|British Government contingency plan for the re-partition of Northern Ireland, 1972 (credit BBC News)
Alternative history in the Irish context appears to be a neglected area of literature. There are exceptions of course, notably the fascinating book by Diarmaid Ferriter, entitled What If? Alternative Views of Twentieth Century Ireland. This compilation of intriguing scenarios was a follow on to a short RTE radio series of the same name. Other than this work there has been little written, although there are some interesting online forums focusing on various periods of Irish history. I personally find it strange that more works have not been written, as there are certainly many potential points of divergence during the 20th century alone.
World War Two – multiple PODs
World War Two offers up several intriguing scenarios, most revolving around a possible breach of Eire’s neutrality. Churchill famously made a clandestine offer to Eamonn DeValera during the dark days of 1940. The British PM put forward the tantalising prospect of Irish Unity in exchange for Eire’s entry into the war on the Allied side. DeValera rejected the offer as he did not trust Britain’s commitment to following through on the promise after the war was over, and because the Northern Ireland government had not been consulted.
The potential for a German invasion of Ireland seemed like a real possibility during 1940-41. The Wehrmacht had a plan in place for such an operation and likewise both the Irish and British governments prepared for such a scenario. Interestingly enough, a joint plan was drafted between the two military commands, raising the prospect of Anglo-Irish co-operation in the event of a German landing. Eire’s stance during the war can largely be defined as pro-Allied, however, her wartime history was often ambiguous. For example, in late 1941 the US Ambassador to Ireland, David Gray, privately asked DeValera what he would do if German paratroopers ‘liberated’ the City of Derry. Dev is said to have remained silent for some time before eventually providing a non-committed answer of; ‘I don’t know’. Food for thought indeed...
The Northern Irish Troubles
The most recent ‘Troubles’ of 1969 – 1998 are almost entirely neglected in published alternative history writings. I have some thoughts as to why this is. I think many local historians and authors are put off writing such alternative scenarios when there remain so many unresolved issues within our present-day society. The Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998 but the legacy left by three decades of political violence lingers on, and Northern Irish society is still largely divided, both socially and politically.
At the time of writing this post, the NI power sharing government is on the verge of collapse due to a failure to agree on a budget. Furthermore, the recent Scottish Independence Referendum has led to renewed calls from nationalists and republicans for a Border Poll (i.e. a vote on Northern Ireland leaving the UK and joining up with the Irish Republic). Perhaps for these reasons, alternative history works from the ‘Troubles’ era are rare, but there are several intriguing possible points of divergence. Most of the potential PODs haven’t been fully developed, but there are some interesting (albeit mostly grim) scenarios to consider:
1969 – Irish Army intervention
I recall reading an interesting article in the History Ireland magazine some years ago. The writer imagined an ‘alternative Battle of the Bogside’ which could potentially have taken place in August of 1969. This scenario considered the prospect of an Irish Army intervention during the violence in Derry of that summer (an operation which was briefly considered by Jack Lynch’s government of the time). The article concluded that the more professional Irish Army would defeat the ‘B’ Specials (the pro-Unionist militia of the period) but would have little prospect of success if faced by a regular British Army unit. As it transpired, the Irish Army stayed on their side of the border, and British forces were deployed to Derry and Belfast from the 14th – 15th of August. The rest, as they say, is history...
The Doomsday Scenario & Re-Partition
In recent years a number of previously restricted British government documents have been released to the public under the ‘thirty years rule’. In 1972, the most violent year of the Troubles, a strategy document and accompanying map were developed for consideration in case of a total societal breakdown and civil war. At the time Whitehall considered a re-partition of Northern Ireland into 100% Protestant and 100% Catholic districts...a terrifying prospect for all persons living within the province. Nor was this the end of the matter. Further British government documents were released in 2011 and revealed that Margaret Thatcher considered transferring certain majority Catholic / Nationalist areas to the Republic’s jurisdiction.
The grim prospect of re-partition remained on the cards for years to come and possible plans were even drawn up by leading academics at various times (most notably by Liam Kennedy, author of the 1986 dissertation "Two Ulsters; A Case for Repartition"). As late as 1994 a sinister document was produced by the loyalist paramilitary group, the UDA. This plan called for Catholics living in Protestant districts to be ‘expelled, interned, or nullified’. Thankfully, the IRA and Loyalist ceasefires were declared shortly after this.
1974 – The Year of potential PODs
1974 was a violent but eventful year for Northern Ireland. In the previous year Harold Wilson’s government had brought the moderates on both sides together for peace talks. The result was the Sunningdale Agreement, leading to a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland, with a consultation role for Dublin. Regrettably, the new shared government was short-lived as hard-line Unionists and Loyalists brought the country to a standstill during the Ulster Workers Strike of 1974. These momentous events bring up some interesting possible divergences. Nearly 25 years later, the SDLP politician Seamus Mallon, described the Good Friday Agreement as ‘Sunningdale for slow learners’. One wonders what would have happened if the power sharing government of 1974 had survived and gained more popular support. Would we have enjoyed peace 25 years sooner?
The other alternatives of this year are far less positive. Wilson took the fall of Sunningdale particularly badly and is reported to have considered withdrawing from Northern Ireland altogether. He backed down from this position when it became clear that a British military withdrawal would likely result in a full-scale civil war and loss of life on an unprecedented scale. The Unionist rebellion against Wilson’s government raises yet another interesting possibility. Fringe loyalist factions of the time considered proclaiming a Unilateral Declaration of Independence in response to Westminster’s continued interference.The UDI enthusiasts hoped to follow the example of Ian Smith’s Rhodesia (and probably an independent Northern Ireland would have been as unsuccessful as Smith’s ill-fated Rhodesian experiment). For their part, the Provisional IRA’s propagandists prematurely declared 1974 as ‘The Year of Victory’, although their Army Council secretly prepared a plan for the defence of Catholic districts in case of a Loyalist uprising.
A radical departure?
For this reason I was inspired to explore the possibility of an Ireland directly impacted by the Cold War. I theorised a POD which would result in a Soviet takeover of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, a US protection pact with the Irish Republic, and a militarised Cold War boundary inside Ireland itself. This scenario raises several fascinating ‘what if’ questions. How would the Irish republicans respond to the demise of their traditional British enemy? How would the historical division within Northern Irish society be impacted under the auspices of a totalitarian communist regime (particularly intriguing when one considers the Communist Party’s policies towards ethnic and religious factions within the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia)? And how would the Irish people as a whole react to being pulled into an international conflict not of their own making? I have explored these and other questions in my novel, The War of Zero Sum, the first book in a planned trilogy.
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