Olympic and Titanic Being Built in Northern Ireland circa 1909 (Photo by Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)
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Andrew McKinley reviews Robert Lynch’s ‘The Partition of Ireland 1918-1925’

The partition of Ireland has been a feature of British and Irish politics for over a century now. The answers it provided to the Irish and Ulster questions, we live with today. The continued existence of Northern Ireland a point of seemingly endless controversy. Yet histories of partition have been few and far between. The reasons for this are not entirely clear given its supposed subsequent significance to the conflict in Northern Ireland. Into this sparse field comes Robert Lynch’s ‘The Partition of Ireland 1918-1925’. The 1918 here referring to the parliamentary election of that year and the 1925 to the conclusion of the Boundary Commission provided for in the Government of Ireland Act.

‘The Partition of Ireland 1918-1925’ by Robert Lynch Cambridge University Press 2019

Lynch pitches his work as one of revision, an interruption into the ‘dominant and long-running narratives’ that seek to understand partition as reflecting different ‘national identities’ on the island. Rather, this misunderstanding obscures that ‘partition was a chaotic, confused process, far removed from the “natural” conferral of statehood on pre-existing homogeneous populations imagined by the partitioners and later historians.’ The point made with blunt force in the title of his introduction – ‘the tragedy of two lunatics’ – a quote from a journalist writing at the time on the creation of two Irish states.

To reach this conclusion Lynch proceeds in three parts: ‘The Origins of Partition’, ‘The Process of Partition’ and ‘The Legacies of Partition’. The argument building from an ill-conceived determination to divide the island in the backrooms of Westminster to the realities of popular confusion, the displacement of thousands of people, factional violence, a long winding frontier and the instability of Northern Ireland in containing a substantial minority opposed to its existence. How, he thinks, could this reflect a ‘natural’ state of affairs and if not ‘natural’ just where did partition come from?

The jumping off point for Lynch’s answer is the question ‘Where is Ireland?’ He looks to the Irish journalist William Bulfin’s ‘Rambles in Eireann’ (1905). Bulfin’s book was an admixture of longing for a Gaelic dreamworld and fulminations against the Anglicisation of Ireland. Having visited the idylls of Kildare and the Wicklow hills he arrives in Belfast to find a sprawling industrial city and he laments ‘money, money, money, trade, trade, trade, business, business, business…where is Ulster and where is Ireland?’

The contrast between the industrial north east and the rest of Ireland has two effects both of which play into the post-war ambition to resolve the Irish issue in British politics. The first is the increasing sense of ‘Ulster’ distinctiveness. Here Lynch rehearses a variety of sources which show an increasing consciousness that there is something different about Ulster to the rest of island. In part this was demographic, owing to a greater concentration of Protestants and, in particular, Presbyterians. Yet he also notes that such claims were not new, citing Thomas Macaulay’s response to the O’Connell repeal movement in the 1830’s and again from Joseph Chamberlain in 1886 where Lynch observes that he was ‘the first senior politician to promote, if not partition, a two-nation view of Ireland.’

At the same time Irish nationalism comes to think of itself in distinctly Gaelic and Roman Catholic terms. It is not just that the north east is different but also that it is not really Irish. As James Winder Good wrote of Belfast: ‘Many visitors have been tempted to dismiss it as no more than a Scottish or English industrial centre dumped by some freakish chance into an Irish setting. This view is common among South of Ireland folk…who resent its existence as not only an anomaly but as an offence.’

For Lynch, however, the case around the connection between Ulster distinctiveness an Ulster as a distinct nation is underdetermined. He writes ‘there was as much difference between Leinster and the west of Ireland in terms of culture, economy, history and language as there was between Ulster and the rest of Ireland.’ In fact, in the aftermath of partition the idea of two nations becomes a way of justifying it in retrospect. 

He quotes Mary Burgess that these perspectives must be seen as ‘a long and complex effort by unionists to manufacture a sense in which the Northern Irish state has always “really” existed…the myth of the always-and-ever separateness of Ulster.’

The second effect of the great contrast is that the significance of the north east as an industrial centre of the United Kingdom and the Empire pushed opposition to Home Rule north. This was because of the economic and demographic strength of the north east in comparison to southern unionists.

The Ulster Unionist council was formed in 1906 and by 1912 its leadership had mobilised mass opposition to the Third Home Rule bill. Although this was initially regarded as a wrecking tool for home rule for the whole of the island, it helped to create a distinctly Ulster identity. The issue of unionist opposition to home rule becoming framed around answering the ‘Ulster question.’ But this question simplified the meaning of ‘Ulster’ to an alarming degree and it also ignored southern unionists.

When the Third Home Rule Act was suspended for the duration of the First World War a resolution had not yet been found for the Ulster question. Upon conclusion of the war the British government set about resolving the Irish question ‘once and for all.’ The war, however, provided a new context in which the issue of the self-determination of peoples gained prominence. The incipient conceptualisation of two different people on the island of Ireland taking on a new force.

Unlike Asquith before him, Lloyd George considered that it ‘would be an outrage on the principle of self-government to place’ the people of the north east of Ireland ‘under the rule of the remainder of the population.’ This was not entirely, or even at all, a principled position but perhaps, conscious of the eyes of the world and the empire, an improving on Britain’s tactical position.

Apart from the growing prominence of self-determination as a political concept in international politics, Lynch also notes the growing weariness in Westminster with the entire issue of Ireland. Indeed one gets the sense that for him as the weariness increased so too did the plausibility of some form of partition. Nevertheless, it leads to a serious failure to consider the complexities of ‘Ireland’s intermingled demographics’ and what this would mean for implementing any plan for dividing the island.

Out of this comes the Long committee (October 1919) which was charged with coming up with a solution and then, on the basis of the committee’s reports, the Government of Ireland Act (passed December 1920). The eventual answer was a ‘peculiar…conglomeration of initiatives to solve the Irish question which had already been long rejected as unworkable.’ The solution, of course, was two Irish home rule parliaments under the ultimate authority of the Westminster government.

The Long committee had recommended the northern state consist of the nine counties of Ulster but eventually this became six, with Monaghan, Donegal and Cavan being part of the southern state. These three counties excluded, despite the enthusiastic participation of their unionist populations, to ensure there was a stable majority for Northern Ireland’s existence. The inclusion of Fermanagh and Tyrone a point of contention because they too had Roman Catholic majorities.

Lynch quotes a contemporary critic of the plans with a hint of approval, ‘Ulster was nine counties. Ulster was six counties. Ulster was four counties. Ulster was something statutory, an undefined area…Ulster was any damned thing that a Carsonite politician or some semi-literate London journalist wanted to make it.’

The protests from the Sinn Fein and Gaelic wing of Irish nationalism were loud yet Lynch observes wryly that ‘in reality partition would prove to be a practical necessity for the kind of nation building they ironically envisaged which would have been impossible in a heterogeneous, pluralist Ireland.’ In truth, the leaders of Irish nationalism did not know how to address the north east, preferring instead to indulge in a fantasy that northern opposition would fade if only the British state would leave.

It never seems to occur to him that there was no Leinster problem or no west of Ireland problem

On the location of border and future of partition itself, the British government kicked the can on a future boundary commission and a Council of Ireland. Partition was certainly implied to be temporary. The resolution of these issues became determining factors in behaviour of post-partition unionists and nationalists in the border counties as well as the oscillating situation in the South pre and post treaty. The final resolution coming in 1925 when the Boundary Commission report, which gave a small net transfer to Northern Ireland despite wide nationalist expectation that at least Fermanagh and Tyrone would go to the south, was mothballed and the Council of Ireland, which at least held out the prospect of an all-Ireland state of some kind in the future, was abolished. 

Partition solidified and the myth making on both sides of the border began in earnest in 1925.

Lynch’s survey of the history is good and there is much to agree with. The chapters on the process of partition contain much that is valuable. But his account of the development of the idea of partition itself, and his self-evident scepticism about that, is ultimately what drives his conclusion. Thus there are several marked limitations to this history.

In considering the distinctiveness of Ulster as grounds for partition Lynch twice makes the observation that on this basis there could have been many nations in Ireland. Recall his claim ‘there was as much difference between Leinster and the west of Ireland in terms of culture, economy, history and language as there was between Ulster and the rest of the island.’ Yet it never seems to occur to him that there was no Leinster problem or no west of Ireland problem. The distinctiveness of the north east was there not just in its composition but also in the fact that it asserted itself in the strongest terms against home rule for Ireland both before and after the First World War. This ‘self-assertiveness’ of course being a principle of nationalist political theory that Irish nationalists themselves appealed to at the time in seeking to ground their own national aspirations.

Relatedly the rise of nationalist political theory in Ireland during the 19th and early 20th centuries as the main intellectual justification for an independent all island state receives little attention. Yet nationalist political theory works, if it is to be consistent, on the basis of reciprocity. In other words, if Irish nationalism forms a nation on the canons of nationalism it can hardly be objected, in principle, if unionists attempt to do the same. 

As Richard English observes in his history of Irish nationalism ‘the very essence of nationalism was what undid it in Ulster…If you celebrated Gaelicism, nationalist ethnic homogeneity, Catholicism, the validity of suffering at Protestant or British hands, then unionists were excluded and could produce their own rival brand of community no less valid or strong…if one claimed the right of self-determination, of belonging to a state run by people like oneself…then unionists could simply replace autonomous Ireland with the claims of a legitimate UK state.’ 

Although Lynch mentions the reactionary nature of nationalist moves in the north east several times, he fails to explicitly draw the most necessary lesson from it: partition as a consequence of nationalism itself.

While not entirely missing from this narrative, another limitation is the broader aims of the British government in designing its post-war policy on Ireland. One way this is seen is in the analysis of the work of the Long committee. For instance, the committee gave three reasons in advancing its proposal. Yet the primary reason Lynch does not mention. That is, the proposal got ‘rid of the tap root of the Irish difficulty by providing for the complete withdrawal of British rule from the whole of Ireland in the sphere of its domestic government.’ The achievement of this goal was hugely significant for the subsequent process of partition and the development of the new Northern Ireland. Not least because partition and home rule become intertwined.

Northern Ireland’s experience of distinctiveness from the south now took an institutional form – Stormont – which cut it off from the place in the United Kingdom the six counties had enjoyed before partition. Henceforth looking more and more within, rather than to the rest of the country this Ulster had insisted on staying within.

The focus of Lynch’s argument is the incongruity between partition in theory and partition in practice. That despite the articulation of a distinctly Ulster people by advocates of partition this could not easily be found on the ground. The trouble in finding a border consistent with the principle of self-determination for all of the north east’s inhabitants resulted in violence and displacement of people. On these grounds partition was a failure. Yet absent from these considerations is the assessment of the available alternatives. In his conclusion he claims there were many other possible outcomes but sadly does not find the space to elaborate on what these were, nor on their relative merits. Choosing rather to focus on the contested ‘imagined’ communities of Ireland seeking a ‘better’ way.

For a book asserting the practice of partition against its theorising this, ultimately, is where Lynch’s argument falls down. Partition may have been imperfect but that was the reality of the problem.

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