Another War In Europe? The Controversy Of A United Ireland And The Potential For Violence Parallels The Threat Of War Between Catholics And Protestants In Ireland Right Before The First World War

By Theodore Shoebat

The story of Britain leaving the EU is the story that is garnering the most intense attention in Europe, and with this there is the focus on the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and the possibility that the two might, in the coming years, unite. Such an aspiration is to the hopes of many an Irish Catholic but to the dread of every loyalist in Ulster who wants to remain in the grips of the Crown. Thus, it is (rightfully) feared that an attempt to unite the north and south would spark sectarian bloodshed. One observation that nobody is making is how the prospect of violence in Ireland that we are hearing about today parallels the prospect of violence between the Catholic Irish nationalists and the Protestant loyalists that was resounding in Great Britain right before the outbreak of the First World War.

Talk about a united Ireland just got intensified with the recent success for the Irish nationalist party, Sinn Fein, in Ireland’s General Election. While Sinn Fein gained a lot of popularity for its economic policy, the objective for which the party was created is the reunification of Ireland, merging together Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The manifesto of Sinn Fein specifically reads:

“Our core political objective is to achieve Irish Unity and the referendum on Unity which is the means to secure this”

Sinn Fein wants to have a referendum for Irish unification by 2025, which is interesting because this is the very year that Germany has designated for its “Powerful Bundeswehr 2025” plan for the restrengthening of its military. It is possible that the calling for a united Ireland could presage another conflict within the heart of Europe man against man, neighbor against neighbor (Isaiah 3:5) — just as it did before the Great War. 

Lets get into some of the details on Sinn Fein, the potential consequences of a united Ireland and the parallels between today and the controversy of Ireland in the eve of the First World War.

There is currently a shift to nationalism in Ireland, just as there was intense Irish nationalism before World War One. At one point, Sinn Fein was not a popular party. In 1957, Sinn Fein won only 4 seats in the general election. In 1961 it won no seats. In 1987, it won only 1.9% of the first-preference vote; in 1989, 1.2%; in 1992, 1.6%. Irish voters had no interest in electing a party that was the political wing of a terrorist organization, the IRA. In 1997, Sinn Féin won 2.6% of the vote and got its first MP, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, elected to the Dáil. In 2002, the vote for Sinn Fein increased to 6.5%, getting the party five seats. The party gradually rose to substantial popularity. In 2007 it got 6.9% of the vote, and in 2011 it took 9.9% and in 2016 it received 13.8%, obtaining 23 seats. In 2019, Sinn Fein got 24.5% of the vote, taking 37 seats (out of 160). It got the same amount of seats in the 2020 general election. While it has had moments of popularity, Sinn Fein was once considered fringe since it was partners with the IRA (the Irish Republican Army), a terrorist organization that murdered people with guns and bombs. But now the political atmosphere has changed. 

While reunification unto itself is not an evil idea, trying to put back together a country that split up through violence would potentially bring back past rage and spark bloodshed. What has revived the discussion on a reunited Ireland is Brexit. While Brexit was not something talked about by Sinn Fein politicians, it is the obvious reality that Brexit would bring about such discourse.

The UK is leaving the EU; Ireland is not under the UK but is part of the European Union, while Northern Ireland is under the UK but will still be under EU trade rules. Products entering Ireland through Britain could face EU tariffs (depending on whether or not the EU and the UK can negotiate a no-tariff deal). Nonetheless, the plan is that Northern Ireland, while still being under the UK, will be also still be under EU trade policy, which means that shipments between the rest of Britain and Northern Ireland will still be subject to EU checks just as it so between the EU and other non-EU countries.

Checks on shipments from Northern Ireland to the rest of Britain will be less burdensome than exports from the rest of the UK into Northern Ireland. But there will be, supposedly, no checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. This could actually bring Ireland and Northern Ireland closer together economically since the two don’t have to worry about checks when trading amongst themselves, thus making the idea of a united Ireland more appealing and possible.

But, if there ever is a hard border (an idea that Brexiters have repeatedly denied will materialize), and there is no longer any free trade between the Republic and Northern Ireland, then Northern Ireland will suffer economically since both countries’ economies have operated on an all-Ireland basis and a hard border would impede this. If the two Irelands are ever put in this position, it would make the idea of a united Ireland more attractive.

Regardless, the idea of a united Ireland has garnered much attention. The Economist, a publication based in London, recently put out an article that reads that a united Ireland is becoming far more likely and it is “time to start thinking about what it might mean.” The same article says: “Until today, however, unification has never been more than a Republican fantasy,” and  that Sinn Fein’s success in Ireland’s recent general election “is just the latest reason to think that a united Ireland within a decade or so is a real—and growing—possibility.”

Northern Ireland is essentially split between loyalists and people who want a united Ireland. According to Martin Kettle, the divide is 52% for unification and 48% for loyalty to the UK. If the aspiration of unity gets undertaken, that means that pretty much half of the country — ardently pro-British and viciously anti-Irish unification — would be forced to be under a government they despise. The prospect of violence is very real in this potential situation. To quote Kettle: “Will [Boris] Johnson force the 48% into the republic? The likelihood of violence from either loyalists or dissident republicans would be very high, depending on the course he chose.”

There are numerous loyalist paramilitary groups in Ulster and most of their members are young men from poor neighborhoods. The three main paramilitaries today are the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF; founded in 1966) the Red Hand Defenders and the Orange Volunteers, who were both founded in 1998, although authorities believe that these groups are simply a continuation of the historical Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF; founded in 1966) and Ulster Defence Association (UDA; founded in 1971).

While there is nothing wrong with uniting countries together, the problem with this idea is that Northern Ireland is too polarized between people who want a united Ireland and those who want Northern Ireland’s Protestant province (known as Ulster) to cling unto the crown of the United Kingdom. These intense sentiments are historical. In 1916 an uprising for Irish independence from Britain was sparked and led by Michael Collins. In 1920 the British decided to divide Ireland and the traditionally Catholic Republic of Ireland was formed. The six northern, Protestant majority, Ulster counties, remained under the United Kingdom as Northern Ireland.

The Catholics in Northern Ireland faced discrimination to this day and many of them want a united Ireland, something that would most probably spark violence from the loyalists, since from 1969 to 1998 there was a series of violence that led to almost 3,500 deaths, a moribund period known as the Troubles. Almost 30% of the deaths were done by loyalists and yet they received much less media attention than the violence caused by the IRA. In fact, the deadliest attack in the Troubles was done when loyalists did a series of coordinated bomb attacks in Dublin and Monaghan (both in Ireland) that massacred 34 people (including a full-term unborn baby) and injured almost 300 people.

Following a 1916 uprising and years of guerrilla war led by the legendary Irish nationalist Michael Collins, the British government decided in 1920 to divide Ireland, which it had ruled as a colony for centuries. An independent state, the Republic of Ireland, was created in the island’s predominantly Catholic south, and the six Ulster counties in the north, with a Protestant majority, remained part of the United Kingdom. The conflict is both political and religious: Many Catholic “republicans” in Ulster have complained of being treated as second-class citizens, and they seek to unite Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland, but most Protestants want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom. Over 3,600 people on both sides died from the time the Troubles began in 1968 to its end through the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. From 1968 to 1998, an estimated 864 civilians (most of them Catholic) were killed by Loyalist paramilitaries; while 728 civilians (most of them Protestant) were killed by the IRA. The IRA was also responsible for the murder of over one thousand British security officers. To say that a united Ireland would be benign is really understating the potential dangers of this political factionalism.

There is a very interesting parallel to be made between our own times and 1913, the year before the outbreak of the First World War. Right now the biggest thing in Britain is Brexit, and in tandem to this is the Northern Irish and united Ireland controversy, and in 1913, Britain’s biggest problem was the Irish pursuit for Home Rule and the resistance to this from the Protestant unionists of Ulster. Ireland was split between the southern Catholic majority who had been seeking for a parliament in Dublin and independence for the past 50 years and the Ulster Protestants who deemed Irish Home Rule as a Papal plot. (See Emmerson, 1913, London, p. 17). It was the most divisive issue for Britain in 1913, so much so that the idea of Home was met by armed men in the streets of Ulster whose hearts were beating with loyalty to the Crown. (Ibid, p. 357).

In the eve of the First World War, nationalism was throughout Europe, and its indications were seen in Britain when the Irish were pushing for independence or for autonomy — in a movement that threatened to fragment the union of Great Britain — and the Protestants in Ulster were prepared to take up arms to fight their Catholic enemies. (See Fromkin, Europe’s Last Summer, ch. 3, p. 23).

On June 30th of 1914, just almost a month before the outbreak of the Great War, the Times published an article that affirmed that the United Kingdom might implode into a civil war in order to direct the future of Ireland. (Ibid, p. 140) But, something happened which postponed the fighting and, temporarily, united the southern and northern Irish, the First World War. On August 3rd of 1914, John Redmond, the main leader of the Irish nationalists, declared that the government “might tomorrow withdraw every one of their troops from Ireland” because “the armed Nationalist Catholics in the South would be only too glad to join arms with the armed Protestant Ulsterman in the North” to defend the shores of Great Britain. (Ibid, ch. 41, p. 248). Winston Churchill captured the atmosphere of the times when describing how the Austrian threat of invasion to Serbia in the form of an ultimatum disrupted the cacophony being heard from Ireland:

“The discussion had reached its inconclusive end, and the Cabinet was about to separate, when the quiet grave tones of Sir Edward Grey’s voice were heard reading a document which had just been brought to him from the Foreign Office. It was the Austrian note to Serbia. He had been reading or speaking for several minutes before I could disengage my mind from the tedious and bewildering debate which had just closed. …This note was clearly an ultimatum, but was an ultimatum such as had never been penned in modern times. As the reading proceeded it seemed absolutely impossible that any State in the world could accept it, or that any acceptance, however abject, would satisfy the aggressor. The parishes of Fermanagh and Tyrone faded back into the mists and squalls of Ireland, and a strange light began … to fall upon the map of Europe.” (Ibid, ch. 30, pp. 187-188)

Overall, regardless of what happens in Ireland or Northern Ireland, what we can say is that we are living in a period of conditioning for another zeitgeist of nationalism and socialism (just as it was in the eve of the Great War); through having conversations about political shifts to things that would once be considered taboo, we are today in a global stage of transition into accepting such dangerous ideas.

This conditioning is being done, initially, through conversation and propaganda that, at first, grabs the attention of a few and gradually garners the support of many. Some tragedy arrives and people begin to look to alternatives, to ideas that would normally be deemed as insidious, and to this they see a solution. We are subjects to paradigms, and once the edges of those frameworks are widened, and we are open to accepting forbidden — but yet dangerous — ideologies, we will accept them. At first we may say that we disagree with the bad aspects of the idea, and only accept it for the advancement of the good. But when the bad parts are brought to light, we will either defend them, or reduce them to harmlessness or irrelevancy. Nonetheless, we will accept the evil. The masses, reclining within the comfort of their Overton window, will accept the enacting and inculcation of the sinister ideology with pure callousness, simply because it has been conditioned.