Return to books menu

Chapter one

Partition: a last stand against democracy

It's difficult to pin down the time when Irish partition became fully established.  An Ulster volunteer militia was established in 1912, the newly created Stormont Parliament declared allegiance to Britain in May 1921, but the new statelet was not fully secured until 1925, when proposals to amend the border resulted in a boundary commission report being hidden and the issue dropped by the Irish government. The whole period was wrapped in a confusion of shifting alliances, with the unionists abruptly dumping their supporters in the South and their own demands for Ireland as a whole to remain with Britain and the Irish Party dissolving into Sinn Fein, only to re-emerge as the pro treaty faction and launch a counterrevolution.

What was invariant throughout the turmoil was the undemocratic nature of the Unionist and British interventions and the inherent instability and violence of the settlement. Having failed to destroy the Irish demand for independence, partition was a last gasp mechanism to hobble the further progress of democracy. Ireland was a giant laboratory where a series of strategies designed to subvert the global waves of anti-colonialism were hammered out.

The bedrock of the new settlement was a British decision to resolve an irresistible demand for independence in such a way that many of its objectives would be frustrated and British interests defended. This policy was not sitting on the shelf and was evolved as part of an intense internal struggle in Britain going back before the first Home Rule bill of 1886 and reaching its most intense level with the Curragh mutiny by a section of the British army in 1914. Just how radical the eventual policy was can be seen by the fact that the partition of Ireland, seen as outlandish and unthinkable, in a few years became the central plank of British peace proposals.

The new imperial strategy, a template for dealing with anti-colonial struggles across the globe and widely copied by other imperial powers, rested on a promise of immediate and terrible war. Partition was baked in, crippling the new society, as also to a large extent was the consequent civil war through making the terms of settlement so limited that it would inflame the divisions in the nationalist movement, divisions well understood by the British.

In 1922, within six months of the Anglo-Irish treaty ending the war of independence, the British were supplying field guns to the provisional government to crush republican forces in Dublin's Four Courts and a savage civil war was unleashed.

The strangest thing about the conflict from a modern perspective was the lack of focus on Partition. Why was this? Both sides, Free Staters and Republicans, opposed partition. Michael Collins, the leading military figure on the Free State side, continued to supply the northern IRA in the face of ongoing pogroms. In part, the lack of division on partition itself was as a result of the low level of politics within the nationalist movement, itself fed by the relative abstinence of the Labour movement and the trade unions. The Labour reformists played the role of peacemakers and referees and the remaining revolutionaries of the Irish Citizen Army were largely absorbed into the republican forces during the civil war.  A final element was the weakness of the Northern nationalists.  A minority under siege, the popular front structure of the old Irish Volunteers remained, as did the leadership of the old Irish Party and the Catholic Church. The Labour influence here was violently suppressed by the unionists.

The IRA, a largely militarist organisation, fought the war on the obvious fact that the treaty fell well short of independence and on legalistic issues such as the oath to the King required from Irish parliamentarians. Both sides believed that a boundary commission would redraw the border in a few years and make a northern statelet unviable, illustrating a continued Irish willingness to fall for tall tales from perfidious Albion.

If the British did not foresee the evolution towards partition, neither did the unionists.  A movement founded to prevent home rule for the island had to switch 180 degrees to propose a separate state.  They immediately abandoned southern unionists. At one stage the Catholic prelates suggested a 4-county area that would at least have been relatively homogenous, but the debate within unionism was whether or not they had the military force to hold 9 counties of the historic Ulster or just the 6 of the new loyal Ulster.

The way to secure the new state was to unleash terror and that was what Unionist forces did. A Protestant militia was loosely incorporated into the state and formed into the "Specials." The "A" specials were incorporated into the new RUC, formed directly from the RIC. The "C" specials dissolved into loyalist paramilitary forces. The "B" specials became an official terror force with the blessing of the state. When they were eventually dissolved in the Civil Rights era it turned out that no full account of membership or armaments was available.

The combination of the Special Powers act and the B specials suppressed resistance. In the 1920s the local nationalist paper carried a front page about the "midnight knock" being heard in nationalist areas, remarking ironically that luckily, nothing worse than internment without trial, such as summary execution, was being contemplated

But anyone who views the North through the lens of Catholic suppression is missing much of the story. Catholic business owners and the church were cushioned against much of the repression while a minority of Protestant workers who were socialists and trade unionists faced a high level of violence.

On 21 July 1920, following a call for violence from Unionist leader Edward Carson, loyalist mobs launched a pogrom in the shipyard.

Around seven thousand five hundred workers were expelled, roughly a quarter of the workforce. About a quarter of that faction, one thousand eight hundred, were “Rotten Prods” including many socialists who had successfully organised strikes the previous year.

The labour and trade union movement had opted to take a back seat on the national question and pose as neutral peacemakers who pursued bread and butter issues. That suppressed a revolutionary turn that could have united the most radical workers but did not prevent the reformists themselves from being targets of the Orange mob.

In the new statelet the Catholic church opted for peace, denouncing resistance.  The sectarian environment cemented its power in the nationalist community and it was not slow to strengthen its hold even when this exacerbated division. The "Ne temere" doctrine demanded that children of mixed marriages be brought up in the Catholic faith and the prelates fought to bring down a secular school system and win control of catholic schools in a new divided education system.

In the aftermath of the Civil War the new Free State government was largely indifferent to the fate of the North. They agreed to suppress the boundary commission report that proposed transfer of border areas to the Stormont administration and in return for debt relief agreed to recognise the existing partition boundary.

The scale of the defeat and betrayal suppressed class differences.  The Church and the Nationalist party (a remnant of the old Irish party), ruled the roost among northern nationalists. The slogan of the elite was that half a loaf was better than no bread.

Silent and stratified, with violence never far away, the North settled to its fate. It was truly a carnival of reaction.  An utterly undemocratic and sectarian state, established by going through parish records and counting the Prods, and maintained by discrimination and state violence.

Before partition the North was an area where sectarianism happened and was used by employers to divide the workforce. The same was true, on a smaller scale, in many British cities.  After partition it became a sectarian state, defined by repression of nationalists and Orange triumphalism.

As premier Lord Craigavon said later:

"A Protestant parliament for a Protestant people".


Return to top of page