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The Partition: Ireland Divided, 1885-1925 – Timely history of our island

Book review: Charles Townshend’s assessment layered and fair, writes Diarmaid Ferriter

The Partition: Ireland Divided, 1885-1925
The Partition: Ireland Divided, 1885-1925
Author: Charles Townshend
ISBN-13: 978-0241300862
Publisher: Allen Lane
Guideline Price: £25

For almost 50 years, British historian Charles Townshend has specialised in the political and military history of Ireland and of Anglo-Irish relations, beginning with his 1975 book The British campaign in Ireland, 1919-1921. His new study of partition is the third in his trilogy on the Irish revolutionary decade, following Easter 1916 (2006) and The Republic (2014); he thus brings a weight of experience to the task of dissecting the origins and impact of the division of Ireland a century ago.

This is largely a study of high politics; a layered and mostly fair assessment of the dynamics, deals, prejudices and delusions that created the Border in Ireland. Its crucial strength is that it provides detailed context, beginning with the emergence of distinct nationalist and unionist mobilisations in the early 19th century; through the home rule episodes of the 1880s, 1890s and 1910-14 period; on to the first World War and its aftermath; and finishing with the suppression of the report of the Boundary Commission in 1925 that effectively cemented the Border. He draws heavily on a wide range of published works and distills that material skilfully.

Townshend is keen to question some long-held assumptions as well as highlight remarkably durable mentalities; in the 1820s Irish Catholic nationalists underestimated Irish Protestant grassroots resistance to their advancement as something manipulated from above, an assumption that “would recur repeatedly over the next century”. This was matched by a pessimism, caution and ignorance across the water; an expert on Ireland was “a status rather too easy to achieve in British politics.”

The home rule threat of the 1880s revealed the extent of mental partition. In 1883, nationalist MP for Wexford TM Healy agreed to stand for election in Monaghan “to raise the banner in the remote North”; as Townshend drily observes, “this phrase speaks volumes about the perspective from Dublin”. Healy referred to his victory as the “invasion of Ulster” and it was no wonder Ulster Protestant fears of dispossession were very real.


‘Independent Ulster’

Talk of possible civil war as bluff was misplaced, and an early manifestation of a fear that London could not be relied on to protect unionists saw Ernest Hamilton, the North Tyrone MP, speaking enthusiastically of an “Independent Ulster”. Tory MP Arthur Balfour, addressing a huge crowd in Belfast in 1893, hinted at legitimising violent resistance but also declared the urgency of alerting a British audience to “what Ulster is and what Ulster means”. As they pursued their “Irish-Ireland” movement, nationalists could not accept that “the logical implication” of their crusade was partition.

While the earlier home rule bills were scuppered, the march towards the third home rule bill of 1912 was much more alarming for what was by then a distinct “Ulster unionism” as the separation of Ulster from southern Irish unionists was already well advanced. Ironically, a Dubliner, Edward Carson, led this “Ulsterisation” though he would have preferred if it remained a threat rather than a solution.

While the idea of a federalist solution had significant support within the British cabinet, it was the notion of “exclusion” of Ulster from home rule that gained traction: federalism “would have called for a creative effort which was well beyond English political capacity”.

Liberal MP Thomas Agar-Robartes proposed an amendment to the 1912 Bill for the exclusion of four Ulster counties from its provisions, adamant there were two nations in Ireland, “different in sentiment, character, history and religion” and that it was “absolutely impossible to fuse these incongruous elements together”. Leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party John Redmond found this notion “revolting and hateful”, but it was an issue that nationalists tied themselves in knots over, as Redmond simultaneously implied there were two “races” in Ireland.

What was significant at this stage was the bolstering of the perception of “Ulster as an entity”. There was also a public letter signed by 120 MPs stating: “Ulster will be the field on which the privileges of the whole nation will be lost or won”; Townshend suggests the scale of British popular mobilisation against home rule has been underestimated.

Ulster issue

David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill are credited as the only senior ministers “to give any serious or sustained thought to the Ulster issue”. The influence of Walter Long, however, the Wiltshire Tory squire who had briefly held office in Dublin, and a former parliamentary leader of the unionists, was paramount in devising a solution. As the cabinet’s key man on the Irish question, Long’s plan was that the two parts of Ireland would get “state rights” with a link between them (a Council of Ireland) “to eventually agree unity”.

Also serving in the British government was James Craig, who was to take over the leadership of Ulster unionists in 1921, and he emerges from this book as less sure-footed in private than his public projection suggested. Craig suggested to Laming Worthington-Evans, minister of pensions, the idea of a boundary commission, though this idea did not become public; it was “shelved but not forgotten”.

What is perhaps not appreciated enough is that from the inception of the Government of Ireland Act to its passage by parliament in late 1920, “the official line was always that its essential principle was not division but union”. The government ultimately hoped to produce some kind of all-Ireland political structure, but the Council of Ireland “never cast off its air of forlorn hope”.

Townsend is critical of Sinn Féin’s abstract anti-partitionism and makes the cutting observation that “the Dáil’s attitude to Ulster oddly resembled the baffled indifference to Ireland so long evident at Westminster”. But he unnecessarily sidesteps the issue of whether the label “pogrom” is justified in relation to the increasing violence against Catholics in the North.

Fear of abandonment

Following acceptance of the Government of Ireland Act, the unionist government “would never diverge from its simple unionism to address the complex political challenge it faced”, a serious understatement. There were 236 people killed between December 1921 and May 1922, including 147 Catholic and 73 Protestant civilians (“a civil war of sorts”). The IRA was initially determined to destabilise the new state, whose masters were highly fearful of abandonment by London, but given the creation of the new Ulster Special Constabulary, unionists in effect got their own, brutal, “territorial army.”

During the Treaty negotiations, the simple reason why a boundary commission proposal (article 12 of the Treaty  promised to determine the Border “in accordance with the wishes of the inhabitants, so far as may be compatible with economic and geographic conditions”) was an “astonishingly successful ploy” was because “its details remained hazy”.

Townshend is strong on the Boundary Commission saga as it played out tortuously over the next few years. Commission chairman Richard Feetham was left to interpret “the maddeningly few words he was left by the Treaty makers” and decided the commission’s job was not to “reconstitute” but to “settle” the Border. As the Irish Free State’s representative on the commission, Eoin Mac Neill was silent, ineffectual and “lame”, confirming the extant critical accounts of his baffling reserve.

Townshend argues that the Border adjustments proposed were “not as trivial as is often suggested” – 183,290 acres to the Free State (31,000 people) and 49,242 acres to Northern Ireland (2,764) people – but the point was that this was adjustment, not a path to unity, and nationalists had been routed.

This is a timely and important book, not just because of the centenary of the creation of Northern Ireland but because so much of its content remains relevant to understanding contemporary preoccupations and controversies.

Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern Irish history at UCD. His book Between Two Hells: The Irish Civil War will be published in September by Profile Books

Diarmaid Ferriter

Diarmaid Ferriter

Diarmaid Ferriter, a contributor to The Irish Times, is professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin. He writes a weekly opinion column