The Suppression of Nationalist / Republican Councils in the Six Counties

In 1920 25 councils in the six counties were controlled by nationalists, some of which had voted allegiance to the Dáil. Needless to say the unionists were not pleased, especially with the prospect of the boundary commission, so they set about fixing things. Control over the councils was due to be passed to Stormont on 21st December 1921. When Tyrone CC informed Stormont that they would not recognise Stormont and that their allegiance was to the Dáil the RIC seized their offices and their documents.

Stormont then passed an act (Local Govt, Emergency Powers Bill) which permitted:

“the Ministry, in the event of any of the local authorities refusing to function or refusing to carry out the duties imposed on them under the Local Government Acts, can dissolve such authority and in its place appoint a Commission to carry on the duties of such authority” – Dawson Bates

Fermanagh CC passed the following motion on 21st December 1921;

“We, the County Council of Fermanagh, in view of the expressed desire of a large majority of people in this country, do not recognize the partition parliament in Belfast and do hereby direct our secretary to hold no further communications with either Belfast or British local governments, and we pledge our allegiance to Dáil Eireann”

The RIC seized their offices, sacked officials and the County Council was dissolved and replaced by Commissioners. Armagh, Keady and Newry Urban Councils, Downpatrick Town Commissioners, Cookstown, Downpatrick, Kilkeel, Lisnaskea, Strabane, Magherafelt, and Newry 1 & 2 Rural Councils as well as some Boards of Poor Law Guardians were all similarly dissolved and replaced by commissioners by April 1922. Derry remained.

To permanently deal with the problem, for the following local elections, PR was abolished, and all councilors were obliged to swear an oath to the crown. Our friend Dawson Bates then appointed Sir John Leech as the man to redraw boundaries, which he did at a rapid pace often giving locals only one week to make submissions – nationalists tended to boycott this absurdity. The plan worked excellently – after the 1924 local elections only 2 of the eighty councils were nationalist. Gerrymandering went on, Armagh Urban Council (Nationalist) was dissolved in 1934 and was only set back up again in 1946 with new wards and a unionist majority. Over these years Derry was re-jigged on a number of occasions.

Votes were also limited to rate payers, which was worse on catholics. However in 1945 the new Labour government in Britain abolished this restricted franchise and granted universal suffrage – Stormont managed to be excluded from this and they actually went further with their own Representation of the People Bill 1946 and disenfranchised more people by taking votes away from lodgers, who again were disproportionately catholic given the shortage of housing and Unionist control of how houses were allocated. Companies were also given multiple votes, depending on their value – up to six votes to be cast by the company’s directors. The Unionist government were not even subtle about it, their Chief Whip Major L.E Curran stated it was ;

“to prevent Nationalists getting control of the three border counties and Derry City… The best way to prevent the overthrow of the government by the people who have no stake in the country and had not the welfare of the people of Ulster at heart was to disenfranchise them”

Gerrymandering continued right up until 1967 when the local councils in Fermanagh were all amalgamated into one which despite being a majority nationalist county, was dominated by Unionists to the tune of 36 seats to 17.

Councils were very powerful, as well as allocating houses they were major employers. Unionist control ensured jobs for the boys, school bus drivers, manual laborers etc.

Most of what I know is from Michael Farrell’s “Northern Ireland, The Orange State” but I would like to know more, in particular about what councils did in an attempt to prevent this and what they did during the war of independence and before they were all dissolved. A good topic for a thesis I reckon.

Saoirse go Deo  8 October 2013

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9 Responses

  1. Think this needs a relatively long reply…

    The long term impact of this has been a disengagement by nationalists/republicans from electoral processes. If you consider that there has been a recent campaign to convince everyone that even a Catholic majority will not see a vote in favour of a United Ireland. Whether we like it or not, effectively politics comes down a sectarian headcount of sorts as the rise in votes for SF and SDLP has mirrored a rise in the percentage of the population who are recorded as Catholic in the various censuses.
    Recently there has been a spate of organisations presenting polls and surveys that are claimed as evidence that “Catholics” don’t want a United Ireland. These include the Life and Times Survey, which is compromised by its own data on party support which is no where near the level consistently returned at recent elections (if it can’t replicate that, then what value the responses to its other queries). Or the likes of the LucidTalk poll that asked an indirect question about a United Ireland and offered to ‘yes’ answers and one ‘no’ (to show how weighted the question was, it’s others had significantly more detailed questions and nuanced answers balanced equally between yes/no type options). Some polls (BBC or Belfast Telegraph, I think) even claim to show, via a badly written question, that large numbers of SF voters, I think it was given as 17%, don’t want an united Ireland (which seems completely counter-intuitive). What the last poll did seem to hint at, though, is how far some people when tolerate a status quo for the sake of good relations, even if it is not what they actually want. If that poll is correct that 17% group might represent the pragmatic soft core voters of any particular proposition (I realise, I’ve just culled a largely meaningless statistic out of this, but its just to illustrate a point later).
    So, in the absence of gerrymandering, the current project seems to be to continue to disengage people and deter them from voting when given the opportunity.
    At the same time, SF and SDLP have both been captured by a reluctance to be seen to not work the six county institutions to avoid being criticised by unionists (who paradoxically and shamelessly do their best to render the institutions not fit for purpose). Having been hemmed in by the logic of demonstrating an ability to offer leadership that is not as asymmetrical as that offered by unionism, there has been an absence of energy in pursuing active policies that might create the circumstances in which a united Ireland might be achieved. SF have pushed some projects recently, but ultimately, the current policy is largely to grind out a Catholic majority and wait for demographics to deliver.
    There needs to be a reality check for those who advocate a united Ireland and a proper assessment of support for it. One approach would be to ask individual councils to bring forward and vote on a proposition modelled on the lines used by Fermanagh and Tyrone in 1921 (oddly, Churchill’s dreary steeples reference was to the fact that unionists claimed the right to secede and denied Fermanagh and Tyrone the exact same right). This would, in effect, require SF and SDLP to articulate their position here, not probably a problem for SF, but maybe shaky for the SDLP. If councils undertook this vote before the next local elections, it would at least afford voters an opportunity to either endorse or reject the proposal (in their attitude to the parties involved).
    While one possible outcome is a debate about re-partition – I don’t believe that London would have any interest in this. Part of the attraction of any united Ireland project to London is getting its expensively maintained Irish real estate of its exchequer books. It isn’t an accident that, with the economic and social fragmentation created by the border, both north and south has suffered as viable economic entities (the north has never been viable, the south only very sporadically). London pays a hefty, non-returnable subsidy of £8bn-£9bn annually to maintain unionism’s vanity project. I believe a realistic prospect of a majority of voters supporting SF and SDLP would be sufficient or London to position an exit strategy, which would include influencing the news agenda and environment in a way that would hasten a favourable outcome. London no longer has a strategic interest in the north, it is simply stuck with the bills. London is where the real paradigm shift will take place.
    From a mapping point of view, the number of nationalist majority councils (presuming they all pass a resolution) would demonstrate the extent of support for a united Ireland. In some ways, this would be an democratic outworking of Michael Collins post-partition strategy which was to see nationalist areas remain ungovernable from Belfast and making partition pointless (in the hope that the Boundary Commission would scrap it).
    Impetus for a united Ireland project would then bring that 17% pragmatic issue into play. If it becomes more visible that we are entering a transitional phase, those pragmatists close to the middle on the unionists will, at some point, become soft nationalist voters in accepting a new status quo (if they see it as either emerging or imminent). That will be dismissed as idealistic, but it will be dismissed by the same people who are insistent that we accept polls/surveys that claim to show that nationalists behave in that way.
    And as to the most obvious point about it being a divisive strategy? The whole ‘Northern Ireland’ project is divisive. Even in it’s most water-down forms, it requires an artificial and synthetic identity to sustain it. Its kindest, non-partisan face is simply an exhortation to accept the artificial identity and use that as a mechanism to retain the border and the social and economic dislocation that goes with it. Unionism continually and ever more shrilly insists on the primacy of its values and ideology to underscore that dislocation, to a point that has now clearly alienated many of those from backgrounds that traditionally voted for them. In many ways, And I suspect that the Agreements (from Good Friday to St Andrews) are in danger of becoming the new Boundary Commission, in the sense that working (and being seen to be good citizens in working) the Agreement institutions is distracting from the strategic goals that nationalism and republicanism espouse.
    In short, I am suggesting that we can take lessons from the period around 1921 and demand that nationalist and republican councillors take a lesson from the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone and:
    – notify their intent, via a vote at local council, to secede once they are in a majority
    – to do so before the 2014 local elections
    – if successful, to note continued support after the same elections

    I think it is a message London will want to hear.

  2. Is it not strange that I never heard of this? I knew of the carry-on in Derry, but not the rest. London wnat to hear? Why should they now? They don’t really give a toss

  3. […] group-blog “It’s A Political World” has a very good post examining the suppression by the old Unionist regime at Stormont of those local gov… with majority mandates from the Irish Nationalist community during the early and mid 20th century. […]

  4. @ John – Secession of Councils is I think an excellent idea. This and other means of constructive disengagment with the British institutions and re-engagement with the rest of the Island is the way to go for a united Ireland. But I do not agree that the British Government has any interest in giving up control of the 6 counties. 8 billion per annum is a snip for the UK to maintain the priceless geostrategic foothold in Ireland. The seceding Councils should expect be met with as friendly a response as happened in the 1920s and to be ready to continue without permission.

  5. Cass, just on the 8 billion – they say that the north generates around 11/12 billion in tax but spends 20. However I believe that that tax figure is wrong as it doesn’t include things such as council rates.

    The “cost to Britain” is not a factor even worth considering in my opinion, as they have never blinked an eye at spending huge sums of money on keeping the region. At the height of the troubles the PIRA waged an extremely expensive economic war – as well as damaging the local economy (and as a result, tax) the British govt had to compensate business owners or anyone else who suffered a loss due to the war, even for things such as farm animals. They spent huge sums on the British army and security forces. They also propped up, and still do, the economy with huge levels of public employment, over 35%. (slightly lower now). Money was never a factor then, even when Britain was in the pits economically, had the IMF in town and Thatcher was throwing the working class in her own country to the wolves. Why would the cost suddenly be a concern now, when it is far cheaper?

    Most analysis’s of the peace process have, as a pivotal point, the British govts assurances to the provisional republican movement that it had no “selfish strategic or economic” interest in the north. This was all before my time, I was just a child, but how this could be accepted as fact is beyond me when every action Britain had ever taken said otherwise. Of course the British have a selfish interest – even if it is just maintaining her prestige which even now is worth a lot, with perks such as membership of the G8, permanent seat on the UN security council, etc. All these would surely be threatened by a break up of the “United Kingdom”.

    John Mitchel put it well:

    ‘The British empire as it stands, looks vast and strong; but none know so well as the statesmen of that country how intrinsically feeble it is: and how entirely it depends for its existence on prestige.’

    This is leaving aside “geostrategic” and other interests, which Cactus alluded to.

    The significance of swearing allegiance to the Dáil was that it was a revolutionary organ, a revolutionary act. It meant far more than a united Ireland. What would be the point of joining up with our Dáil today, an institute of sham democracy, where decisions are made in secret by a 3 man Economic Management Council and sent to Brussels for approval? As surely as Stormont must go, so must Leinster house and in the event a revolutionary, democratic representative institution is set up then it is to this that declarations of allegiance should be offered. Any discussion of a United Ireland must define, in general terms at least, what form said united Ireland would take. We can see with SF today that a UI to them means the British army gone home, “kinder capitalism” and territorial unification – not good enough for me I am afraid.

    For what its worth, in my opinion, unification will only ever occur in a revolutionary context where the grindstone of the controlling media is ineffective and the grip of the government(s) is shaken and loosened momentarily as everything is in upheaval. Britain won the Long (military) War, why would they lose the Long (political) War, one which they are far better equipped to fight? This talk of councils passing motions sounds good, but I wonder if it is not just an ineffectual act, which gives the illusion of progress.

    • I agree with you Saoirse about the British determination to hold on to Ireland at all costs. In fact, a partitioned Ireland may be even better suited to them in some ways than would be full control of the whole island. It has very effectively reduced the quantum of resistance to their presence here.
      I was replying to this, from John’s comment –

      “Part of the attraction of any united Ireland project to London is getting its expensively maintained Irish real estate of its exchequer books. It isn’t an accident that, with the economic and social fragmentation created by the border, both north and south has suffered as viable economic entities (the north has never been viable, the south only very sporadically). London pays a hefty, non-returnable subsidy of £8bn-£9bn annually to maintain unionism’s vanity project.”

      I agree with you that all the evidence is that the British State intends to hold on here for good. By “geostrategic” I mean the strategic importance (usually to Imperialist powers) of space, in political , economic and military context.

      The GFA was designed to maintain the status quo permanently, with a built in sectarian divide in the political system in the north. It was also designed to create quasi – commonwealth relations and institutions that are drawing the Republic closer into their ambit.

      I agree with John in the sense of Councils and for that matter other bodies and individuals in the north democratically declaring for the Republic. No doubt about it, this would be resisted by plenty in the Republic as well and North and the British Gov and would create a crisis for the pseudo republican parties in the south – more disturbing to the continued occupation by Britain than many of the means that were tried in the Troubles.

      “unification will only ever occur in a revolutionary context” – this is right, as you are right that Britain would never permit a peaceful and democratic transition to a united Ireland and would strenuously (whether openly, covertly or both) oppose secession by Councils. But going foward to do it would expose the entirely phoney claims of democracy attached by the British to the entity of Northern Ireland, an entity that could not exist without gerrymander, and in which it is impossible to elect a secular and united adminstration.

  6. I agree with you Saoirse about the British determination to hold on to Ireland at all costs. In fact, a partitioned Ireland may be even better suited to the British State in some ways than would be full control of the whole island. It has very effectively reduced the quantum of resistance to British presence here.
    I was replying to this, from John’s comment –

    “Part of the attraction of any united Ireland project to London is getting its expensively maintained Irish real estate of its exchequer books. It isn’t an accident that, with the economic and social fragmentation created by the border, both north and south has suffered as viable economic entities (the north has never been viable, the south only very sporadically). London pays a hefty, non-returnable subsidy of £8bn-£9bn annually to maintain unionism’s vanity project.”

    I agree with you that all the evidence is that the British State intends to hold on here for good. By “geostrategic” I mean the strategic importance (usually to Imperialist powers) of space, in political , economic and military context.

    The GFA was designed to maintain the status quo permanently, with a built in sectarian divide in the political system in the north. It was also designed to create quasi – commonwealth relations and institutions that are drawing the Republic closer into their ambit.

    I agree with John in the sense of Councils (and for that matter other bodies and individuals) in the north democratically declaring for the Republic. No doubt about it, this would be resisted by plenty in the Republic as well and North and the British Gov and would create a crisis for the pseudo republican parties in the south – more disturbing to the continued occupation by Britain than many of the means that were tried in the Troubles. It is a tactic to be considered, along with many others.

    “unification will only ever occur in a revolutionary context” – this is right, as you are right that Britain would never permit a peaceful and democratic transition to a united Ireland and would I think violently (whether openly, covertly or both) oppose secession by Councils. But going forward to do it would help to expose the entirely phony claims of democracy attached by the British to the entity of Northern Ireland, an entity that could not exist without gerrymander, and in which it is impossible to elect a secular and united administration.

    The prospect of a united Ireland also depends to a good extent on the political situation in Britain and on support from the British working class. Any situation likely to give rise to it would be one of enormous political upheaval in Ireland and in England, Scotland and Wales.

  7. I don’t see what a long term strategic foothold the six counties provides London anymore. Geopolitically it is irrelevant and, in the event of a positive result in the Scottish indyref, it will be even more expensive to maintain the north. London is merely remaining in its default position as it has not been pushed into reviewing that position.

    London appears to have episodically debated withdrawal, which doesn’t suggest an exceptionalist commitment either. In some ways, a withdrawl would be low-hanging fruit in political terms now as the cartoon unionism that the media reports doesn’t resonate in Britain. And re-directing information policy would be a simple matter of manipulating the media to now push a reunification agenda. I don’t think the broader pro-united Ireland community have signalled sufficient impetus to trigger that sort of thinking in London yet (hence the proposal above).

  8. Reblogged this on de Frémancourt and commented:
    Although not directly related to the main content of my blog, I felt deeply tempted to reblog this, because of its portrayal of how a minority’s political aspiration were suppressed by the use of force. The consequences of this have endured to this day…

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