I have always been fascinated with political geography, the foundation, rise and fall of states and the shifting borders of continental politics. I excelled at history at secondary school, the changing dynamics of borders and nations and empires throughout the 20th Century had me gripped; all those satellite states and self proclaimed and seldom recognised republics and nations fascinated me. Places like the Rhineland, Transnistria, The Gaza Strip. In the global scheme of things, Northern Ireland is another state that has fascinated me by way of it’s foundation, it’s borders and the roads never travelled that could have either ended the Troubles earlier or plunged Ireland into a second, bloodier civil war.
One of the most radical proposals that has always spurred my interest was that of former Prime Minister Harold Wilson who envisaged a plan to cut all ties between GB and NI and allow The 6 counties to become an independent dominion, like Canada, but without Commonwealth membership. Could this have worked back in the 70s? Well the short answer is no, and this I’ll thought out attempt to end the Troubles at their peak would have undoubtedly left Northern Ireland in a state of bloody chaos that would have threatened it’s southern neighbour and been a much earlier run of the ethnic and sectarian civil war that engulfed the Balkans in the mid 90s.
The idea of Northern Irish independence (or Ulster Nationalism) is not one of Harold Wilson’s making. The notion of an independent Stormont Government has it’s roots as early as 1946 when WF McCoy, UUP Member of the Northern Irish Parliament (NI had a ‘functioning’ parliament with 52 MPs, a Senate and a Prime Minister from 1921 to 1972) became concerned that the British Government could easily vote NI out of existence and hand it over to Ireland unless safeguards were put in place.
His proposals were that NI become a Royal Dominion with an independent Government, free from the machinations of a British Government that he did not fully trust. McCoy’s ideas, as history dictates, we’re rejected by the majority of Unionists and the movement never gained any momentum. It wasn’t until 1972 that the idea would come back to the surface when the Ulster Vanguard movement, led by William Craig, published their booklet ‘Ulster – A Nation’ in April of that year. The document heavily criticised the imposition of Direct Rule on Northern Ireland whilst also opposing any idea of power sharing or devolution with Republicans and Nationalists. In September of ’72 the Ulster Vanguard proposed a restoration of the NI Parliament and a Bill of Rights to safeguard minorities whilst also advocating the ‘extermination’ of the IRA.
As time moved on and the political situation changed, these policies faded away and so did the Ulster Vanguard by February of 1978. It was after this that the links between Ulster Nationalism and Loyalist Paramilitaries became stronger. The 1974 Ulster Worker’s Council strike brought about the collapse of the short lived power sharing executive and Harold Wilson began fishing for other alternatives. In documents released in 2005, Harold Wilson informed only his most trusted and senior Cabinet secretaries and advisors of his ambitions to exclude NI from the UK and enable it to become an independent nation, retaining the Queen as head of state but with no political oversight from Westminster. At a time of political crisis, Wilson was desperate to come up with a solution (no matter how radical) to end the conflict in the province. Wilson’s instructions began:
“All this affects the drafting of any Doomsday scenario. In Doomsday terms – which means withdrawal – I should like this scenario to be considered. It is not the only one by any means and it is open to nearly all the objections set out: … outbreak of violence and bloodshed, possible unacceptability to moderate Catholics, ditto to the Republic, the United Nations and the possible spread of trouble across the water – to name but a few.”
“What I would envisage… when we decided that Doomsday was in sight, we should proceed to prepare a plan for dominion status for Northern Ireland. This would still mean that the Ulstermen were subjects of the Queen. “It would have to be negotiated with all parties and if it were in the next four months, say… It would mean the transfer of sovereignty from Westminister. Dominion status would not, of course, carry guaranteed entry into the Commonwealth. I would think this … most unlikely and so would membership of the United Nations.
“All the UK government functions… in Northern Ireland would be transferred to the new authority. As regards finance, I would imagine the right thing would be tapering off over a period of three to five years.”
The likely outcome, as Wilson’s own advisors admitted, was an explosion of violence in Northern Ireland that would spill across the border into the Republic of Ireland and even into mainland GB itself. A sectarian war between the Northern Irish state, the IRA and Loyalist paramilitaries was a guaranteed outcome. Wilson even floated the idea to the SDLP which horrified them. John Hume went so far as to suggest that if Loyalists gained power over an independent NI, they would be able to change the constitution and effectively manufacture an apartheid state between a Protestant ruling majority and a Catholic minority. The idea quickly perished and Wilson’s Government collapsed shortly after.
The documents and proposals were never released to the media until 2005. The Irish Government at the time also opposed the idea as they had concerns that without British military intervention their 12,000 strong defence force would be unable to contain the spread of violence. They believed that any increase in defence or military spending in the Republic would also be seen by Loyalists as aggression who would do likewise, possibly leading to a devastating war between North and South. Nearly ten years later in 1986 the The Ulster Movement for Self-Determination was formed.
They envisioned an independent Ulster with the 6 counties of Northern Ireland along with the 3 counties of Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal that were in the Republic of Ireland’s jurisdiction. In 1988, post Anglo-Irish Agreement, the NI secessionists had a revival in the form of the Ulster Clubs’ Ulster Independence Committee which in turn became the Ulster Independence Movement (UIM). After the 1990 by-election in Upper Bann in which the UIM candidate Hugh Ross gained 1,534 votes (4.3%) they began campaigning earnest to see their vision for an Independent Ulster become a reality and they absorbed the USMD. However without any major backing by any mainstream Loyalist paramilitary grouping or other financial support from other factions of Unionism the USMD effectively vanished by 1994 and the UIM closed up shop by 2000.
A much more sinister plan for Ulster Nationalism was devised by the UDA in January of 1994 with a document proposing an ‘ethnic Protestant homeland’ in Northern Ireland following a long feared British withdrawal from the province. Their plans consisted of redrawing the border of Northern Ireland to include areas that were majority Protestant and ceding the rest to the Republic of Ireland. A horrific proposal to ‘nullify and expel’ the Catholic population living in the new, smaller and Loyalist dominated Northern Ireland was floated.
No doubt euphemisms for sectarian cleansing throughout the new independent state. The new border that the UDA hoped to draw across Northern Ireland was based on the work of Liam Kennedy, author of the 1986 book Two Ulsters; A Case for Repartition. Although Kennedy was reportedly unhappy about the UDA’s use of his work, more hard line elements within Loyalism were not unhappy with these proposals and the idea of ethnic cleansing was seriously considered. The idea eventually faded as the map below shows. The borders would be completely unsustainable and any attempt at ethnic cleansing within a former British territory in it’s own backyard would have far reaching global implications. Only a year later would a similar scenario play out in Bosnia and Kosovo.
Present day politics in Northern Ireland has little or no place for those seeking to establish NI as an independent state, however this may change with the upcoming Scottish independence referendum in September. Should the Scots vote ‘Yes’ to independence then the idea of a United Kingdom will be challenged at a constitutional level. It’s possible that the name UK will no longer apply and the new entity of England, Wales and NI will need a new label. It is then that the conversation, I believe, will turn to federalism as Wales, Northern Ireland and perhaps even Crown Dependencies such as the Isle of Man and Jersey will begin to ask for greater autonomy over fiscal matters and legislative powers.
At present there is no way that an independent Northern Ireland could succeed. Our political establishment can barely agree on the most basic of issues, community relations are at their most volatile in 15 years. We have no natural resources, industry or pool of skilled workers or academic assets that could afford us an advantage on a global stage let alone within the British Isles or Europe. All eyes will be on Scotland in the weeks ahead as no matter what the outcome, the very nature of devolution will be irreversibly impacted and Northern Ireland is no exception.