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The First Irexit

Frank Barry writes: Five years from now the Irish state will celebrate the centenary of its exit from the United Kingdom. The struggle to end that political and economic union was characterised not just by bitter debate but by military conflict. The process threatened British democracy itself. The script reads like a nightmarish film treatment of the Brexit process of today.

As in the case of Brexit, Ireland’s leavers and remainers subscribed to very different historical narratives. To “leavers”, the union, and the single market it created, had been responsible for the extensive deindustrialisation of the nineteenth century. To unionists – the “remainers” – it had allowed Ulster to prosper on the back of its globalised linen and shipbuilding industries.

Frequently lost sight of in the nationalist narrative was the number of southern industries that had also prospered under free trade. By the early twentieth century the Guinness brewery at St James’s Gate was the largest in the world. Jacob’s was one of the leading biscuit producers in the United Kingdom of the time. Goulding’s occupied a similar position in fertilisers. Irish whiskey was world renowned. A scion of Denny’s, the leading Irish bacon brand, was responsible for provisioning the British army during the First World War. Hosiery products were widely known as “balbriggans” after the factory in the North County Dublin town of that name. For nationalist “leavers” these successful firms could be confined to the footnotes.

Much is made of the social media “echo chamber” of today, whereby adherents of a particular political outlook interact only with each other. The gulf in early twentieth century Ireland was far wider, because the fault lines between leavers and remainers paralleled the ethno-religious divisions that blight Northern Irish politics to this day.

Nora Robertson, in her memoir of early twentieth century life in an Irish ascendancy family, recalled that the Southern unionist community was led by those “who had never in their lives mixed with educated nationalists”. One of the leaders of Southern unionism, attempting to forge an alliance with Irish Parliamentary Party moderates as independence hove into view, reported that “we liked the nationalists a great deal better than we expected”. Even writing of a period as late as the 1950s, Homan Potterton, a future director of the National Gallery in Dublin, would write of friends that “they were our only neighbours. That is not to say that lots of other people did not live nearby, they did: but as they were Catholic, we did not regard them – no more than they would have regarded us – as neighbours and as for mixing socially as friends, that too was out of the question. We read The Irish Times, they read the Irish Independent or the Irish Press: it was as simple, or as complicated, as that.”

The nationalists could downplay the importance of the successful Southern firms because they were almost exclusively under Anglo-Irish ownership. The whiskey-distilling Powers and the Smithwicks brewing family were among the forgotten minority of Catholic “remainers”. Southern Irish unionists saw themselves as cosmopolitan, as “oases of culture, of uprightness and of fair dealing, in what will otherwise be a desert of dead uniformity, where lofty ideals, whether of social or imperial interest, will be smothered in an atmosphere of superstition, greed and chicanery”. In the language of today, the nationalists were “from somewhere”, the remainers “from anywhere”. Many of the latter were as at home in London as in Dublin.

To Irish advocates of independence, control of trade policy was key. Northern Irish unionists could not countenance even Home Rule in a united Ireland as they felt that it would lead inexorably to independence, and independence would cut them off from their key markets. As in the case of the American civil war, disagreement over trade policy was a key component of the economics of partition. Southern unionists, fearful of the nationalist majority, wanted to retain recourse to a supranational court in London, but this was not to be. Many eventually came to terms with independence as the only way to bring the violence and disorder of the separation to an end.

Since the days of Charles Stewart Parnell, the “leavers” had disrupted proceedings at Westminster. Ulster “loyalists” raised an armed force to prevent Westminster granting Ireland permission to exit. The existential threat to British democracy came when army officers indicated that they might disobey orders to suppress the “loyalist rebels”. Six Ulster counties secured the right to remain; the rest of Ireland exited after a two-year war of independence.

An independent trade policy did not, in the end, free independent Ireland from its trade entanglements with the UK. It was EU entry alongside the United Kingdom in 1973 that finally allowed this to be achieved, to such an extent that there is now little interest in Ireland in following Britain out again.

By a strange coincidence, Theresa May now finds herself dependent on the support of the Democratic Unionist Party as she negotiates UK withdrawal. The DUP is the sole representative in either the Irish or the British parliament of the “remainer” Irish faction of that earlier era.

19/8/2017

Frank Barry is professor of international business and economic development at Trinity College Dublin. These remarks were written in conjunction with the anniversary of the Irish Convention of summer 1917 – Britain’s last-ditch effort to get the various Irish parties to agree on future relations between the two islands.