Éamon de Valera, as leader of Fianna Fáil, was fond of using the phrase "the evil of partition" in his speeches. I, myself, was reared in a household in Dublin that was vehemently opposed to partition. My parents were Cork republicans and, growing up, my brothers and I were deeply conscious that the Border in Ireland was one that was imposed by a British act of parliament that nobody on this island had voted for.
The 1918 General Election was definitely a key and significant event on the journey towards partition. On an all-island basis people voted in a polarising manner – either for the union or for a republic – as moderate nationalists were swept away. While some historians may argue that the seeds of partition were sown in this election, its genesis can be traced even further back, as far as Parnell’s inability to make inroads into unionist Ulster.
Sinn Féin’s large victory in the 1918 election, and its unwillingness to confine its vision to a limited devolution in a truncated Ireland that would remain an integral part of the British empire, created a major conundrum for the British government of the day, who struggled to think creatively or to even consider any solution beyond a British-imposed framework.
Most people in Ireland, north and south, rejected the Government of Ireland Act (1920), passed by Westminster, that gave effect to partition. It was not popular in nationalist or unionist communities, and even its authors were not convinced of its long-term merits.
David Lloyd George, the British prime minister, and other members of his government subsequently demonstrated their own lack of faith in partition by attempting to force James Craig, the Northern Ireland prime minister, to abandon the northern parliament in their negotiations with Sinn Féin after Northern Ireland had been established in the summer of 1921.
However, partition endured, partly because Lloyd George could not conceive of any part of Ireland not being part of the British empire, partly because Lloyd George wanted a solution that would kick the problems of Ireland down the line and take them off his desk for a while, and partly also because Lloyd George was a deceitful negotiator.
Lloyd George had a firm attachment to empire. He was a Welshman, who had very little sympathy for self-determination or the sovereign aspirations of small nations. He had zero respect for Irish nationalism and even less respect for Irish republicanism.
Lloyd George had been one of the first British politicians to put partition on the political agenda, and he did so in an act of political bad faith.
Prior to becoming prime minister, as minister for munitions, in the immediate aftermath of the 1916 Rising, Lloyd George had offered John Redmond Home Rule with temporary partition for Ulster.
At the same time Lloyd George had given Sir Edward Carson and unionism a written guarantee that they would not be forced into an all-Ireland parliament.
Lloyd George's style was duplicitous, and he was quite prepared to play nationalists and unionists off against each other. He ultimately betrayed John Redmond and John Dillon, who had backed the British war effort. By linking the introduction of Home Rule with conscription, Lloyd George put British interests first and foremost, and placed the Irish Parliamentary Party in an impossible position.
After the Irish electoral tide surged behind Sinn Féin, Lloyd George’s response did not become any more generous. He was the prime minister who in 1920 unleashed the Black and Tans on Ireland.
Lloyd George was also the prime minister who forced Collins and Griffiths to sign the Treaty in 1921 under the threat of “immediate and terrible war,” which was hardly an act of political good faith.
Bloody civil war
The split over the Treaty in nationalist Ireland that hardened into a bloody civil war was not fought over partition. The main issues of contention were the oath of allegiance and Ireland’s dominion status, both of which de Valera and his republican supporters found unacceptable.
Lloyd George had manipulated the Irish delegation at the Treaty to believe that the Boundary Commission would transfer large tracts of nationalist areas in Northern Ireland to the Free State, thus making Northern Ireland unviable. Of course this did not happen as, by the time the Boundary Commission sat, Collins and Griffith were dead, and Lloyd George was out of office. It is, of course, a "what if" of history, but if Collins had lived things may have turned out differently.
Given my strong Fianna Fáil background, people may be surprised to read that I think Dev was wrong not to lead the Irish delegation at the Treaty talks. The British team was highly skilled in negotiation, including Lloyd George, Birkenhead, Churchill and Austen Chamberlain, and it was not smart politics to leave the fledgling Dáil's leading statesman at home.
I suspect that, by remaining in Dublin, de Valera believed he could be brought into the talks at the eleventh hour to insist on further concessions, but this was a high-risk and ultimately doomed strategy.
The sense of urgency created by Lloyd George’s threat of renewed war, the difficulties of communication between Dublin and London in a very different era of technology and, of course, the ambiguity about whether the Irish delegation actually had the powers to agree a Treaty in the first place, all conspired to ensure that Collins, Griffith and the rest of the Irish delegation signed the Treaty without talking to de Valera and other members of the Dáil cabinet. Had de Valera been in London, alongside Collins, a chasm may never have developed.
It is interesting to note that in 1938 de Valera led his own delegation in successful Anglo-Irish talks, and 60 years later, I, as taoiseach, never for a second countenanced staying away from the negotiations that resulted in the Good Friday agreement.
Trying to take lessons from the complex series of events that led up to the 1921 Treaty is not easy, but from personal experience I can say that, unlike Lloyd George, more contemporary British prime ministers like John Major and Tony Blair entered into the peace process and negotiations in good faith.
Unlike Lloyd George, they were both prepared to genuinely listen to the voice of Irish nationalism, and accepted that there had to be a parity of esteem.
The modern peace process was a success because there was a broad acceptance by the parties involved in the conflict that the status quo was untenable and that some form of agreement was in everybody’s interests.
In 1920, at the time of the Government of Ireland Act, unionists and nationalists were poles apart from agreement. Southern unionists were reluctantly prepared to accept a form of devolved Home Rule as they feared a republic, but Ulster unionists were not prepared to countenance any agreement that met nationalist aspirations. Ultimately Lloyd George’s government drew a line on the map based on crude demographics.
It was an imposed sectarian headcount that partitioned Ireland and, going forward, the last thing this island needs is another sectarian headcount. Right now it is not helpful to have premature demands for a border poll. The preparatory work needs to be undertaken and completed, setting out clearly the options and how it would work in the future.
In my view the time for a border poll is not opportune until we reach a situation where nationalists and republicans and also a sizeable amount of unionists and loyalists are in favour of such a poll on the basis of consent. That is still some years away.
Bertie Ahern is a former taoiseach