Brian Feeney: 100 years on, unionists remain powerless pawns of British government

Brian Feeney

Brian Feeney

Historian and political commentator Brian Feeney has been a columnist with The Irish News for three decades. He is a former SDLP councillor in Belfast and co-author of the award-winning book Lost Lives

Taoiseach Micheal Martin attends the 100th anniversary of the handover of Dublin Castle on Sunday January 16, 2022. Photo: Julien Behal
Taoiseach Micheal Martin attends the 100th anniversary of the handover of Dublin Castle on Sunday January 16, 2022. Photo: Julien Behal

The real historic centenary event took place in Dublin Castle on Sunday when the Irish government celebrated the formal handover of the castle by the last Lord Lieutenant in Ireland to the Provisional Government of Ireland led by its chairman Michael Collins.

Yes, unlike the half-assed pig in a poke mish-mash here last year, ‘celebrated’ is the appropriate word.

Sunday’s was a short, simple, colourful ceremony marking a momentous event. Most observers described it as ‘low key’.

One of the reasons for that was that the political antecedents of Taoiseach Micheál Martin rejected the treaty on which the transfer of power was based and by the summer were engaged in a civil war against Collins’s government.

Another reason was that there were no rules or procedures in 1922 to follow or commemorate in 2022 because 1922 was such a momentous occasion. It was the first time the British had ever surrendered a colony, and fittingly, it was England’s first colony – or most of it – they were surrendering. Forty years later the British had become used to being kicked out of places where they had pillaged and despoiled and slaughtered; flags were lowered, salutes were given documents exchanged. In 1922 it was a hole in the corner, concocted peremptory affair.

Nevertheless, a new state emerged because the majority of Irish people had emphatically demonstrated that they wanted to be free and it soon became known as the Irish Free State. Sadly and disastrously, the politico-ethnic minority in the north-east refused to contemplate living on equal terms with the rest of the people in Ireland, rejected freedom, and instead opted for a poisonous political pit of paranoia to which the British consigned them.

The only freedom they had was how they managed that pit they’d been given. They decided over the next fifty years to dig it deeper and intensify its poison and paranoia. In the end, even that self-destructive freedom turned out to be an illusion for it was taken back from them. They still remain powerless pawns of the British government. The events of the last weekend are the perfect illustration.

Without consultation, out of the blue, with a stroke of a pro-consular pen the NIO decided to alter the basis of representation here and therefore voters’ freedom to choose. The most touchingly naïve response came from poor Doug Beattie who bleated: “The fact the NIO is now directly supporting the DUP election campaign means they are not a neutral department.” That comment would make a cat laugh. With one voice his political opponents shouted: “They never were.” Poor Beattie: upright, straight, decent, honest, but politically dense.

As befits a colonial administration with no electoral representation to worry about the NIO has always been duplicitous, secretive, unresponsive and contemptuous. Even the announcement was classic NIO timing; late on Friday afternoon in the hope that it would die over the weekend. The absurd explanation, double jobbing in order to provide stability here, is also typical NIO: the opposite of the truth. They are propping up the only party threatening stability here, including with unlawful actions. Guess which party is the only one supporting the NIO’s ‘cunning plan’?

Everyone knows the NIO’s rotten reputation. In 1985 the Cabinet Office excluded them from negotiations leading to the Anglo-Irish Agreement. In 1996-8 they tried to sabotage the talks leading to the Good Friday Agreement.

Thus there’s the other side of the coin of the consequences of the event that was commemorated on Sunday in Dublin. Unionist leaders used sedition, murder and mayhem to resist the opportunity to join the rest of Ireland’s people for the freedom to be free. Too late, Carson realised he’d been fooled by the Conservative party’s lust for power. Even so, unionists, even poor Beattie, cling forlornly to nurse for fear of something worse.

A century later unionists still prefer humiliation to taking control of their own destiny.