This compelling story of how partition came about features Tory divisions, unionist suspicions and an enduring ‘border in the mind’, writes Ed McCann
In the pantheon of dates in the Decade of Centenaries, the 100th anniversary of the foundation of Northern Ireland may well be the one that passes with the least fanfare — or certainly the least planned fanfare.
Even on the sleeve of Charles Townshend’s textured and erudite exposition, The Partition, the division of the island is described as “ultimately a tragic story”. It is also a bitterly contested story, though Townshend steers a steady course throughout.
The Partition takes a chronological approach to charting the path from the first parliamentary bill proposing Home Rule for Ireland in the 1880s to the creation of a home rule parliament for Northern Ireland in 1921. In the era of post-Brexit fallout, some of the headlines might sound all too familiar. There were political machinations involving the Conservative Party, unionist fears over the loss of trade with Great Britain and antipathy towards an alien Irish nationalist project. Added into the mix was fear of ‘Rome rule’ — a fear that in retrospect seems perspicacious.
Townshend also demonstrates convincingly that partition was not a phenomenon that appeared out of nowhere and at times he provides an interesting counterweight to the traditional Irish nationalist narrative.
The idea of a united Ireland (or reunited Ireland) has come sharply into focus again as we deal with the fallout from Brexit, the shifting demographics in Northern Ireland and the rise of Sinn Féin in the Republic. What is interesting is that many of the most fundamental issues from 100 years ago are still the same.
Townshend is very good at demonstrating nationalists’ continual underestimation or dismissal of Ulster unionism as an ephemeral phenomenon. The idea that unionists might have a legitimate claim to a separate ‘national’ identity was never given any credence.
He also details how nationalism managed to profess an almost spiritual commitment to the indivisibility of the island while being antagonistic to the North, or seeing it as a place apart.
He argues, interestingly, that a civic, inclusive view of Irishness in the 1800s was replaced by a Gaelic, Catholic and exclusive view of Irishness. This was implicit in the Home Rule movement, according to Townshend, but it became explicit with the rise of a more radical, cultural nationalism seeking to “eliminate British cultural influence”. He goes so far as to argue that the “logical implication of the Irish-Ireland movement was partition — the exclusion of those who did not identify as Irish”.
A page juxtaposing maps of the Protestant populations in Ireland according to the census in 1911 and 1991 starkly illustrates the decline of those with British heritage in the 26 counties that became the Republic. In 1911, there were only six counties with less than 10pc Protestant population. Eight decades later, only six counties had more than 10pc.
The idea of accommodating unionists today is one that is rarely addressed seriously. In a recent debate on a united Ireland on RTÉ, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar did float the idea that a united Ireland might not just be about absorption of the North. Would everything be up for grabs? Would Gaelic nomenclature have to go? Would the flag have to change? Are residents of the Republic willing to contemplate potentially unpalatable realities?
Townshend’s narrative gives weight to a ‘two nations’ analysis — or certainly supports the idea that partition was a recognition of realities on the ground. The various British governments seem to play the part more of perplexed Albion than perfidious Albion, reluctantly moving towards accommodating unionist demands. This interpretation is certainly open to challenge.
Even if one accepts a ‘two nations’ analysis or a variation on it, the debate over the Border from 1912 through to 1925 shows that whatever about a cultural, religious and ethnic gulf between Ulster unionism and Irish nationalism, this did not lend itself to a neat delineation on a map.
At first, Ulster unionism was definitively of the nine-county variety. Unionists from Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan signed the Ulster Covenant of 1912. In the end, pragmatism won the day, as the loyalist Fred Crawford wrote, adding the other three counties “would be like overloading a lifeboat”.
Even then, the six counties were not a fixed frontier for everyone. JR Fisher, editor of the Unionist paper The Northern Whig, was one of the Boundary Commissioners in 1925. Three years earlier he had told Northern Ireland’s first prime minister, James Craig, that he wanted “north Monaghan in Ulster and South Armagh out” to simplify the frontier and maximise “homogeneity”.
One area where I found the book to be weaker was in exploring the perspective of Irish nationalists in the six counties who were consigned to a state to which they felt no attachment. It is interesting to note that they did not switch their support to Sinn Féin in the same way as southern nationalists from 1916 onwards. I often wonder if this was a reflection of an alienation from Sinn Féin’s idealism and cultural nationalism that ignored unionist hegemony in the north-east.
But back to Crawford’s lifeboat analogy. The lifeboat is now being overloaded by the rise of the Catholic/nationalist population. A majority in favour of a united Ireland at some stage in the next 10 to 15 years — or possibly sooner — could well be inevitable. But that will not solve the ‘border in the mind’ that is as fixed as ever between Ulster unionism and nationalism. That will require a greater leap of imagination.
History: The Partition: Ireland Divided, 1885-1925 by Charles Townshend
Allen Lane, 368 pages, hardcover, €30.90; e-book £12.99