Partition was more than a political and geographical divide; it cost both lives and livelihoods, says Professor Diane Urquhart
The partition of Ireland was never put to the electorate. It might, therefore, be presumed that partition was foisted on Ireland by a post-war coalition government, headed by David Lloyd George, keen to settle the long-standing “Irish problem” by any means.
However, the partition of the island of Ireland was not a new idea. The previous configurations posited ranged from two, four and six counties to the nine counties of the province of Ulster.
Indeed, the latter was still under consideration in 1920 and was the favoured option of unionist leader Sir Edward Carson, as well as many who thought that it could aid the future reunification of Ireland.
Yet, the decision to opt for a six-county Northern Ireland state, embodied in the Government of Ireland Act of 1920, was of unionist making. This resolution was not based on an adherence to pre-existing provincial boundaries, economic viability, or popular will, but an unofficial religious census seeking to establish a unionist power bloc in a new state of Northern Ireland: the nine-county province of Ulster was 56% Protestant; the six most north-easterly counties of Ulster — Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry/Derry and Tyrone — were 66% Protestant.
Commenting on a Northern Irish state that would constitute the province of Ulster, Sir James Craig noted: “No sane man would undertake to carry on a parliament with such a small majority.”
There was, therefore, a duality to partition; the border not only separated north from south, but also split the province of Ulster. Although the former often overshadowed the latter in the spiky debates that ensued, to many the loss of the three Ulster counties of Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan was acutely felt.
Many unionists in these excluded counties were bereft, not least because they had signed the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant and its female equivalent, the Women’s Declaration, in their thousands and in good faith, determining to use whatever means were necessary to defeat Home Rule.
The sense of betrayal is evidenced by southern unionist representatives walking out of the Ulster Unionist Council meeting that ratified six-county partition by 301 to 82 votes in 1920, resignations from popular male and female unionist associations and organised resistance embodied by the establishment of the Anti-Partition League.
Women were especially candid about the impact of partition. The largest female organisation in Ireland’s history, the Ulster Women’s Unionist Council, debating six-county partition in March 1920, saw majority support for a motion that “Ulster should remain intact and abide by the covenant”.
Writing from Belfast, Edith Mercier Clements also felt that southern unionists made an “inestimable and incomparable self-sacrifice. You can hardly form any idea of how many women are irreconcilables and never would have consented to anything which meant the breaking of the Covenant”.
From a different political perspective, these sentiments were shared by many northern nationalists, placed in a state they neither wanted nor recognised.
Some temporary optimism was initially proffered by the Boundary Commission, which formed Article 12 of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921.
As historian Michael Laffan astutely observed, nationalists either “felt that partition was already an established fact and that nothing could be done, or they assumed that the Boundary Commission would take care of the question”.
The Boundary Commission thus raised hopes and fears of the border’s permanence in equal measure in nationalist and unionist communities respectively.
When the Boundary Commission reported in 1925, however, little changed in its wake.
The BBC documentary The Road To Partition, produced by DoubleBand Films and to be shown tonight on BBC Northern Ireland, includes Pathe news footage of the official opening of the Northern Irish parliament by King George V and Queen Mary on June 22, 1922.
This shows Belfast’s streets festooned with bunting and lined with cheering crowds for the event, but any sense of wholesale celebration was a facade.
Devoid of northern nationalists, the threat of violence was such that a heavy military presence was clearly visible on Belfast’s streets.
Lady Cecil Craig, the wife of the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland and later president of the Ulster Women’s Unionist Council, writing in her diary, recorded that she “breathed the biggest sigh of relief” as the royal yacht left Belfast after a five-hour visit.
The reality of partition, in the short-term, as Episode Two of The Road to Partition explores, was rising violence and the migration of religious minorities from one Irish state to another.
The episode includes moving footage of northern Catholic families arriving in Dublin. Displaced by partition, many southern Protestants would make a similar journey north.
This underscores the human history of partition; the border was more than a political and geographical divide; it cost both lives and livelihoods.
Professor Diane Urquhart is chair of gender history in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen’s University Belfast. She is a contributor to The Road to Partition, which starts tonight on BBC One Northern Ireland (9pm). It concludes next Thursday, June 3