The partition of Ireland has been seen solely as the product of British imperialism.
It has been alleged that Westminster politicians manufactured opposition to Irish self-government in Ulster, so enabling Britain to preserve its toe-hold in the northeast.
Others see it as having been contrived by the region’s semi-feudal aristocracy and commercial elite, who exploited the prejudices of the tenantry and urban labour force to advance their own narrow class interests.
Neither of these explanations bears critical examination.
The Easter rebellion and its repercussions largely determined the context for the genesis of Northern Ireland. Those planning rebellion at Easter 1916 gave little thought to the opposition to Irish independence in the northeast.
Their priority was to proceed with the insurrection, and they regarded the Ulster question as an issue best dealt with later.
They had, however, no doubt that the Irish nation was geographically, politically and culturally indivisible and dismissed any notion that a majority in one region of the country had as much right to remain in the British state as they themselves had to secede from it.
The Easter Rising helped define the goal of Irish nationalism as a thirty-two county independent republic, Gaelic in culture and Catholic in ethos. It also legitimised the physical-force tradition as the means to attain it, and provided the precedent for an elitist minority to achieve violently its vision of Ireland’s future.
In Pearse’s words, “the national demand of Ireland is fixed and determined ... we have not the right to alter it”.
After the insurrection Sinn Féin displaced the Irish Parliamentary Party and in 1917 committed itself to using “every means available” to achieve an “independent Irish republic.”
De Valera asserted that it would complete this “holy task”, so that the “Irish race” would be “permitted to build up the great nation which God intended it to be.”
The Ulster question was projected as being due to the British presence in Ireland. Once independence was achieved, the problem would resolve itself, but not by applying any principle of unionist consent.
De Valera described the Protestants in the northeast as “an alien garrison ... Ulster must be coerced if she stood in the way”.
In the December 1918 election, Sinn Féin was victorious in all but three of the constituencies in Leinster, Munster and Connacht, and regarded this as a mandate for an Irish republic.
Discounting the result in Ulster, the party’s successful candidates assembled as the First Dáil in January 1919, and declared the establishment of a republic, claiming authority over the whole island.
As with the Rising, the outbreak of the Anglo-Irish War was due to the action of a small and unrepresentative minority.
Over the next two years, sporadic violence escalated into a pattern of terror, counter-terror and reprisal. In these unpromising circumstances Britain attempted a solution to the Irish question: the government of Ireland Act, December 1920.
Ireland was to be partitioned and two states established, each with home rule powers. The Act brought no abatement in the conflict.
Eventually, the Anglo-Irish truce was agreed in July, 1921 and, after protracted negotiations, Sinn Féin and the British government signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December, 1921.
It fell short of the republic proclaimed in 1916 and reaffirmed by the Dáil, but it did provide for a greater level of Irish self-government than the 1920 Act.
Nationalist leaders attributed partition to Britain’s duplicity, inherent colonialism and nefarious influence. Lloyd George summarised Arthur Griffith’s view as “Ulster would come in if [Britain] let her alone”.
Nationalists refused to acknowledge the fact that it was the unionists in Ulster rather than politicians in Britain who were the real obstacle to their securing a thirty-two county Irish republic.
Yet Ulster Unionism had emerged as far back as the 1880s in opposition to the first Home Rule bill. By 1900 it had become a disciplined movement with a broad social base.
In 1912 the Liberal administration introduced the third Home Rule bill, which seemed destined to pass through parliament. Protest rallies and demonstrations illustrated the scale of unionist objection.
A striking feature of northern unionism during these years was how greater militancy came from the movement’s rank and file.
RIC Special Branch reported that by February 1912 there were 12,000 loyalists drilling at 100 separate locations. On Covenant Day (September 28, 1912) over 470,000 signatories swore that they were willing to use “all means ... to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule parliament in Ireland”.
Their opposition was ignored, and the measure continued to progress through Westminster.
On December 13, the allegedly manipulative upper-class leaders responded to rank-and-file pressure by setting up the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). By the summer of 1914, 90,000 men had enlisted in the UVF.
Unionism had grown naturally out of the soil of Ulster politics, but the effectiveness of its campaign was certainly enhanced by the backing of vital elements in the British establishment.
These included the Conservative Party, King George V, and the officer class within the army.
By mid-1913 the Unionist leadership had become reconciled to the inevitability of Home Rule, and was arguing for a solution based on partition.
Gradually the principle that special provision should be made for the northeast was becoming firmly established at Westminster.
The Home Rule bill was placed on the statute book on 18 September, 1914, though its operation was suspended until after the war.
During the war the political position of northern unionists became stronger.
Ulster unionists in common with their supporters in Britain regarded the Easter rebellion as a “stab in the back”.
In negotiations held after the insurrection, the terms Britain offered Edward Carson were that Ireland would be granted home rule, but that the six north-eastern counties would be excluded.
The talks collapsed because the Irish Parliamentary Party insisted that this arrangement should last for no more than three to six years.
Nonetheless, for the first time both sides had reached agreement over the area to be partitioned and on terms which foreshadowed those of the Government of Ireland Act.
Historians agree that weeks later unionists attained a new credibility within British political life as a consequence of the collective sacrifice made by the 36th (Ulster) Division at the Battle of the Somme (1-2 July, 1916).
The Government of Ireland Act (December 1920) reflected a broad British consensus on the Irish question. Lloyd George considered that in partitioning Ireland and making provision for the establishment of parliaments in Belfast and Dublin, he was honouring past imperial commitments to unionists.
He also believed that the arrangement would assuage northern nationalists who, he assumed, would resent direct rule from London more than being governed by their fellow-islanders.
Moreover, he wished to avoid giving any impression that Britain was ruling the northern minority against its will, or was actively supporting unionists in their refusal to unite with the south.
In addition, the Act would enable Westminster to disengage from Irish affairs, while protecting its own vital interests.
Though Unionist MPs abstained from voting on the bill, they accepted it as the most favourable they were likely to be offered. Its provisions recognised the reality of the political divisions in Ireland and embedded in it was the principle of unionist consent to unity.
Moreover it would provide them with greater security than continued direct rule from Westminster. To ensure that the incipient institutions were more amenable to Unionist Party control, its MPs amended the measure in parliament, reducing the partitioned area from the nine counties it proposed to six, and ensuring that the senate precisely reflected the relative strength of the political parties in the lower house.
The Act came into operation on 3 May, 1921, and elections for the fifty-two seats in the new House of Commons in Belfast were held on 24 May.
All forty Unionist candidates were successful, winning a 67% share of the poll. Sir James Craig, who had succeeded Sir Edward Carson as Party leader in January, 1921, became the state’s first premier.
In his speech at the opening of the Northern Ireland parliament (22 June), King George V implored Irishmen to “stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation, to forgive and forget”.
It was followed by the Anglo-Irish truce (11 July) and the end of the Anglo-Irish war.
There seemed grounds for optimism.
In his public statements Craig stated that he would “look to the people as a whole” and be “absolutely fair”, and he appealed for cooperation and friendship with Southern Ireland.
Guided by Westminster it seemed possible that his intentions and aspirations would be realised. He assumed that Britain regarded the new institutions as being sacrosanct, as he did.
If it soon became evident that this was not to be the case, subsequent events proved that partition had been devised as an attempt to avert conflict between factions on the island whose identities went deeper than social class, British hegemony, or economic self-interest.
• Dr Brian Barton is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and former tutor at the Open University. His latest book is The Northern Ireland Question: Perspectives on Nationalism and Unionism (2020), co-edited with Patrick Roche, former lecturer in economics at the University of Ulster
• Taken from ‘The Idea of the Union: Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ edited by John Wilson Foster & William Beattie Smith. Contributors include David and Daphne Trimble, Owen Polley, Baroness Hoey, Dr Graham Gudgin, Jeff Dudgeon and Ben Lowry. Blackstaff Press, £12.99
• More on ‘The Idea of the Union’ below:
• Extract from ‘The Idea of the Union’ Jan 1: It is time for moderate civic unionism, for too long muted, to speak up or lose the Union
• Extract from ‘The Idea of the Union’ Dec 18: Claims of past bias against Catholics are greatly exaggerated
• Extract Dec 11: Lawfare against the UK state by nationalists cannot lose
• Extract Dec 8: There is silence among the Irish about their relocation to Britain
• Extract Dec 4: London is a cultural capital for the Irish
• Extract from David Trimble, Nov 27: I feel betrayed by the Northern Ireland Protocol, which rips out the heart of the 1998 Belfast Agreement
• Book Review of ‘The Idea of the Union’ Nov 20: Unionist leaders should read this vital defence of NI’s place in UK
• Authors of ‘The Idea of the Union’ Oct 30: We probe Irish nationalist myths in our new book which defends the Union
• Letter from Joe Lynam Dec 14: Book author is out of date about Irish voices in Britain, because we laud our contented lives in UK
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