the possession of arms. Eventually 728, mostly republican, suspects were interned. The emergency legislation of the Southern government included internment and the death penalty for the possession of arms (something the Northern government had considered but rejected). By February 1923 there were 13,000 anti-Treaty republican internees and prisoners. The murder of TD Sean Hales resulted in the Irish government’s summary execution of four anti-Treaty republican prisoners.
Alan Parkinson’s book gives a compelling account of the tragic events of this time, a century ago. Northern Ireland survived these years, as did the Irish Free State. Both indeed have survived to the present, unlike other countries in Europe established in the early 1920s which collapsed a few decades later due to deep divisions and external forces. Their survival is a matter that we can celebrate.
Brian M Walker is professor emeritus of Irish Studies, Queen’s University of Belfast. He is author of Irish History Matters: Politics, Identities and Commemoration in Ireland (History Press).