Belfast Telegraph

Ulster Covenant: Colliding ambitions could be compared with those in Europe

It didn't occur to either loyalists or nationalists in 1912 that their colliding ambitions could be compared with those festering in Europe, says Jonathan Bardon

What the dramatic events of the year 1912 proved was that Ulster was dangerously fractured, bitterly divided to a degree quite beyond the experience of any other region in the United Kingdom.

Here religious allegiances and political aspirations were so diametrically opposed that finding a compromise solution seemed a near impossible task.

It was widely assumed across the Irish Sea that the ‘Ulster Problem’ was unique, quite without parallel in the rest of Europe. But was it? Actually in 1912 many places could be found on the European mainland with inhabitants fiercely divided by clashing aspirations in a similar way. Nowhere was this more evident than in the Balkans. There, many uncomfortable parallels could be drawn with Ulster as the Home Rule Crisis exposed heightened intercommunal tensions in the north of Ireland to the gaze of the world.

In 1908 Franz Josef, Emperor of Austria-Hungary, had ordered the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, once a province of the now somewhat sickly Turkish Empire. Neighbouring Serbia was outraged: Bosnia was territory considered sacred to its homeland. And why did the Austrian Emperor make this reckless decision, soon to send Europe hurtling down the road to world war? It was to smash South Slav nationalism once and for all.

Modern nationalism had sped along rapidly extending railway lines to engulf every part of Europe by the end of the nineteenth century. It posed a deadly threat to multinational states, in particular to the sprawling dynastic empires of Austria-Hungary, Russia and Turkey in central and eastern Europe. In 1912 dreams of imperial glory were conflicting abrasively with mounting demands for national self-determination.

As modern communications steadily eroded parochial sentiment, the peoples of Europe – the Irish amongst the earliest of them – were discovering their national identity. Poets and other writers, historians, musicians and artists fed a multiplicity of national passions. Every nationality emphasised its individuality and distinctiveness. Some like the Greeks and Romanians had already won their independence. For others, such as the Poles, national self-determination in 1912 seemed but a dream.

The prospect of national liberation revealed a grave difficulty: nationalities were rarely neatly divided from each other. Often impelled by raw and aggressive racism, peoples in their struggle for freedom competed with each other for the same territory. The Czechs laid claim to Slovakia, on the grounds that it was part of the state originally created by King Wenceslas (the one who looked out); but the Magyars also claimed Slovakia as an integral part of the lands of King Stephen, the first Christian monarch of Hungary. Few thought in 1912 of asking the Slovaks what they wanted themselves.

In short, there was hardly a people in 1912 that had obtained national self-determination, or were still campaigning for it, that did not have a minority, within the territory won or claimed, objecting strongly to the majority view. Ireland was no exception to this.

In 1912 a clear majority in the island as a whole backed Home Rule, that is, the setting up of a devolved parliament in Dublin. But in the smaller, predominantly Protestant area of the north-east a clear majority fiercely opposed this: the 471,414 people who signed the Covenant on 28th September, cherishing their position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom, had pledged themselves to use ‘all means which may be found necessary’ to stop Home Rule in its tracks.

Surely those ethnic groups were set apart by language as well as by cultural differences? Certainly this was true almost everywhere, but not in that somewhat obscure province in the Balkans so heedlessly seized by the Austro-Hungarian empire four years earlier.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina the inhabitants were bitterly divided by religious affiliation and cultural traditions. But, just as in Ulster, the people of this Balkan province all spoke the same language. Croats, Serbs and Bosniaks could not be told apart either by looks or by speech. That did not stop each one of them regarding themselves as a very distinct ethnic group. The Catholic Croats regarded themselves as a cut above the Serbs; the Bosnian Serbs, Greek Orthodox in religion, longed to be reunited with their brethren in independent Serbia. And the Bosniaks, Muslim Bosnians, were looked down upon by both Serbs and Croats. Muslim Bosnians were erroneously seen as descendants of Turkish invaders; in fact they too were South Slavs whose forebears had converted to Islam.

Actually the inhabitants of Bosnia-Herzegovina, regardless of religion, had intermarried freely for generations, as had natives and newcomers in Ulster. Of course this was then vigorously denied. And what mattered was that they felt themselves to be different.

Partition was first proposed by a Liberal backbencher in 1912. Westminster politicians desperately seeking a solution to the Home Rule Crisis carefully scrutinised maps of Ireland showing the results of the 1911 census. Little isolated blobs of orange and green were to be found in every one of Ulster’s nine counties. When partition was finally agreed in Whitehall in 1920 it was obvious that even the most skilled cartographer could not draw a frontier which would unite, for example, West Belfast Catholics or the Protestants of Rossnowlagh in south-west Donegal with co-religionists in their preferred jurisdiction.

Peacemakers in Paris after the First World War faced an almost identical problem. Seeking to give force to the principle of national self-determination, they could not avoid marooning great numbers of unhappy minorities. New states emerged from the collapsed empires. Of these only Austria had a fairly homogeneous ethnic composition. It has been estimated that more than 25 million found themselves as national minorities there after 1919. The reality on the European mainland was that, as we have discovered so painfully in Northern Ireland, the only alternative to further conflict and bloodshed was to set about building a shared future.

Jonathan Bardon's The Plantation of Ulster is published by Gill & Macmillan

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