Sunday, March 19, 2017


Click on any image for a larger version

The above was the classic Catholic view, both north and south, of the Northern Ireland régime when I was growing up. Community relations up there broke out in sporadic violence from time to time, customs posts were regularly blown up and there was an overwhelming sense of grievance, particularly on the part of the Catholic population.

This was also the case in the first ten years of the Free State, 1922-32, the period covered by the wonderful collection of cartoons by Gordon Brewster hosted by the National Library of Ireland. Although the cartoons are specific to that period many of them have uncanny resonances right up to this day.

I am taking a brief romp below through most of his Northern Ireland cartoons as part of a series of thematic reviews of the overall collection. In each case I give a link to the original online version in the National Library. Some of those are accompanied by notes which further elaborate the circumstances surrounding the originals.

The cartoon above is pretty savage, showing Northern Prime Minister Craig holding a girl, representing the Catholic community, in bondgage. Bad enough you might think, but it gets worse. Brewster's signature acknowledges this as a homage cartoon which he has modeled on one by the Dutch cartoonist Raemaekers. The latter was famous for his savage cartoons of German atrocities in Belgium during WWI.

Raemaeker's own cartoon shows that Brewster has made very little change to the original. The poses are exactly the same, with the vicious looking leering German soldier replaced by Craig. The only other change is an acknowledgement by Brewster of the sensitivities of his own readers by covering up the original girl's naked breast.

You can see all this more clearly with the two cartoons side by side. Clicking on the image will give you a larger version.

There is no doubt that the Northern régime were running a police state. While they were subject overall to Westminister and the Monarch, security and policing was a devolved function and they made full use of their powers in this area. The odious Special Powers Act was well known throughout the island.

There was a devolved parliament, which was supposed to govern in the interest of the whole community. However, Craig's view of it as a "Protestant Parliament for a Protestant People" made it quite clear that Catholics/Nationalists were not going to have any say. The mountain might roar but all the Catholics got out of it was a ridiculous wee mouse.

Any gestures towards them were only empty gestures for consumption by a wider public.

While Brewster here seems to be implying a shaky passage through the icebergs for the Northern Government, there was no effective opposition and this was particularly true any time the "constitutional question" (ie the status of Northern Ireland) came to the fore. There was, admittedly some doubt about the precise geographical extent of a permanent Northern Ireland up to 1925 when the Boundary Commission was wound up.

There was a brief moment of anxiety for the régime when the Liberal party issued its manifesto, depicted here as a brick punching a hole in the orange drum.

But the drum was soon mended and things carried on as before.

This one is titled "A dustman's surprise" and I'm not sure whether the drum has been beaten to death and a new one purchased or whether the orangemen might have been thought to be giving up their oul sins. In any event, and despite the dustman's surprise, matters continued as before.

While Belfast had been a booming industrial city in the past, there was always a question hanging over the economic viability of Northern Ireland as then constituted. Even into my own time Charlie Haughey used to relish referring to it as a "failed entity".

But virtually throughout its whole existence public income was never sufficient to finance the required (or entitled) level of public expenditure.

This expenditure was, in any event, skewed towards maintaining the régime itself.

The resultant pressure showed up in high rates of unemployment mainly among Catholics.

This in turn put enormous pressure on the Northern Ireland Unemployment Insurance Fund.

The régime eventually had to turn to Westminster for help in shoring up the fund. Over the years this fund was then used to channel the bulk of what became known as the "British Subsidy" into Northern Ireland.

But apart from supporting them financially, the UK administration effectively ignored Northern Ireland. There was a rule in the UK parliament that Northern Ireland matters could not be raised as the area had a devolved administration and they should be left to get on with it (whatever it turned out to be).

But as they were effectively completely dependent on Westminster's for funding, the UK government did feel entitled to interfere in any matter which might have a bearing on the UK exchequer. And to add insult to injury, during the period to which this cartoon applies, this was a UK Labour government.

In 1931 the Northern régime did not take too kindly to being more or less ordered by the UK treasury to undertake a complete revaluation of the Province. This was done every five years in Britain but Northern Ireland was still operating on the basis of a valuation carried out for Belfast in 1900-1906 and for the rest of the province in 1852.

The UK Treasury had in fact been trying to get them to do this since 1923 but finally lost patience in 1931. It appears that the business community, in particular, were most unhappy with the Northern Ireland Valuation Bill of 1931 but they were not calling the shots.

They had to swallow a bit more than their pride at this stage.

Gordon was continually taking pots at local authority jobbery and wasteful spending north and south, but it probably irked the Northerners particularly when criticism of their side was coming from down south.

It is no exaggeration to say that Gordon abhorred the Northern régime. That much is sort of obvious from his cartoons. But what may not be so well known is that he was absolutely persona non grata north of the border and was, on one occasion, escorted by the RUC from Belfast back to the border and thrown out of Northern Ireland.

There were occasions when the government needed to project an image of everything being rosy in the garden and I am always tickled by this image of an angelic Craig gamboling with the lamb. Your image wouldn't long survive a cartoon like that.

This image of all-island peace and harmony also tickles my fancy. Note that the two heads of government are wearing masks, and do the shadows remind you of anything?

I'm sure this one drove Craig apoplectic as it was no doubt designed to do. Brewster is comparing the North to communist Russia on the basis that these were the only two administrations in the world which discriminated against their own citizens on the basis of religion. An exaggeration perhaps, but there's no mitigating the sting.

Finally, with a hard Brexit on the horizon, I leave the final thought with Gordon.

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