Geoffrey Wheatcroft argues that Ireland contains two nations that canno t and should not be united
WHY should Ireland be united? For more than a century, nobody has stopped to ask this fundamental question. Yet partition, if not the best answer, might well be the least bad answer. Nationalism or "patriotism" preceded the Union of 1801. But in the 18th century it was Protestant and patrician. In the 19th century, it became Catholic and plebeian. The Union was partly a response to the Irish rebellion of 1798, which was a cry of rageagainst the long oppression of Catholic Ireland. It was meant to cure the complaint by paternalist absorption, to make "Britons" of the Irish, as the Scots had been made in the previous century. But it did not work. Soon O'Connell's campaign for Catholic Emancipation became a campaign for repeal of the Union.

This "Irish nationalism", like its Protestant predecessor, assumed the geographical indivisibility and cultural homogeneity of Ireland. But it was obvious to visitors like the Frenchman Gustave de Beaumont in the 1830s or the economist Nassau Senior in the 1860s that, thanks to the 17th-century settlement of Ulster, there were two nations in the one island. Senior thought they were "among the most dissimilar nations in Europe". All they had in common was that they were ruled by the Protestant ascendancy, fox-hunting, claret-swilling Anglicans, for whom their country was "Ireland" whether it was in County Cork and the land was worked by Catholics or in County Down and worked by Presbyterians. "One nation made, and makes, no sense in any other terms."

A good comparison is with the ancient kingdom of Hungary. This was likewise regarded as one nation by the Magyar gentry who ruled it. But it contained millions of Slovaks, Ukrainians, and Serbs, who were partitioned off at just the same time, after the First World War, that Ireland was partitioned.

All the same, a belief in the indivisibility of Ireland was very widely shared. The unsuccessful Home Rule Bills of 1886 and 1893 both provided for an all-Ireland parliament. So did the Bill brought in 1912 and passed by parliament in 1914 after Ulster resistance had come close to civil war. The Ulster Unionists, whose great leader Edward Carson was a Dubliner, never wanted partition. They wanted Ireland to remain united as part of the United Kingdom. Nor did the English Tories want partition. In the 1880s, Lord Randolph Churchill had "played the Orange card". But this was a very exact metaphor. One card takes a trick by capturing another three: in this case the trump of Orange Ulster was meant to keep the other three provinces of Ireland in the Union as well.

This position was untenable because the majority in the three-and-a-third Catholic provinces of Ireland wanted autonomy. Yet even in the summer of 1916, after the Easter Rising in Dublin, the Cabinet noted that "the permanent partition of Ireland has no friends". In 1919, the Cabinet defined its desired policy as "a united Ireland with a separate parliament of its own, achieved without offending the Protestants of Ulster". Even when Ireland was at last partitioned in 1920, the Government of Ireland Act made elaborate provision for reunification.

The British then simply tried to forget Ireland, both parts of it. Shortly after partition, the Speaker ruled that the House of Commons could no longer discuss the internal affairs of the province, where injustice festered, and Protestant suspicion was matched by Catholic resentment.

The Unionists of Northern Ireland had, as they still do have, a very uneasy relationship with London. It is sometimes smartly said that "Loyalist" is a misnomer for such recalcitrant British subjects, but so for that matter is "Unionist". Political passions in Ireland are negative. The Catholic minority in Northern Ireland has never had a positive desire to be reunited with the South, so much as a negative (and quite understandable) desire not to be ruled by Protestants. The Catholics of the 26 countiesdid not so much want to be "a nation once again" as not want to be ruled from Westminster. Events have shown that they certainly didn't want to be a nation once again in cultural and linguistic terms.

As for the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland, they have always been animated less by a wish to be British than a wish not to be Irish, politically speaking. In 1914 one Unionist leader said that the Ulster people would rather be ruled by the Kaiserthan by Dublin. In 1945 the Stormont government seriously discussed whether to demand Dominion status, so as to frustrate the knavish tricks of London politicians who might try to sell them out. They didn't in the end demand it, for the wonderfully ignoble reason that it would threaten the very large subsidies which Ulster received from the British Treasury.

But however suspicious, bloody-minded and mean-spirited Ulster Unionists can sometimes be, they are at least rational. It is the Republican doctrine of "a united Ireland", held as much by the political parties in Dublin as by the IRA, which is entirely without reason. For the past century Irish republicanism has emphasised the "green", the Catholic, the Gaelic character of Ireland while at the same time claiming jurisdiction over a million Saxon Protestants. That is what Stephen Gwynn - an old Home Ruler, for years MP for Galway - meant when he said in 1918 that "if Ireland as a nation means what de Valera means by it, then Ulster is not part of that nation".

Indeed, de Valera implicitly recognised that. Sometimes he spoke of Ulster Protestants, in the paraphrase of his hagiographer Lord Longford, as "all Irish and equally dear accordingly". But he also spoke of Ulster as "the land of the O'Neills, the O'Cathains, the MacDonnells, the Maguires and the MacGuinnesses" - which is to say, after no very difficult decrypting, a Gaelic-Catholic province in which Scots Protestants have no place. And sometimes he followed this through to its logical conclusion. He repeatedly suggested that the answer to the "Ulster question" might have to be a transfer or "exchange" of population: the Protestants of Ulster would go to the British mainland once Ireland was united, while the Irish Catholics living in Great Britain would return home.

Nowadays the Irish liberal left (such as it is) rejects the old de Valeran pieties of holy church and Irish language, and likes to use instead the jargon of Europeanism and modernity. But this is absurd if it is combined with the rhetoric of reunification. On every liberal or radical premise, every single argument for reuniting the two parts of Ireland is a fortiori an argument for reuniting Ireland with Great Britain. If what you want for Ireland is a secular English-speaking welfare state, what on earth was the point of independence in the first place? .

In his way de Valera was right. The forcible incorporation of a million refractory Protestants into the Irish state would have destroyed, and would still destroy, its one great achievement - its stability and tranquillity. Given the circumstances of Ulster, there are two intellectually honest and politically plausible answers to the Irish question: transfer of population, or partition for the indefinite future. Which does the Government want? And where does that leave the "peace process"?