Michael Portillo’s ‘Tory meets Paddy’ history lessons are no longer a novelty

Partition, 1921 TV review: The politician-turned-railway guru has reached the end of the line

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.


Nobody tunes into one of Michael Portillo’s Irish documentaries expecting to be bowled over by the sensational reporting. As with his films about the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence, the appeal of Partition, 1921 (RTÉ One, 9.35pm) is Portillo himself: a Tory grandee raking through the shattered glass of Irish history.

Alas, this third in the former British cabinet minister’s trilogy is very much the Return of the Jedi of Tory-mediated, Irish historical reportage. One drawback is that Portillo is a supporter of Brexit, a policy that is by definition indifferent to Irish issues and interests.

Another issue is our sheer over-familiarity with the subject matter. The Border has been in the news with such frequency since 2016 that the events of 1921 are not history – they are part of the unhappy warp and weft of 21st-century politics North and South.

So what’s new? Well, Bertie Ahern, the former Taoiseach, reveals that, given the opportunity to compose the epitaph for the Border, he would write “wish you were never here in the first place”.

An interview with ex-Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams yields the tiniest hint of tension. As it would, considering Portillo was in Brighton in October 1984 when the Provisional IRA tried to blow up Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet, when Adams was a leader of the Republican movement.

The Partition Project


Portillo is cordial. Still, you can tell he doesn’t buy Adams’s Uncle Amiable act . And why would he, having heard at close quarters the thunder-crack of an IRA blast that killed five and maimed countless others?

These encounters aside, Partition, 1921 is largely history by numbers. There is a particular focus on the duplicity of British Conservatives in fomenting and enabling Unionist militarisation from the era of Gladstone onwards.

Portillo reminds us of Randolph Churchill’s ominous declaration that “Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right”. And, as he and Prof Margaret O’Callaghan of Queens, discuss the Ulster Covenant, he confesses his unease at Conservatives, led by Bonar Law, conspiring to support armed opposition to Home Rule among Unionists.

“As a Tory this is quite an uncomfortable period in history for me,” he says. “The Conservatives put themselves in opposition to the Will of Parliament … And the Will of the Crown.”

So it’s a firmly British perspective. Not an unsympathetic one to Ireland – but a viewpoint which nonetheless, and once again, considers Ireland through the prism of its impact on the UK.

One hundred years on from the events covered in the film, the row over the Brexit protocol has landed us back in familiar territory. And British politicians seem no better equipped to deal with the challenges than their predecessors of a century ago.

The problem with Partition, 1921 is that it suffers from diminishing returns. Portillo essentially created the “Tory meets Paddy” genre from scratch. But the novelty of his engagement with Irish history has evaporated.

There’s nowhere to go with the concept, unless you want Jacob Rees-Mogg to provide co-commentary on Clare v Waterford in the Munster Championship. Or have Priti Patel take over hosting the Den with Zig and Zag (with the promise of a gig on Nationwide if she impresses).

For railway guru Portillo, though, this documentary feels like the end of the line.