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Resolving the 'Irish Question': 5 key moments on the path to partition

The division of Ireland in 1921 was confirmed by a treaty that aimed to resolve the so-called 'Irish Question'. A century on from that pivotal event, Charles Townshend explores five episodes in the process of Ireland's partition

Unionist leader Edward Carson (centre) and colleagues visit Derry/Londonderry, September 1912 – the month when nearly half a million people signed a “Solemn League and Covenant” to resist home rule
Published: December 6, 2021 at 2:11 pm
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1

Unionists oppose home rule

British government attempts to solve the “Irish question” trigger a backlash in the north

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During the years after prime minister WE Gladstone launched a policy of home rule for Ireland in 1885, British politics was repeatedly convulsed by disputes on the issue. The policy was his attempt to resolve the “Irish question” – how to respond to demands by Irish nationalists that Ireland should be self-governing. Since the 1801 Act of Union had yoked together the two kingdoms, Irish discontent had produced repeated violence. Gladstone’s aim was to concede enough power to a Dublin parliament to satisfy Irish nationalists, while keeping the framework of the union intact.

It was hoped that this would overcome the objections to home rule already voiced by unionists throughout the UK and particularly by the Protestant community in north-eastern Ireland. For them, Irish nationalism was a Catholic cause, and Catholicism a primitive and oppressive religion; home rule would be “Rome rule”, threatening their way of life.

Whether home rule – essentially, the devolution of domestic administration – would have satisfied Irish nationalists will never be known. It was accepted by the majority who formed the nationalist Irish Party at Westminster, then led by Charles Stewart Parnell, but was rejected by republican separatists who demanded full independence. Meanwhile, defenders of the union, centred in the historical northern province of Ulster, argued that home rule would prove to be merely a halfway house to a republic. Gladstone’s bill split his party and was defeated in the House of Commons.

It was the mobilisation of unionist opposition that turned the effort to pass a home rule bill, and two subsequent attempts, into a major constitutional crisis carrying the threat of civil war. That threat reached a new level after the Third Home Rule bill was introduced in April 1912 by the Liberal government under prime minister HH Asquith. The Conservative party responded by denouncing home rule as undemocratic, because it was not supported by British public opinion, and charged that the cabinet had “seized despotic power by fraud”. In the north of Ireland, the language became even more inflammatory.

On 28 September 1912 – declared “Ulster Day” by unionist opponents of Irish home rule – nearly half a million people signed Ulster’s Solemn League and Covenant, vowing to resist home rule “using all means which may be found necessary”. Over the next few months, 100,000 men joined the Ulster Volunteer Force, a citizen militia that drilled openly and imported arms more secretly. Unionists in Ulster, where they represented a majority of the population, were, in effect, threatening to declare their own independence rather than be placed under “Catholic” rule. Their leader, Edward Carson, was mocked as “King Carson” by nationalists – who dismissed the Ulster threat as bluff – but his followers were deadly serious.

Eventually, following a quasi-mutiny at the British Army’s main Irish base at the Curragh in March 1914, Asquith accepted that there could be no Irish settlement that involved the “coercion of Ulster”. He offered to exclude from home rule several northeastern counties for six years, during which time a general election would be held. Unionists, though, demanded permanent exclusion. Then war broke out in Europe, and home rule was suspended for the duration of the First World War. When frustrated nationalists launched an armed rebellion at Easter 1916, David Lloyd George (then minister of munitions) offered home rule – but with six Ulster counties excluded. Partition was on the way.

2

Nationalists launch a guerrilla war

Irish Volunteers and IRA members attack police, sparking bloody reprisals

By the end of the war in Europe in 1918, Irish nationalism had been transformed. The Irish Party was almost wiped out by the separatist Sinn Féin, which had spoken out against recruitment to the British Army and rejected the British political system. Its triumph in the December 1918 general election was followed in January by its declaration of Irish independence and the establishment of a revolutionary republican government in Dublin.

As the Irish Volunteer organisation established in 1913 was rebuilt after the military failure of the 1916 rebellion, local groups gradually began guerrilla operations. Tipperary Volunteers carried out the first lethal attack on the police on 21 January 1919, the same day as the declaration of independence – partly to make sure that Sinn Féin politicians could not go back on their commitment to the republic.

This potential tension persisted as the republican campaign developed through the winter of 1919–20. The Irish Republican Army (IRA, which evolved from the Irish Volunteers) gathered weapons, launched attacks on police barracks and assassinated detectives of the Dublin special branch. The British authorities were slow to react; recruitment of “Black and Tans” – mostly British reinforcements for the Royal Irish Constabulary – began in January 1920, but it wasn’t till spring that the ineffective administration in Dublin was overhauled.

The British government tried to balance repression with conciliation, launching another home rule bill late in 1919 that separated six Protestant-majority counties in the north of Ireland from the other 26. This was effectively partition, albeit with a kind of federal structure: both Irish parliaments had equal powers, and a law-making Council of Ireland was established to provide a framework of unity.

Crown forces – police and army – were always hampered by the difficulty of getting information about the IRA. Only in mid-1920 was an attempt made to build an intelligence system. How effective this was may be debated – the army took a dim view of the intelligence chief – but it did enough to rattle the IRA’s own director of intelligence, Michael Collins, who planned a violent response.

Early in the morning of 21 November 1920, small groups of IRA men entered eight hotels and lodging houses in Dublin on an assassination mission, shooting dead 12 men; three more later died of their injuries, and several others were wounded. Most were British Army officers, claimed to be members of a secret intelligence outfit labelled the “Cairo Gang” operating against the IRA. Later that day, in the hope of finding some of the attackers, British troops and auxiliary police surrounded the Gaelic football stadium at Croke Park during a match; firing broke out and 12 more people (including a Tipperary football player and a number of young boys) were shot dead, with another two dying in the ensuing crush. In the evening of what was quickly christened “Bloody Sunday”, three prisoners – including the commander of the IRA Dublin brigade – were killed “attempting to escape”.

This spate of killings was unusual even in 1920, but it highlighted the crisis of governance in Ireland. The damage done to British intelligence was far outweighed by the shock effect on public opinion. When a major ambush in west Cork annihilated a police patrol, there was a sense that the IRA was becoming a more formidable military force.

3

Northern Ireland stands apart

Elections demonstrate the strength of Ulster unionism

Though there were relatively few IRA attacks in Ulster, the republican campaign was seen there as a direct threat. Many Ulster Protestants believed that Catholics were all republican sympathisers, if not active rebels.

When the government began to lose faith in the home rule bill in the summer of 1920, Ulster Unionist leader James Craig urged that the bill be pushed through to secure Northern Ireland. That summer was a torrid period in the north, with destructive riots in Belfast and elsewhere; Catholic dock workers were attacked and their families were driven from their homes. In the autumn, even before the bill became law, a six-county administration was established and a new police force, the Ulster Special Constabulary, was launched.

When a fourth home rule bill became the Government of Ireland Act in December 1920, intended to partition the island into north and south, it was clear that only one of the two parliaments it proposed was likely to come into existence – in the north. The first elections were to be held in May 1921, but the British military commander in Ireland frankly told the government that IRA intimidation would ensure that the parliament of the south would (apart from Dublin University) consist entirely of Sinn Féiners – who, of course, would refuse to attend it.

It was at this point that Lloyd George made up his mind to negotiate with the republicans. The northern parliamentary elections, on the other hand, showed the solidity of Ulster unionism and revealed differences between Sinn Féin and the old nationalist party, which retained some of its strength in the north. The election result – returning 40 Unionists, six Irish Party and six Sinn Féin, on a turnout of 88 per cent – led the unionist Impartial Reporter to declare that “the North is now independent”.

The first meeting of the Northern Ireland parliament in Belfast City Hall in June 1921 was an epochal moment. King George V caused a sensation, arriving with Queen Mary for the opening. Vast crowds celebrated his presence – though, with a political engagement rare in the modern monarchy, he refused to deliver the speech prepared by Craig, a sort of Ulster manifesto. Instead, he made a resonant appeal to “Irishmen” to “forgive and forget”, and “stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation”.

4

A truce is agreed

The government and nationalists negotiate to end a stalemate

At the time of the elections, the military situation had been rather finely balanced. The IRA, especially in Dublin, was reeling from a series of major arms seizures in the preceding months. And in May 1921, the British commander-in-chief in Ireland, General Nevil Macready, produced a pessimistic report warning that his troops were at the end of their endurance and that, unless the situation had been wrapped up by October, the entire garrison would have to be replaced. As the British government knew, this was impossible, due to the speed of postwar demobilisation.

On the republican side, there were also doubts: though the most active armed units in the south-east thought they could keep the field indefinitely, the Dublin command – notably Michael Collins – was more conscious of the limits of arms supply and the wide variations in the effectiveness of the IRA nationally. Following the king’s speech in June, the British government proposed a conference to discuss a truce.

As late as 6 July, the British cabinet had not decided whether a truce – if there were to be one – should be formal or, as the police commander wanted, “tacit”. Macready, not an admirer of the police, favoured the former.

On 8 July 1921, Dawson Street was thronged with Dubliners who had got wind of a big event: the British prime minister’s intermediary, the Earl of Midleton, was meeting Sinn Féin leaders Arthur Griffith and Éamon de Valera at the Mansion House in Dublin for negotiations. Then Macready arrived, a pistol bulging conspicuously in his tunic pocket; to his surprise, the crowd went wild with delight. After a few hours, a suspension of hostilities was agreed.

Though the truce was signed, and came into effect on 11 July, there was never an agreed published version of its terms; instead it was a fudge, with each side understanding its terms somewhat differently. Its net effect, though, was that while the British army halted all its operations, on which its limited control of the country depended, the IRA continued to import weapons and stepped up recruitment and training.

The army’s sense of betrayal by the government was important in setting the tone for the extended Anglo-Irish talks that followed, pointing up the military pessimism that inclined Britain to compromise. The talks took weeks to get going, and then stuttered on for months – but both sides had a lot to lose if they failed.

5

The treaty is signed

Nationalists agree to partition – believing that the north would eventually join the south

After a shaky start, negotiations got under way on the basis of Lloyd George’s formula – summing up, in a sense, the whole “Irish question” – to find a way of reconciling Ireland’s “association with the British empire” with “Irish national aspirations”. This project still looked to many like squaring a circle. The British believed that they were conceding a limited freedom to Ireland, while Sinn Féin claimed that Ireland was already free but might “go back into” the British empire. Financial and defence issues were also complicated, but never as intractable as the questions of sovereignty and the unity of Ireland.

It appeared to many nationalists that Britain turned to negotiation only once partition had been wrapped up. But if it now looks as if there was no going back on it, it did not seem like that to loyalists in Ulster. There, fears of a sell-out were deeply embedded, and the open-ended process was potentially disastrous. The negotiations clearly meant that the devolved powers defined in the 1920 Government of Ireland Act (rejected by Sinn Féin) would be expanded, and the whole two-parliament framework might also be revised. Indeed, the Sinn Féin delegates went into talks planning to force a breakdown on the issue of Ulster, believing (with good reason) that British public opinion would not support “unreasonable” unionist intransigence.

Sinn Féin deputy leader Arthur Griffith, though, realised that Britain would not try to “coerce” Ulster into the new Irish Free State directly; at best it would do so indirectly, by threatening revision of the Northern Ireland border. The idea of a boundary commission, which had appeared when the 1920 Act was introduced, resurfaced when the talks were at a critical stage in mid-October. Griffith believed that Lloyd George would use it to bring the Northern government into line, and he undertook not to “queer” the prime minister’s position on it. However, this promise remained unknown to the other plenipotentiaries until the last moment.

The night of 5 December 1921, following nearly six months of tortuous negotiations, was a moment of intense political drama in London. Irish delegates headed by Griffith were confronted by Lloyd George’s theatrical statement that unless they signed his draft treaty that evening, and it was received by the Northern Ireland government next day, “immediate and terrible war” would follow within three days. Lloyd George had a courier waiting, and a destroyer with steam up at Holyhead to take him to Belfast.

Tension within the Irish delegation was still high as they battled over the two key issues of sovereignty and unity. Without the revelation that night of Griffith’s conviction – shared by Collins – that large transfers of territory from the north would follow, making the northern state unviable, the treaty might well not have been agreed. But, after an agonised discussion, the delegation signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty. According to the treaty, all 32 counties would be part of the Irish Free State, but the six counties of Northern Ireland were given the right to opt out. And when the Free State came into legal existence a year later, Northern Ireland immediately did so. Partition was complete.


The aftermath of partition

The events of a century ago had a transformative impact on Irish politics and society – and their legacy is still being felt today, writes Charles Townshend

Years after partition, veteran nationalist JJ Horgan provocatively insisted that it was not the 1920 Government of Ireland Act that truly divided the island but the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, which created two very different entities by making southern Ireland a dominion. As time would show, dominion status delivered – as Collins argued during the debate on the treaty – the capacity to break the crown link altogether. Yet republican irreconcilables refused to accept this; for them, the treaty was no more and no less than a betrayal of the republic. This moral take dominated the debate, pushing partition – even the key issue of border revision – to the sidelines. The republican view, as voiced by Sinn Féin politician Kathleen O’Callaghan, was that this was simply “a matter of right and wrong”.

Sinn Féin deputy leader Arthur Griffith, though, argued against this position, claiming that fighting on endlessly for an impossible ideal would destroy the actual “living Irish nation”. And Michael Collins, who had accepted that the IRA campaign could not physically expel the British from Ireland or compel them to recognise the republic, held that, though the treaty did not offer outright freedom, it did provide “the freedom to achieve it”. This division in opinion split Sinn Féin; that, and the disintegration of the IRA, led to a chaotic civil war in which local feuds were fought out alongside national ones.

At that point in the early 1920s the long-term future and composition of the north (and, therefore, the south) was still in question, and a leaked map published in the London Morning Post on 7 November 1925 triggered an Irish political crisis. It showed the border changes planned by the boundary commission, which had been meeting for the past year. Though there were to be transfers to the Irish Free State (including south Armagh), nationalist hopes of large-scale transfers were dashed. Worse, there were to be one or two small transfers from the Free State to Northern Ireland. The Dublin government, fearing a catastrophic public reaction, quickly abandoned the idea of border revision. The anomalous borderline stayed in place for the next century.

Despite the conflict in the south that followed partition, within a decade the Irish Free State was a functional democracy. In 1932, Éamon de Valera’s quasi-republican Fianna Fáil party formed a government that in 1937 proceeded to write the crown out of the Irish constitution. Shortly before the Second World War, Britain abandoned the garrisons it had retained in the Free State under the treaty, demonstrating how irrelevant that old policy – of holding Ireland to guarantee Britain’s security – had become.

The eventual declaration of an Irish republic was made not by de Valera – who refused to do this while Ireland was divided – but in 1949 by a coalition of his opponents (ironically, descendants of the pro-treaty party). The British response codified the triangular relationship that has existed since the treaty: the 1949 Ireland Act affirmed that the north would not cease to be part of the UK “without the consent of the Parliament of Northern Ireland”.

This principle had been implicit in the whole partition process from 1912 but now became explicit, and was reaffirmed in the joint Downing Street Declaration by the British and Irish governments in 1993. At the time, though, this negative constant was sidelined by the declaration’s emphasis on the all-Irish dimension. This paved the way for the “peace process”, culminating in the 1998 Belfast Agreement. Over the following two decades, this made the border increasingly invisible, and the “border poll” – a vote on unification offered in the agreement – looked increasingly irrelevant. However, the 2016 Brexit referendum, in which Northern Ireland voted conclusively to remain in the EU, changed that – and now a new border row is brewing.


Charles Townshend is professor emeritus of international history at Keele University. His latest book is The Partition: Ireland Divided, 1885–1925 (Allen Lane, 2021).

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This content first appeared in the December 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine. You can listen to the five-part series Breakup, exploring the 1925 Irish Boundary Commission, on BBC Radio 4

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