The Lasting Pain of Ireland’s Partition

Partition was one of Britain’s favorite tools as it retreated from Empire — but it came at a cost. The partition of Ireland, 100 years ago this month, reverberates still with tragic consequences

The Lasting Pain of Ireland’s Partition
The statue of Sir Edward Carson, a leader of the Irish Unionists/Belfast, Northern Ireland/Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images

What is it about the British and their obsession with partition? Palestine, India, and Ireland — in each, Britain’s colonial obsession with cartography has left a legacy of bitterness, division, and violence that shows no sign of abating. Lines on a map may seem like neat solutions to man-made problems, but for millions they are often a visible record of injustice, oppression, and dispossession.

Maps represent the spoils of war. They are history made visible, and they are the means through which history continues to exert control on people who find themselves on the wrong side of the line.

Divide and conquer is a device used often by aggressors. But Britain has a track record of using it as a way of sowing disharmony after the imperial flag is lowered and the army has decamped. You don’t have to be that old to remember maps of the world where the boast that the sun never sets on the British empire was played out in shades of scarlet. There is a reason red is the color associated with the empire.

Given the dynamics of news, we tend to focus on the horrors of the latest atrocity when violence erupts on these fault lines, forgetting the circumstances that created them and overlooking the responsibility of those who caused the mayhem and then beat a hasty retreat.

This year marks the centenary of one of those malicious acts of history: the partition of Ireland, the establishment of a sectarian statelet in the northeast of the island, and the beginning of a whole new set of injustices that have fueled successive outbursts of civil strife. As Northern Ireland considers the moment of its creation — on May 3, 1921 — it remains a deeply divided and troubled part of the world.

Although technically at peace following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, and with a power-sharing administration in place, Northern Ireland continues to exhibit all the traits of a failed state: political paralysis, religious bigotry and sectarianism, no-go areas controlled by loyalist and republican paramilitaries, and violence on the streets.

It doesn’t take much to destabilize things — and the latest round of civil strife this spring has been sparked in large part by Britain’s decision to leave the European Union and the consequences of its exit settlement for the internal borders of the United Kingdom.

To safeguard the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, which removed all signs of a physical border in Ireland, the Conservative government of U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson agreed to a customs border down the Irish Sea, keeping Northern Ireland within the U.K. politically but within the European single market economically. Having assured unionists there would be no such border, Johnson’s duplicity mobilized pro-union mobs who have taken to the streets in scenes reminiscent of the worst of the Troubles. To keep up with the times, riots are now arranged by tweet.

The roots of the current instability in Ireland go deep — pick your century. But partition in 1921 continues to have profound reverberations. It can be laid at the door of another British prime minister known for his incontinent libido, selling political favors, and lying. The Welsh populist David Lloyd George was Britain’s “Churchill” in the First World War, replacing the honorable but ineffectual Herbert Asquith as prime minister in December 1916.

That year had been a pivotal one in Irish politics, too. The British had agreed Home Rule for Ireland in 1914, but its implementation had been set aside for the duration of the war. Adopting the maxim that Britain’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity, a group of republicans, led by teacher and poet Padraig Pearse, tried to seize power on Easter 1916, known as the Easter Rising. But they were overwhelmed and forced to surrender.

Having had little popular support, the Rising leaders’ executions turned them into martyrs and ignited the cause of Irish freedom. Constitutional nationalists were swept aside, and in the election of 1918, Sinn Fein won the majority of Irish seats in the imperial parliament. Turning their backs on Westminster, the site of the U.K. parliament, Sinn Fein established the first Dail (Irish parliament) in Dublin, a bloody war of independence followed, with a treaty leading to the establishment of the Irish Free State, with the status of a British dominion, and Northern Ireland.

In some respects, the creation of Northern Ireland represented an unwelcome compromise for unionists who had wanted Ireland to remain within the U.K. Sir Edward Carson — a Dublin-born barrister and leader of the unionist cause — fought dirty, using the threat of loyalist violence to put the brakes on Home Rule. He mobilized the Protestant community, with almost half a million people signing the Ulster Covenant in 1912, opposing the passage of the third Home Rule bill at Westminster. Carson, who has gone down in infamy as the man who prosecuted playwright Oscar Wilde, and Sir James Craig — who was to become the first prime minister of Northern Ireland — also set up a private army, the Ulster Volunteers.

With an explicit threat of violence, the Ulster Covenant committed its signatories “to stand by one another in defending, for ourselves and our children, our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom, and in using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland.” Carson was the first to sign, followed by the sixth marquess of Londonderry who, as a former lord lieutenant, had been the king’s representative in Ireland. Significantly, it was also signed by representatives of the main Protestant churches. This was sedition on an elevated scale.

To give the Ulster Volunteer Force muscle, the Ulster Unionist Council set about procuring weapons, and in 1914, 25,000 rifles and between 3 million and 5 million rounds of ammunition were smuggled into the port of Larne. The authorities turned a blind eye. Ironically, the munitions came from Germany, which, two years later, was responsible for the obliteration of the UVF forces fighting on the Somme.

The prospect of partition as a way of mollifying unionists opposed to Home Rule bubbled up in the aftermath of the Easter Rising when Britain was trying to calm tensions unleashed by its heavy-handed suppression of the rebellion. Telling constitutional nationalist leaders that it would be a temporary arrangement, Lloyd George assured unionists it would be permanent. The nationalists fell for the ruse, and their acceptance in 1916 of partition as a short-term fix was used by Sinn Fein subsequently as a stick with which to beat them.

It is one of the ironies of Irish politics that Sinn Fein’s success in the 1918 British general election helped secure the passing of the Government of Ireland Act 1920, which entrenched partition in law. Sinn Fein won 73 seats; the Irish Parliamentary Party — the party of Charles Stewart Parnell and until then the dominant political force in Irish politics — was reduced to six; Carson’s Irish Unionists won 22 seats; Labour won three; and there was one independent unionist.

Lloyd George, a Liberal, retained the premiership, but at the head of an uneasy coalition that was dominated by Conservatives, led by die-hard unionist Bonar Law.

Sinn Fein’s refusal to attend Westminster robbed Ireland of an effective voice in shaping the Government of Ireland Act, 1920, and handed Carson’s unionists a powerful voice in the parliament. In addition, the Sinn Fein “government” in Dublin did not believe partition was viable, and by the time it woke up to the fact, it was too late.

Three models for partition were explored, with the determining factor being a sectarian headcount based on the 1911 census. The first was a border that encompassed four counties in the northeast of Ireland, centered on Belfast — then one of the great manufacturing cities of the Empire. This rump of a statelet was dismissed as being too small to be sustainable.

Equally unpalatable to unionists was a Northern Ireland based on the nine counties that made up the ancient Irish kingdom of Ulster. Alongside Leinster, Connacht, and Munster, Ulster was one of the four provinces of modern Ireland. But in the nine counties there was an inconveniently large number of Catholics, posing a threat to unionist-Protestant hegemony.

And so, they settled on the six counties of Antrim, Down, Armagh, Tyrone, Fermanagh, and Derry. With Protestants outnumbering Catholics by two to one, the six counties offered the prospect of a permanent majority for unionists. Protestants living in Donegal, Cavan, and Monaghan felt betrayed by their fellow unionists and by the British government. But their sacrifice was seen as a price worth paying.

The Government of Ireland Act 1920 was imposed against a backdrop of civil unrest that matched the horrors of the Northern Ireland Troubles, which stained the years from 1969 to 1994 when the Irish Republican Army called its historic cease-fire. In the period leading up to partition, 557 people were killed — 300 of them Catholics, 180 Protestants — in a period of bloodletting known as the Belfast Pogrom. The bloodshed was unleashed after an incendiary speech by Carson in July 1920 castigating the British government and warning unionists would “take matters into our own hands,” adding “those are not mere words. I hate words without actions.”

The actions followed swiftly. Thousands of Catholics working at Harland and Wolff, the shipyard where the Titanic was built, were driven out of their jobs, those working in heavy engineering and linen firms were next. Mobs attacked Catholic enclaves in Protestant-dominated east Belfast, and many Catholics were driven from their homes.

Indifferent to what was happening on the streets of Belfast, the British government supported unionist calls for the creation of a special constabulary to support the police. Known as the B-Specials, members were recruited from the ranks of the UVF and the sectarian Orange Order. The B-Specials became the attack troops of successive unionist governments until their disbandment in 1970.

As the Government of Ireland Act 1920 made its way through Westminster, its most articulate opponent was “Wee Joe” Devlin, the Irish nationalist member of Parliament for Belfast’s Lower Falls. He had defeated Sinn Fein leader, and future Irish president, Eamon de Valera in the 1918 election. But Devlin, who rejected abstentionism, was almost a lone voice in parliament. He attacked plans for partition as “a permanent barrier against unity,” and he condemned the British government’s decision to allow an amendment enabling a future Northern Ireland parliament to end proportional representation, which Devlin saw as a safeguard for minority rights.

Accusing unionist leaders of supporting the pogrom, he turned on Lloyd George who, he said, “has not put a single clause into his Bill to safeguard the interests of our people.” Addressing loyalist violence in Belfast directly, he said: “If that is what we get when they have not their Parliament, what may we expect when they have that weapon, with wealth and power strongly entrenched? What will we get when they are armed with British rifles, when they have cast round them the imperial garb, what mercy, what pity, much less justice or liberty will be conceded to us then.”

Devlin’s prediction came devastatingly to pass. Ireland was partitioned against its will, and in May 1921, voters went to the polls to elect the first members of the Northern Ireland Parliament. In June that year, King George V — himself an opponent of Home Rule — arrived in Belfast to open it in a ceremony at Belfast City Hall. The king spoke of his affection for Ireland and the Irish people. “I have therefore come in person, as the head of the Empire, to inaugurate this Parliament on Irish soil.”

The king’s hope that its MPs would make it “an instrument of happiness and good government for all parts of the community which you represent” fell on deaf ears. Sir James Craig, the first prime minister of Northern Ireland, later boasted, “We are a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant State.” In words that could have been crafted by Royal courtiers today to encourage peace and reconciliation, the king said:

“I pray that my coming to Ireland today may prove to be the first step towards an end of strife amongst her people, whatever their race or creed. In that hope, I appeal to all Irishmen to pause, to stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation, to forgive and to forget, and to join in making for the land which they love a new era of peace, contentment, and goodwill.”

The reality was starkly the opposite. As feared, the Catholic community in Northern Ireland was marginalized in ghettos, deprived of jobs, deprived of their vote through gerrymandering, and subject to human rights abuses by an unsympathetic police force and its sectarian special constabulary.

In 1933, Sir Basil Brooke, later prime minister of Northern Ireland and elevated to the House of Lords, told an Orange demonstration that he would not employ a Catholic and neither should they. When asked about it later, he said: “When I made that declaration last ‘Twelfth’ I did so after careful consideration. What I said was justified. I recommended people not to employ Roman Catholics, who were 99 per cent disloyal.”

This sense that Catholics were the “enemy within” came to define their treatment by the state and eventually sparked the rise of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Their protests were brutally suppressed, but the images traveled around the world, and the Westminster government was forced to intervene.

One of the reasons unionists got away with the injustices of a one-party state was the conscious decision by Westminster to turn a blind eye to what was going on. There was a convention that matters devolved to Stormont — the site of the Northern Ireland parliament buildings — were not to be discussed on the floor of the House of Commons.

That disconnectedness persists today with Johnson in charge, who — like Lloyd George — is completely insensitive to the nuances of a place torn asunder by divisions and hatred fanned by successive governments, British and Northern Irish.

While the Good Friday Agreement places a duty on the British and Irish governments to be honest brokers and guarantors of the peace process, Johnson has unashamedly declared himself to be partisan. In an interview with the BBC to mark the centenary of partition, he said: “As a proud unionist, it’s a moment indeed to celebrate a wonderful part of the United Kingdom.”

To nationalists, embracing the centenary is akin to celebrating the beginning of apartheid. Unsurprisingly, they have refused to participate in the body set up to mark the year, and Sinn Fein — now in a power-sharing executive with the Democratic Unionist Party — has pulled the plug on plans for a memorial stone at Stormont.

Perhaps the last word should go to Devlin, who saw the inevitability of Lloyd George’s folly, telling the House of Commons: “They have created, for the first time in history, two Irelands. Providence arranged the geography of Ireland and the Right Honourable gentleman has changed it.”

As Northern Ireland heads into its second century, a head of steam is growing for a border poll. Time has changed the human geography, unionists no longer have a majority in the elected assembly, and experts suggest this year’s census may show Protestants in the minority for the first time in the statelet’s history. In a poll carried out for the BBC, 51% of the population said they thought Northern Ireland will have left the U.K. within the next 25 years. If that happens, a historic wrong will have been put right.

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