Northern Ireland is a state created by partition, and it is therefore not surprising that both those who support its existence and those who oppose its existence continue to argue over the rights and wrongs of partition.
Though this blog considers the partition of Ireland to have been wrong – democratically, culturally, economically, socially … in every respect, in fact – and considers that a further repartition is not the solution to the problems created by partition, the continuing interest in the topic means that it deserves at least to be discussed.
Over the next week or so this blog will look at some of the proposals that have been made, and will try to assess them dispassionately. First, though, it is useful to remind ourselves of how the situation arose in the first place.
Almost before the ink was dry on the 1800 Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland nationalists started working towards its repeal. For reasons that are still debated, the earlier support amongst northern Presbyterians for the United Irishmen disappeared, to be replaced by strong support amongst most northern Protestants, for the Union with Britain. This started to pose problems for the growing Home Rule movement when they strongly opposed it, and opted for continuing close ties with Britain.
The various Home Rule bills came and went, with the First World War intervening at a crucial time in the passage into law of the 1914 Government of Ireland Act, which would have led to devolution for the whole of Ireland. The Act was suspended, and then overtaken by evens – the 1916 Easter Rising, the 1918 Election, the War of Independence, before being replaced by the new Government of Ireland Act of 1920.
The Rising, the election, and the War of Independence led the British to conclude that the 1914 Act was inadequate. The 1916 Rising, though a seminal event for nationalism, probably had a negative effect on the prospects of northern unionists acquiescing to Home Rule. The 1918 election, on the other hand, demonstrated clearly that the desire for autonomy in Ireland was strong and shared by the majority of the voters. Including the uncontested constituencies (25 of the 105), it is estimated that the Sinn Féin share of the vote would have been around 53%, with an additional 22% going to the Irish Nationalist Party and other nationalists. Sinn Féin alone won 73 of the 105 seats, thus giving it, under the British system used for this election, an overwhelming majority.
Government of Ireland Act, 1920
Two attempts were made by the British Prime Minister Asquith during the First World War to implement the Home Rule Act, first in May 1916 which failed, then again in 1917 with the calling of the Irish Convention which led to a cabinet Committee for Ireland, under the chairmanship of former Ulster Unionist Party leader Walter Long, who pushed for a radical new idea – the creation of two Irish home rule entities, Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland with unicameral parliaments. The House of Lords amended the old 1914 Bill accordingly, to create a new Act with two bicameral parliaments, "consisting of His Majesty, the Senate of (Northern or Southern) Ireland, and the House of Commons of (Northern or Southern) Ireland", in an essentially confederal Ireland. Northern Ireland was defined for the purposes of this act as "the parliamentary counties of Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone, and the parliamentary boroughs of Belfast and Londonderry …" The Act saw both parts of Ireland having identical arrangements with an overarching Council of Ireland.
The choice of counties to include in the new Northern Ireland seems to have depended mainly upon the areas that the unionist leaders felt that they could dominate and control. While the 1912 Covenant referred only to 'Ulster', it soon became clear that unionism would not have a majority in the whole province. In the 1918 election unionist candidates got 58% of the votes in 9-county Ulster, with nationalists getting 39%, but this underestimates nationalist support, as Sinn Féin were returned unopposed in both Cavan constituencies. If an estimate is made of their support there, the nationalist minority would be over 41%. Unionist leaders were concerned that they would have trouble dominating such a large minority, and opted rather for a smaller, more manageable 6-county state, excluding the three counties with large nationalist majorities. This gave them a 66%-31% majority. The fact that their chosen counties contained large numbers of nationalists did not concern them hugely – their aim was to retain as many unionists within their territory as possible.
The Treaty between Britain and the Sinn Féin leadership in Ireland that ended the War of Independence went further, and while it allowed for the creation of an Irish Free State, it permitted the Northern Parliament to opt out of it:
11. Until the expiration of one month from the passing of the Act of Parliament for the ratification of this instrument, the powers of the Parliament and the Government of the Irish Free State shall not be exercisable as respects Northern Ireland, and the provisions of the Government of Ireland Act 1920, shall, so far as they relate to Northern Ireland remain of full force and effect, and no election shall be held for the return of members to serve in the Parliament of the Irish Free State for constituencies in Northern Ireland, unless a resolution is passed by both Houses of the Parliament of Northern Ireland in favour of the holding of such elections before the end of the said month.
12. If before the expiration of the said month, an address is presented to His Majesty by both Houses of the Parliament of Northern Ireland to that effect, the powers of the Parliament and the Government of the Irish Free State shall no longer extend to Northern Ireland, and the provisions of the Government of Ireland Act, 1920, (including those relating to the Council of Ireland) shall so far as they relate to Northern Ireland, continue to be of full force and effect, and this instrument shall have effect subject to the necessary modifications.
Needless to say, the unionist-dominated Parliament of Northern Ireland presented the necessary 'address', and the 1920 Government of Ireland Act remained in force as the Constitution of Northern Ireland until its repeal in 1999. The subtle text of the Treaty also replaced the Council of Ireland with an umbrella authority by the Free State over the north (the Free State would, in effect, have the powers that the Council would have had). Needless to say, this contributed to unionist resistance, and once the 'address' was made these overarching powers disappeared, and the Council of Ireland with it.
So by a series of legislative manoeuvres, assisted by the military weakness of the IRA, the military strength of Britain, and the geographic concentration of unionists in north-east Ulster, Ireland was now effectively partitioned. All that remained was to fix the border. Although the Government of Ireland Act specified the six counties as constituting Northern Ireland, the Treaty (Article 12) went on to say that:
Provided that if such an address is so presented a Commission consisting of three persons, one to be appointed by the Government of the Irish Free State, one to be appointed by the Government of Northern Ireland, and one who shall be Chairman to be appointed by the British Government shall determine in accordance with the wishes of the inhabitants, so far as may be compatible with economic and geographic conditions the boundaries between Northern Ireland and the rest of Ireland, and for the purposes of the Government of Ireland Act, 1920, and of this instrument, the boundary of Northern Ireland shall be such as may be determined by such Commission.
[Next post: The Boundary Commission]