The commemoration in Belfast of the signing of the Ulster covenant against Irish home rule in 1912 acts to under line just how much has changed in a century. The home rule crisis of 1912-14 brought Britain and Ireland to the brink of civil war. It was only cut short by the outbreak of the First World War.
A Liberal government in London was dependent on Irish nationalist MPs for its majority and had to promise a home rule bill. Support for home rule included the Labour Party and the left in Britain.
The Tories saw any concession to Irish nationalism as a threat to the Empire. They were prepared to fund and help arm its unionist opponents in the North of Ireland – in 1914 their money paid for German rifles just months before London declared war on the Reich.
Earlier, in the 1880s, opposition to an earlier home rule bill had split William Ewart Gladstone’s Liberal Party with its oppoonents walking out and voting it down. In Scotland the Liberals saw decades of electoral dominance swept away with the break away winning every seat in Glasgow. They’d eventually merge with the Tories.
Ireland mattered to British capitalism at the beginning of the last century. It was strategically important in controlling the Atlantic, its aristocracy provided much of the UK officer corps and its economic conscripts much of the army’s cannon fodder while it also provided Britain with food.
The Belfast area was the only area to industrialise (Irish industry was largely destroyed following its union into the UK in 1801), its shipbuilding and engineering depending on imperial markets, Scottish and Lancashire coal and capital from Liverpool and London.
The Unionist leaders in 1912, Edward Carson and James Craig, were part of the UK ruling class. They could draw on the open support of their Tory friends and of the officer corps who in 1914 mutinied when ordered to seize the German rifles.
All of this explains why the Irish question polarised Britain and split its rulers. The assassination in Sarajevo of the Austrian heir and the European war which followed must have seemed a welcome distraction when you add in that they faced the Great Unrest, a mass strike, and the Sufragette agitation.
Partition of Ireland in 1921 seemed to resolve the Irish question. Britain could not defeat the IRA and Sinn Fein and faced too many challenges elsewhere to imperial rule. They’d have probably sacrificed their Unionist chums if Michael Collins had insisted, but he accepted the creation of a gerrymandered six county state.
Britain had kept Belfast and its industries, its ports and its ruling class friends. A good deal? Well almost immediately Northern Ireland’s industries began a remorseless decline and after 1945 it even lost strategic importance.
That was ok while Unionist toffs could run a one party state based on discrimination, poverty and repression. London turned a blind eye.
But in 1968 and 1969 the civil rights movement exploded onto the streets of the north of Ireland, the Unionist regime could not cope and called in British troops. The rest is history. Unionist rule was swept away, the British army could not defeat the Provisional IRA which emerged and British governments with no solution simply contained the situation, cutting it off from domestic politics.
It could do that because unlike in 1912 there was no significant support in Britain for the unionists and its middle class leaders were treated with contempt or humoured. Northern Ireland was an embarrassment and when the Brits and the Provos realised neither could defeat the other the basis was laid for the current “peace process.”
That has resolved little for the ordinary people of the six counties in terms of jobs, services and in addressing the alienation of its population.
Britain is continuing to distance itself from the political slum it created so it can claim “nothing to do with us, mate!”
But, as we mark the centenary of the Ulster covenant what is worth saying is that unionism in Northern Ireland is a decayed force, deserted by its imperial masters.
When the London government, at the very beginning of the peace process, said it had no interests in the north of Ireland it was telling the unionists they had no long term future.