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Irish Irenics

Andrew Boyd on past efforts to bring Ireland's warring factions to the peace table.

Earlier this year Peter Brooke, the British Government's Secretary of State of Northern Ireland, started talks between local Catholic and Protestant politicians in the hope that they would eventually agree to share power in a new regional administration. But the talks had to he abandoned, thus bringing to an end, it would seem, what was the latest in a long line of attempts to reconcile Catholic Nationalists and Protestant Unionists in Ireland and in Northern Ireland.

It is 200 years since William Drennan, writing in October 1791 from Dublin to his sister Martha Mc Tier in Belfast, first mentioned a political society, the Society of United Irishmen, in which members of the established Protestant Church, the Church of Ireland, might combine with Catholics and Presbyterians to promote parliamentary reform and civil rights in Ireland. Drennan, himself a Presbyterian, was disheartened when he saw early signs of the United Irishmen becoming an armed conspiracy, particularly after his own trial for sedition and his acquittal. He would rather have seen the claims of the democrats promoted by propaganda and the lobbying of Irish MPs.

The principles of the United Irishmen and especially the memory of their disastrous rebellion in 1798 have long since been appropriated by the IRA and Sinn Fein, yet there remains to the present day, somewhere deep in the political folklore of Irish Presbyterianism, a lasting respect for the United Irishmen and their vision of an Irish democracy.

One of the many oddities of Irish history is that the green, white and orange tricolour of the Irish Republic, designed by the Fenians in the 1860s, is itself a gesture of conciliation, signifying peace between Green and Orange. That, however, is not how Ulster Unionists interpret the tricolour. They see it as a provocation and a claim by Dublin to the whole island of Ireland, and burn it on their bonfires in July.

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