South Tyrol and Venezia Giulia a century after the March on Rome

On the anniversary of Mussolini’s seizure of power, Alessandro and Emmanuel discuss a century of inter-ethnic relations in the Italian borderlands

Vito Timmel, “L’incendio del Balkan” (1941, Rivoltella Museum, Trieste)

At the end of October 1922, King Vittorio Emanuele III offered Benito Mussolini the task to form a new executive. In the previous days, the fascists camicie nere had seized control of several towns in northern and central Italy and threatened the government led by the liberal Luigi Facta to move the assault to Rome if this did not cede power to the National Fascist Party. The details of these events are well-known and have been studied extensively. What is less known however is that at the beginning of October 1922, the fascists had used the same tactics to take over the northern Italian city of Bolzano in what some fascists later defined as a kind of general rehearsal for the planned occupation of the capital.

At first sight Bolzano was an outlier in the series of urban attacks carried out by the fascists in the early 1920s. Indeed the black shirts usually targeted municipalities led by Socialist administrations. By contrast, a coalition of Liberal and Catholics ruled Bolzano. Yet Bolzano was not a random choice. Most of the city’s inhabitants were German speakers and the city was the main urban centre of South Tyrol, a territory that Italy annexed at the end of the First World War along with the mostly Italian-speaking Trentino. South Tyrol was also overwhelmingly German-speaking and several local parties and organisations had repeatedly opposed annexation asking that the local population be given the opportunity to have a say about its future. Post-war Italian liberal governments had rejected these calls, but had guaranteed the preservation of Austro-Hungarian legislation in the area, promised to respect minority rights and begun negotiations for regional autonomy. To the Fascist Party this sounded like a betrayal of the sacrifice of the Italian soldiers who had died in order to conquer an area that – the fascists believed – was ‘inherently’ Italian and had been Germanised by the Habsburg Empire. The March on Bolzano was an attempt to force the Italianisation of the city, as well as a test of the liberal elite’s commitment to respecting minority rights.

Taking advantage of the 100th anniversary of both the March on Rome and Bolzano, in a recent paper published by the Pierre du Bois Foundation for Current History, Alessandro and Emmanuel discuss fascist policies in the new provinces annexed at the end of the Great War – South Tyrol as well as Venezia Giulia – and the impact of the fascist attempts to Italianise the populations living in these borderlands on the rest of the 20th century, most notably on relations with the neighbouring countries of Austria and Yugoslavia (today Slovenia), as well as with Germany. The paper also examines the contradictions of the fascist approach to minorities. It argues that fascist thinking about the allogeni – the fascist term to identify Italians of non-Italian origins – and policy in South Tyrol and Venezia Giulia were informed by a form of ‘consistent ambivalence’ whereby fascists authorities were torn between the naif belief that the assimilation of the allogeni was inevitable and a deep-seated distrust of them, since they were deemed to be inherently disloyal citizens.

Yet 2022 marks another important anniversary: the 50 years since the signing of the second statute of autonomy of Trentino-South Tyrol which ushered in a period of stabilisation in majority-minority relations in the area. This statute of autonomy turned South Tyrol from a hotspot of nationalist conflict to an oft-cited success story of minority recognition and cross-border cooperation in Europe. To account for that, the paper goes beyond the interwar period and details the considerable, although hard-won, advances in minority rights and conflict management achieved in the second half of the 20th century.

The full paper is available here.

Sovereignty, Nationalism and the Quest for Homogeneity in Interwar Europe

Our edited volume with Bloomsbury Academics has eventually gone into production

In September 2022, Bloomsbury Academics announced that the edited volume Sovereignty, Nationalism and the Quest for Homogeneity in Interwar Europe, which Emmanuel, Davide and Mona have been putting together for the last two years, has eventually gone into production and should be released in May 2023.

It has been a long and twisted journey, marked by the pandemic and other dramatic events, first of all the sudden demise of Eric Weitz, who was supposed to write the conclusion of the volume and to whom this will be dedicated. The Myth of Homogeneity team started working on it in March 2020, right after having held the workshop Sovereignty, Nationalism and Homogeneity in Europe between the World Wars, the last event before the first wave of lockdowns due to the Covid-19 pandemic began. The event was co-organised with the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy (more info on it in our podcast on the event here).

The volume bridges the East-West divide still existing in the historiography of minority questions in interwar Europe. It also puts together contributions examining majority-minority relations from different perspectives, notably comparative, bottom-up and transnational. It includes discussions of: the transition from empires to nation-states with an innovative comparison of traditional cases of imperial breakdown, such as the Ottoman and Habsburg empires, with the United Kingdom, usually considered in this context as a nation-state rather than a composite monarchy; the Paris system and how the new international order inaugurated in the French capital extended its influence over the entire continent causing quests for national homogeneity in different European regions; the concept of national indifference, its applicability to the interwar years and its alternatives; and the transnational organisations and networks of activists that defended minority rights, either directly, as in the case of the Congress of European Nationalities, or as part of a broader concern for peace and international collaboration, as in the case of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

Through 14 chapters and thanks to an outstanding line-up of authors (see below for the full list), the volume fills an important gap in the historiography of the interwar years, touching upon a wide range of topics such as the history of nationalism, internationalism, minority questions, human rights, activism and gender.

The volume features contributions from: Omer Bartov, Mona Bieling, Alison Carrol, Jane K. Cowan, Emmanuel Dalle Mulle, Sabine Dullin, Marina Germane, Brian Hughes, Alvin Jackson, Pieter M. Judson, Olga Linkiewicz, Xosé M. Núñez Seixas, Volker Prott, Davide Rodogno, David J. Smith and Erol Ülker.

Transnational Minority Actors and Global Spain

The converging and diverging trajectories of Joan Estelrich and Josip Vilfan discussed at a Conference in Santiago de Compostela

On 9-10 June 2022, the research project La España global: identitades españolas en prospectiva transnacional organised a workshop at the University of Santiago de Compostela to discuss transnational historical research involving Spanish actors, identities and processes. The event allowed presenting results from the Myth of Homogeneity project about the transnational activities of minority representatives in interwar Europe. More specifically, Emmanuel examined the converging and diverging trajectories of the Catalan-Spanish nationalist leader Joan Estelrich and the Slovenian-Italian minority representative Josip Vilfan, both prominent members of the interwar Congress of European Nationalities, as a prism to reflect upon the entanglements between the study of minorities and transnational history.

At the core of the concept of transnationalism there is an idea of border crossing. More often than not, the border that is being crossed is that of the nation-state. Emmanuel’s presentation did engage with cross-border activities that challenged state jurisdictions, but also tried to extend the notion of transnationalism to the trespassing of regional and identity boundaries. Coming from countries beyond the remit of the minority protection system of the League of Nations and acting, for a considerable part of their lives, within repressive authoritarian regimes, Estelrich and Vifan eagerly engaged in transnational minority networks as a way to promote an internationalisation and reinforcement of interwar minority protection. In many ways, their story is one of successful collaboration. Yet, from the mid-1930s, their trajectories diverged considerably. While Vilfan remained a staunch supporter of transnational cooperation and of the work of the CEN, Estelrich drifted towards domestic engagement within the institutions of the Spanish Republic first, and transnational activity on Franco’s side later. However, despite their apparent glaring differences, both Estelrich and Vilfan had to confront similar painful dilemmas of collaboration and betrayal generated by their minority advocacy that forced them not only to cross state borders, but also to redefine the boundaries of their reference communities and severe previous bonds of loyalty.

Beyond the relevance of Estelrich’s and Vilfan’s transnational trajectories for the history of minority-majority relations in interwar Europe, the paper proposed two broader reflections on the nature of transnational history and the state of the current historiography that centred on questioning both the trans and the national in transnational. To be begin with the national, most of the historiography focuses on the national as the nation-state. Yet any scholar familiar with the nationalism studies literature knows that the nation and the nation-state never coincide. This is all the more glaring when it comes to minority populations who do not identify with the state they live in. Hence, the presentation proposed considering the everyday life of people identifying as national minorities within their state of citizenship as a transnational experience in and for itself, even if this everyday experience does not involve crossing the border of any nation-state. Concerning the trans, the paper explored, although still in very tentative form, the possibility that the crossing activity implied in this term might actually occur in the mind of historical actors, rather than in their physical whereabouts. In other words, examining the many identification dilemmas, twists and turns in Estelrich’s and Vilfan’s lives, the paper proposed to explore the concept of transnational interior processes. Stay tuned for future updates.

Migration as a Tool of National Homogenisation

In interwar fascist Italy migration, both internal and external, turned into a tool of national homogenisation of borderland minority areas

On 7 June 2022, Emmanuel gave a lecture (whose video is available here) at the University of Neuchâtel within the framework of the Migration History Talks series co-organised by this university and the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research—The Migration Mobility Nexus (NCCR on the Move). It was a great opportunity to present results from the Myth of Homogeneity project about the Italian case, notably on the nexus between homogenisation and migration.

Italy has historically been known as a country of emigration. The state’s laissez-faire approach
towards outward migration, as well as its diaspora policies, have widely been studied. However,
it is less known that during the fascist dictatorship (1922–43) migration was used as a tool to
promote the homogenisation of the minority populations inhabiting the provinces of South Tyrol and
Venezia Giulia. In this presentation, Emmanuel showed how, being unsure about the legitimacy of their sovereignty over these borderlands, fascist authorities promoted land colonisation, surreptitiously encouraged emigration among members of the Slovenian/Croatian minority, and in 1939 signed an agreement with Germany that forced Tyroleans to choose whether they wanted to become German citizens and emigrate north of the Brenner or stay in Italy and become ‘true’ Italians.

This escalation of coercive uses of migration to homogenise the borderlands annexed at the end of the Great War failed. For the historian, they are an unmistakable reflection of the ‘consistent ambivalence’ that marked the fascist approach to the country’s national minorities throughout the interwar years. On the one hand, fascist authorities shared a rhetoric whereby assimilation was inevitable. The Italian ‘civilisation’ was deemed to be so powerful that no minority group would resist its assimilative spell. On the other hand, the fascists fundamentally distrusted the members of the two minorities that it wanted to incorporate within the body of the nation. The allogeni, the term used by the fascists to indicate Italian citizens of non-Italian origins, were thus kept in a limbo of forced assimilation and latent segregation that further reduced the effectiveness of the assimilative measures adopted by the regime.

The Wilsonian Moment in Catalonia, Flanders and South Tyrol

Or how sub-state national mobilisation occurred, but it was more fleeting than minority nationalist leaders would have hoped for

On the 100th anniversary of the Paris Peace Conference, in 2019, Emmanuel and Mona presented a paper at the 29th Annual Conference of the Association for the Study of Ethnicity and Nationalism (ASEN) examining whether there was a ‘Wilsonian Moment in Western Europe’. A revised version of that paper has now been accepted for publication in European History Quarterly and it is due to appear online and in print in 2023. The paper entitled ‘Autonomy over Independence: Self-Determination in Catalonia, Flanders and South Tyrol in the Aftermath of the Great War’ (and available in pre-print here) fills an important gap in the historiography of self-determination in the immediate post-WWI period.

While the impact of the post-war spread of self-determination on the re­­drawing of Eastern European borders and on the claims of colonial independence movements has been extensively researched, the international historiography has paid little attention to minority nationalist movements in Western Europe. Focusing on three regions (Catalonia, Flanders and South Tyrol) that experienced considerable substate national mobilisation between the world wars, Emmanuel and Mona inquire into whether the leaders of Western European minorities and stateless nations shared the same enthusiasm as their anti-colonial and Eastern European counterparts for the new international order that self-determination seemed to foreshadow in the months following the end of the Great War. Since President Woodrow Wilson stood out as the most prominent purveyor of the new international legitimacy of self-determination, the article further examines how Western European nationalist movements exploited Wilson’s image and advocacy to achieve their own goals.

Emmanuel and Mona conclude that nationalist forces in Catalonia, Flanders and South Tyrol initially mobilised self-determination and referred to Wilson as a symbol of national liberation, but this instrumentalisation of self-determination was not sustained. Large-scale mobilisation occurred only in Catalonia and, even there, it disappeared almost overnight in spring 1919. Furthermore, substate nationalist movements in Western Europe tended to mobilise self-determination to gain regional autonomy, rather than full independence, thus pursuing internal, not external, self-determination. The willingness of these movements to privilege autonomy over full independence made them more receptive to compromise solutions and radical forces became stronger only in the 1930s, largely for reasons not directly connected to the post-war mobilisation around self-determination.

In other words, the wave of unprecedented international legitimacy for national self-determination claims inaugurated at the end of WWI did extend to Western Europe. It was not a uniform phenomenon, but a mix of different local attempts to mobilise the new language of self-determination that however did not last as long, and were not as powerful, as the leaders of Western European minority nationalist movements would have wished.

Studying Minorities in the Vatican Archives

The documents of the Holy See are an underexploited source on majority-minority relations

Transnational actor by definition, the Church could not afford ignoring minority questions in interwar Europe. There are at least two reasons why documents held at the Vatican Archives are a privileged source on majority-minority relations in interwar Europe: linguistic politics and the double nature of the Catholic Church as, at once, a transnational organisation devoted to the spiritual welfare of worshippers and a state keeping diplomatic relations with foreign governments.

In interwar Europe local priests and the Church hierarchy confronted nationalising states increasingly willing to assimilate populations that spoke a different language from that promoted by state institutions. In such minority regions, the lower clergy often identified with the minority population and defended Church practice (also reflected in the Church’s Code of Canon Law) whereby religious teaching had to be given in the mother tongue of the local population. Yet this position put the clergy in direct confrontation with state officials willing to homogenise minority areas. As a consequence, state nationalisers frequently associated the local clergy as a bastion of minority nationalism. The fact that some priests did participate in minority nationalist movements, sometimes even within radical fringes, did not contribute to dispelling suspicions of the clergy’s disloyalty to the state. Be it in democratic Belgium or authoritarian fascist Italy, many of these priests and, although more rarely, also some bishops were expelled from the state territory, accused of being dangerous agitators paid by foreign powers to bring about chaos in minority areas.

State pressure to have the lower clergy abide by laws of linguistic assimilation that imposed monolingualism throughout the state territory was felt not only in minority regions, but also in Rome. The Vatican Apostolic Archives brim with exchanges in which diplomats of states dealing with minority populations urged the Holy See to have priests stay out of politics and provide religious teaching in state, instead of minority, language. In more extreme but not unfrequent cases, the Vatican received requests of removal of bishops deemed to engage with minority nationalism.

In April, Emmanuel spent two weeks at the Vatican Archives gathering material on minority questions in interwar Belgium, Italy and Spain. The documents confirm that Church authorities had to walk a tight rope between the need not to disaffect local populations seeking protection against linguistic homogenisation and keeping favourable diplomatic relations with important European states. Caught between the hammer and the anvil, Church authorities tried to defend their autonomy and religious practice, but in the radicalising age of the 1930s, it became ever harder to protect the linguistic rights of minorities, especially in authoritarian state like fascist Italy or in the extremely polarised context of the Spanish Civil War and the ensuing onset of Franco’s dictatorship.

The Vatican records constitute an invaluable source that would nourish the academic output of the Myth of Homogeneity project.

Victims of Their Own Rhetoric

Or how fascist authorities thought about and treated minorities in Italy.

A picture of the participants in the 2021 Pierre du Bois Conference.
A picture of the participants in the conference.

As conferences are back, Emmanuel took part in the Pierre du Bois Annual Conference, organised by Professor Michael Goebel at the Graduate Institute, Geneva, on 26-27 August 2021. Under the title Political Proteus: Nationalism’s Entangled Histories, the conference explored the global history of nationalism at a time of renewed interest in the topic and salience in current affairs.

Emmanuel presented a paper co-authored with Alessandro entitled Victims of their own Rhetoric: The 1939 Option Agreement and the Consistent Ambivalence of Fascist Homogenisation Policy in the Italian New Provinces. The paper provides a re-reading of the 1939 Option Agreement between Italy and Germany in light of about two decades of fascist attempts at homogenising the border regions of South Tyrol and Venezia Giulia. It argues that although the behaviour of fascist authorities in the crucial months when 1939 drew to a close were ambivalent indeed, as many authors have already pointed out, that ambivalence was very much in line with the pattern followed by the regime throughout the interwar period. It thus concludes that such ‘consistent ambivalence’ was a key feature of fascist policy in the new provinces (as South Tyrol and Venezia Giulia were called at the time) and explains the bizarre behaviour of Italian officers in the second half of 1939.

As fascist Italy and Nazi Germany drew closer in the late 1930s, the Anschluss realised the Italian nightmare of a Greater Germany at its doors and Italian attempts to assimilate the population of South Tyrol continued to be disappointing (from the fascist perspective), finding a diplomatic solution to the question of South Tyrol grew ever more important. By mid-1939, the two countries came to an agreement whereby the population of the region would have to decide whether it wanted to remain in Italy or adopt German nationality and move north of the Brenner border. The Option Agreement, as it was called, was a strange hybrid between an option procedure, a plebiscite and a population transfer. It also created serious dilemmas for the two countries. Should they push for the transfer of all South Tyroleans or for as few as possible? The Nazi government needed men for the war effort. It was thus clearly in favour of a clean sweep solution. The Italian position was much more nuanced: while some were in favour of a total resettlement, many within the regime, especially at the local level were not. Furthermore, the Italian behaviour does not suggest a support for radical options. Nazi officers immediately began to spread propaganda in favour of resettlement (or to scare those South Tyroleans who wanted to stay, which actually were a majority). Italian authorities, in contrast, first remained silent. Then, when they realised that most people were inclined to vote for Germany, they tried to convince locals to stay. However, their propaganda was hampered by the strictures that their previous rhetoric and their fundamental distrust of the South Tyroleans imposed to their discourses.

The paper argues that this ambivalent approach was surprisingly consistent with fascist thinking about and treatment of Italy’s minorities. The ambivalence at the core of fascist policy in the new provinces stemmed from the combination of a naive belief that assimilation was inevitable – that the German-speakers of South Tyrol and the Slovenian and Croatian speakers of Venezia Giulia could not but assimilate to the great Italian civilisation – and a profound mistrust of the allogeni (as members of these two minorities were called at the time). Hence, the allogeni were simultaneously included by force in the Italian nation and marginalised in a liminal state of latent segregation.

The paper received positive comments and led to an interesting discussion about the differences between South Tyrol and Venezia Giulia, the precedent of the option procedure and the difficulties of co-writing an article.

Conferences are back! The Myth of Homogeneity at international gatherings

Thanks to the recent improvement of the sanitary situation in Europe, the team of the Myth of Homogeneity is again presenting research results at international conferences. The ‘awakening’, after more than a year of forced inaction, began already in May 2021, when the team organised a panel at the Annual Convention of the Association for the Study of Nationalities (ASN). This year, the event, which usually takes place at Columbia University in New York, was held online. The panel, entitled Minorities after Versailles in Europe and the Middle East: A Comparative Perspective, explored interwar majority-minority relations in a broad comparative framework fostering dialogue between experts specialised in different geographical areas and political contexts.

The three contributors to this panel explored the contradictions and intricacies of the new international order ushered in at the Paris Peace Conference, an order based on population politics and a lingering tendency to seek national homogeneity. Sarah Shield (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) argued that, after the Great War, the Great Powers mobilised ‘self-government’ in the Middle East to legitimise foreign rule (through the mandate system), to excuse violence (for instance in the French Syria), and to alienate territory (as in Palestine). Building on the cases of Alsace-Lorraine and Asia Minor, Volker Prott (Aston University Birmingham) inquired into the factors that explain differences in patterns of conflict and violence between these two areas. Finally, Chris R. Davis (Lone Star College-Kingwood) shifted the focus from minorities to majorities and dissected how transnational networks of ethnologists in Romania and Hungary shaped notions of belonging relating to the respective majorities and minorities in either country. Overall, the three papers emphasised to the need to expand the comparative study of minorities in Europe and the Middle East, and, especially, to connect the largely self-contained literatures on minority protection, on the one hand, and the mandate system, on the other.

In August, the team will be presenting a paper at the Annual Pierre Du Bois Conference, which will take place at the Graduate Institute in Geneva. The event, organised by the Pierre du Bois Foundation and Professor Michael Goebel, will feature distinguished speakers from universities across the globe. The team’s contribution will examine fascist policies of assimilation in interwar Italy. Taking as a starting point the 1939 Option Agreement between Italy and Germany on the ‘voluntary’ resettlement to the German Reich of the inhabitants of the German-speaking Italian area of South Tyrol, the paper argues that the ambiguities inherent in the agreement and in the fascist approach to the Option reflects the larger history of attempts at assimilating minorities in Italy (both in South Tyrol and Venetia Giulia, the other minority region annexed by the Italian Kingdom at the end of the Great War). More specifically, the paper shows that fascist policies of assimilation were characterised by three main features: a naïve belief that the assimilation of these minorities would be an easy task; the lack of means to carry out radical solutions; and a deep-seated distrust of the allogeni (as Italian citizens of non-Italian origin were called at the time), even of those who willingly assimilated to Italian culture and who enthusiastically joined the Fascist Party. As a result, the ambivalent policy pursued by fascist authorities during the period of the Option was consistent with previous attempts at assimilating the German-speaking populations of South Tyrol.

The Conference will be held both in person and online. You can find more information on how to register at this link: https://www.graduateinstitute.ch/communications/events/pierre-du-bois-annual-conference. Please find the Conference Programme below or access it in pdf format here. We look forward to seeing you in Geneva or on Webex!

The Nature of the Minority Question in Northern Ireland: 100 Years of Ethnic Conflict

H-Nationalism is proud to publish here the seventh post of its “Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspectives” series, which looks at majority-minority relations from a multi-disciplinary and diachronic angle. Today’s contribution, by Brian Girvin (University of Glasgow), takes a look at a hundred years of majority-minority relations in Northern Ireland. The series is a collaboration with H-Nationalism.

It is 100 years since Northern Ireland was established as a devolved region of the United Kingdom under the terms of the Government of Ireland Act, 1920. It was never an independent state, but was able to act like one because the British government refused to intervene in its internal affairs. Britain retained sovereign rights but choose not to apply them. Thus, despite the long-term stability of Britain, Northern Ireland has been a zone of confrontation, conflict and violence throughout that period. The Northern Ireland experience provides an important comparative case study of how a majority addresses the ‘minority question’ within its territory. Why was the situation so intractable?[1]

At face value there is little difference between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. However, religion, national identity and the constitutional future of the region have been the main features of political conflict and competition since 1920. Protestant unionists comprised two thirds of the population, while Catholic nationalists accounted for one third. Irish nationalism considers Irish unionists to be part of the Irish nation, while unionists insist that their primary loyalty is to Britain and that their identity is British. Polling has consistently found that Protestants consider their national identity to be British, while Catholics identify most closely with an Irish identity.[2] Furthermore, Protestants vote overwhelmingly for unionist parties while Catholics provide similar levels of support for Irish nationalist parties. There has been little middle ground for moderate parties at any time over the past 100 years, though the Alliance Party and the Green Party have more recently offered non-confessional options.[3]

Governments have a wide range of options available to address ‘minority’ issues, ranging from accommodationist and conciliatory policies to active repression of minorities. What is surprising is how few governments seek out accommodationist policies, especially when addressing national minorities. Northern Ireland was born in violence and conflict. While the unionist leadership promised to govern in an even-handed fashion, the reality was radically different. The nationalist minority refused to recognise the new government and abstained from parliament at first in protest at the partition of the island. The Unionist party used its political success to exclude nationalists from political influence. Northern Ireland was never a ‘normal’ democratic polity nor was it liberal. Unionists won every election and successfully maintained its vote within the unionist block, despite occasional left-wing and progressive challenges. In effect, Northern Ireland became an ethnic democracy on majoritarian grounds, with one-party rule and permanent exclusion of the minority.

The new government abolished proportional representation in local government elections in 1922 and gerrymandered constituencies where nationalists were in the majority. Proportional representation was also abolished in elections to the Northern Ireland parliament, reinforcing the majoritarian message that the government would not share power. The new government remained deeply suspicious of nationalists and Catholics. Indeed, it has been said of Sir Richard Dawson Bates, the Minister for Home Affairs (1921-43), that he considered all Catholics to be nationalists and all nationalists as traitors and not simply political enemies.[4] While unionism should not be seen as an undifferentiated movement, fears concerning the nationalist minority and insecurities in respect of the irredentist demands of the Irish state allowed hard line positions to be maintained.

Equilibrium was established during the 1920s between the majority and minority in Northern Ireland, but it was one that reinforced and perpetuated the political divisions between unionists and nationalists. Northern Ireland was not a normal democracy in terms of policing or judicial matters. The Royal Ulster Constabulary was a para-military armed force, dominated by Protestants; it was supplemented by a paramilitary reserve force, the B-Specials who were seen by nationalists as particularly sectarian in their operations. The primary focus of policing was the defence of the constitutional status quo. This focus was reinforced by special emergency legislation, which at first was renewed annually but later made permanent. The legislation was permissive and repressive. Emergency rule became the norm, reflecting the majority view that Northern Ireland was always under ‘siege’.

The judiciary and the civil service were also dominated by Protestants and the labour market was deeply segmented. Indeed unionist leaders encouraged employers to hire Protestants rather than Catholics in their firms. These and other features created two distinct communities (nations?), which were accordingly ‘socialized into conflict’ as Rose put it.[5] Majority and minority have very different historic memories and in Northern Ireland they have been conflictual. Successive generations have been socialised by inter-community conflict, political violence and repression. The two communities also inhabit distinct residential spheres, work separately and engage with different media outlets. Inter-community marriage has been rare, the communities are educated separately and they worship in different churches.

This status quo remained in place for fifty years. Unionists were convinced that successive UK governments would not intervene and they could ignore pressure to reform what had become a deeply divided sectarian society. Sharing power was never considered an option by unionists. A poll in 1978 reported that two thirds of Protestants agreed that ‘since Protestants are a majority, they should have the last word in how Northern Ireland is governed’, whereas Catholics were far less likely to adopt this position.

As a consequence the unionist government was ill prepared for the challenge to its dominance that the Civil Rights movement posed in the 1960s. By concentrating on reform and equality issues, the Civil Rights movement sought to by-pass the constitutional question. This appealed to liberal elements within unionism, who favoured reform and accommodation. These efforts were thwarted by hard-line unionists who perceived the challenge as an existential threat to the existence of Northern Ireland.

The protests and violence of the late 1960s brought the UK state directly back into Northern Ireland for the first time since 1920, deploying the British army in 1969 and taking increased responsibility for governing the area. During the crucial three years after 1969, the unionist leadership failed to address the demands for inclusion made by moderate nationalist leaders. They maintained that reforms had been put in place and that what remained were security issues to be dealt with as previously. Successive investigations and commissions revealed the deep sectarian disparities in the society and the one sided nature of the regime, undermining any residual unionist legitimacy.

The violence and intransigence of a significant section of unionism also provided the impetus for a new and extremely successful military campaign by the Provisional Irish Republican Army. It was to take nearly thirty years and over 3,000 deaths in the conflict that followed to achieve an outcome that was satisfactory to nationalists and tolerable to a majority of unionists. The British and Irish governments sought to establish a political framework for reconciling majority and minority interests within Northern Ireland. The power-sharing executive established in 1973 and the Sunningdale Agreement (December 1973) appeared to achieve this. However, a majority of unionists became disillusioned with the Agreement and the Ulster Workers Council strike in May 1974 led to the collapse of the executive. Notwithstanding this, the British government acknowledged that its commitment to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland was conditional, urging the unionist majority to compromise.

Yet unionists remained in the majority electorally and demographically into the 1990s. Moreover, their interests could not be ignored, but neither could they have a majoritarian veto over possible agreements. Negotiations to achieve a settlement had to achieve agreement between the two sovereign governments, between the two communities in Northern Ireland and within each of the communities. The Good Friday Agreement (1998) achieved the first and second of these objectives, but the unionist community split on the issue. In a referendum to ratify the agreement in May 1998, seventy-one per cent voted in favour, while twenty-nine per cent voted against. It is estimated that ninety-nine per cent of Catholics voted in favour, while just fifty-one per cent of Protestants did so. In elections to the new Northern Ireland Assembly, parties that supported the Agreement received seventy-five per cent of the vote. This was also the first election when a nationalist party became the largest party.

The Good Friday Agreement is a sophisticated arrangement to achieve consensus and cooperation between the two communities in Northern Ireland. It effectively undermines the concept of majority and minority for the purposes of governing, by providing a consociational model for power sharing, political cooperation and conflict resolution. The two nationalities are considered equal; eschewing majoritarianism to decide outcomes. Each nationality has an effective veto over legislation and outcomes. Consent and consensus building is at the heart of the Agreement, while power sharing at the executive level is mandatory. Decisions within the Assembly must reflect cross-community agreement. There must be a majority among both nationalist and unionist members for a simple majority to apply. Otherwise, a decision can be taken with the support of forty per cent of both unionists and nationalists, but only if the overall vote equals sixty per cent. All parties to the Agreement recognise Northern Ireland’s existing constitutional status, but the agreement also provides for a referendum on this question under specified circumstances. Other important features include a strong North-South Ministerial Council, improved human rights and legislation to enhance equality between the two communities. Institutions were also established to address issues related to policing, the judiciary and related matters.

The Agreement and its subsequent iterations have had a profound impact on Northern Irish politics and the relationships between majority and minority. The most immediate impact was the decline in violence and the ‘normalisation’ of policing and security. Co-operation between the unionist and nationalist parties at the Assembly and in the Executive, though often difficult, provided an opportunity for political and social change without violence. Ironically, one unintended consequence of the Agreement was that the more intransigent Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein now dominate the Assembly and the Executive due to their electoral success. However, this has shown the strength of the Agreement rather than its weakness, as cooperation between these two parties would have been considered unthinkable without the institutions in place. Critics have emphasised that the Agreement institutionalises the divisions between unionists and nationalists, privileging their interests over those of others. There is some truth in this, but it ignores the continuing importance of the division itself and the Agreement’s success in managing the relationship.

 In the twenty years since the Agreement was signed, Northern Ireland has changed in many ways. Nevertheless, politics continues to reflect the deeply segmented nature of the society. Denomination and national identity continue to determine how people vote. The unionist and nationalist blocks attract over eighty per cent of the votes at each election, while non-aligned parties remain marginal to this division. Furthermore, each denomination/nationality remains loyal to its respective national block. What has changed is the balance between the two blocks. At the 2017 Northern Ireland Assembly elections, each block captured the same number of seats, though unionists received more votes. Furthermore the question of majority or minority has not gone away but the context has changed. For the past hundred years Protestants were in the majority but this has been eroded. There is evidence that Catholics will be in the majority for the first time after the 2021 census and may already be so.[6] Demographic change may already be having a political impact. In a 2019 poll the united Ireland option was favoured by forty-six per cent over forty-five for staying in the UK.  This opens up the prospect of new majorities and minorities within the island of Ireland.

Brian Girvin is Professor of Comparative Politics (Emeritus) and Honorary Professor in Politics at the University of Glasgow. Brian’s research interests focus on the inter-relationship between democracy, nationalism and religion in a comparative context. He has published on conservatism in the twentieth century, majority nationalism in India and Ireland, the history of reproductive politics in Ireland and on political culture and modernization in the 19th and 20th centuries. Brian is completing a book length study, ‘Political Independence, Nationalism and Democracy since the French Revolution’.

The Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspective series is organized by the Myth of Homogeneity Research Project at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva.

For previous posts published in this series go to: https://networks.h-net.org/node/3911/pages/5740772/minorities-contemporary-and-historical-perspectives-monthly-series

Scholars interested in contributing to the series can contact:

Emmanuel Dalle Mulle: emmanuel.dallemulle-at-graduateinstitute.ch

Mona Bieling: mona.bieling-at-graduateinstitute.ch


[1] There is a considerable literature on Northern Ireland, partition and ethnic conflict in Ireland: Paul Bew, Ireland: The Politics of Enmity 1789-2006 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); David W. Miller, Queen’s Rebels: Ulster Loyalism in Historical Perspective (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1978); Brendan O’Leary, A Treatise on Northern Ireland: Volume I-III, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019) provide different perspectives on the complex issues involved.

[2] Richard Rose, Governing Without Consensus: An Irish Perspective (London: Faber and Faber, 1971) and Edward Moxon-Browne, Nation, Class and Creed in Northern Ireland (Aldershot: Gower, 1983); https://www.ark.ac.uk/nilt/2018/Political_Attitudes/IRBRIT.html

[3] See Paul Mitchell and Rick Wilford (Eds.), Politics in Northern Ireland (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1999) for a detailed discussion of these voting patterns and cleavages.

[4] Patrick Buckland, A History of Northern Ireland (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1981), 33.

[5] Rose, Governing Without Consensus, 327-55.

[6] href=”http://www.progressivepulse.org/ireland/are-there-are-more-cultural-catholics-or-protestants-in-northern-ireland”>http://www.progressivepulse.org/ireland/are-there-are-more-cultural-catholics-or-protestants-in-northern-ireland

Minority Questions as Complex Objects of Enquiry

On 27-28 February 2020 we organised a workshop on Sovereignty, Nationalism and Homogeneity in Europe between the Two World Wars.

For a day and a half, 18 scholars specialised in different aspects of late 19th and early 20th century European history met at the Graduate Institute Geneva to discuss intergroup relations and, more specifically, minority issues in interwar Europe. The papers presented at the event showcased the complexity of minority questions by using different approaches often emphasising varied aspects of majority-minority relations. While some participants examined majority-minority relations in different European countries from a broad comparative perspective, others looked more closely at specific cases or questioned the appropriateness of using the categories of majority and minority to refer to such groups. Others yet followed minority representatives and other individuals concerned with minority questions across borders and into interwar organisations and networks of activism.

A group picture of the participants taken on the morning of the second day.

The overall result was a rich exchange that highlighted how after Versailles, regardless of whether they lay in the ‘civilised West’ or the still ‘backward East’ (to quote some stereotypical views hegemonic at the time), European states tended to fit the populations living within their borders into neat ethno-cultural categories and, although to different degrees, promoted homogeneity through a wide range of nation-building strategies. Minority representatives and organisations vocally denounced violations of minority rights and fought for better protection of their cultural peculiarities, but, at the same time, often exaggerated the importance of group identity for the wider populations they claimed to speak for and the homogeneity of minorities themselves. At times, ordinary people followed the injunction of minority representatives; sometimes, however, they showed signs of ‘national indifference’ and based their behaviour on considerations and interests not directly linked to their purported national identity—of which in many cases they were not even aware. The rich, and sometimes contradictory, tapestry of perspectives stemming from the different panels highlighted the need for a multi-dimensional approach to interwar intergroup relations; one taking into account different actors, contexts and motivations for action.

Eric Weitz’ lecture on “The Global Struggle for Human Rights in the Age of Nation-States”.

In the evening of the first day, Eric Weitz, Distinguished Professor of History at City College and the Graduate Centre of the City University of New York, broadened the thematic contours of our workshop by presenting his wide-ranging new book, A World Divided: The Global Struggle for Human Rights in the Age of Nation-States. In the talk, Professor Weitz explored the relationship between nation-states, human rights and minority rights in the context of the ’emergence’ of minorities between the late 19th and early 20th century as well as during the process of decolonisation in Africa.

Apart from advocating the ‘multi-dimensional’ approach mentioned above, the workshop also contributed to bridging the East-West divide currently existing in the literature, whereby minority issues are still implicitly considered as a ‘Question of Eastern Europe’ (to quote the title of a famous interwar work on the subject) while the international history of majority-minority conflicts in Western Europe remains in its infancy.

The Myth of Homogeneity Team would like to thank the Swiss National Science Foundation, the Pierre du Bois Foundation, the Graduate Institute and the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy for their kind support as well as all the participants for their insightful contributions.

Below you can listen to the paper given at the workshop by our team members, Emmanuel and Mona, entitled Sovereignty and Homogeneity: A History of Majority-Minority Relations in Interwar Western Europe.