Back in 2014 I wrote about the “Great Betrayal”, the abandonment of an all-Ireland republic, an all-Ireland revolution, and an all-Ireland community through the actions of the Provisionals, the minority Collins-Griffith faction of Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Army, following the signing of the “Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland” in December of 1921. In violation of their oaths as members of the government, parliament and defence forces of the 32 County Republic, in contradiction of its constitution, in contempt of three plebiscite-elections supporting the revolutionary state, the breakaway Pro-Treaty grouping gradually turned on their comrades and friends in pursuit of a policy of appeasement with the rump United Kingdom. A policy which inevitably led to the abandonment of men and women in the north-east of Ireland, in the 6 Counties, who had fought to gain the same freedoms that their fellow citizens would eventually enjoy in the 26 Counties. Despite the partial history that some would espouse, the liberation of the greater part of this island and its population was secured on the streets of Belfast and Derry as much as it was on the streets of Dublin and Cork. The years 1919 to 1921 represent not a Southern Irish War of Independence but simply an Irish War of Independence.
The journalist, Jennifer Hough, touches upon this domestic al-Nakbah in a recent opinion piece for the Irish Examiner, giving voice to a view largely rendered silent by the ideological, quasi-unionist consensus of the Irish press. Pondering on the supposed apathy that exists across the country when it comes to the demand for national reunification, Hough comes upon a memorial in Belfast to one of the seminal events of the anti-Irish pogroms of 1969, the razing of the city’s Bombay Street district:
“I’m ashamed to admit, it was the first time I’d heard of the event in 1969, which saw loyalists burn Catholics out of their homes.
Eight people died during the burning of Bombay St, 750 were injured and more than 2,000 Catholics were left homeless. Standing in that tiny memorial garden, surrounded by the names of civilians killed in their communities, it’s not difficult to understand why people reacted like they did. And indeed walking around West Belfast in general, it is very easy to understand why the IRA flourished — the people felt they had no other support or protection.
It was always easy for us in our largely middle-class trouble-free 26 counties to tut tut at what went on during the Troubles, but if the British army had set up in Galway, Cork, Athlone; if people were burnt out of their homes, do we not think the population in those areas would have responded in a similar fashion? I will freely admit that it felt good to stand with the people of West Belfast on Easter Sunday — and to honour their dead.
That doesn’t mean condoning the bloodshed, but acknowledging it, and the reasons why it happened, not least because a civilian population stood up to discrimination they faced and were met with the might of the British Empire.
It’s likely that calling Bobby Sands a terrorist is not something that would sit easy with most Irish people. If we don’t call Sands a terrorist, then can we call the rest of the people, who fought in what they considered a war, one?
Speaking to ordinary Irish people in Belfast over the weekend, what came across strongly was the feeling of being abandoned by the Republic, not just in the worst of times — but all of the time. They are a proudly Irish people… They look South to us…
One man put it bluntly: “I live in an occupied land.” At first I dismissed what he said as an old-school Republican stance. But as the weekend wore on, the statement niggled at me…
Apart from Sinn Féin, (I am not a member) Irish political parties do not entertain the notion of a united Ireland.
Is it because we’ve so blatantly abandoned our Irish population in the North that we cannot bear to face up to it?
…the Republic, through our apathy, and lack of real understanding about the horrors that Irish people in the North faced, are a stumbling block.
As we wave our tricolours proudly in honour of 1916, that feels very wrong.”
For more on the background of what can be justifiably called our own Nakba in 1921-23, and what could have been if the pro-treaty Provisionals had not abandoned the revolution, see my article on the Battle of Pettigo and Belleek in June and May of 1922, when a united Irish defence forces faced the British occupation forces for the last time.