Since the foundation in 1795 of the Royal College of St Patrick (Maynooth College) by parliamentary act, the Catholic hierarchy, with a few notable exceptions, has consistently taken the side of the British in Ireland. This seminary was largely funded by the British government in return for the loyalty of the Catholic hierarchy and clergy. The role of some clergy in the 1798 rebellion, following the revolutionary fervour of the French Revolution, had left the British suspicious of the Catholic Church.
While in the nineteenth century some clergy in their parishes did what they could to alleviate the suffering of their people, especially in the 1840s and 1850s during ‘the time of Starvation’, the Church leaders remained silent about the political repression which resulted in famine, emigration, expulsion and the execution of rebel suspects. When some citizens revolted, the church leaders took the side of ‘law and order’, supporting the unelected government which held Ireland in subjection just like in many other British colonies.
Some might say that the Irish Catholic hierarchy were just naïve, believing that they would benefit financially and politically from such collusion with the British government. However, the alliance with the rich and powerful in Ireland and England was the result of class allegiance. They did not feel a sense of solidarity with the poor and oppressed in their own land. They had not much in common with the ordinary impoverished Catholic people. They were comfortable enough in their big houses. They had no problem being subservient to the British who were the oppressors of their flock.
Throughout our history since the Act of Union in 1800, when the English government seized control of the whole island of Ireland after the 1798 Rebellion, the Irish Catholic bishops have been at pains to assert their loyalty to the English Crown and government. With this attitude they began to feel superior to the ordinary people of Ireland.
After the 1916 Rising the Catholic hierarchy denounced the rebels, as they had done previously during the Fenian Rebellion and other revolts. During the war for Irish independence the bishops, for the most part, took the British side against the brave Irish rebels.
Partition was imposed in 1921 by the British on the people of Ireland against the wishes of the vast majority of Irish citizens. It was a victory for British authoritarianism and Protestant triumphalism. It has caused untold suffering and done great damage to the economic wellbeing of the whole country and to relationships on this island. There is nothing to celebrate one hundred years after Partition was imposed. It was entirely undemocratic and purposefully sectarian.
Within the northern statelet the Catholic/Nationalist working class were denied jobs and houses. Many were forced to emigrate. Their Irish identity was denied and when they showed any signs of resistance they were arrested and punished by the forces of the state—the RUC and the local Protestant militia known as ‘the B-Men’ (Special Constabulary). The resisters were often thrown into jail without a trial or after a mock trial.
Catholics were treated as second-class citizens in the North after the formation of the northern statelet, 1920/1921. Though much has improved and unionist power has been chastened, and though nationalist confidence has increased and our leaders are more assertive, we remain diminished, we remain second-class as long as a British government and parliament can interfere in our affairs and dictate our daily lives—Brexit being just one example of policy being imposed on us. Only with the ending of the union and the establishment of a new political entity consisting of the whole of Ireland, respectful of the civil rights and culture of everyone, will we have peace.
From the first days of Partition hundreds of Catholics were killed by the state forces and their allies to maintain this illegal entity.
The Irish Catholic hierarchy has never opposed this British-enforced settlement which had such dire consequences, especially for the poorer section of the Catholic laity. The leaders of the Catholic Church, to which most Catholics were loyal, never denounced the torture and repression of nationalists—though the hierarchy consistently and vociferously denounced republican violence. Criticising the state was left to a handful of priests, whose work could be tacitly implied as being at the behest of the bishops when it suited; or discredited if it even threatened to suggest the state as being the greater culprit in the conflict.
The religious event to be held in Armagh later this month was rightly shunned by President Michael D. Higgins. A credible poll shows that eighty-one per cent of the people in the south support his decision. They know that there is no way you could have a religious event around Partition that was not politically-charged, indeed tainted, or would not offend and alienate the nationalist and republican population of Ireland.
The West Brit mentality represented by former Fine Gael Taoiseach John Bruton, et al., is clearly alive and well.
There is nothing to celebrate.
The event in Armagh is being given the cover of a religious service of hope and reconciliation. But we know the real dynamic and politics behind such events. Supposedly a reflection, who really believes that the unionist parties regret Partition? They have been busy throughout 2021 trying to celebrate it, but with little or no traction from within the nationalist community. By even attending the Armagh service, nationalist representatives signify legitimacy to the establishment and duration of this sectarian state, legitimacy which can only protract the dissolution of the state which is underway and the beginning of something young, new and just.
Eighty-one per cent in that poll have made it clear that they never will give assent to this failed political entity. At least that is one positive outcome of the proposal to ‘mark’ Partition after one hundred years of sectarianism and conflict.