A century after partition, historian Fearghal Mac Bhloscaidh argues that it was far from inevitable, despite what some claim, and that it was a product of Ulster Unionism subverting the demand for Irish self-determination.
An historical orthodoxy of sorts exists, which points to partition’s inevitability a century ago, since ‘there were two nations in Ireland, both with a right to self-determination’.1 This school of thought also promotes the absurd notion that partition emerged from nationalist ‘myopia’ or insensitivity to unionist concerns, rather than from the agency of Ulster Unionists and their Tory allies.2
In fact, the British imperial establishment, including Ulster Unionist leaders, cynically warped the concept, breathing life into an artificial ‘Ulster’ in order to subvert Irish self-determination proper. The Government of Ireland Act [GOIA], which received royal assent two days before Christmas 1920, consummated this perversion. The Act’s evolution exposes the imperialist, reactionary agenda that underpinned Ireland’s division, a reality with significant present-day implications.
‘Safe for Hypocrisy’
During the GOIA’s second reading at the end of March 1920 the Ulster Unionist leader, Edward Carson, gave full-throated expression to partition’s imperial rationale and the general disdain for subject peoples struggling for independence.
Recently returned from Belfast, where the Ulster Unionist Council [UUC], formed to resist Home Rule, had accepted their own version in a six-county Pale provided they held the whip hand, Carson poured scorn on ‘sham phrases’ like ‘self-determination in Ireland, for nobody proposes to give self-determination.’ He proceeded to mock other ‘ridiculous phraseology’ such as Woodrow Wilson’s ‘make the world safe for democracy!’, which he dismissed as making ‘the world safe for hypocrisy’.
Within this imperialist mind-set, self-determination provided a ‘lever to your enemies by which they may, under the guise of constitutional law, attain results which you know in your hearts will be absolutely fatal to your whole Empire.’ Indeed, Carson rejected the one, never mind two, nation theory, declaring that ‘Ireland never was a nation’!3 During the same debate, the British prime minister, David Lloyd George, freely admitted he had ‘absolutely no doubt’ that ‘an emphatic majority’ in Ireland would demand ‘independence and an Irish Republic’ if granted self-determination.
Nevertheless, the Empire would never consent, as it threatened its self-interest.4 As de Valera would later memorably say of Churchill’s attitude to Irish neutrality: ‘Britain’s necessity would become a moral code and that when this necessity became sufficiently great, other people’s rights were not to count.’5
In early 1919, in the wake of the armistice and after Sinn Féin’s electoral landslide and overwhelming mandate for a republic, Unionist and Tory thinking consolidated in the shadow of the upcoming Paris Peace Conference, which might link the ‘the cause of Ireland and the cause of Poland’.
In a series of letters to southern unionists anxious at the prospect of six-county partition, the leading Ulster Unionist Hugh de Fellenberg Montgomery explained the cynical adoption of self-determination for ‘Ulster’. He claimed that ‘strong as the British argument as regards the safety of the realm appears to me to be, the only way to attack the position with success at present is to work the right of the North East to self-determination for all it is worth’. He made it clear that this would knock the bottom out of ‘the dangerous notion of Ireland a Nation’ as ‘no Home Rule arrangement could work permanently without Ulster.’6
Elsewhere he excused ‘this selfish looking policy’ in order to ‘command any popular sympathy in Great Britain’ as ‘all sorts of people must be convinced by all sorts of arguments … if we could not save the whole country… as long as any fraction of the Country was held – if only an Ypres Salient – the country was not lost.’7 Not only did Montgomery outline that the elite adopted self-determination to manipulate public opinion and mask naked imperialism, but he also clearly identified partition as a ploy to corral the future Irish state’s independence.
By the time the Government of Ireland Bill received its second reading in March 1920, the Conservative leader, Andrew Bonar Law, gave an unambiguous pubic account of the real motivation for partition and the imperial considerations underpinning government policy.
Law lambasted ‘loose talk’ from the Labour Party about granting self-determination to Ireland, characterising the position as ‘living in the world with his eyes shut’. Law furthermore scolded the ‘childish mistake’ of ignoring Ireland’s centrality ‘to national security’. In short, self-determination for imperial possessions had ‘never been adopted by any nation in the history of the world except after defeat and under compulsion.’8
The historical background of modern revisionist hypocrisy concerning the Two Nations Theory or principle of consent is that, a century ago, Ulster Unionists and their British allies also employed it hypocritically, in that their own private, indeed public, utterances showed little or no interest in, and at times abject contempt for, the allegedly ‘democratic’ principles behind ‘self-determination’, even for the Six Counties (let alone the Nine), and even less interest in the revisionists’ ‘consent’ principle.
In addition, this rejection of Ireland a Nation and demand that Ulster Unionists remain within the imperial fold operated not on any premise of Wilsonian liberal theory, but on the crude discourse of racial supremacy.
‘Really far from civilised’
When Gladstone failed to implement home rule his Tory adversary Salisbury famously quipped that the Irish, like the Hottentots and the Hindus, were unfit for self-government.
During the crisis surrounding the Third Home Rule Bill, Lord Milner (race patriot, founder of Round Table and over-seer of Britain’s African concentration camps) formed the Ulster Union Defence League to rescue ‘the white settler colony of Ulster from submersion in a sea of inferior Celts’.9 Carson later privately opined that Irish Catholics were ‘really far from civilised’ and that ‘the Celts have done nothing in Ireland but create trouble and disorder’10 Indeed, during the Treaty negotiations, Bonar Law labelled the Irish ‘an inferior race’.11
Milner’s chief ally in this venture was Walter Long, the former leader of Irish unionist MPs at Westminster before Carson’s appointment. Long challenged for the Tory leadership in 1911 after Balfour’s resignation, but stood down in favour of Bonar Law’s selection as unity candidate. Carson himself poised to run but opted rather to lead Ulster Unionist resistance to home rule. Long’s parliamentary committee drew up the plans for six-county partition, which led to the GOIA.
James Craig, a junior minister in his department, informed Long that Unionists could not control, and did not want, nine counties.12 Again, this policy revolved on an imperial pivot, which operated globally. Thus, although Carson had settled for six-county partition even before the war, his crocodile tears in parliament, in the wake of the Treaty, indicate his bitter resentment that his erstwhile plutocratic allies had abandoned the other twenty-six counties (including Carson’s Dublin) to the barbarities of uncivilised Celts.
‘Carson’s Ulster’ and the forsaken Covenant
In reality, Carson had marked six-counties as his irreducible minimum in any partition settlement as early as 1913 and the UUC at Belfast’s Old Town Hall had quietly welcomed permanent six-county partition by June 1916.13 In retrospect, the Tyrone UVF leader, Ambroise St Quentin Ricardo, recalled that ‘James Craig … talked to me for an hour about his 6 County scheme. I told him I believed he had gone mad!’14
The British coalition government’s 1918 election manifesto contained home rule with six-county exclusion. This led Carson to inform Craig that ‘We are in smooth waters at the moment’.15 He subsequently confided to Montgomery that ‘our policy should be that, in the event of it being found that devolution was a necessity, we demand a subordinate parliament for Ulster’.16 Carson set about organising the acceptance of six-county partition, which breached the 1912 Solemn League and Covenant and threw Unionists in the other three counties to the wolves.17
The UUC’s acceptance of the proposed GOIA on 10 March 1920 threatened to split Ulster Unionism, as delegates from Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal naturally felt betrayed.18
Ricardo resigned in ‘anger & disgust’, and claimed that as result of the vote, Carson ‘fell from the pedestal that many had placed him on.’19 Elsewhere, he criticized ‘the narrow Belfast clique’ who ruled from Old Town Hall, and claimed that he represented ‘a strong minority of loyalists’ who wished to give ‘the simple covenanter an opportunity…to prevent the Covenant being torn up’.20 This led to rather empty soul-searching about the 1912 Covenant’s actual meaning.
Yet ultimately, as UUC delegate, John Gunning-Moore wrote privately, ‘the whole question of “breach of Covenant” turns upon numbers … the whole nine will be such a rickety parliament that it must [almost] at once be absorbed into the Dublin one.’21
A considerable minority, however, shared the opinion of a female UUC delegate ‘who no longer wish[ed] to be a member of a Council who deliberately and shamelessly broke the Solemn League and Covenant… It may have been expedient and statesmanlike to break it – it was not honourable’.22 On 5 May, Carson attended a further emergency UUC meeting that overwhelmingly rejected the extension of the northern parliament’s authority to nine counties.
Clearly, Unionist policy was ‘not a question of ethics and honour, but a question of arithmetic.’23 James Craig and other leading Unionists made their position clear: ‘the six counties are the citadel of Ulster Unionism. If we are unable to hold the outposts must we refuse the offer of the undisturbed position of the citadel?… The Covenant cannot be construed as a compact for suicide.’24 Where room for a functioning democracy existed within this arrangement appeared as a moot point.
The supremacism underpinning six-county partition reflected the logic of Lloyd George’s attempts to consolidate Ulster Unionism’s position, while clamping down on the developing IRA campaign. Having secured acceptance of six-county partition, the Unionist leadership set about some internal housekeeping within the Ulster Pale and, in concert with the government, initiated a purge of all political dissent.
At every step, the coalition government matched the supremacist coercive instinct of Ulster Unionism. Kenneth Morgan has described the coalition’s conduct in Ireland as ‘the blackest chapter of the Government’s policy in any theatre, a monument to ignorance, racial and religious prejudice, and ineptitude.’25 While defending such conduct in parliament, Churchill refused to grant a republic to ‘a miserable gang of cowardly assassins like the human leopards of east Africa’.26
The 1920 elections & Pogrom
At January’s urban elections, Belfast Labour secured twelve seats and matched its average share of the vote from the 1918 general election, even securing twenty per cent in the predominantly Catholic Falls ward.27 Their loyalist opponents had spent a year portraying them as a republican Fifth Column.28
Nevertheless, faced with a free choice, thousands of Protestant workers ignored the Sinn Féin blood libel and labour candidates consistently out-polled their UULA opponent. The two UULA candidates for the Shankill ward secured fewer than 500 votes between them, as against socialist Sam Kyle who topped the poll with over 2000 while another labour candidate also received five hundred.
A resilient working-class politics had demonstrated itself impervious to a year of black propaganda; the subsequent loyalist backlash assumed more bellicose form. Nevertheless, the delicate passage of six-county partition at Westminster and within Belfast itself precluded direct action in the immediate aftermath of Belfast labour’s ‘big stride’, where official Unionist candidates (including the UULA) barely registered fifty per cent of the votes in the great Unionist citadel.29
Nevertheless, between the second and third reading of the GOIA, reactionary loyalist violence, sanctioned by Unionist leaders, purified Belfast’s politics and forged the discriminatory Orange economy on which Craig’s Protestant parliament would rest for a half century. The North may have been formally constituted in June 1921, but it had received a baptism in blood on the streets of Belfast the previous summer, when loyalist mobs expelled ten thousand Catholics and ‘rotten Prods’ from the city’s largest workplaces.
The Ulster Unionist leaders facilitated this purge, and the British imperial state provided sanction when it recruited the pogromists into the Ulster Special Constabulary [USC]. Over the next two years, more than 23,000 people were driven from their homes and nearly five hundred killed – over ninety per cent of them civilians and a significant majority Catholics, in a city where that denomination comprised hardly a quarter of the population.
Eamon Phoenix estimates that fifty thousand fled the six-counties in the period, or approximately one in ten of the nationalist population.30
When privately challenged regarding the expulsion of Lisburn’s Catholics, Lord Londonderry retorted menacingly that in ‘many districts in the six counties there is such preponderance of Protestants that the extermination of the Catholics would be a very easy matter indeed’.31 These figures speak to a level of indiscriminate sectarian violence and disruption unmatched anywhere in Ireland, but familiar to any student of extreme right-wing violence in contemporary Europe. Brendan O’Leary neatly encapsulates the birth of Carson’s Ulster:
This parchment description [GOIA] masks the bloody beginning of the new political entity. Killings, burnings and forced displacements – what today is called ethnic or sectarian cleansing – took place in Belfast… but also in its hinterland, in places such as Lisburn, Banbridge and Dromore. More of the victims in Ulster, both absolutely and in proportion to their local numbers, were Catholics… The birth of Northern Ireland was marked by pogromist violence against the minority… what occurred in Belfast and its vicinity had long-lasting effects.32
The Government of Ireland Act
By the Bill’s third and final reading in November, the British had already appointed Ernest Clark as under-secretary for Ulster tasked with creating the administration for Craig’s Protestant parliament, which rested on the foundation of the pogrom. During the November parliamentary debate, Labour’s William Adamson criticised ‘our stupid, senseless, mailed-fist policy in Ireland’, which robbed Britain of the ‘credit…earned in the course of that great struggle’ for the freedom of small nations during the First World War. He then highlighted Lloyd George’s hypocrisy in talking of freedom and self-determination ‘as far away as Paris’, but denying it to Ireland.33
Lloyd George countered by ridiculing as ‘inconceivable’ the notion that a policy applied in Czechoslovakia and Poland amongst the ‘debris of the Austrian Empire after a shattering war’ could be implemented by a victorious empire, which would resist an independent Ireland ‘to the utmost of its strength.’
He admitted that the vast majority of Irish people wanted a Republic, but that was only because, ‘in a moment of temper’, they lacked the intelligence to realize that independence for Ireland would be ‘disastrous to her own future’, and thus the demand ‘does not represent in the least her own real mind. Do not, therefore’, he concluded dismissively, ‘let us talk about self-determination.’34
The British elite’s imperialist, paternalistic conception of Irish people as half devil, half child had barely evolved since Salisbury’s promulgations on Hindus and Hottentots.
The Government of Ireland Act, which received royal assent on 23 December 1920, consummated the perversion of Irish self-determination.
The British elite (including Ulster Unionists) partitioned the island according to an imperialist and reactionary agenda. The same elite’s wholly cynical appropriation of the language of self-determination has led to a century of ‘evasions and suppressions,’ which have resulted in ‘massive stores of defective knowledge’ about Irish, British and global history.
Unfortunately, such ‘simple-minded and misleading ideas and assumptions, drawn from this blinkered history’ have shaped ‘the speeches of Western statesmen, think thank reports and newspaper editorials, while supplying fuel to countless log-rolling columnists, television pundits and terrorism experts’. 35 Indeed, they form the very basis of the current Irish constitutional settlement. As Pankaj Mishra rightly points out: ‘the many crimes of empire’s bumptious adventurers were enabled by Britain’s great geo-political power and then obscured by its cultural prestige’.36 The result has frustrated democratic progress and a solution to the apparently interminable Irish Question.
With the centenary of partition upon us, it is surely time to speak the truth about the Irish Question, particularly as partitionist chickens come home to roost and the pith-helmeted Brexiteers appear bent on undoing the much older union of England and Scotland. The GOIA privileged a settler community who eschewed the civic Irish nation promulgated by Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen and chose to follow in the train of a narcissistic, incestuous elite that brought the world liberal modernity at the point of a bayonet and the barrel of a gun.
Partition made Ireland safe for hypocrisy a centenary ago. As Little Englanders set about eviscerating what remains of the tattered remnants of Empire on which the enterprise was based, is it not time to end the pretence?
- Paul Bew has the teleological audacity to call it the ‘principle of consent’, Ireland: The Politics of Enmity 1789-2006 (2006), p. 383; for other representative examples from leading revisionist historians see, David Fitzpatrick, The Two Irelands: 1912-1939 (1996), p. 32; Roy Foster, Modern Ireland, 1600-1972 (1988), p. 466.
- ‘myopia’ comes from Foster’s description of the nationalist election pact or Logue pact in Ulster in 1918, p. 491; Foster on the 1916 Rising, p. 486; Fitzpatrick on De Valera’s 1937 constitution, p. 143
- Hansard, HC Deb 31 March 1920 vol 127 c 1318.
- Hansard, HC Deb 31 March 1920 vol 127 c 1323.
- Éamon de Valera, Ireland’s Stand (1946), p. 91.
- Hugh de Fellenberg Montgomery to Lord Farham, 6 Jan 1919 (PRONI, D627/437/11)
- Montgomery to W. M. Jellet, 19 Feb 1919 (PRONI, D627/432/11)
- Hansard, HC Deb 30 Mar 1920 vol 127, c 1125-6.
- Paul Murray, The Irish Boundary Commission and its origins, 1886-1925 (Dublin, 2011), p. 31.
- Eugnio Biagini, ‘Edward Carson’ in Eugenio Biagini, Daniel Mulhall (eds), The Shaping of Modern Ireland: A Centenary Assessment (Dublin, 2016)
- Thomas Jones, Whitehall Diary (Oxford, 1969), p. 50.
- Diarmaid Ferriter, A Nation and Not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution 1913-1923 (Profile Books Ltd, 2015), p. 294.
- Montgomery to Willis, 15 June 1916 (ibid., D627/429/35).
- Ricardo to Montgomery, 11 Apr 1920 (ibid., D627/435/28).
- Carson to Craig, 12 Jan 1919 (PRONI, T3775/2/16).
- Carson to Montgomery, 15 Aug 1919 (PRONI, D627/434/53A).
- Carson to Bates, 26 Jan 1920 (PRONI, D1237/18/24).
- John Scott to Montgomery, 31 Mar 1920 (PRONI, D627/435/13
- Ricardo to Montgomery, 8 Apr 1920 (ibid., D627/435/23).
- Ricardo to Montgomery, 11 Apr 1920 (ibid, D627/435/28); Ricardo to Montgomery, 21 Apr 1920 (PRONI, D627/435/47).
- Gunning Moore to Montgomery [?] Apr. 1920 (PRONI, D627/435/57B).
- A. B. Shaw Hamilton to Bates, 15 Mar 1920 (PRONI, D1327/18/27).
- Montgomery to Stronge, 5 May 1920 (ibid, D627/435/72).
- Ulster and Home Rule: Six Counties or Nine, 25 May 1920 (PRONI, D1327/18/29).
- Kenneth Morgan, Consensus and Disunity: The Lloyd George Coalition Government (Oxford, 1983), p. 132.
- Paul Bew, Churchill and Ireland (Oxford, 2016), p. 102.
- Austen Morgan, Labour and Partition (1991), p. 259.
- Ibid, p. 123.
- Irish Times, 19 Jan. 1920.
- Eamon Phoenix, Northern nationalism: nationalist politics and the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland, 1890-1940 (1994), p. 251
- Londonderry to Hugh Kennedy, 5 Aug 1922 (UCDA, P4/381/3).
- Brendan O’Leary ‘A Cold House’, in Atlas of the Irish Revolution (Cork, 2017) p. 821.
- Hansard, HC Deb 11 Nov 1920 vol 134 c 1414.
- Hansard, HC Deb 11 Nov 1920, vol 134 c 1431.
- The quote is a reference to general liberal interventionist and neo-conservative renderings, but neatly encapsulates the Irish position, Pankaj Mishra, Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race & Empire (2020), p. 10
- Ibid. p. 181.