Why the Partition of Ireland?

Charles Townshend

On the 100-year anniversary of the founding of Northern Ireland, an account of the events that led to partition in May 1921.
Sir Edward Carson
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Was the Partition of Ireland the ‘logic of the Irish situation’, or the failure of British statesmanship – or, as Irish nationalists have always believed, by Britain’s desire to hold on to part of Ireland? Was partition a necessary expedient or a deliberate strategy? It emerged through unionist resistance to the project of Irish Home Rule – an Irish parliament in Dublin – and the question must be whether that project could have been recast in such a way as to avoid dividing the country. Why would Ulster Unionists not accept ‘reasonable’ adjustments to devolution – such as an Ulster veto within the Irish parliament, or some form of ‘home rule within home rule’? Nationalists attribute this to loyalist ‘bigotry’ and desire for domination; Unionists to their fear of dispossession under Catholic majority rule. Both perspectives clearly have deep historical roots.

Serious discussion of partition began with a proposed amendment to the third Home Rule bill in 1912. Put down by a fairly obscure Liberal backbencher, Tommy Agar-Robartes, a polo-playing nonconformist Devonian yeomanry officer, in defiance of his party’s formal commitment to all-Ireland Home Rule, it spoke not of partition – a word first used by outraged Irish nationalists – but of the ‘exclusion’ of four north-eastern counties from the jurisdiction of a Dublin parliament. Agar-Robartes’s argument was that there were two ‘incongruous elements’ in Ireland – in fact ‘two nations different in sentiment, character, history and religion’. He asserted that ‘everyone will admit’ this. Was he right? Certainly, it was a contention with a long history. What we might now label as partitionist arguments had first appeared as soon as Daniel O’Connell’s campaign to repeal the 1801 Act of Union got under way. The leading historian Lord Macaulay declared in parliament that O’Connell could adduce no argument for a Dublin parliament that would not equally justify one in Londonderry.

After the failure of the Repeal campaign, a less radical movement emerged for ‘home rule’. It was deliberately designed to maintain the structure of the Union, so heading off unionist objections. In the first Home Rule bill proposed by the Liberal leader William Ewart Gladstone in 1885, Ireland was offered no more than limited devolution; but even this provoked flat rejection. Not least from within the Liberal party itself, where the iconic radical John Bright insisted that the ‘loyal and Protestant people’ of Ulster must not be ‘excluded from the protection of the Imperial Parliament’. Joseph Chamberlain took the same line, and fatally split the Liberal party. Outside parliament, grassroots Ulster loyalism was mobilising, and by the time Gladstone brought in a second Home Rule bill in 1892 (vetoed by the House of Lords) the threat of organised resistance was unmistakable.

The Ulster Covenant of 1912

The formation of ‘loyal and Protestant’ Ulster had been a striking feature of Irish politics after the Union. Before it, Protestants had been divided; Presbyterians like Catholics suffered from civil disabilities, and were prominent in the republican United Irish movement which allied with revolutionary France in the 1790s. Under the Union, though, Protestants gradually united against the threat of repeal and the possibility of a Dublin parliament which would (unlike the pre-Union Irish parliament) be predominantly Catholic. By the time the Home Rule movement emerged, Presbyterians – who had rarely been described as ‘Protestants’ – had become the most dynamic constituent of a pan-Protestant identity. An extraordinary evangelical movement in the early 19th century emphasised cultural divergence. Loyalists took the dramatic growth and prosperity of Belfast itself as emblematic of Protestant virtue, as the preacher Henry Cook challenged, ‘look on Belfast and be a Home Ruler – if you dare!’

This sense of difference was significantly magnified by an equally striking shift in the character of Irish nationalism. The launching of the ‘Irish-Ireland’ movement in the year of the second Home Rule bill initiated a kind of cultural revolution, leading to Patrick Pearse’s resonant insistence that Ireland must become ‘not free merely, but Gaelic also’. Alignment of Irishness with an overwhelmingly (for some perhaps almost exclusively) Catholic identity made it inevitable that those who did not subscribe to this identity would be seen by some (on both sides) as not truly Irish. Most nationalists, though, still claimed them as part of the political ‘Irish nation’.

The confluence of this cultural radicalism with the reign of ‘the most reactionary of modern popes’, Pius X – whose 1907 decree Ne temere institutionalized Catholic hostility to ‘mixed marriages’ – created a kind of perfect storm conditions for the revival of the Home Rule project in 1910. The redefinition of Irishness was not ostensibly political, but the political movement which grew out of it, Sinn Fein (founded in 1906), confirmed the view that Unionists had always taken of home rule. It was a deception: it would produce not devolution, but separation. When the Liberal party (returned to power in 1906) brought in a third home rule measure as part of a deal with the Irish party to carry the 1911 Parliament Act, abolishing the veto power of the Lords, the reaction was violently hostile.

Agar-Robartes’s exclusion proposal was rejected by Asquith’s government in 1912, but the idea grew in attraction as the threat of resistance took increasingly ominous shape. The government faced the possibility not just of armed resistance in Ulster, but of a larger civil conflict spilling over into Britain. British public dislike of home rule, though never measured at the polls, was significant, and the celebrated signing of the Ulster Covenant in September 1912 was followed by a British Covenant movement. Grandees like the former commander-in-chief Lord Roberts, and the Imperial proconsul Lord Milner, set out to organise mass resistance and even to subvert the obedience of the army to the government.

David Lloyd George

This was a serious test of the Liberal commitment to home rule in its Gladstonian form. Some ministers, like Winston Churchill, may have been ready to face down the threatened resistance. But David Lloyd George, the Chancellor whose 1909 ‘People’s Budget’ had precipitated the clash with the House of Lords, saw the potential traction of exclusion. Over the next few years he would be central to its gradual evolution. It is clear that he – a native Welsh speaker – was not wholly persuaded by the Irish nationalist case, and he occasionally said enough to suggest that he shared the enduring nonconformist distrust of Catholicism: ‘no Pope here’. Though he spoke against the Agar-Robartes amendment along with the rest of the Liberal front bench, he quickly latched on to the project of allowing the four counties to opt out of home rule temporarily. Over the next 18 months the Cabinet came round to his view, and early in 1914 after repeated juggling with mechanisms of ‘home rule within home rule’ designed to preserve a single Irish polity, Asquith offered a six-year exclusion on the basis of ‘county option’. This was in order to guarantee a general election in the meantime.

As Lloyd George saw, this proposal put both nationalists and Ulster unionists on the spot. But while the former accepted that to reject such an apparently reasonable compromise might fatally alienate British opinion, Carson rejected the ‘stay of execution’ and demanded permanent exclusion, as well as a clean cut for the whole nine counties of Ulster, with no ‘option’. The issue was left there when the Great War broke out, but in the aftermath of the 1916 Easter rebellion, Asquith looked to snatch a quick home rule agreement. He inevitably turned to Lloyd George, who tried to broker a solution which would offer Ulster permanent exclusion while convincing the nationalists that it might be temporary. He came closer than anyone before, but was scuppered by the surviving southern Unionists in the Cabinet, who turned out to be doughtier opponents of partition than John Redmond himself. After Lloyd George became prime minister in the December 1916 coup, he recruited their most stolid spokesman, Walter Long, as architect of the home rule arrangement. This was urgently required to show the US that Britain was moving with the Wilsonian current towards self-determination.

Walter Long

Long had no desire to revive home rule, but it was clear that the 1914 Government of Ireland (home rule) Act – passed under the ‘party truce’ at the start of the war, but suspended for its duration – could not come into force. In 1919, with abstentionist Sinn Fein MPs forming Dail Eireann and declaring Ireland a republic, an alternative structure had to be found. Long’s drafting committee went beyond ‘exclusion’ to propose two home rule parliaments. Most Unionists still saw this as ‘expulsion’ from the UK, but it had the virtue of getting rid of what Long called ‘the tap root of the Irish difficulty’ by ensuring ‘the complete removal of British rule from the whole of Ireland’.

The remaining question was the size of the northern area. Long favoured the whole nine-county ‘historic province’ of Ulster, and hung on to this idea even after it became clear that Ulster Unionist leaders were insisting on a six-county unit – ‘as much of Ulster as we can hold’. His belief that an Ulster parliament would ‘enormously minimize the partition issue’ was based on his hope that such a body would be more likely to move towards unification through the Council of Ireland he built into the bill. Such hopes led ministers to press for this until the day before the fourth Government of Ireland Bill had its first reading on 25 February 1920. In the 10 March Punch cartoon of ‘The Welsh Wizard’ cutting a map of Ireland in two to place in a top hat labelled ‘Irish Council’ (‘After a suitable interval they will be found to have come together of their own accord – at least let’s hope so…), Ulster was still shown whole. But by then the argument of the Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour that a nine-county division would lead to dangerous irredentism, had proved decisive.

The ‘partition act’ became law on 23 December 1920, and came into operation in May 1921 with elections to the Southern and Northern Parliaments. In the ten months it took to enact it, British rule throughout most of southern Ireland disintegrated. In Belfast, the reaction to the IRA campaign was a sustained attack on the Catholic population, with thousands driven from their workplaces and homes. In September a six-county civil administration began to be set up, and in November the Ulster Special Constabulary, a key emblem of partition, was raised. By the time the elections were held, martial law was in force in south-western Ireland and there was no chance of the Southern Parliament assembling: the mostly unopposed Sinn Feiners became the Second Dail. Ulster Unionists took a comfortable majority in the Northern Parliament which met in Belfast in June. The prospects of the Council of Ireland maintaining a framework of unity had always been slim, but now it could not even begin to function. The border line might not yet be finalised, but partition was nonetheless complete.

It has often been said that partition was a solution sought by nobody and this is, in a sense, true enough. This is not to suggest, however, that an alternative with greater political determination or competence, could have been found. The political cleavage revealed by the home rule project grew more dramatic as the crisis persisted. Partition was shunned for years, but its appeal, if negative, eventually grew. Its direct beneficiaries, the unionists of Ulster, took a long time to embrace it, though when they eventually did the embrace was enthusiastic. The 1921 election generated euphoria, and the state opening of the Northern Parliament was the ultimate northern Protestant triumph. But did partition – as many nationalists believe – primarily deliver what Britain really wanted? Not on the public evidence. The political establishment was vocal in its commitment to Irish unity. Asquith was able to convince himself that ‘exclusion’ was not partition, and though Lloyd George was less squeamish, his government bowed to Ulster Unionism with no sign of enthusiasm for it. The bottom line, as Balfour had brutally put it in 1918, was that for Britain, Ireland had become ‘a sheer weakness’.

Professor Charles Townshend is the author of the highly praised Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion and The Republic: The Fight for Irish Independence, 1918-1923. The Partition: Ireland Divided, 1885-1925 forms the third part of his trilogy on how Ireland became independent. This piece featured in the third issue of Aspects of History.