How Britain Partitioned Ireland 

[This article was written in response to a request from Bert Ward, Middlesbrough, who asked Desmond Greaves to contribute to a CPGB internal “information bulletin” that Ward was editing, titled “Ireland”.  Following Greaves’s death Ward stated in a letter to the editor of the Greaves Archive web-site that the article was published in October 1983 in issue No.4 of this bulletin, but a copy of the bulletin was unavailable. The article is published here for the first time for general readers.]

The partition of Ireland was carried out under the provisions of the Government of Ireland Act, 1920, although it was begun by administrative action before this piece of snail-pace legislation had completed its stages. As the representatives of victorious democracy unhurriedly deliberated at Westminster following World War 1, the Irish people were subjected to a regime of military terror comprising arrests, imprisonment, martial law, curfew and the “Black and Tans”. The purpose was to coerce them from their allegiance to Dáil Eireann, the revolutionary government established by the Declaration of Independence of 21 January 1919.

They were not consulted about partition. But an overwhelming majority were known to be opposed to it. There had been an election in December 1918 at which about 80% of the voters declared for independence, and the Unionists, those who wished to preserve the legislative union of Great Britain and Ireland, won only 26 out of 105 seats. 

The partition Act established two parliaments in the one country and drew the boundary between their respective administrations without consulting the local communities which were arbitrarily assigned to one jurisdiction or the other. The Parliament of “Southern Ireland” – which never functioned – was to be elected by seven-eighths of the above- mentioned 80%; that of “Northern Ireland” represented most of the Unionist 20%, plus the last eighth of the majority. These separatists were doubly outraged – by being deprived of their rights as part of the majority, and by being given an artificial minority status in an administration set up by a foreign parliament. One day the Unionists were a dissident minority; the next they were given equality of status with the majority, with a subordinate State all to themselves, where they could lord it over a section of the majority.

Was there any precedent for such a thing? There was a well-known precedent for the opposite. In the year 1800 the corrupt landlord parliament in Dublin voted itself out of existence after funds and titles had changed hands on a grand scale. The opposition was for the most part Protestant, including two strands, first, the radical Presbyterians – particularly the Unitarians – and second, the reactionary Orange Order. They had different motives, but that is not the point. The point is that nobody suggested that those parts of Ireland which did not want to come into the United Kingdom should remain autonomous. Ireland was one unit and must come in or stay out as a whole. A different view was taken in 1920.

It must not be thought for a moment that the idea of partition originated in Ireland. Nor must it be thought that Protestants were traditionally for the Union and Catholics against it. The Catholic supported the Union because they were promised Catholic emancipation. When the promise was broken they decided they must fight their oppressors. Presbyterian opposition to the Union was eroded by consistent government action over a century. Lord Cornwallis, when Viceroy in 1799, offered a “plan for strengthening the connection between the Government and the Presbyterians of Ulster”, a number of whose ministers had fought against that government in the insurrection of 1798. After the Union came into force the “regium donum”, or government contribution to the stipends of Presbyterian ministers, was skilfully manipulated so as to encourage those who were prepared to support the union.

Nevertheless the republican tradition remained strong. There was strong Presbyterian support for the abolition of tithes in the eighteen-thirties and for various land struggles from the fifties to the eighties. In the nineteen-eighties Protestants and Catholics were united in the Land League, which had meetings all over Ulster and proclaimed the principle of unity against the landlords. Men like John Mitchel, son of a Unitarian minister, or Roger Casement were not isolated exceptional individuals but part of a living tradition which not even sixty years of partition and Orange ascendancy has been able completely to obliterate.

Imperial London had to sacrifice the landlords in face of the demands of the united tenantry. But when the struggle for land began to pass over into a struggle for national independence, the future of Europe’s westernmost strategic outpost was called into question. Gladstone had been converted to a compromise position, federation, or Home Rule, in which the Irish would manage their internal affairs and the federal government in London would govern imperial matters. This compromise was rejected by the Tories and it was Randolph Churchill who decided to play what he called “the Orange card”, adding that he hoped it would prove the ace of trumps. It did.  The Orange Order, described by T. A. Jackson as the first Fascist organisation in Europe, had been illegal in the eighteen-thirties and forties. By the early eighties its halls were unpainted, its membership apathetic and “the quality” kept away from it. Now it was revived. The respectable classes moved in, bringing the sycophantic classes, plus small bourgeoisie and a sprinkling of declassed elements. The slogan was “Home rule is Rome rule” and “We will not have Home Rule”. Over a time the order began to win over sections of the working class, though many of these broke away again when Lindsay Crawford, soon after the turn of the century, formed the “Independent Orange Order”, which gave expression to some of the traditions of republican Ulster, including a somewhat half-hearted acceptance of Home Rule.

It was during the struggles surrounding the first Home Rule Bill of 1886 that partition was first mooted. And it was mooted in plain terms. Henry Labouchère suggested that at a pinch the government could “annex the area round Belfast to England”. The matter was raised again during the debates on the third Home Rule Bill in 1912 when Neil Primrose – son of Lord Rosebery who had broken with Gladstone on the issue of Home Rule – and Agar- Robartes proposed the exclusion of four counties, Antrim, Down, Armagh and Derry. At this time Edward Carson and his friends were making inflammatory speeches – one of them incorporating the pleasant suggestion that cabinet ministers might be hanged from lamp-posts! – building up a private army, the Ulster Volunteers, and threatening to defy the Westminster Parliament if necessary by force. 

At first Asquith’s government stood firm, but in June 1914, a few months after the Unionists had run in arms from Germany and Hubert Gough had led an officers’ mutiny at the Curragh camp rather than take action to protect government arsenals, Lord Crewe propose an amendment in the Lords which provided for referenda under which any county council could choose to remain excluded for a period of six years. The Lords rejected this amendment and demanded that all nine counties of Ulster should be permanently excluded from the operation of the Act. Even Carson at this time demanded no more than the temporary exclusion of nine counties. One notes in passing that there is no magic in the number six. The exclusion of all Ulster could have placed the Unionist in a minority by one seat. The Primrose proposal of four counties was seen as a “wrecking amendment”. The people were not considered. It was a matter of bargaining between British political parties manoeuvring for position. 

On 4 August 1914 war broke out with the issue still unresolved. The Home Rule Bill was passed without partition. Simultaneously a suspensory Act postponed its operation until after the end of the war, when of course the bargaining could be resumed. It was hoped the Catholics would join up because they had got Home Rule and the Protestants would do likewise because they had not. Accordingly Dublin was plastered with posters saying “Defend Catholic Belgium”, while in the Protestant areas of Ulster one saw “Defeat Catholic Austria”. The late George Gilmore tore down one of the Dublin posters and took it to Co. Tyrone where he set it up next to its opposite number. This is absolutely typical of British officialdom in the Irish question.

Of course the war changed everything. The government became dependent on the working class in an entirely new way. The shortage of manpower lasted for years. Trade unionism attained levels unsurpassed until the late nineteen-forties. Throughout the south and west red flags were displayed and the “Red Flag” was sung on May Day 1919. It was sung by members of the resurgent national movement, some of whom lived to wish to forget it.

The principle of “divide and rule” had long been practised in Ireland. James Connolly noted the policy of giving Belfast municipality local government powers denied to Dublin. During the war instructions were issued discouraging the placing of contracts in the “Southern part of Ireland”. Alarm increased when the wave of working-class organisation lapped the walls of the northern citadel. Nobody was more alarmed than the officials of the old-fashioned British craft unions. In the great engineering strike for the 44-hour week in January 1919 these rejected the Irish Trade Union Congress offer of a levy on its affiliates throughout Ireland and thereby ensured defeat. The same men had held Belfast from the great anti- conscription general strike of 1918.

In 1920 Trade Union organisation was spreading rapidly throughout Ulster, wider and wider sections being involved. The results of the municipal elections showed that a Labour/Sinn Fein coalition could conceivably capture Belfast. During the advance of Labour sectarianism had been at an ebb. But in 1920 unemployment was growing again. In the spring of that year a “yellow” trade union was set up which, like the scab union following the defeat of the 1907 port-workers’ strike, refused Catholics membership. It supplied scabs when Catholics were on strike. It ran a campaign to oust Catholics from employment in favour of demobilised Protestant soldiers. The pot boiled over when in July 1920 every Catholic worker was forcibly expelled from the shipyards. Sectarian hatred spread rapidly. Trade union organisation declined. And now, satisfied that the signs were favourable, the Government pushed ahead with the Partition Bill, which received the royal assent at the end of the year.

The Parliament of “Northern Ireland” covering six counties was elected on 24 May 1921 and met for the first time on June 22nd. By now it was clear that the Parliament of “Southern Ireland” would not meet. As soon as the Northern Parliament was secure, the British Government opened negotiations with Dáil Eireann in which it was made apparent that the status of the Northern Parliament was negotiable. Lloyd George and his colleagues made skilful use of this pretence to win one concession after another from the Dáil negotiators.  At the end of 1921 they signed articles of agreement over which the Dáil split and a bloody civil war ensued. The compromising party won and on 7 December 1922 “Northern Ireland”, which had existed in fact since May 1921, became established in British law. 

Space forbids discussion of the legal complexities of the situation. Suffice it to say that the representatives of the majority of the Irish people always maintained that it was imposed upon them by force and the threat of force and that the British version of the law did not bind them. To this day the Constitution of the Republic asserts “de jure” sovereignty over the whole thirty-two counties of Ireland.*

*This last point is no longer the case following the Republic’s constitutional referendum on the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.