The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

Northern Ireland

Category: Land + People

Northern Ireland is a unique region within the United Kingdom, for in addition to economic problems similar to those seen in other national outlying regions, there are political divisions, which reflect the unsettled Irish issue. At present Northern Ireland in the political sense comprises six counties of Ulster, which was one of the four provinces of ancient Ireland. Three other provinces of Ulster form part of the Irish Republic.

The Irish issue began in the 12th century when the English made their first attempt to conquer the country. However, the Irish always resisted the English yoke. Never would the Irish give up their just cause for freedom and independence. From the 16th century onwards Scottish and English Protestants were ‘planted’ in Ulster in positions of power among the Catholic Irish. The Irish peasantry was deprived of land and ousted from the province, for the final aim was to rid the country of its native inhabitants who were always restless and ready to revolt to gain independence. However, the ‘plantation’ of Ireland was not realized all throughout the country because of stubborn Irish opposition. Only in Ulster did the English achieve their aim. In 1801 a forced union was imposed with Great Britain. Nevertheless the’Irish continued to fight for independence and in 1921 after a mass uprising Great Britain was forced to grant independence to the south* which eventually became the Irish Republic (Eire) with the capital Dublin. Six counties of Ulster where the Protestants had a majority in the population remained under British rule with the name Northern Ireland.

The partition of Ireland was in full keeping with the principles of British imperialism — ‘to divide and rule’. The Protestants in Northern Ireland maintained their rule in all aspects of life. The Catholics of the province were treated as secondclass citizens, being discriminated in economic, political and social life. A progressive Irish historian correctly observed that the Catholics in Northern Ireland were ‘blacks with white skins’.

The years of violence and unabating civil war in the province have contributed to a most gloomy economic and social situation in the province. Unemployment is nearly double the average for the United Kingdom. Wage levels are only 80 per cent of the average. Emigration is higher than from any other part of Britain.

In the 1950s the economy of Northern Ireland depended almost completely upon three activities — farming, shipbuilding and the manufacture of textiles. Since then each of these industries has faced serious problems which have produced striking changes in them.

The situation in agriculture is typical. In 1950 nearly one quarter of the total labour force was employed in farming. In the 1980s that figure was nine per cent — a loss of more than ninety thousand jobs. Such a large reduction in the labour force suggests that thousands of farmers, owners of small units, became ruined and this in its turn has contributed to major changes in the pattern of farming. Farms in Northern Ireland are generally very small. Many are less than ten hectares in size and, of these, a large number cannot keep even the farmer in full time work. So, many left the land, while the average size of farms has increased. A reduction in the number of farm workers has been compensated by the greater use of tractors and other machinery by the richer farmers who have survived. In short, typical capitalist differentiation is taking place in the countryside.

The textile industry of Northern Ireland came to depend almost entirely on linen which was made from flax grown in the province. The industry started as a cottage industry, scattered throughout the region wherever flax and soft water were available. It was not until the nineteenth century that the first large mills were built and then the Belfast region began to emerge as the main centre of production. But production of flax and its preparation needed a great deal of costly manual labour, and the farmers gave up its cultivation. Now the flax is imported, chiefly from Belgium and the USSR. While flax growing has died out in Northern Ireland, the manufacture of linen has also declined. Today the linen industry survives as a craft industry producing specialized luxury goods, on a very small scale.

Man-made fibres have taken the place of the linen industry. Northern Ireland, in fact, has one of the largest concentrations of man-made fibre production in Western Europe, which is in the hands of big international firms. However, this industry is also experiencing decline and the labour force was reduced by a half in the 1980s. The effects of the decline have been felt throughout the region but they have been most severe around Belfast, which was the centre of the textile industry, and in the west where there was no alternative employment. Textile manufacture is concentrated not only in Belfast, but in several smaller towns nearby. An associated industry is the manufacture of clothing and footwear. Londonderry, the second major town in Northern Ireland, specializes in the manufacture of shirts.

The engineering industry of Northern Ireland has been dominated by shipbuilding. During the nineteenth century it grew very rapidly. With the introduction of iron ships, the industry was forced to import from Britain most of its raw materials, including coal, iron and steel. It was during this period that the industry became centred on the shores of Belfast Lough where there were deep-water anchorages and where the large area of flat land surrounding the lough provided sites for docks and yards. The twentieth century has seen the continuation of this process and, by 1950, there was one large shipbuilding concern in Northern Ireland — Harland and Wolff — which employed some 20,000 men produced ten per cent of the total British output.

Since then the industry has faced serious problems similar to those experienced by other British shipbuilding centres. As a result, output has declined and many jobs have been lost. Modernization has taken place though the decline continues.

The situation in the engineering industry has been made worse by the problems of the aircraft industry which is also located in the Belfast area. The industry has difficulties in competing with the large aircraft corporations in Britain and abroad. Today it depends largely on government contracts for military aircraft. The industry is represented by the Short Brothers firm, which is based in Belfast.

Hence we see that the three basic industries of Northern Ireland have declined alarmingly. Attempts have been made to attract new industries. Meat packing and food processing were expanded on the basis of increased meat production. Electronics, electrical engineering and the chemical industry also developed, mainly in the east near Belfast. However, this growth was insufficient to cover the great loss of work in the traditional industries. Moreover, the new industries did little to improve the situation in the more remote areas of the south and west, where there is little industry and unemployment is very high.

Belfast (303,800), situated at the mouth of the river Lagan, on the shores of Belfast Lough, is the main administrative, economic and cultural centre of Northern Ireland. A deep water harbour, a large area of surrounding lowland suitable for development contributed to the rapid growth of the city, especially in the nineteenth century. Most of the people came from the rural area, attracted by the opportunities of work in the shipyards and linen industry. The period of rapid growth has created many of the problems which face the city today: a large amount of housing which is old and ready for demolition, basic industries are declining, congestion due to an out-of-date road system. All this has been terribly deteriorated by the violence and communal strife which has been tearing the whole province apart for so many years.

Today Belfast, besides being a major centre of textile manufacture, shipbuilding, aircraft production, electrical engineering and food processing, also handles most of the overseas trade of Northern Ireland.

Londonderry (63,000) has the second largest population. Besides its textile and clothing industries, flour milling and bacon curing are also developing. ‘Derry’ is also a market centre. North of Belfast is the small port, seaside resort and market town of Larne, which has a regular ferry service to Stranraer in Scotland. Bangor, on the south side of Belfast Lough near its mouth, is the largest seaside resort in Northern Ireland, popular with Belfast people.

Summarizing the economic activity of Northern Ireland we see that this outlying national region of Great Britain is in a most distressing state. The seeds of intercommunal hatred sown by the British colonizers cause hardships and privations, agony and tension for the population of the province.

« ||| »

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.