Partition 1921: Portillo condemns ‘shocking’ role of Tory chief in new documentary

Policy in creating partition was intended to placate unionism, finds ex-British minister

Historian Michael Laffan (left) with Michael Portillo  at  Kings Hall Belfast. Partition 1921 is to be broadcast on RTÉ One at 9.30pm on Monday, June 14th.

Historian Michael Laffan (left) with Michael Portillo at Kings Hall Belfast. Partition 1921 is to be broadcast on RTÉ One at 9.30pm on Monday, June 14th.

 

One hundred years ago there was no US president willing to give a demarche (diplomatic warning) to the then British prime minister over policies on Ulster.

President Joe Biden’s public dressing down of current British prime minister Boris Johnson over his attitude to the Northern Ireland protocol has no precedent in US-UK relations.

A century ago, then US president Woodrow Wilson was against Irish nationalism, and his successor Warren Harding refused to interfere in what he regarded as the internal affairs of America’s war-time ally.

In 1921, Ireland was partitioned. According to former Tory secretary of state for defence Michael Portillo, much of the blame for this should be pinned on two Conservative party leaders – Lord Randolph Churchill, father of Winston, and Andrew Bonar Law, the Canadian-born son of an Ulster preacher.

It was Churchill’s exhortation that “Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right” that first stiffened the resolve of unionists to fight against Home Rule in 1886.

His support for Ulster unionism was not based upon conviction, Portillo believes, but on the belief that the “orange card is the one to play” in domestic British policies.

However, it was the behaviour of the Conservative leader Bonar Law which Portillo states was the most egregious when it came to Irish affairs.

Documentary series

Partition 1921 is the third in a series of documentaries Portillo has made about the decade of Irish centenaries, along with 1916 Rising: The Enemy Files, and Hawks and Doves, about the War of Independence.

The latest documentary, which focuses on how partition came about, is particularly scathing regarding the behaviour of Law, who was Conservative party leader between 1911 and 1921, and prime minister for just seven months, between October 1922 and May 1923, when he resigned on the grounds of ill-health.

The Partition Project

READ MORE

Portillo said Law’s conduct in stating there was “no length of resistance to which Ulster will go, in which I shall not be ready to support them” in 1912, was “shocking from the leader of his majesty’s loyal opposition. He is contributing to armed rebellion.”

Seen from the point of view of the Conservative party then, the Liberals, propped up by the Irish Parliamentary Party, were a “band of rascals besotted with remaining in office”.

Portillo compares 19th-century British prime minister William Ewart Gladstone’s conviction that home rule was right for Ireland with that of Herbert Asquith (prime minister from 1908 to 1916) and his government, who were only implementing home rule to stay in office.

“The historians who contributed to the programmes tended to think not just that the Conservatives were supporting what the UVF were doing; the UVF would not have developed in the way that it did without unionist support.

“It wasn’t just about Ireland. It was about the British empire. If Ireland moves towards independence, how do you defend the frontier against India slipping towards independence?”

The Curragh crisis of March 1914 ( also known as the Curragh mutiny) in which dozens of Anglo-Irish officers preferred to resign their commissions rather than operate against Ulster showed the British army could not be “replied upon to do the government’s bidding”, the former British defence secretary concludes.

‘Parliament has spoken’

This was a major constitutional crisis for Britain, he continues. “Parliament has spoken. Parliament has legislated for home rule and home rule is on its say.”

Law’s calculations though were correct, Portillo explains. “Bonar Law was absolutely confident ... that the nerve of the government would crumble before their [the unionists’] nerve would crumble.”

The Home Rule Act was shelved in September 1914 and never implemented. It was replaced by the Government of Ireland Act (1920), which partitioned Ireland.

Among those who Portillo interviewed for the documentary were former taoiseach Bertie Ahern, Jonathan Powell – one-time adviser to former British prime minister Tony Blair – and former Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams, who states in the documentary that the issue of partition was as live now as it was 100 years ago.

Adams points out that the Government of Ireland Act was only repealed by the Belfast Agreement in 1998.

Powell said he hoped the Belfast Agreement would make Northern Ireland politics boring and about bread and butter issues, but that Brexit had made it about identity again.

The documentary ends on a pessimistic note. Portillo says British government policy in creating partition was intended to placate unionism.

“The Border is no longer permanent but contingent on referendums on either side of the divide,” he states.

“It is hoped that after so much bloodshed, the question of removing the Border is approached with more wisdom and sensitivity than at its creation.”

Partition 1921 is to be broadcast on RTÉ One at 9.30pm on Monday, June 14th.