Partition: how and why Ireland was divided

Partition divided the UK, Ireland, Ulster and came close to splitting four counties too

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.

Nationalist Ireland, in the first decade of the 20th century, was confident that, sooner or later, self-government or Home Rule would come. It was just a matter of time given that the democratisation of Ireland had resulted in the whole of the country outside the Protestant north-east now being in the hands of Catholic nationalist Home Rulers.

The Third Home Rule Bill of 1912-14 was regarded amongst British progressives as a metaphor for the transformation of the United Kingdom into a fully-fledged democracy. To most British democrats, the passing of this Bill was the test of whether the 1911 Parliament Act had, through emasculating the powers of the non-elected House of Lords, been successful.


Viewed from this perspective, Irish Home Rule was the litmus test of Britain’s democratisation. In Ireland, however, the Third Home Rule Act is regarded, foundering as it did on the twin rocks of Ulster unionist obduracy and the revolutionary cataclysm which took place in Irish nationalism after the 1916 Rising, as the precursor to the struggle which led inevitably and inexorably to the realisation of Irish self-determination and sovereignty.

In the history of Irish partition the Third Home Rule Bill was the first time the concept of dividing Ireland politically was raised as a serious proposal to resolve the conflict of two opposing nationalisms on the island of Ireland.

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 40 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 postwar 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 per cent 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.

In 1922 Winston Churchill was threatening the new Free State with British re-invasion as the empire was, in his view, being challenge by a renewed republican insurgency. Little over a decade later Britain would stand by impotently as de Valera gradually removed the Free State from that same empire.

All of this and more is discussed in my recently published book Partition: How and Why Ireland Was Divided (Haus Publishing, £12.99).

Ivan Gibbons is former programme director in Irish Studies at St Mary’s University, London and author of The British Labour Party and the Establishment of the Irish Free State and Drawing the Line: The Irish Border in British Politics.