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Partition paradox: how Home Rule’s bitterest opponents became its pioneers

It is 100 years since the law giving the North its own parliament came into effect. Peter Hession retraces the steps that led to the division of the island and how a plan drafted in Dún Laoghaire harbour would shape our politics for the next century

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Edward Carson inspects a parade of armed Ulster Volunteers, the Ulster Unionist paramilitary force, in 1914

Edward Carson inspects a parade of armed Ulster Volunteers, the Ulster Unionist paramilitary force, in 1914

First prime minister: James Craig used his influence to reduce the number of ‘excluded’ counties from nine to six

First prime minister: James Craig used his influence to reduce the number of ‘excluded’ counties from nine to six

Members of The Ulster Volunteer Force with a mobile machine gun in 1914 during the Home Rule crisis

Members of The Ulster Volunteer Force with a mobile machine gun in 1914 during the Home Rule crisis

King George V during his visit to Belfast in June 1921 to open the Northern Parliament

King George V during his visit to Belfast in June 1921 to open the Northern Parliament

An anti-partition poster from the 1920s

An anti-partition poster from the 1920s

Irish Independent masthead from the 1920s

Irish Independent masthead from the 1920s

UCD Decade of Centenaries logo

UCD Decade of Centenaries logo

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Edward Carson inspects a parade of armed Ulster Volunteers, the Ulster Unionist paramilitary force, in 1914

On May 20, 1919, the HMS Enchantress moored at Kingstown harbour with first lord of the admiralty Walter Long on board. While the trip was reportedly “for the benefit of his health”, the following day the Irish Independent reported considerable speculation about his visit, given his reputation as “the minister who really controls government policy in this country”.

Long, a stalwart unionist, had decamped to the town (soon to be renamed Dún Laoghaire) with his parliamentary secretary James Craig to draft the law that would create the entity now known as Northern Ireland.

The Government of Ireland Act 1920 would mark a turning point. Up to this point, unionists in the north had been pushing to be ‘excluded’ from any Home Rule administration based in Dublin. The legislation drafted on the Enchantress went beyond this to propose a separate government for the north.

This was initially planned to cover all nine counties of Ulster, balanced against a southern nationalist administration with the potential of unification via a ‘Council of Ireland’. Craig, the future Viscount Craigavon, would exert his considerable influence to reduce this to six counties with a solid unionist majority. He would go on to be the first prime minister in this “Protestant parliament”.

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First prime minister: James Craig used his influence to reduce the number of ‘excluded’ counties from nine to six

First prime minister: James Craig used his influence to reduce the number of ‘excluded’ counties from nine to six

First prime minister: James Craig used his influence to reduce the number of ‘excluded’ counties from nine to six

In legislative terms, the drama of partition played out in three acts. The Government of Ireland Act, which came into force 100 years ago on Monday, was the linchpin of these. But even at this point, the enduring reality of partition remained far from certain. To many unionists, the notion of a partitioned Ulster containing six of the province’s counties represented an artificial construct, one rooted in pragmatism over principle.

Partition represented a paradox. Unionists, who had fought so bitterly against Irish Home Rule for almost half a century, ended up becoming its first and only pioneers.

The ‘Ulsterisation’ of unionism was partly dictated by the dawning age of mass politics. In 1905, the founding of the Ulster Unionist Council (UCC) — a modern political organisation — marked unionism’s shift in style and focus towards mass organisation and away from aristocratic leadership. This break was intensified when the Liberal government, supported by Irish nationalists, abolished the House of Lords’ veto over legislation in 1911.

Many unionists feared Westminster now had greater power to ‘betray’ their cause, and this produced a dramatic confrontation with the state between 1912 and 1914.

The Ulster crisis

The historian ATQ Stewart described the Ulster crisis leading up to World War I as the “most bitter” to affect British politics since the 17th century. Partition emerged as a response to both the threat of unionist political violence and the British state’s unwillingness to confront it.

This began with the formation of the Ulster Volunteers in April 1912. This was a militia dedicated to defeating what Ulster’s Solemn League and Covenant — a tract signed by just under half a million unionists at the end of September — called the “conspiracy” of Home Rule. Yet even before a Liberal backbencher first publicly urged an amendment to the third Home Rule Bill to allow counties to ‘contract out’ of an all-Ireland settlement in June 1912, influential cabinet members including David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill (then a Liberal) privately voiced fears of civil war if the issue was forced.

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Liberals also feared their opponents would “play the Orange card” as Randolph Churchill, Winston’s father, had urged his Conservative Party to do during the first Home Rule crisis of 1886. Following his example, the Tory opposition leader Andrew Bonar Law chose to stoke the fires of unionist militancy by telling a rally of supporters in July 1912: “There are things stronger than parliamentary majorities… I can imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster can go in which I should not be prepared to support them.”

Within a year, demands for ‘exclusion’ were morphing into assertions of self-rule, marking a fundamental shift in what partition would come to mean. Writing to Bonar Law in September 1913, the Dublin-born unionist leader Edward Carson declared he was determined to “settle on the terms of leaving Ulster out… if Home Rule is inevitable”.

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An anti-partition poster from the 1920s

An anti-partition poster from the 1920s

An anti-partition poster from the 1920s

Just four days later, the UUC issued the Ulster Proclamation of a Provisional Government, which asserted its right to govern “the Province” of Ulster “in Trust for the British Nation”.

In March 1914, the Liberal prime minister Herbert Asquith finally made public his support for certain Ulster counties to be allowed temporary ‘exclusion’ from Home Rule — for three years, later revised to six. The Ulster crisis was reaching it height.

In the ‘Curragh mutiny’ the same month, more than 60 army officers in Ireland under the leadership of Brigadier General Hubert Gough threatened to resign rather than confront Ulster militants who were seeking to import arms. Gough went as far as to pledge that he would “fight for Ulster rather than against her”. Echoing Stewart’s assessment, Lloyd George declared in parliament that the debacle represented “the greatest issue raised in this country since the days of the Stuarts”.

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Members of The Ulster Volunteer Force with a mobile machine gun in 1914 during the Home Rule crisis

Members of The Ulster Volunteer Force with a mobile machine gun in 1914 during the Home Rule crisis

Members of The Ulster Volunteer Force with a mobile machine gun in 1914 during the Home Rule crisis

Shortly afterwards, the UUC landed 25,000 rifles and three million rounds of ammunition sourced from Germany at Larne, Donaghadee and Bangor on April 24, a feat backed by senior Conservatives and facilitated by the collusion of state authorities. This contrasted sharply with the interception of the nationalist Irish Volunteers’ haul of 1,500 rifles at Howth in July, and the subsequent killing of four unarmed civilians.

As Ulster unionism emerged from the spring of 1914 as an armed force with the backing of key sections of the British military and political establishment, Carson damned the Home Rule Act, passed on May 25, 1914, as merely “a sentence of death with a stay of execution”.

Having agreed to a temporary ‘exclusion’, nationalists meanwhile sought to limit its extent at a conference held at Buckingham Palace in July. As Asquith ruefully noted, the Irish Party leader John Redmond and Carson remained locked in a stalemate, as each told the other: “I must have the whole of Tyrone, or die.” Only the outbreak of World War I a fortnight later, and the suspension of the Home Rule Act, appeared to halt a civil war.

Realising partition

The stalemate over the extent and timeframe of Ulster’s ‘exclusion’ was obliterated by the Easter Rising, after which the government — since 1915 including Ulster unionists — moved to institute Home Rule “at the earliest practicable moment”.

In June 1916, both unionists and nationalists sought the approval of their grassroots but on the basis of diametrically opposed promises from London: the UUC on the assurance of permanent exclusion; and the Irish Party on the prospect of a strictly temporary exclusion, helping to convince Ulster nationalists led by Joseph Devlin. Once Westminster’s duplicity became public, the humiliated Irish Party retracted its endorsement. Its public support, in the words of John Dillon, plummeted “downhill at an ever-accelerated pace”.

This episode — confirmed by the failure of the moderate Irish Convention in 1917 — underlined the collapse of both the Irish Party and southern unionism alike, as Sinn Féin and the Ulster Unionists headed into the earthquake 1918 general election.

The post-war Paris Peace Conference, which led to the creation of new states out of former empires, combined with the formation of the first Dáil and outbreak of the War of Independence, informed the next major leap towards partition: the Government of Ireland Act 1920.

Devlin, speaking for Ulster nationalists, immediately apprehended “permanent partition” while Carson embraced the notion of six-county ‘Home Rule’ on the basis that “once it is granted… you cannot knock parliaments up and down… you cannot get rid of them”. This precipitated a final break with southern unionism.

As northern nationalists triumphed in local elections run on proportional representation in the first half of 1920, assuming control of Derry City, Fermanagh and Tyrone, sectarian riots and the ongoing insurgency led the province into civil war. While Carson declared an “invasion of Ulster” to be under way, in July 1920 there were mass expulsions of 11,000 — or one in 10 — Catholic residents from their places of work in Belfast, costing 550 lives and unleashing successive waves of sectarian ‘pogroms’.

Even before Northern Ireland formally came into existence following the elections of May 1921, Craig had secured from Westminster the right to begin building a state apparatus. Despite warnings from the British army that “the arming of the Protestant population of Ulster will mean the outbreak of civil war”, the British government facilitated the creation of the Ulster Special Constabulary — consisting of full-time (“A”), part-time (“B”) and reserve (“C”) units — as an alternative to direct integration of the Ulster Volunteer Force.


Skirmishes between ‘Specials’ and the IRA continued up to eve of the truce in July 1921, when 14 people were killed and 150 expelled from their homes in what became known as Belfast’s Bloody Sunday.

The Dáil’s response to such atrocities was a boycott on all goods and funds from Belfast, which began in August 1920 and lasted up to the Craig-Collins Pact of January 1922. During this period, while the 1920 Act had established a state in Northern Ireland, the corollary ‘Home Rule’ parliament intended for the south was stillborn and the second Dáil was instead elected.

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King George V during his visit to Belfast in June 1921 to open the Northern Parliament

King George V during his visit to Belfast in June 1921 to open the Northern Parliament

King George V during his visit to Belfast in June 1921 to open the Northern Parliament

It was not until that Dáil voted to ratify the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, with its creation of a 26-county Free State with dominion status and the promise of a boundary commission, that partition was formalised.

The wider fallout from the treaty helped to cement partition. The outbreak of the Civil War, partial continuation of the boycott and the failure of the IRA’s ‘Northern Offensive’ in the summer of 1922 critically weakened northern republicanism while a new state gathered strength north of the Border.

When a delegation of Ulster nationalists sought assistance from the Free State in October 1922, they were curtly informed “we have no other policy for the North East than… the Treaty policy”. This marked, in the words of historian Diarmaid Ferriter, a “washing of southern hands” that cemented the Border long before the final Boundary Agreement of 1925.

Dr Peter Hession is the Newman fellow in Irish history at University College Dublin

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Irish Independent masthead from the 1920s

Irish Independent masthead from the 1920s

Irish Independent masthead from the 1920s

‘Ulster stands as she did’

From the Irish Independent, May 7, 1921

Sir James Craig stated in Belfast yesterday that Ulster having, by her acceptance of the Government of Ireland Act, reached the limit of concession, no further discussion [about its constitutional status] would be entered into.

Éamon de Valera and Sinn Féin, he declared, were fully aware that Ulster would not consent to any Republic. He defied any authority — whether it was the British government or Mr de Valera — to take their parliament from them once it was rooted in their soil.

Sir James presided at a party meeting in Belfast yesterday and reported to his colleagues on the informal conference he had had with Mr de Valera.
The official report stated that he had made the following statement: “When the parliaments have been established and the Council of Ireland has been constituted, there will be the necessary constitutional link between Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland.”

He added: “Mr de Valera and Sinn Féin are fully aware that Ulster stands where she did and that neither you nor I — nor, indeed, any loyalist in Ulster — would for a moment consent to a Republic or any weakening of ties between Ulster and Great Britain and this empire.”

No change had taken place, he said, and no single atom had been given up.

He said there were parts of Ireland where life was cheap, where the assassin stalked and where horror after horror was perpetrated in the name of a Republic, and even at their own doors the most desperate and foul outrages had been committed.

Could he carry his burden if he thought he had not done his little bit to try to come to some understanding whereby this foul campaign might be mitigated? He added: “I only hope that the expectations of immediate peace might not be too high, either across the water or here.”


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