The Road to Partition: You might as well call it The Idiot’s Guide to Irish History

TV: This documentary feels made for viewers who wouldn’t know de Valera from da Vinci

Easter Rising: barricaded British troops in Dublin in 1916. Photograph: Bettmann/Getty

Easter Rising: barricaded British troops in Dublin in 1916. Photograph: Bettmann/Getty

 

BBC Northern Ireland’s chronicling of the years leading to Partition has the feeling of a familiar anecdote relayed by a stranger. The details are largely the same, yet the emphasis is different and you learn a few things you hadn’t known before.

The Road to Partition (BBC One, 9pm) is expertly made but very much the Idiot’s Guide to Irish History, presumably aimed at a British audience who wouldn’t know de Valera from da Vinci. Sombrely narrated by Michelle Fairley (Catelyn Stark from Game of Thrones), the first of two episodes recaps the Easter Rising of 1916, the massacre of Ulster regiments at the Somme, the 1918 general election and the brutal years of the War of Independence.

The goal is clearly to provide a fair-minded overview of the conflict. But if explicit Northern Ireland biases are at a minimum you certainly know which side of the Border you are on.

As with the UK’s botched Covid response today, the British establishment does not emerge in a positive light. David Lloyd George’s plan to fob off nationalists with the promise of home rule had an ‘air of unreality’

The usual newsreel footage is interspersed with moody drone shots over central Belfast. (Dublin and Cork do not get a look-in.) Most of the historians chiming in are from the UK, with the University College Dublin professor (and Irish Times columnist) Diarmaid Ferriter the most prominent academic from south of the Border.

This is, needless to say, a gripping and bittersweet story, stocked with larger-than-life figures and brimming with tragedy. But some landmark events are glossed over – Bloody Sunday at Croke Park is, for instance, mentioned merely in passing. More attention is instead paid to anti-Catholic pogroms in the North, such as the riots that turned Lisburn into a smoking ruin.

As with the UK’s botched Covid response today, the British establishment does not emerge in a positive light. David Lloyd George’s plan to fob off nationalists with the promise of home rule had an “air of unreality”. Winston Churchill, instigator of the Black and Tans, was “particularly belligerent”.

The struggle for independence is also scrutinised in the context of the wider anti-colonialism movement. Of the Indian outlook Dr Chandrika Kaul, of the University of St Andrews, says “Names like Michael Collins and de Valera were being written about. For [Indian] nationalists, the Sinn Féiners were their heroes as much as Irish heroes.”

“Britain had gone to war for small nationalities,” agrees Thomas Hennessey, professor of modern British and Irish history at Canterbury Christ Church University. “Now it was coming home to roost.”

Britain’s imperialism is confronted head on, and there is no attempt to portray London as a neutral actor. The Road to Partition is helpful, too, in providing an insight into unionist thinking at the time. A clear distinction is drawn, for instance, between Edward Carson’s opposition to a border and James Craig’s acceptance of one as necessary and perhaps even desirable. Familiar history, then – told with just enough of a changed perspective to merit a second glance.

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