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Partition: How and Why Ireland was Divided by Ivan Gibbons

Writing.ie | Magazine | Interviews | Non-Fiction

By Ivan Gibbons

At the beginning of last year I was faced with the prospect of a period of lengthy enforced idleness. I needed a leg operation which would likely keep me housebound and more or less immobile for up to six months. Little did I know as I entered my seclusion that within a month most of the population would be in exactly the same position.

I decided to take early retirement from my job lecturing in Irish history and concentrate on writing a book. I had just completed a highly topical book on the Irish border in British politics during the Brexit backstop controversy the year before which my publisher, Haus, had wittily described as “a guide to the Irish border for bewildered Brits”.

Conscious of the upcoming centenary of Irish partition this year I approached Haus Publishers again and they asked me to write “Partition- How and Why Ireland Was Divided”. I started researching and writing the book in March 2020 just as lockdown was introduced and finished it three months later. Paradoxically, I was extremely lucky with lockdown. As it arrived to coincide with my recuperation from my leg operation it meant I avoided all extraneous distractions as the rest of the population was experiencing the same enforced isolation that I was facing.

The centenary of the partition of Ireland gave me the opportunity to explain all the factors in Irish history that invariably get overlooked in Irish history of just over a hundred years ago.

If you had said to any Irish or British citizen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1911 that within a decade Ireland would be divided into two states, one a semi-detached part of the United Kingdom and the other a Dominion, outside of the UK but remaining part of the British Empire, they would have regarded you as certifiable. The fact that, as a result of events in Ireland during that decade, Britain may have fought a victorious four-year war only to lose one-fifth of its territory afterwards -more than the defeated German Empire- they would have regarded as equally fantastic.

The structure of the book and its arrangement of chapters fell into place automatically – Ireland at the beginning of the twentieth century when the prospect of an independent Ireland was highly unlikely – the Third Home Rule Bill between 1912 and 1914, the impact of the First World War when  both in 1914 and 1916 unionists and nationalists tantalisingly came close to political agreement; how the 1916 Rising ironically hastened partition; how it was that the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 rather than the Anglo-Irish Treaty of the following year actually split Ireland into two and how the continued existence of Northern Ireland was uncertain until the middle of the 1920s.

Never an early starter, I commenced my research and writing about 10.30 each morning. The existing literature was already plentiful but I wanted to impose my interpretation on what one historian, Professor Ronan Fanning, had already described as “well known and soon told”. I intended to finish each day at 6 but found that once I got into it I continued amongst a sea of books all around me until 10 or 11pm. I was fortunate in that my sister was a copy editor so she ruthlessly removed all the repetition and other errors!

The most fascinating part of the research was being able, even in lockdown, to study online the original papers of the Irish Boundary Commission of 1924/25 lodged at the National Archives in London. I was able to examine the original submissions made by both nationalists and unionists living along the new Irish border nearly a hundred years ago. They read as if they had been submitted yesterday! In all of these certain factors were taken as given: Protestants were regarded as the chief contributors to the rates with Roman Catholics often described as “labourers and farm servants” contributing little or nothing to the same. Protestant submissions often complained that they were permanently based men of property, whereas many Catholics were temporary labourers working seasonally. In an age when all men had just been enfranchised (in 1918), the rights of property were still regarded as almost important as the rights of man.

Towards the end of the First World War it became obvious to all British political parties -including the Conservatives- that some form of Irish settlement involving self-government was essential, if only to attract the US into the war, and probably an inevitable necessity to ensure the survival of the Empire after the war given the concern and anxiety shown by the Dominions towards Britain’s Irish policy. British political leaders including even the enthusiastic pre-war supporter of Ulster unionist resistance, Bonar Law, came to the conclusion that, as long as Ulster was not coerced into a political settlement it was totally opposed to, the rest of Ireland could be set free. The result was the 1920 Government of Ireland Act which institutionalised partition and established a six-county Northern Ireland in 1921.  The subsequent Anglo-Irish Treaty establishing the Irish Free State in 1922 was the work of the Conservative- dominated Lloyd George coalition government. Prominent Tories outside the government such as Bonar Law and Stanley Baldwin were later relieved that the coalition government had produced the Treaty as it meant that there was no going back to the uncertainty of the previous forty years in which, as they interpreted it, the irrationality and emotion of the Irish issue had dominated British politics. Paramount to them and to British Labour leader, Ramsay MacDonald, was the necessity of removing all traces of the Irish problem from the centre of British political life. Significantly, there was no irredentist movement on Britain for the recovery of the south of Ireland. The palpable relief at that time that Ireland was now off the British agenda was matched only by an equal measure of perplexity when it reappeared half a century later at the beginning of the Northern Ireland conflict.

In truth, the story of partition, is an indication of the failure of both British and Irish statecraft. Not only was it the only example of the post-war reordering of international boundaries, so in vogue after the Treaty of Versailles, to take place in the United Kingdom but the partition of Ireland also meant the partition of the wider United Kingdom, as well as the partition of the province of Ulster plus the partition of Irish nationalism and Irish unionism. It stopped short of the partition of individual Irish counties although if the recommendations of the much-maligned Boundary Commission had been implemented in 1925 it would have meant the partition of Donegal, Tyrone, Fermanagh and Armagh. Interestingly enough, the Boundary Commission proposal would have transferred South Armagh to the Irish Free State and, if it had been enacted, could arguably have saved over two hundred lives lost between 1969 and the mid-1990s.

In their haste to rid themselves of the Irish incubus in the early 1920s the British political establishment consigned over four million citizens of the United Kingdom to the two confessional states that were allowed to develop in Ireland in the 1920s and 1930s. Northern Ireland unionists were unwilling to extend the hand of conciliation to the one-third nationalist minority while in the Free State the attractions of a growing partitionism with a 93% Catholic majority overcame any desire to meaningfully attract northern Protestants. Although both the Government of Ireland Act and the Irish Free State constitution in 1922 allowed for a secular basis for society to develop in both parts of the country in truth successive British governments were uninterested or unable (or both) to prevent two political entities as a confessional mirror image of each other emerging.  The consequences of this we are still wrestling with a century later.

Ivan Gibbons

Website: ivangibbons.com

(c) Ivan Gibbons

About Partition: How and Why Ireland was Divided

The Government of Ireland Act led to the Partition of Ireland and the establishment of Northern Ireland in 1921. It would have significant ramifications both in the short term and through the century that followed, as the republican view of the division as an artificial, illegitimate border imposed by the British became entrenched.

Throughout the twentieth century, partition would become the most contested and fought-over issue in Irish politics. But the history of how Ireland came to be divided and why at the time it was seen as the only workable solution, at least by the British, is much less understood. Our view is now clouded by the complex history and struggles of the century that followed, but Partition takes us back to the first decades of the 1900s. Gibbons tells us how the idea of dividing Ireland came about, how it gained acceptance and popular support, about its complex and controversial implementation, and the turmoil of the years that followed.

‘A must-read to understand why the Irish Border continues to cast such a jagged shadow over the island of Ireland, from party politics to implementing Brexit.’
Peter Hain, former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

‘Thoughtful and well written study of a difficult problem.’
Paul Bew

Order your copy online here.

About the author

IVAN GIBBONS is a lecturer in Modern Irish and British history specialising in the relationship between the British Labour Party and Ireland. He was lecturer and MA and BA Programme Director in Irish Studies at St Mary’s University. He is the author of The British Labour Party and the Establishment of the Irish Free State (2015) and Drawing the Line: The Irish Border in British Politics (2018).

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