As we mark the centenary of Northern Ireland, Biteback author Kevin Meagher looks back at one hundred years of strife and division in his new book, What A Bloody Awful Country.


I suppose the title of the book deserves an explanation.

‘Bring me a large scotch,’ Reginald Maudling, Edward Heath’s new home secretary, said to an official after returning to Belfast Airport, following his first gruelling encounter with Northern Ireland in 1970.

‘What a bloody awful country,’ he added.

In those days, there was no Northern Ireland Office or secretary of state. Stormont - the shorthand for the parliament and government of Northern Ireland - ran the show.

Those stern men of the Ulster Unionist Party who had been in control, uninterrupted, since the partition of Ireland in 1921.

But the system was teetering.

British soldiers had been deployed in 1969 to ‘come to the aid of the civil power.’

The Unionist government had made a mess of things, trying to suppress demands for civil rights while loyalist gangs launched a pogrom against Catholics in the terraced streets of Belfast, driving thousands from their homes.

Two years after his first trip, Maudling returned to shut down Stormont, introducing direct rule from Whitehall, ending fifty years of Unionist control following the slaughter of Bloody Sunday in January 1972 - when British paratroopers shot 27 civil rights marchers in Derry, killing thirteen of them outright (a fourteenth died later).

But things did not suddenly turn bad.

There was no ‘golden age’ for this troublesome appendage to the British state. No point at which Northern Ireland was ever, in any sense, normal.

It was created in chaos; a backfoot compromise as Britain was forcibly ejected from the rest of Ireland during the Irish War of Independence between 1918 and 1922.

Under pressure from Unionists, the British cleaved-off six counties of the ancient province of Ulster, (discarding three with Catholic majorities), to ensure a Protestant-Unionist ratio of 2:1 in the new Northern Ireland.

It set the tone for the next five decades.

Unionists ran the place - their ‘wee country’ - as they saw fit, sloping the pitch in their favour. Discrimination against the Catholic minority was hardwired.

Electoral boundaries were gerrymandered, while the franchise for local councils was based on property ownership, freezing out hundreds of thousands of poorer Catholics and minimising their voting power.

Unionist-controlled councils then set their own housing allocation policies, again denying Catholics equal treatment.

Protestant employers were at liberty to discriminate against Catholics. If your surname did not give you away, where you came from certainly would.

‘All I boast,’ remarked James Craig, Northern Ireland’s first Unionist prime minister, ‘is that we are a Protestant Parliament and Protestant State.’

The civil rights movement of the late 1960s tried to reform the system. Modest demands went unmet and when campaigners protested, they were bludgeoned off the streets by the Protestant-dominated Royal Ulster Constabulary and its part-time wing, the so-called ‘B-Specials.’

Then came internment, with hundreds of Catholic men dragged from their homes and imprisoned in a former World War Two prisoner-of-war camp, or in an old prison ship docked in Belfast harbour.

In the days that followed, ten civilians in the Ballymurphy area of Belfast – including a mother of eight and a Catholic priest giving the Last Rites to another dying man -were shot dead by British soldiers. (Indeed, it was the same regiment, the paras, who were responsible for Bloody Sunday a few months later).

It was supposed to be a crackdown on the nascent IRA. Instead, it helped to turbo-charge a bloody campaign against British rule that would last another quarter of a century.

The history of Northern Ireland is a series of ‘what if?’ moments. Chances that were squandered and opportunities that were overlooked. A British Government both underreacting to events and overreacting to them.

Political fixes that did not hold. Bad choices that were made. So, we have the record with which we are grimly familiar: Decades of violence and suffering. Nearly 3,600 people killed, and countless others maimed.

I have attempted to highlight some of the significant events as I see them, particularly from a British perspective, exploring the missed signals, turning points, the principled decisions that should have been taken at various points (which, invariably, were not) as well as the raw realpolitik of how Northern Ireland was governed throughout its century of division.

There is unlikely to be another milestone anniversary as the prospect of a referendum on Irish unity looms into view, yet as we have seen from recent loyalist rioting about the Northern Ireland Protocol, tensions still run deep.

Yet the reasons for this remain poorly understood in Westminster, while, for the British public, Northern Ireland remains a faraway place of which we know and, frankly, care, little.

In this centenary year, I thought it was high time we did.  


Kevin Meagher

May 2021


What A Bloody Awful Country is out now; find out more about it here.