The Partition of Ireland

Submitted by AWL on 27 May, 2006 - 1:03 Author: Sean Matgamna

The events of 1912-22, and their consequences for Ireland today.


April: Third Home Rule Bill introduced into Parliament by Liberal Government. The House of Lords veto has been abolished in 1911, so the Bill seems sure to pass.

September: 447,000 people sign Ulster Solemn League and Covenant, pledging to resist the Bill.


January: Ulster Volunteer Force formed and begins drilling.

November: Irish Citizen Army and Irish National Volunteers formed.


March: Army officers at the Curragh camp in Ireland declare they will resign rather than coerce Ulster. Government backs down and gives them assurances.

April: Guns landed at Larne for Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).

June: Liberal government proposes Amending Bill to let counties in Northern Ireland vote, county by county, to be excluded from Home Rule for six years. The Unionist majority in the House of Lords amends this to indefinite exclusion of all nine counties of Ulster, and the Liberals drop the plan.

July: Conference called by Liberal government with Home Rule Party and Tory and Unionist leaders to discuss six-counties exclusion and other possibilities. It breaks down.

August: Outbreak of World War I.

September: Home Rule Act is voted onto Statute Book, but with two provisos: it will not come into operation until the war is ended, or until amending legislation is passed on Ulster.


April: Easter Rising in Dublin, which began on Easter Monday (24 April 1916), and lasted for a week before being put down.

3-12 May: Executions of leaders of Easter Rising.

July: Battle of the Somme.

December: First rebel prisoners released.


July: All rebel prisoners released.

July: Eamon de Valera wins East Clare by-election for Sinn Fein.


April: British government pushes through Westminster a vote to introduce conscription in Ireland. Big movement in Ireland to resist this, which eventually makes British government back down.

November: End of World War I.

December: Sinn Féin (SF) wins 73 out of 105 Irish seats in the UK General Election. The SF MPs refuse to take their seats at Westminster and instead set up their own parliament (Dail) in Dublin.


January: First Dail Eireann meets in Dublin.

1919 - 1921

War of Independence


December: British coalition government under Lloyd George introduces the Government of Ireland Act, providing for separate Home Rule for six counties and for 26 counties.


June: The first Northern Ireland Parliament under the Government of Ireland Act opens, and James Craig became Northern Ireland's first Prime Minister.

December: Treaty signed between Britain and Irish nationalists, providing for much greater independence for the 26 counties than in the Government of Ireland Act, but retaining partition.


January: Dáil votes by 64 votes to 57 to accept the Treaty. In debate, the main objections to it are over its limitations on the independence of the 26 counties rather than over partition.

April: the anti-Treaty Irish Republican Army (IRA) seizes the Four Courts in Dublin.

June: General election in 26 counties, won by those in favour of the Treaty. The army of the new "Irish Free State" attacks the IRA in the Four Courts: beginning of the Civil War in Ireland between those for and against the Treaty.

Which Partition?

Between April 1912, the introduction of the Third Home Rule Bill in the House of Commons, and the decision in principle to partition Ireland, there were astonishing reversals of position.

Those in the Irish nationalist camp who had expected that Orange resistance would crumple in face of government power, state inertia, and determination, saw the opposite happen. Faced with determined Orange opposition, in the form of political mobilisation, arming and drilling, and preparation of a provisional government, which was actively helped by the Tory party and commanded widespread sympathy in the British Army, it was the British government that crumbled. And with it, the Home Rule party.

Those who would not hear of anything less than Dublin home-rule over 32 counties, who had not been willing to seek any sort of modus vivendi on the basis of "conciliation", or of Orange autonomy in a home-rule Ireland, now meekly accepted partition ("temporarily").

The Catholics of nine-county Ulster, marshalled, organised, and manipulated by Joseph Devlin MP through the Home Rule party and the Ancient Order of Hibernians, met in solemn convention and accepted ("temporary") partition. Partition as a response to an armed Unionist revolt - bloodless because it met with no government, or other, resistance - whose character must have made it plain to every person who allowed herself or himself to think about it that partition would not, if the Unionists could determine what happened, be "temporary".

And thus the hopes and perspectives of nationalist Ireland revealed themselves to be without foundation. Worse than that, by far.

We have seen that the case for home rule of some sort for the Protestant-majority areas of Northern Ireland - vis-à-vis the rest of Ireland - was as strong and logical as the case for home rule from Britain for Catholic-nationalist Ireland. If what was proposed - and agreed by the nationalists - in 1914 had been that: Protestant-Unionist home rule; if it had been done in what De Valera later described as a "principled" way; then, even though it had taken an armed revolt to win it, and revolt led by such unlikely revolutionary democrats as the landlords' lawyer Edward Carson and the Tory leader Bonar Law, it would have made democratic sense, and the result would have been democratically viable.

The revolt against the Liberal government and Home Rule would have been a revolt by people who, albeit descendants of a historically privileged colonist group, were defending their identity as British and Protestant and resisting oppression, or what they expected to be oppression, by the Catholic-nationalist, anti-British Irish majority.

The outcome of such a partition would have left the Protestant-majority areas of the north-east, whether it gave them local self-government of some new sort of left them under London exactly as before, outside the remit of a Dublin government controlled by those whom they considered aliens in historical, religious, political, and national identity.

Even if a British government carried out such a partition unilaterally, amidst outcry from one or both sides, such a separation, rooted in the intractable antagonism between the two Irish communities, would most likely have soon gained some acceptance, even if only pro tem. It would justify itself it, by easing friction, it allowed friendly relations to develop between the two elements, and maybe, eventually, reunification, on a federal, confederal, or other basis.

Nothing like that. That is not what happened, nor what the makers of Partition wanted to happen.

The partitioned area agreed upon recreated within its six-counties area the conflicts within the 32 counties, but with the roles of Protestant-Unionists and Catholic nationalists reversed. In the six counties the Protestants would be the majority. But in fact - and it is one of the most telling criticisms of what was done - the Catholic minority in the "Protestant-Unionist" state was a far bigger proportion than the Protestant-Unionists were of the all-Ireland population.

Any division of territory such as that entailed by partitioning Ireland would leave "alien" pockets of population in each of the sections. The Catholics of Protestant-majority Belfast were certain to be such a pocket in any Protestant-majority entity, as the Protestants of Dublin would be in a Catholic-nationalist unit. (21% of the population of county Dublin was non-Catholic in 1911). Democratic principle and reason would look to limiting that as much as possible. That is not how it was done.

A small Orange empire

In the partition agreed to in 1914, fully half the territory of what a Belfast prime minister would call the "Protestant state for a Protestant people" had a Catholic majority. The second city of the six counties - the once-Protestant city of Londonderry, known to its Catholics by the older place-name Derry - had a 60% Catholic majority and was two miles from what became the border between the six and the 26 counties.

Of the nine counties of Ulster, in 1911, Antrim had a 21% Catholic minority, Down 32%, county Londonderry 42%, and county Armagh 45%. Tyrone had a 55% Catholic majority, Fermanagh 56%, Monaghan 75%, Donegal 79%, and Cavan 82%. the Unionists had a majority in the nine counties, it was a very slim one, and heavily concentrated in a few counties in the north-east of the area. They might have been in a slight minority.

The first proposal for exclusion from Home Rule had been made by a Liberal in June 1912, and it was to exclude just four counties, Antrim, Down, Londonderry, and Armagh. The Ulster Unionists voted for this proposal tactically in the belief that, if carried, it would wreck the whole Home Rule scheme: "if Ulster succeeds, Home Rule is dead", said the Unionist leader Edward Carson. But the proposal fell.

Then, in January 1913, Carson proposed that all nine counties of Ulster be excluded. He still saw it as a ploy to stop any Home Rule, but by now the Liberal leaders' minds had been concentrated by the mass popular Unionist resistance in the north-east, and they started looking at practical proposals.

By late 1913 the Home Rule party leaders were retreating from their earlier dismissal of Ulster Unionist resistance as empty show which would quickly collapse if the British government pressed ahead. In talks with Liberal prime minister Asquith, Home Rule party leader John Redmond suggested "Home Rule within Home Rule" for the north-east - some sort of federal Ireland. Carson quickly dismissed the idea. The minority constitutional nationalists of William O'Brien's All For Ireland League were making similar suggestions (they would eventually vote against the Home Rule Act in protest against the foreshadowed partition).

In early 1914 Asquith pushed Redmond into agreeing that individual Ulster counties could opt out of Home Rule - on paper, for six years only. In practice that would probably have meant four counties opting out, and very little chance that the exclusion would be temporary. The four-counties exclusion area too would have including a sizeable and somewhat artificial Catholic minority. No rational separation could have been organised on the basis of existing county boundaries. But, of the various options discussed, the four-counties one would have corresponded most with the actual division of the population.

In June 1914 Asquith introduced an Amending Bill for that option. The Unionist majority in the House of Lords promptly altered it to provide for the permanent exclusion of nine counties.

Asquith then called a conference between the British government, the Home Rulers, and the Unionists, to seek a compromise. Asquith proposed the permanent exclusion of six counties, but neither Home Rulers nor Unionists would accept that. The conference broke down. Eventually, in September, Asquith put the Home Rule Act on the statute book with the proviso that it was suspended until World War One should be finished and some amending legislation had been passed for the north-east.

In 1916, when, after the Easter Rising, the British government again felt an urgency to get some solution, it again proposed six-counties exclusion. Lloyd George told the Home Rule party that the exclusion would be temporary, and gave Carson a written promise that it was permanent. Lloyd George's ambiguous formula collapsed because diehard Unionists denounced it in the House of Lords; but in the end, when the upsurge of Catholic-nationalist separatism in 1916-18 made it impossible for Britain to continue to hold on to most of Ireland, it was six-counties exclusion which the British government went for (in the Government of Ireland Act of 1920) and which the Unionists seized as the best they could get.

In the end, the plan to exclude six counties was arrived at on the basis of the Unionists retaining "not too many" Catholics and "not too small" a territory.

Everything that had happened to compel them to agree to partition urgently told the nationalist leaders that it was most unlikely to be a short-term exclusion, but they pretended to see it that way, and let themselves be assured that short-term exclusion was what they were agreeing to. From that point of view, the exclusion of six rather than four counties - of so large a Catholic-nationalist territory and so large a minority of Catholics - seemed to be something of a pledge that separation would be temporary.

In 1921-2 Collins tried to persuade the Northern Ireland Unionist leaders to give up some of the territory whose people they were using sectarian Special Constables to keep down. In vain. Thereafter, the Catholic-nationalist and 26-counties leaders were uninterested in adjusting the border.

As the nationalists in the ascendant, or seemingly so, had little inclination to deal in democratic principles, so the Unionists - who really were in the ascendant, and whose ascendancy would grow from 1914 until partition seven years later - had no concern with democratic niceties. And just as the nationalists' indifference was their undoing, when the Unionists revolted, so, eventually, would the Unionists' brutal disregard for the Catholic-nationalist people included in "their" territory be the undoing of their state. In that sense, and in a far, far longer time-span than they had dreamed of, the calculations of the nationalist leaders proved correct.

From Home Rulers to Partitionists

How did the Home Rule leaders "sell" partition, this partition, to their followers? In fact, the evidence is that acceptance of partition struck a mortal blow to the authority and standing and prestige of the Home Rule leaders. That would take time to work through. The Home Rule party would, like a wounded man, stagger around for some time yet. They did push through partition, but fatally injured themselves in the process.

The single most remarkable thing here was the acceptance of partition by the Ulster Nationalist Convention of 23 June 1916. "On 18 June [1916, the Belfast Nationalist] conference, meeting in secret, agreed to accept a temporary exclusion of the six Ulster counties... The Ulster Nationalist Convention... was to be attended by 170 priests, all of them said to be opposed to exclusion... But Devlin [the Belfast AOH leader] had been working day and night among the delegates; several leading Belfast clerics... were canvassing for him... Yielding to his eloquence and to a threat of resignation from Redmond, the convention voted to accept... the temporary exclusion of the Ulster counties" (George Dangerfield, The Damnable Question, p.232).

The gun and the Tory revolt

Lenin, weaving what he knew of events in Ireland into parallels for Russian workers, said of the Orange "rebellion" that "Lord" Carson had given lessons to the workers in revolutionary determination. In fact, the people to whom Carson and his friends taught revolutionary methods were the Irish nationalists.

The gun and revolutionary methods came into 20th century Irish politics. Boosted by success, they would replace the "evolutionary" and constitutional politics that had essentially prevailed in the politics of the helot nation back as far as the aftermath of the 1798 risings and the emergence of the O'Connell movement.

Patrick Pearse famously declared in 1915, at the grave of the Kerry Fenian Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa, returned after half a century in exile:

"The fools, the fools, the fools! They have left us our Fenian dead. And while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree will never be at peace!"

The 1916 Proclamation asserted that:

"In every generation the Irish people have asserted their right to national freedom and sovereignty; six times during the last three hundred years they have asserted it to arms".

Much was built on the alleged tradition of physical-force resistance. Generations of Irish children in the 26 Counties would learn the litany of dates of risings as English children learned lists of kings and queens - 1641, 1798, 1803, 1848, 1849, 1867, 1916... But that was not history.

James Connolly said of the Irish who sided with King James II that they should have been indicated as traitors to the Irish people. He bitterly mocked Smith O'Brien's "rising" in 1848 as an episode that properly belonged to the comic opera stage. The rising of 1849 was a little clash in front of a police station. The Fenians were a powerful and serious movement, but they missed their chance, and their "rising" was a small skirmish.

The dominant pattern of Irish Catholic politics from the foundation of O'Connell's Catholic Association in 1823 onwards was reliance on legal politics and social action. Terrorism played a part in the Land War of 1879-82, but not a central or even an important one. The fear of Fenian guns and daggers and bombs helped drive British reforms in Ireland. Even so, centre stage was occupied by constitutionalists; and it was constitutionalists, from O'Connell to Parnell, who won, or seemed to win, the advances.

To put it at its weakest, the gun had been out of Catholic nationalist politics, or entirely marginalised, for thirty years before the Home Rule crisis. It came back under the Union flag, not under the Harp or the Tricolour.

Nationalist Ireland turns to the gun

The eruption of Orange militarism, and then its success in coercing both (with the help of the main British bourgeois party) the British government and the Irish parliamentary nationalists, shifted the political landscape of nationalist Ireland.

The Fenians (IRB) had been reduced to a marginal force, scarcely existing in Ireland for a long period. The important Irish-American Irish-nationalist movement had its connections with the Home Rule party, and had invested its hopes in Home Rule.

The ignominous collapse of the Home Rule party before the Orange revolt threw some of their followers onto a different political track. For example, Patrick Pearse, an important figure in the new departure in nationalist Ireland (and, in terms of his ideas, posthumously in independent Ireland), was still a Home Ruler in 1911. So was Eamon de Valera.

When the UVF was organised, the National Volunteers rose to match them. Not on the initiative of the parliamentary leaders, but of a famous Gaelic scholar and college professor, Eoin MacNeill. The IRB, growing rapidly, moved quickly in response to MacNeill's calls, and soon took effective behind-the-scenes control of the Volunteers.

The Volunteers were in fact a response of Catholic nationalism to the arming of its bitter enemy, Ulster Unionism. They would split into the Irish Volunteers, and the Redmondite National Volunteers, on the outbreak of war.

The way the Volunteers seemed to the IRB leaders, or even to Eoin MacNeill, was not the same as the way they were. MacNeill's article of November 1913 calling for volunteers to be organised in nationalist Ireland was entitled: "The North Began". Pearse, famously or notoriously, welcomed the UVF. It meant guns in the hands of Irishmen confronting an English government. To the Home Rule parliamentarians, still feeling safe behind the British state, who made fun of the Orange militarists, he said that an Orangeman with a gun was not half as ridiculous as a nationalist without one.

Pearse wrote that the nationalists would be willing to fall in behind the Orangemen, accepting their leadership, if they declared a provisional government not only for Ulster but for Ireland. That idea is easily dismissed or made fun of. But it was no more than a more generous-spirited variant of the old delusions of the Home Rulers that "the Irish" were really all at one, and the Protestant-Unionists' alienation was only superficial.

It also reflected the dazzlement produced in Pearse - but only Pearse - by the Orange revolutionaries in the North, with their arms and drilling, their ringing defiance of "England", and their provisional government. In those more sober-minded and less fanciful and generous than Pearse, the Northern revolt provided an example and model - and roused the memories of the helot nation's past risings, memories encrusted by myth as by rust.

The Volunteers created an "army" within which the Republican bacillus could and did ferment and grow.

The working-class movement of Dublin also, in November 1913, created its own defensive militia, to protect striking workers from police swinging murderous batons at their heads. Trained by Jack White, a former officer of anarchist persuasion, they maintained their Citizen Army and, amidst the general rush to arms, armed it.

The north-east Ulster working class and the Ulster Volunteer Force

The Home Rule Bill was eventually passed into law in September 1914. European war had now come, and the Home Rule Act was immediately suspended for the duration of the war.

It was one of the great wrong turnings in Irish history. What if it had not been put in suspension, but a Home Rule government, with the limited powers provided in the Act, had immediately taken control in Dublin?

The suspicion that Britain would cheat again after the war would have been eliminated. The Home Rule party would have had substantial results with which to fend off criticism.

Would the militarist republicanism that developed towards Easter 1916 and after it have emerged? Or emerged with anything like the strength it would in fact have? The Rising of 1916, if it had happened, would have been against the Dublin Home Rule government. The forces and scope for such a movement would not, surely, have been a fraction of what they actually came to be.

Before the war, James Connolly, for example, had been working towards creating a Labour Party opposition to an Irish home rule government. Would he not have continued on those lines?

Would an armed struggle have developed then to coerce the North? The very idea of coercing the North had been rejected by Pearse and his associates. Connolly had said better no home rule than home rule with partition. But he would hardly have favoured an attempt to conquer the six counties. Even in the War of Independence no such idea was entertained, or entertained seriously, by either Dail Eireann or the IRA.

The idea of conquering Northern Ireland emerged in 26-counties Ireland, and even in the oppositional IRA after the Civil War, very very slowly. Essentially, it became the focus of republicanism only after de Valera had extended the parameters of 26-counties autonomy into full state independence.

The Rising

The pressures of the war undoubtedly drove the militant labour movement and the bourgeois nationalists closer together.

Eventually, after many manoeuvrings, the IRB conspirators decided on Easter 1916 for a rising and co-opted Connolly onto their committee in January of that year. This committee's plans were detailed and realistic and clearly envisaged a protracted struggle. The Proclamation of the Irish Republic, read out by Pearse from the steps of the General Post Office on the first day of the Rising, was a democratic and non-sectarian document, in accord with the Enlightenment deals of the United Irishmen, undertaking to "treat all the children of the nation equally".

But the circumspect order for a "general mobilisation", under cover of which the Rising had been planned, was countermanded - in the national press! - by Eoin MacNeill, the Irish Volunteers' nominal Commander-in-Chief, a moderate republican who had not been informed of the conspirators' plans.

When the Rising - postponed for a day - began at noon on Easter Monday, 24 April 1916, only a third of the Dublin Volunteers had turned out, and most of the units in the rest of Ireland did not mobilise at all. The Rising was doomed as soon as it began.

After six days of heavy fighting, in which several hundred people were killed, the republican Provisional Government surrendered in order to prevent the indiscriminate massacre of Dublin civilians. Asquith's government dispatched general John Maxwell to Dublin to 'pacify' Ireland. Martial law was declared and the republican leaders were immediately put on trial in a military court. As far as the British government was concerned the troubles in Ireland were now over. They could not possibly have been more wrong.

The aftermath and conscription

The British sentenced exactly one hundred people to death after the Rising. They killed fifteen over the two weeks after the surrender; then, after giving him an Old Bailey trail, they hanged Roger Casement in London in July. The rest were reprieved. About a thousand were imprisoned, some sentenced for life, or interned, but all were released within a year.

One of the worst, but very popular, republican songs, "James Connolly the Irish rebel", has a line: "God's curse on you, England, you cruel-hearted monster... Your deeds, they would shame all the devils in Hell". Yet, all in all, as things go, as they had gone so often in Ireland, and as they went in German/Austrian-occupied Europe at that time, the repression after the Rising was far from unrestrained.

Opinion in Dublin and in the rest of Catholic Ireland was hostile to the Rising and to the insurgents. The Dublin Chamber of Commerce could be expected to condemn the insurgents and mark them down as their old enemies - "Larkinism run amok". The Chamber of Commerce in Ennis, in Clare, where within 18 months one of the first Sinn Feiners, Eamon de Valera, would be elected to parliament, passed a similar motion. There was widespread, though not unanimous, hostility to the Rising among working-class Catholics too.

The general turn in opinion that would give Sinn Fein its sweeping victory in November 1918 owed more to the threat of conscription - voted through the Westminster Parliament on 16 April - than to the Rising. But undoubtedly Ireland began to "turn" after the Rising - and soon. Why?

What the Orange-Tory rebellion against the British Parliament had done was disrupt the constitutionalist "norm" of Irish politics. This disruption "prepared" not only the Rising but also the effect of the Rising on nationalist Ireland. It destroyed the belief that progress would come by constitutional means. The suspension of the Home Rule Act, thanks to a successful Orange revolt, could not but discredit constitutionalism.

It was not only Home Rule that was suspended, but also belief in the methods that had been so unceremoniously up-ended and pushed off the track by the Orange revolt.

Moreover, if the dominant political methods of Irish nationalism had been constitutional for decades past, the underbrush of those constitutional politics had been the long social struggle against the landlords. There was a strong culture "beneath" constitutionalism, a culture of songs and tales and a history of outlawry and resistance. Pictures of Robert Emmett stood alongside the many pictures of the Sacred Heart, the Virgin Mary, "St Peter, St Paul, and St Patrick, all the pictures that hang on the wall" in Catholic houses. The songs of Thomas Moore about Emmett and others were known and sung everywhere. The centenary of 1798 had been celebrated all over Ireland. Songs of 1798 and Wexford were very popular. Paedar Kearney's (later) song about the "old woman... picking young nettles" [for food] who "scarce saw me coming [as] I listened a while to the song she was humming, Glory O, Glory O, to the bold Fenian men", had many real counterparts, not all of them old.

Home Rule party rhetoric on platforms all over Ireland recalled the glories of the past rebellions and their heroes. The Ancient Order of Hibernians, though inimical to the Republicans, to non-sectarian (that is, all-Ireland) nationalism, and of course to socialists, spread an ethno-sectarian account of "God's own people". So did the Christian Brothers.

The Home Rule orators, tame MPs in London, but many of them orating in Ireland about rebellion, were on one level creatures from a satire - stage-Irish "rebels". But they were not that to their listeners and readers. Nor was their message. In so far as they would come to seem ridiculous to those who had heard them, it was to the degree that they were shown to be hypocritical in their promise that if legal and parliamentary methods failed, they knew how to reach for and wield "the Fenian sword".

They helped build up a great mass of combustible political sentiment in the sizeable numbers of Irish people outraged by the events of 1912-14. They had a whole tradition to reach for. It was a physical-force tradition, kept alive in part by the constitutionalists as their special Sunday stock-in-trade, half-esoteric.

But there was as base to everything the sense of identity, of being a special Catholic people. All through the 19th century, gains and successes had not satisfied them, but, with each step forward, stimulated new demands.

Most significant of all, and of tremendous practical importance, was the role of the bishops in orchestrating the national rebelliousness in the years between the Rising and Sinn Fein's triumph in the election of December 1918. The anti-conscription campaign of 1918 was a movement run primarily from the churches, in the tradition of O'Connell's movement three quarters of a century earlier.

Even so, and despite all that, it was an extraordinary transformation between 1912 and 1918. Nationalist Ireland felt cheated and ill-used, and it turned on its long-time leaders who had let themselves be cheated and the Catholic Irish people so ill-used.

The polarisation between Protestant Unionism and the majority on the island would be greatly sharpened by the events after 24 April 1916. But the polarisation was all-encompassing before that.

The sense that they had defeated the British government and its Home Rule prompters made Protestant Ireland arrogant and triumphalist. Patriotic, chauvinist, experiencing the great trauma of the Battle of Somme, which opened two months after the suppression of the Rising and killed many thousands of Ulster volunteers, Protestant Ireland saw Easter 1916 as treason incarnate - foul, back-stabbing Fenian treason - proof, apart from all "local" and narrow considerations, that Home Rule would have prepared the conditions for striking a major blow against the British Empire.

It was another example of what Kipling had in mind in his poem "Ulster 1912":

The faith in which we stand,

The laws we made and guard,

Our honour, lives, and land

Are given for reward

To murder done by night

To treason taught by day,

To folly, sloth, and spite,

And we are thrust away.

The deluge of Orange-Unionist blood from the Somme - 5,500 soldiers of the 36th (Ulster) Division of the British Army were killed in just two days, 1 and 2 July 1916, filled the trench of antagonism, conflict, divergence of affiliations and aspirations which the Rising dug between the long-conflicting "two Irish majorities".

In 1916, "Green" blood flowed from the Somme too, and nationalist Ireland had by no means yet all come to see things through the eyes of the dead insurgent leaders, Cathleen ni Houlihan's newest gory lovers.

The Convention

The London government reacted to the Rising politically as well as militarily. They understood their mistake in suspending the Home Rule Act. In summer 1916 Lloyd George conducted separate negotiations with the Home Rule leader Redmond and the Unionist leader Carson, inducing them to agree to the rapid introduction of Home Rule for 26 counties, with Redmond understanding the exclusion of the six counties to be temporary and Carson having a written pledge from Lloyd George that it would be permanent. Those proceedings were brought to an end by the Unionist Lord Lansdowne, on 11 July 1916, publicly in the House of Lords announcing (and denouncing) the terms, including further concessions on British military and naval prerogatives in the 26 counties which Redmond had consented to secretly and reluctantly. The Home Rule party then rejected the terms, and came out of the negotiations with nothing but discredit.

In spring 1917 Lloyd George seized on an alternative proposal of Redmond's, for an "Irish Convention" to determine ways of political progress. The Convention met in July 1917 and sat until early 1918, but without effect. Sinn Fein, now a rising force, boycotted it; so did organised Irish labour; and the Ulster Unionists inflexibly opposed all measures for Home Rule. It was finally swept away by the anti-conscription storm.

Conscription and the rise of Sinn Fein

On 17 February 1917 Count Plunkett, father of an executed leader of the Easter Rising, standing as an independent supported by Sinn Fein, defeated the Home Rule party candidate in the North Roscommon by-election. On 10 May Sinn Fein won another by-election in South Longford, and on 10 July, with Eamon de Valera, one in East Clare.

That things were changing in Irish politics was clear well before the British government's attempt to introduce conscription. There was a tremendous boost to the republican tradition. And not only the republican tradition. Connolly had in life been a trade union organiser and a socialist propagandist. In martyrdom he attained the status of a national hero. Connolly, and the general idea of a "workers' republic", became very popular.

"I write it out in a verse -

MacDonagh and MacBride

And Connolly and Pearse

Now and in time to be,

Wherever green is worn,

Are changed, changed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born"

(W B Yeats)

The Rising restored the sense of virility to Irish nationalism - the sense that it could step out of the shadow of the client-patron relationship with the Liberal Party and prevail. The Rising came to have that significance for many who had been indifferent or hostile to it in April 1916. The example given by the Orange rebellion had been "domesticated" in nationalist Ireland, in its own terms, according to its own newly-reclaimed and indeed half-invented republican and physical-force traditions.

The betrayal of 1914 had erected enormous barriers of contempt and distrust against "England" and those who looked to England.

Sinn Fein had had nothing to do with the Rising, and it was pure ignorance that led British commentators to call it "the Sinn Fein rebellion". Sinn Fein, founded in 1905, was then a rather small and conservative Irish-separatist movement. After the Rising, however, and especially after a regroupment convention in April 1917, it grew rapidly. The name Sinn Fein came to sum up the new mood of post-betrayal, post-nationalist/Liberal-alliance, post-Rising nationalist Ireland.

Catholic nationalism: "What wonder if our step betrays/ The freedman born in penal days"

Irish nationalism had developed an intellectually eclectic and historically incoherent culture that had as its heroes both the warrior of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, Owen Roe O'Neill, and the deist Republican Wolfe Tone; both Robert Emmett, who organised a rebellion in Dublin, and Daniel O'Connell, who had turned out with his gun to fight the United Irishmen in 1798; both the Fenians, primarily a lower-orders movement in the cities of England, and the Home Rule parliamentary leadership who wanted, in a Home Rule Ireland, to drop the payment for MPs had allowed poor people to become members of the British parliament - that sang both republican songs and sectarian songs. The Ancient Order of Hibernians added a number of dimensions of sectarian intensity to that political culture, but was not at all alien to it. It was the same thing, with greater power and less political and historical self-consciousness, and therefore no notion that it was an abomination for an Irish nationalism that claimed to include all denominations - that aspired to embrace the whole of Ireland by, as the Declaration of the Republic put it, treating "all the children of the nation equally".

The leaders and organisers of the 1916 Rising had despised that Home Rule party and AOH culture, and bitterly hated its proponents. In the first Workers' Republic (1898-1903) James Connolly had expressed his loathing for the kitsch-revolutionary subculture, the sectarian-ethnic historiography, the overblown hollow rhetoric, of the Home Rule party, at all its many levels in Irish society. He dismissed it as "sunburstery" (after the supposed "sunburst" flag of ancient Ireland, used by such nationalists). Pearse, in the IRB's paper Irish Freedom, had mocked and contemned it, and expressing especial loathing for its essence and epitome, the AOH, of which he wrote that it had done more than the Orange Order to poison Irish politics with sectarianism.

When the workers' movement in Dublin was mortally assaulted by the Dublin employers, backed by the British state, with the intention of bludgeoning it out of existence by way of lock-out, starvation, and police force, the employers had mobilised Catholic sectarianism against it, specifically the AOH and the Church. It was Catholic priests who led the mobilisation to stop the children of strikers going from Dublin to supportive English families where they would be fed.

The literary intelligentsia who backed the workers, including George Russell (AE), Yeats, and Pearse, derided and scorned that Catholic-sectarian aspect of the assault on the workers. Yeats, a romantic authoritarian who had, however, been a socialist in his youth, and spent three years in William Morris's Hammersmith Socialist Society at the time when the British labour movement was creating its first mass unions, with the dockers', gasworkers', and "matchgirls'" struggles, wrote in the Irish Worker, the ITGWU paper, to condemn the Catholic sectarian attack on the union.

In the Rising itself, Fenian anti-clericalism was represented by Tom Clarke, who had spent 14 years in jail. Along among the 15 men shot in May 1916, he refused the services and sacraments of a priest.

And yet, for all that Pearse and Connolly and Clarke did and said, the Rising was or became a profoundly Catholic movement. In the anti-conscription movement that led up to the December 1918 election, the place of the bishops and priests was, despite the social progress of 100 years out of helotry, and despite the development of a non-clerical intellectual and political life in Ireland, not qualitatively less than that in the first great peaceful Catholic political mobilisation in Ireland, in the early 19th century

In the Rising itself, fervent Catholics came to the fore among the insurgents. Of the leaders, Markievicz was a Protestant of the Anglican "big houses"; Casement an Antrim Protestant. Both converted to Catholicism, Casement in the shadow of the gallows.

In the burning GPO, as the number of days increased in which the small force of insurgents held back the army of the mightiest empire the world had ever seen, in what had been one of its three capital cities, an atmosphere of religious fervour, inseparable from their politics, is said to have developed among the insurgents. Singing Catholic hymns, they felt themselves to be the embodiment of the helot nation - felt that they were creating a heroic vindication of the sort Patrick Pearse said he saw in past trivial "risings" but was not in fact there - using the myth to create the reality.

The Rising was a rising of Catholic Ireland. The Christian symbolism entwined with "Easter 1916" was appropriate to the event itself.

How could the men and women of the Rising think that such an action would "reach" or "impact on" Protestant Northern Ireland? Things were what they were, and at such a time, how could they be otherwise? In their own way they proclaimed as clearly as any AOH or Orange Order orator that there was an unbridgeable distinction between the two Irelands - what they were, wanted to be, would be, and could not but be. To seek political melding in constitutional arrangements had no purchase on events. Only by recognising and respecting the distinctions could there be peaceful coexistence.

Connolly and Catholicism

James Connolly is symptomatic here. Connolly had been a Marxist from his early 20s. He described himself, in a letter to a Scottish Marxist - and militant secularist - friend as an atheist who only "posed" as a Catholic in order to be able to work more effectively as a socialist propagandist among Catholics. He poured out scorn and contempt for the Home Rule (and incipient AOH) culture and outlook - sunburstery and place-hunting. He preached that politics should be entirely separate from religion.

Yet Connolly, in the years immediately preceding 1916, gravitated more and more towards and into that culture. Where, before 1915, Jim Larkin and the Irish Worker had been complicit in the culture, and Connolly hostile or aloof, now the Workers' Republic became less its one-time self and deliberately attempted to fit itself into the "sunburst" culture.

Connolly's "Labour In Irish History" (published in book form in 1910, but written as articles over a dozen years) has a hostile (a-historical) socialist analysis of the Irish participants on both sides in the 1688 revolution and after, in which he has nothing to say about the significance of the "Glorious Revolution" in English, and later American and French and Irish republican, history. The "sequel" ("The Reconquest of Ireland", 1915), is overtly sectarian.

Connolly quotes a description of the Protestant settlers in Ireland:

"From Scotland came many, and from England not a few, yet all of them generally the scum of both nations, who from debt or breaking of the law, came hither hoping to be without fear of man’s justice in a land where there was nothing, or but little as yet, of the fear of God. On all hands Atheism increased and disregard of God, iniquity abounded with contentious fighting, murder, adultery".

What has the ancestry of the Protestant population got to do with anything? Since when did socialists - and James Connolly - take the word of the authorities for it that someone fallen victim to the savage laws of that time was guilty? This is abuse disguised as history - sectarian abuse.

Connolly, the avowed atheist, welcomed the ministrations of a priest, and, returning to the Catholicism of his childhood, confessed and took communion and extreme unction before being shot by the British in May 1916. Did he feel himself swept up by the intensely religio-nationalist mood of the GPO? In any case, he moved entirely within the orbit of Catholic nationalism. It does not follow that he thereby ceased to be a socialist or a working-class militant; that is a different question. But Connolly's evolution was no accident, any more than those of Markievicz and Casement.

Unionists and empire

On the other, Ulster Unionist, side, the war in Europe created a comparable, albeit more secular, fervour - the fervour of Empire patriotism. The Somme and the 1916 rising, so close in time, form a pair - two real but also symbolic events, expressing the intense emotional self-identification of two distinct peoples. Irish Catholics, too, died in the Somme and other battles of World War One, but their sacrifice was on a different altar, not on the altar around which their tribe fervently worshipped. They would come to be looked upon as dupes at best, victims of the foolishness and worse of the Home Rule leaders.

On the reconciliation of the now intensely Catholic nationalist community, and the intensely Empire-patriotic Protestant community, depended any common, unpartitioned Irish future. That they could now, after 1916, agree a common Home Rule where before World War One they could not, was surely not even a remote possibility. Some variant of partition, permanent or temporary, had now become a certainty, and probably a necessity, if only as prelude to a possible future working-class unification. The real, and probably the only, question at issue was what sort of partition it would be.

Would it be a "principled" and logical partition of Ireland into Green and Orange majority areas, worked as out honestly and rationally as the enmeshing of population would allow, with guarantees for the unavoidable pockets of population trapped by geography and demography within the territory of the "other side"? Or would it be the little Orange empire - the British Empire in Ireland, writ small - which had been proposed in 1914? We know the answer. Why did it go like that, now that events had made those who had been almost sleepwalking in 1914 acutely aware of the issues?

The proclamation of the Republic

The proclamation of a Republic in 1916 had been the act of a highly unrepresentative and very small minority. In the 1921-2 Dail Eireann debates on the proposed Treaty between Britain and Ireland, someone asked rhetorically, what would have happened if that declaration of a Republic had first been submitted to the verdict of the people.

It had not the slightest democratic sanction. It was not only by a quirk of mind that the proclamation appealed to "the dead generations from which [Ireland] receives her old tradition of nationhood", but because the leaders of the Rising were engaged in "propaganda by the deed" and had yet to win any appreciable section of the living Irish population.

Within two and a half years, though, they had won the people - the only people who could be won, the descendants of the helot Catholic nation - to the republic. In the Westminster general election of 14 December 1918, Sinn Fein won 73 of the 105 Irish seats, for 48% of the votes cast. They won 25 constituencies without a contest.

Sinn Fein

Who and what was Sinn Fein? Many of the "Sinn Fein" electorate did not know what Sinn Fein was or what it represented.

It had been founded in 1905 by Arthur Griffith, who had once been a member of the then enfeebled IRB. The movement had been coalescing for about seven years around newspapers published by Griffith, a journalist by trade.

Despite the involvement of IRB men, the first Sinn Fein was emphatically not a republican party. It was avowedly a monarchist party, a party that wanted the king of England to go on being king of Ireland. Griffith proposed that the United Kingdom created in 1800 should be reorganised; that a democratic, therefore Catholic-majority, Irish parliament should have the powers that the old Protestant-ascendancy parliament had had for the 17 years 1783-1800; that the king of England would then be a "dual monarch" ruling over two separate kingdoms in England and Ireland, presiding over a sort of Anglo-Hibernian empire.

To attain that reorganisation of the UK, Griffith proposed that Irish MPs should not go to Westminster. They should secede from Westminster and recreate an Irish parliament in Dublin.

Griffith wrote a book, "The Resurrection of Hungary", to justify his ideas by the model of Hungary. The Hungarians' national rising had been defeated by their Austrian rulers in 1849, and Hungary held down by force. In 1867 Hungarians elected to the parliament in Vienna seceded and set up a parliament in Budapest. Eventually they forced through the reorganisation of the Austrian state into a dual, Austro-Hungarian, monarchy.

The idea of secession from the London parliament and the recreation of an Irish parliament had already been discussed at the height of Parnellite militancy. It was not Griffith's brainchild. But he made it the centre of Sinn Fein, and of Sinn Fein's nationalist propaganda.

As part of this complex of ideas, Griffith wanted Ireland under a dual monarchy to use tariffs to build up Irish industry, here too restoring the experience of the 17 years before the Act of Union of 1800. He based himself on the achievements of Germany in building up industries behind "nursery tariffs" and on the economic theorists of what had been done in Germany, notably Friedrich List.

If free-trade Britain were to retaliate against Irish tariffs with tariffs of its own, the result would not be good. But British colonies turning into self-governing dominions, for instance Canada, had put on tariffs without British retaliation. Britain was, and would remain, devoutly committed to free trade until after the Great Slump began in 1929.

Griffith was consciously a patriotic adherent, advocate, and champion of Irish capitalism. He believed and said that nationality was the most important element in economics. He was bitterly against "Larkin's union" because higher wages would cut into profits and thus into capitalist achievements. He was on the bosses' side in the Dublin Labour War of 1913-14. He was also something of an Irish-chauvinist bigot, detesting England and the English with more than a political detestation.

But in the corrupt and venal world of Home Rule politics, Griffith was an honest, incorruptible man, a patriot free of self-seeking. He was respected for that even by those who detested his political and social views.

Griffith's Sinn Fein was a small propaganda party. The British and others took to calling the Easter Rising the "Sinn Fein rising". That it surely was not. But, lacking a political party, the veterans of the Rising turned to Sinn Fein, the long-time enemy of the Home Rule party; and Sinn Fein defended the Rising. It became ex post facto the party of the Rising, of its survivors, and of those for whom it represented the rebirth of Ireland. The incongruity was not small: the party of those who had proclaimed the Irish republic in arms was a monarchist party! But so it was.

The crumbling of the Home Rule party

Sinn Fein won three historic by-elections in 1917, in Roscommon, South Longford, and East Clare, as "the party of the Rising".

Eamon de Valera, the victor in East Clare, was the senior surviving commander from the Rising. He had been reprieved from death for fear that shooting out of hand a man born in New York would cause some differences with the USA, then still a year away from entering the war (in April 1917) on the side of Britain and France. There was symbolism in the fact that the by-election had been caused by the death of the popular MP, and younger brother of the Home Rule party leader John Redmond, Willie Redmond, in British uniform, in the ranks of the British forces in Europe.

David Fitzpatrick has argued that the Home Rule party had been shaky in Clare for a while, citing the attacks on the eccentric Arthur Lynch, Home Rule MP for West Clare, by the Clare Champion, the weekly owned by an AOH man.

But the Home Rule party was coming under attack everywhere. The party had had dominated Irish Catholic political life for so long was crumbling. The process can be illustrated by what happened in Ennis, county Clare, after the Rising.

Perhaps following the lead of the Dublin Chamber of Commerce and the Irish Independent, the Ennis Chamber of Commerce passed a motion condemning the Rising. Ennis was a market town of 5000 people, the county town, and a place with a long nationalist tradition. It had a large number of its young men fighting in the British army in Europe, and therefore a sizeable population fervently loyal to Britain, if only for the duration of the war.

The rise of Larkin's union in Dublin had had echoes there when the town labourers organised their own union, the Ennis United Labourers' Association, in 1911.

The Chamber of Commerce made its stand clear. But then the Bishop, Dr Michael Fogarty, spoke. He was a typical Irish nationalist priest who would remain politically active, becoming a Blueshirt, into the 1930s. Politically far more acute than the Chamber of Commerce, Fogarty understood where the Rising had come from. Whatever about its "Larkinite" component, the Rising was rooted in what had happened to the Irish nationalist cause over the preceding four years.

Fogarty wrote a letter to the newspaper in which he "explained" and defended the Rising. At that point opinion in the town began to turn. Fogarty denounced the iniquity of partition and condemned those who had agreed to it, putting the Rising in that perspective.

His role here, in resisting, leading, and then reshaping, opinion, can not be untypical of what went on all over Catholic Ireland. There was a deep-going molecular process in which the helot nation gathered its faculties and its forces. The leading role of priests and bishops here gave its identity to the movement now gathering. In Clare, which gave Sinn Fein the great boost of electing de Valera in July 1917, the anti-conscription campaign of 1918, which broke the back of the Home Rule party, was also very heavily a movement to which the Church was central. That lurch "below the surface", that shift of the tectonic plates of the Irish Catholic people, prepared the way for the Sinn Fein revolution.

The Sinn Fein conventions of 1917

Against that background Sinn Fein met at a regroupment convention in April 1917, and another in October 1917, and was redefined by the new political currents alive in Ireland. A second Sinn Fein emerged, distinct from Griffith's "first Sinn Fein" of 1905-17. The convention was a widely representative affair. It was in effect the founding convention of a party that within twenty months would sweep away the Home Rule party.

That things were politically unclear and confused is not surprising, nor is the fact that this second Sinn Fein was an unstable coalition with blurred objectives. Already - and over the next year or so the process would accelerate - Sinn Fein included "realigned" elements of the Home Rule party. It included the old Sinn Fein. The newly-radicalised new people, many of them young men in a country where the young, the "boys", were expected to keep their peace until the older ones had spoken, included above all, the Volunteers, the men of 1916, and, behind them, pulling strings, the revitalised IRB now headed by Michael Collins, a 27 year old veteran of the Rising who had been working for nine years as a Post Office clerk in London.

The status of the insurgents returned from the internment camps has been resentfully depicted by the playwright Sean O'Casey, who had been secretary of the Irish Citizen Army and had resigned in protest at its too-close entwinement with the "middle-class" Volunteers, and specifically because Constance Markievicz was allowed by Connolly to be a member of both Citizen Army and Volunteers. He had not taken part in the Rising; he wrote a history of the Citizen Army in 1919. His early plays would express the disillusionment after the Civil War.

The special weight of the military has been a feature of all Irish republican and post-republican parties. Politically, most of the activists were neophytes, loyal to the tradition written in blood during Easter Week.

Sinn Fein had been monarchists. Most of the newly aroused or newly disillusioned forces gathered around it were not. What was its objective to be? What did it stand for? In the name of what, and to fight for what, would Sinn Fein appeal to the Irish people to back it in the forthcoming election?

A sort of compromise was reached. The new Sinn Fein would be a republican party, standing on the 1916 declaration. It would work to win a republic from England. Then, that achieved, the people of Ireland could vote for any system they chose in the newly independent Ireland - for a monarchy, if that is what they wanted.

The fatal flaw here, and it would shatter Sinn Fein and push Catholic Ireland towards civil war, was that the party was committing itself to achieve the most advanced position - a fully independent, entirely separate, united Irish republic, which would require tremendous effort and against which Britain would mobilise all its great resources - and doing it while at the same time (in order to accommodate those who did not share that objective) proclaiming that once it had won this most difficult position to win, it might then abandon it, for something else, something less. The British had so far only offered the pre-war version, limited Home Rule.

What if, without conceding the fully independent and separate republic, the British should eventually offer attractive terms which a large part of Sinn Fein, or Sinn Fein leaders - found acceptable, or would settle for, either from choice or for compromise? What in fact did happen at the end of 1921 was perhaps now set up inexorably to happen.

In October De Valera, identified more than anyone else with Rising, was elected president of Sinn Fein, in place of Griffith, who became his deputy. The new Sinn Fein adopted the old Sinn Fein's prime tactic: they would secede from Westminster and set up an Irish parliament in Dublin.

From April 1918, the campaign against conscription in Catholic Ireland rallied the helot nation behind the Church and Sinn Fein. They forced the increasingly rattled and disoriented Home Rule party MPs to leave Westminster. They won a victory over the British government: Lloyd George decided that the trouble of trying to enforce conscription in Ireland was greater than the benefit it would bring in recruits, and abandoned it. The retreat was made when the proposed conscription had already polarised Irish politics to the side of the priests and Sinn Fein.

The war ended on 11 November 1918. Lloyd George's "khaki election" followed on 14 December. Sinn Fein won 73 of Ireland's 105 seats. Catholic Ireland had voted for the Irish Republic proclaimed by the numerically insignificant minority outside the GPO on Easter Monday 1916. But it was an Irish Republic occupied by British troops and towards which the other majority, in north-east Ulster, looked with hostility and alarm.

Not the least consequence of Sinn Fein's commitment to full independence and separate from Britain and its empire was to radically exclude the possibility of even so much as fruitful dialogue with the other Irish people, the British-Irish. Did the Sinn Fein convention in 1917 understand that? Wishful thinking and denial played no small part in the politics of those years - but how could they not have understood it? How can they not have understood, or at least felt instinctively, that their Republic could not be an all-Ireland republic? That, if it was to be a republic fully independent from Britain, it could not be a united all-Ireland republic, and if it was to have even the slightest hope of including the North then it would have to be an agreed Home Rule short, or far short, of full independence.

On this course partition was unavoidable. The only question was, which partition.

Dail Eireann, 1919

Dail Eireann met at the Mansion House, Dublin, on 21 January 1919. The first thing it did was to declare, now with an overwhelming democratic mandate, the establishment of a republic. They claimed that the territory of the republic was 32 counties. They made no suggestion of a special provision for the north east Ulster majority in this republic.

In the election of December 1918, the Home Rule party had lost 75 of the 81 seats it previously held. But the Unionists did not lose ground at all. In the six north-eastern counties, the official Unionists won 20 seats, and Labour Unionists three. (The Unionists also won three seats in Dublin). The Home Rule party survived better in the six counties, winning four seats there (and only two elsewhere, in Donegal and Waterford). Sinn Fein won only three seats in the six counties (and 70 out of 75 in the 26 counties).

Four days after Dail Eireann convened, on 25 January 1919, the mainly Protestant workers of Belfast began an almost-general strike for shorter hours. The strike lasted until 14 February and was the peak of direct class struggle in Ireland. Following it, the 1919 May Day demonstration was the largest labour rally ever seen in Belfast, and the Belfast Labour Party made large gains in the City Council elections, winning 12 out of 60 seats in January 1920.

Belfast Labour was however soon crushed by the sectarian pogroms in summer 1920. Catholics and socialist or even liberal-minded Protestants were driven out of their homes and their jobs in the shipyards, and 62 were killed. There had already been a smaller, earlier wave of such expulsions in July 1912; there would be others over 1920-1.

In December 1920 the British Government enacted a "Government of Ireland Act" stipulating separate Home Rule for the 26 and for the six counties. In May 1921 elections were held under that Act. In the 26 counties, 124 Sinn Fein candidates were returned unopposed, and four Unionists were elected for Trinity College Dublin. In the six counties, the Unionists won 40 seats; all Labour or Labour Unionist representation was extinguished; the Home Rule party, renamed National Party, won six seats, and Sinn Fein won six. The triumphant Unionists established a Northern Ireland government, which would remain their one-party government for 51 years.

The South

In the South, a War of Independence now developed, starting in January 1919 and continuing until a truce in July 1921. It is estimated that about 15,000 volunteers fought at one time or another on the Irish side, with generally about two or three thousand active at any one time, facing about 50,000 British troops.

Attacks on the British state forces in the South started without sanction by Dail Eireann or declaration of war. Yet the British forces were now, in at least 28 out of 32 counties, occupying the country against the declared will of the people.

Britain did not recognise the Dail or the government it elected, but it could not but recognise the democratic validity of the December 1918 election which it had itself organised, supervised, and audited. Britain's only claim to rule in most of Ireland was now the claim of naked self-interest, imperial self-interest.

In a sense there was a simultaneous Protestant "war of independence" in Northern Ireland - a war by the Irish minority, and the north-east Ulster majority, to avoid incorporation into an all-Ireland state. Such a way of describing it is inimical to a nationalist point of view, but it has the advantage of bringing things out clearly and separating the horrible sectarian forms and incidentals of the battle from the fundamental things.

The alliance between the Liberal government and the Home Rule party had proposed to put the second (north-eastern) majority under the control of the other (all-Ireland) majority without recourse and without protection other than the reserve powers of London and the goodwill of the Irish majority people.

Three times that was attempted. The first time, in 1886, it was stopped by the opposition of the Tories and the revolt of both the Radical and the Whig wings of the Liberal party, bringing down the Liberal government. In other words, it was stopped by the House of Commons. The British electorate was uneducated on Ireland, and unsympathetic to Irish demands for self-determination. Uproar in Northern Ireland was part of the recoil from the plans of the Liberal government. It was partly fomented, but did not need to be.

The second time, in 1893, it was stopped by the House of Lords, which still held an absolute veto and could overrule the Home Rule majority in the House of Commons. The Liberal Unionists regrouped with the Tory Unionists. There was now a powerful movement against Home Rule in Northern Ireland.

The third time Home Rule was attempted, it was stopped despite a House of Commons majority for it, this time not by the House of Lords, which now had only the power to delay it, but by mass extra-parliamentary action. The British Establishment, in its big battalions, rallied to the Northern Ireland minority. The Tory party preached armed rebellion rather than have the Northern Ireland Protestants submit to the will of the House of Commons and go under a Dublin Home Rule government. With the help of the Tory party, the Northern Protestants organised an army and a provisional government to run Northern Ireland and defend it rather than submit. As the constitutional bulwarks protecting the Unionists came down, direct action took their place. In response, the government and the Home Rule party caved in and agreed to a "temporary" partition.

The Northern Unionists had had to mobilise and fight for their "independence", notwithstanding that they had very powerful allies, some of whom in the early period were playing them as "the Orange card" in an imperial game. Does that alliance invalidate the claim to self-determination by the second Irish majority? Surely not. But in practice it mis-shaped and warped the element of democratic self-assertion in their fight against incorporation in a Catholic-majority united Ireland. Their struggle for "self-determination" took the form of participation in a bloc with all-Ireland Unionism and with the British Tories to keep the whole of Ireland within the Union and to thwart and defeat the democratic rights of the Irish majority. From 1911 the Unionists declared, through Carson, that if Home Rule were passed, they would "carry on for ourselves the government of those districts of which we have control... become responsible for the government of the Protestant province of Ulster". They saw that then as a plan to scupper any Home Rule. Bit by bit their fallback demand came to be the demand to retain control over "their own" area of Ireland. It did not take the "principled" form of demanding that the idea of majority self-rule be applied consistently. It took the form of demanding a bigger or smaller "heartland" - demanding not democratic self-determination, but "self-determination" inside a mini-empire attached to Britain. Their core demand for their own self-determination was always wrapped up in undemocratic demands concerning the Catholics - diminishing demands that shrank from the first, that all Ireland would remain under direct London rule, to the different proposals concerning "Ulster", exclusion of nine, six, or four counties.

What the Unionists finally settled on, and then with the backing of Britain and British troops enforced, did violence to the democratic rights of Catholic nationalists, who were a bigger proportion of the population of the six counties than the Protestants of all Ireland would have been in a united Ireland - and, moreover, were the majority in much of the territory of the six counties.

Though the struggle of the Protestant majority areas after 1886 can be classified as a battle for independence from Irish-majority control, it was always wrapped up in denial of the rights of some or all of the other Irish people. As Britain, after the 1918 general election returned a big majority for Sinn Fein, could justify its treatment of Ireland only in terms of naked imperial self-interest, so too the Unionists could justify a territory far greater than what was properly "theirs" only in terms of naked self-interest - the desire for as big a territory as possible.

The Ulster Protestant Unionists came under attack in 1886, 1893, and 1912. In all cases, up to 1914, the threat of British coercion was there. It was averted, first by the House of Commons (the Liberal Unionists defecting), then by the House of Lords, and finally by mass extra-parliamentary action and the threat of armed rebellion.

Were the Ulster Protestant Unionists under attack after 1914? No, surely not. The Irish nationalist forces could not hope to beat the British army and then subdue Northern Ireland, even if they had wanted to. After the threat of British coercion of the Protestants was lifted (though, when live, it had done great damage to any prospect of progress), the nationalists and then the out-and-out republicans abjured any attempt to use force against the Protestants - if only for the practical reason that it could not be done.

What were the Unionists under threat from, then? From the Catholics in their midst. That problem - even for the Catholics in Belfast, inside the Protestant-Unionist demographic heartland - would have been radically altered if the Unionists had not kept the majority Catholic areas in their state in violation of the democratic rights of their population. Yet the Unionists felt under threat - they felt the need to drive out Catholics from, for example, the Belfast shipyards.

If the Unionists were democrats, it was only in the sense that they were for their own democratic rights. Consistent democrats they were not. Everything was warped by their old "master people" attitude to the Catholics and the general imperialist outlook within which they saw themselves and their relationship to the Irish majority, including those of them within the six counties.

Thus, while it is true that the Ulster Protestants were on the defensive before they won their rights (and a great deal more) in 1914, and it is true that this defensive stance probably shaped their outlook in the quarter-century after 1886, they were not seriously under threat after 1914. The putative source of the earlier threat, the British government, was on their side, and with more "bias" and favouritism than the Liberals had ever shown to their long-time Irish Catholic-nationalist allies.

The Protestant "war of independence" was won by 1914. Thereafter their fight was a fight against Catholic-nationalist self-determination - to thwart it or to limit it - and against the Catholics and Catholic-nationalists in their claimed six-counties area in particular. By the period of the Catholic-nationalist war of independence against Britain, in 1919-21, the Orange "war of independence" had become a quasi-colonial war, in alliance with the British army, against the six-counties Catholic minority.

It was waged as many later colonial wars would be waged - by terrorisation of the people being kept down. It would never, for 50 years, entirely cease to be so. It was the use of the typical methods of colonialists in Derry and Belfast in 1969 that began the process that ended Protestant self-determination and led to British direct rule from 1972. Karl Marx's aphorism, "No nation which oppresses another can ever itself be free", had a lot to say to the Northern Ireland Protestant Unionists.

To say that if the relations of power had been reversed, if the British government had sided with the Catholic nationalists - as it seemed determined to do at various points from 1886 to 1914 - then they would have coerced the Northern Protestants, or to point to the ill-treatment of Protestants in the 26 counties, is true; but it weighs very little in the historical record. The point is, they didn't. Nor, granted all the oppression of Protestants that did take place in the 26 Counties, can it reasonably be said that there was an equivalence of oppression on the two sides of the border. While the six counties did not institute confessional legislation that struck at their religious minority, and the 26 counties did - on divorce, for instance - there were no B-specials in the South. The basic difference was not one of innate or ideologically fostered goodness on one side, or evil on the other, but in the nature of the minorities on the two sides. Not all, but many, of the southern Protestants were upper or middle class; the Catholics in Northern Ireland, in the cities and towns anyway, were the underclass, and were made even more so in the years of unmoderated Protestant-sectarian rule.

As the alliance with the Liberals, and the British government power of coercing Protestant Ulster which that alliance seemed to promise to put in their hands, corrupted the Home Rulers and worked against them looking for an intra-Irish democratic modus vivendi with the local Protestant-Unionist majority in north-east Ulster, so also the Protestant Unionists were corrupted. And theirs was not the moral and political corruption rooted in the promise of borrowed power, but, as well as that, the real corruption of having state authority and the active support of the greatest power in the situation. Thus they began by struggling against the loss of their own rights and wound up, even in their six-counties fallback option, oppressing the Catholic nationalists. If the promise of borrowed British power tended to and did corrupt the Home Rulers and make them irresponsible, the actual deployment of such power corrupted the Unionists and turned them into tyrants in their own Protestant state for a Protestant people.

Actual partition

The process of partitioning Ireland was bloody and terrible. The territory - six counties - had been marked off since 1914. The people in those areas knew where they stood. Relations between them began inevitably to prefigure what they would be within the Orange state.

The defining act of partition came with the election of a Belfast parliament in 13 May 1921, and the taking of office in June 1921 of a Belfast government with claimed jurisdiction over counties Antrim, Down, Londonderry, Armagh, Fermanagh, and Tyrone. King George V opened the Belfast parliament on 22 June 1921, calling on "all Irishmen to pause, to stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation, to forgive and to forget, and to join in making for the land they love a new era of peace, contentment, and good will." Soon came the Truce in the War of Independence, on 11 July, followed by negotiations which culminated in the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on 6 December.

For the Belfast parliament, it was as it had often been in medieval Irish history, a case of having to conquer or hold down the territory and the people which it had been "granted". Most of the people of Fermanagh and Tyrone, large numbers in south Down and south Armagh, and 60% of the people in the second-largest city of the six counties, Derry, did not want or recognise rule from Belfast by the Protestant majority of north-east Ulster. These areas, in varying degrees, and differingly at different times, had to be treated as conquered territories, with a conquered population. So they were, and so for 50 years they would be.

Resistance varied. In the border areas it was often open warfare. To replace the British army, which retreated to a back-up role, the Unionists created the Ulster Special Constabulary from November 1920. It was divided into three corps: the A, B, and C Specials. The A and C Specials disbanded after 1926, but the 'B Specials' survived until disbanded by the British government at the beginning of Direct Rule in March 1972. The B Specials ranged up to a maximum of 25,000 people, and they were recruited as an exclusively Protestant paramilitary force, with open ties to the Orange Order and the Ulster Volunteer Force.

The question arises here: what did the British state and the Belfast government think they were doing? How could such an arrangement have made sense to them? How could it be justified? These events took part at the heart of the British Empire. That Empire had been evolving, and in the next decade would complete the evolution, into a "Commonwealth" of essentially independent white dominions. Other parts of the Empire either lagged way behind - notably India, where only the smallest beginnings of self-government had yet appeared (in 1909: more extensive, but still very limited, self-government did not come until 1935) - or were out-and-out colonies, like the seriously underdeveloped territories of British Africa. That Empire had been built by plunder and slaughter and robbery - much of which had been pioneered centuries earlier in... Ireland.

Kipling's exhortation to "pick up the white man's burden" had more to it for many of those it influenced than cynical rationalisation for plunder and dominion. Imperialism too could call on and corrupt its idealists. Its ethos remained that of realpolitik, force, brute force. One of the vexed, if possibly idle, questions of political theology - are the Gaelic Irish "white"? - though it would not have been posed then, did influence what happened, by way of the implicit answer to that question that influenced behaviour, attitudes, and ideas of what was permissible - "no!"

The Catholic Gaelic Irish, the helot nation, even after 120 years in one state with Britain and 700 under English rule, were - in an era where unselfconscious national typology and characterisation that would now be called racist was normal - still seen as an alien species, as something less than civilised, less than your English people, and less than the British-Irish.

For the Unionists, it was a question of what they could get away with; for the British government, of what would cause least difficulty. That meant backing the Orangemen in their six-counties redoubt. The British government at the time of partition was a coalition government, with the imperialist Liberal Lloyd George as prime minister; but it was a heavily Tory-dependent government. It was essentially a government dominated by those who had organised armed rebellion in 1912-14 and threatened civil war. And, on a certain level and for a very long time, they were not wrong in their calculations of what would cause least difficulty: once the Unionists had beaten down the Catholics of Northern Ireland, they did not rise again for 50 years. A leftist historian like A J P Taylor could still write in the late 60s that "Lloyd George conjured the Irish question out of existence".

In fact, however, what the Belfast government and its London backers did then was to put down mines at the foundations of the "Protestant" state they were building. The mines had long, long fuses, but they would nonetheless explode - and in a British, Irish, and international context which made it impossible for the British government to deploy the level of crude force their predecessors had used in the early 20s.

The Treaty debate

How did Catholic-nationalist Ireland understand and respond to the actual fact of partition? Did it blame Britain? Think that the Protestant Unionists could or should be coerced? Did it fight for a more "principled" partition?

Partition was presented to the Irish nationalist leaders as a temporary expedient. Why could they possibly have thought it would be temporary, given the ferocity with which the Unionists had resisted, and for so long, and given what was being done in Northern Ireland to secure the rule of the Belfast government over its artificially large Catholic-nationalist minority?

In the Treaty negotiations in London, Lloyd George and his associates had for a period put pressure on the Ulster Unionists to go into a united Ireland. They were in this at a serious disadvantage: the Orange leaders knew that they had the backing of the Unionists in the British parliament and in the coalition government. Lloyd George then turned to pressurising the Sinn Fein plenipotentiaries.

The story he told them was that after a period of a few years, a Boundary Commission, consisting of representatives of London, Dublin, and Belfast, would meet to rationalise the border. It could not but transfer large parts of "Northern Ireland" to the 26 counties, so much so that Northern Ireland would be unviable and would "go in" with Dublin. To James Craig and the Ulster Unionist leaders, Lloyd George said: what you have, you can hold.

One purpose of the violent repression of the Catholic areas was to make sure there was a firm "hold" when the Boundary Commission came.

From the nationalist point of view, the undemocratic (or "unprincipled", to use de Valera's later expression) character of the six counties was an argument, or a landmine, laid down for future use to scupper the Northern Ireland state. (Neither side considered the option of a democratic modus vivendi). Paradoxically, therefore, the nationalists thought that the democratically absurd borderlines of the six counties would serve them by serving to bring down the six-counties state.

They were partly right about that, but in the very long term. The large size of the Catholic minority, and the threat it posed for the Protestant majority (if there had not for decades been high Catholic emigration, the Catholics might long ago have become the majority in the Six Counties), created one of the motives (fear) for ill-treating Northern Ireland's Catholics, and made it impossible to stabilise the "Protestant state for a Protestant people" except by terror and repression; thus it led to the eruption of 1968 and after.

For the Catholic-nationalist leaders in 1920-1, the bottom line was that they had no option but to accept the partition. They might in theory have invaded the North to liberate the Catholic-majority areas, but they could not conceivably defeat the British army and the Orange militias in the territory they were determined to hold.

The situation is best illustrated by the debates in Dail Eireann on the Treaty, between 14 December 1921 and 7 January 1922, when the Dail accepted the Treaty by a vote of 64 to 57. The startling thing about those often heated, bitter, and unforgiving debates, heralding civil war, is that partition played so little a part in them. Of 338 pages of debate printed in the Dail report, only nine covered the question of partition. Neither side believed they could at will do anything about partition. In so far as either did, it was the Treatyites who had the greater hopes: the Free State, within the British Empire, would have a better chance of bringing in the North than any republic.

And on that, de Valera, the leader of the anti-Treaty side in the Dail debates, ultimately agreed, or would come to agree. When in 1949 the party of the Treatyites, many of them the same people who in 1921-2 had backed the argument that the Free State would be better able to end partition than a republic, left the Commonwealth and declared the 26 counties a republic - in name, though in substance it was that already - de Valera was privately against it (though he did not find it politic to say so in public).

In the Treaty debates in 1921-2, de Valera, though he stood for the republic and with the "hard" republicans, advocated as an alternative to the Treaty "Document no.2". That, as Griffith and Collins insisted in the debates, was an alternative form of association with the British Empire-Commonwealth, not opposition to association. "It merely attaches a fresh label to the same parcel, or, rather, a label written, on purpose, illegibly in the hope of making belief that the parcel is other than it is". De Valera made no new proposals for the north-east, apparently accepting the Boundary Commission formula. On 22 August 1921, in the Dail, de Valera had declared that: "They had not the power, and some of them had not the inclination, to use force with Ulster. He did not think that policy would be successful. They would be making the same mistake with that section as England had made with Ireland. He would not be responsible for such a policy... For his part, if the Republic were recognised, he would be in favour of giving each county power to vote itself out of the Republic if it so wished".

Nevertheless, civil war in the south, between Treatyites and anti-Treatyites, broke out in June 1922.


Submitted by david kirk on Sat, 13/06/2009 - 20:42


According to Dangerfield the Third Home Rule bill was only introduced by Asquith as part of the deal with the Home Rule Party following the elections of 1910 and their support for the Parliament Act, and there was no great clamor for it by the Irish people at that time. He also points out the changes in Irish society after the fall of Parnell that meant Ireland in 1910 was not either in the English imagination or in fact bristling with nationalist fervor.Is this a true picture?

Also the ulster unionist identity, its political tradition and even its culture is almost entirely defined by the protestant ascendancy. All the ideas of devolution for the north within a united Ireland would have been rejected by protestant ulster. The answer from the north would always be "One Law, One Land, One Throne". It is an unfortunate fact that unionist Ireland would have to have been "coerced" if a non sectarian workers republic was to be built in the early years of the century.


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