Home Rule for Ireland would have given a new parliament in Dublin far fewer powers than Holyrood has today, but the mere prospect dominated British politics for extended periods over more than three decades. Three Home Rule Bills came before Parliament, in 1886, 1893 and 1912. The first was rejected by the Commons; the second was defeated in the Lords; the third passed the Commons, with the Liberal minority government being supported by the nationalist Irish Parliamentary Party. The House of Lords’ power of veto, the single greatest obstacle to Home Rule, had been removed by the Parliament Act of 1911 and the best that the ‘dilapidated dukes’ could do was delay implementation for two years. Self-government for Ireland was guaranteed to become law in September 1914.
Unfortunately, many unionists, particularly within Ulster, were adamantly opposed to Home Rule, and politicians couldn’t agree on how to allay their fears. This was the backdrop to the Ulster Crisis of 1912-14, when half a million unionists signed the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant, and its accompanying Women’s Declaration; around a hundred thousand men joined a new militia, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), illegally importing arms from Germany to defend Ulster against the anticipated rule from Dublin. Unionist leaders even established a provisional parliament in defiance of Westminster. Nationalists responded by creating their own equally large militia to defend self-government after its implementation; in the meantime, they made their own attempt at gun-running. In March 1914, senior British army officers threatened to resign rather than fight their Ulster countrymen in the UVF. Mutiny and civil war were widely feared – though it was unclear who would be fighting whom – before a much greater crisis, the First World War, diverted attention. When Home Rule was at last placed on the statute book in September 1914, its implementation was postponed until the war was over. In late 1919 politicians returned to the Irish Question – the term used by successive British governments, as if these issues had nothing to do with London. The result was the 1920 Government of Ireland Act, which partitioned Ireland into two states, Northern and Southern Ireland, both still part of the UK and with devolved powers. After the War of Independence of 1919-21, Southern Ireland was replaced by the Irish Free State, but Northern Ireland is with us still.
In The Partition, Charles Townshend aims to explain how Ulster came to be conceived of as an entity requiring special treatment, even if people couldn’t agree on what, if anything, should be done about it, or on what exactly Ulster was. Townshend’s main focus is on British policy – well-trodden terrain – but his periodisation is distinctive. The book concludes in 1925, when the Boundary Commission – a body established as part of the Anglo-Irish Treaty signed in December 1921 – composed a report suggesting a revision of the frontier between North and South. The report was suppressed, and there was no change to the border agreed in the 1920 Act.
When the book starts is harder to say. According to the subtitle it begins in 1885, in the wake of Gladstone’s ‘conversion’ as prime minister to Home Rule, but in fact readers are asked to recognise the historical inevitability of partition. Townshend fits in a discussion of the Norman Conquest of Ireland in the 1170s, telling us that ‘the roots of the Home Rule crisis’ can be found in the ‘original connection between the two main “British Isles”’. He fast forwards to the Cromwellian conquest of 1649-53, which ‘fixed in Irish minds’ – defined here as Irish Catholic – the ‘essentially Protestant character’ of English rule in Ireland. Then he claims that Daniel O’Connell’s ill-defined pledge in the 1830s to repeal the parliamentary Union of 1801 which created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland ‘would, ultimately, lead to partition’.
Townshend believes that Ulster has been different for as long as eight hundred years, certainly since the late 18th century. Accordingly, he has little time for complicating factors to do with contingency or context and is at pains throughout to reveal an emerging sense of ‘Ulsterism’, defined as a Protestant-British construction. We are told that the Union failed to work because the then prime minister, William Pitt the Younger, did not create a ‘United Kingdom identity’ following the 1801 Act, and a policy of ‘inertia’ towards Ireland soon prevailed. The best attempts at incorporative policies, according to Townshend, were Catholic Emancipation in 1829, although it was introduced too late to be much help, and the establishment of primary education in Ireland in 1831. By 1870, when board schools were set up in England and Wales, nearly a million Irish children were already in education. Townshend recognises the success of the Irish system, which provided free education to children of all backgrounds, but laments that the non-denominational principles behind its creation were not adhered to. Education was effectively under clerical control, increasing the religious divisions that would be so important in later decades.
While the point about the belatedness of Emancipation is inarguable, the others are dubious. Unionism, the closest British politicians got to articulating a UK identity in the 19th century (it was intimately intertwined with the empire), was an explicit political project that responded to the crises over Home Rule in the last decades of the century. To blame Pitt for not cultivating it early enough is unhistorical. The idea that ‘those who forced the Union through the Irish parliament did not know what it was for, nor how it should be made to work’ is also unsupported by evidence. Ministers were acutely aware of its purpose. The Union was imposed for a variety of strategic reasons, not least foreign policy concerns – the French had landed in Ireland to assist the 1798 Rebellion – and commercial interests. In criticising the state’s failure to insist on religiously mixed schools, Townshend does not acknowledge that secular education was inconceivable across most of Europe in the 1830s. Nor does he mention the fact that the 1870 Education Act triggered uproar among Liberals, Conservatives, the churches and others when it introduced non-denominational education in England and Wales.
Any serious consideration of the way Ireland was dealt with as part of the UK must take account of the many other important measures, both constructive and repressive, passed by successive governments. Townshend deals with the former, but neglects the most important of them, such as the Irish Church Act of 1869, which disestablished the Church of Ireland and removed the political monopoly of the Anglican ascendancy; the establishment of the Congested Districts Board in 1891 to alleviate poverty and halt emigration from the impoverished west of Ireland; the Local Government (Ireland) Act of 1898, which broke the stranglehold of the landlord class on local government; the Irish Universities Act (1908), which gave Roman Catholics facilities for higher education; the Old Age Pensions Act (1908); and, not least, the revolutionary series of Land Acts, starting with the Landlord and Tenant (Ireland) Act of 1870 and culminating in the 1903 Wyndham Act, which was extended in 1909. By 1921 this legislation had enabled more than 310,000 tenants to buy nearly twelve million acres from landlords, transforming the social structure of Ireland.
Townshend doesn’t mention any of these policies because he wants to show the origin of partition in intractable religious differences (a specifically ‘Irish’ problem) and therefore claim it as a matter of rival identities. This refrain is repeated time and again. The first three chapters (including the prologue) are largely given over to accounts of violent confrontations between Catholics and Protestants. The 1798 Rebellion, a Presbyterian-led republican insurrection against British rule, inspired by the French Revolution, is given short shrift. Townshend skates over this alliance between nonconformists and Catholics against the Anglican ruling class. Unionist statements from the height of the 1912 crisis, claiming that there was a distinct Ulster Presbyterian identity by 1801, are taken at face value – as if Presbyterianism remained unchanged across the hundred or so years that followed. Townshend dwells on the cross-generational ‘consistency’ of ‘Ulstermen’, and quotes other historians’ remarks about the Northern Presbyterian ‘philistine outlook’ and its ‘intransigent frame of mind’, one characterised by ‘contempt and defensiveness’. He argues that these Presbyterian Ulstermen, whose views remained ‘unchanged’, flocked to Belfast throughout the 19th century, setting the stage for crisis in the 1880s.
His determination to identify ‘two nations’ in Ireland, and to ascribe this to religion, leads him into some misleading simplifications. A.V. Dicey, who had a range of reasons for opposing Home Rule, including his concern with the details of the 1912 Bill, has his views condensed into a single position: ‘the uneven development of Ireland, and hence Irish discontent, was a product of religion.’ The Cultural Revival of the 1890s, a wide-ranging effort to rethink what it meant to be Irish, is also viewed through a religious lens: Townshend focuses on its anti-English elements and its ‘Catholic complexion’, ignoring a great number of inconvenient facts. Douglas Hyde, a Protestant and the founder of the Gaelic League, receives two sentences. The contributions of Alice Milligan, W.B. Yeats, Lady Gregory and Constance Markievicz are ignored, presumably because they too were Protestants. So are the contributions of other revivalists, such as James Joyce, a Catholic nationalist who loathed the Church because of its condemnation of the nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell after he became embroiled in a divorce scandal in 1890. Separation from the UK was not the objective of most revivalists, who were such a varied bunch that it doesn’t make sense to group them together politically, but Townshend argues that the ‘logical implication of the Irish-Ireland movement was partition’. He is also wrong when he suggests that, unlike nationalists, Ulster unionists ‘enlisted ostentatiously’ during the First World War. In fact, recruitment levels varied considerably over the war’s duration and differences across the UK were predominantly a result of rural-urban divides.
Townshend refers to the work of Thomas Macknight, a journalist often credited with pioneering the ‘two nations theory’ – in which Ulster Protestants form their own distinct nation on the island of Ireland. He doesn’t mention W.F. Moneypenny’s The Two Irish Nations: An Essay on Home Rule (1913), which is often misinterpreted as a pro-partition polemic. Moneypenny argued that despite the existence of a large ‘Protestant democracy’ in Ulster, the partition of Ireland into ‘two nations’ corresponded to ‘no real geographical line of division’. Instead, ‘separate religions, separate ideals, separate traditions and separate affinities’ existed right across the territory. Townshend gives an account of long-standing regional and religious division, but the reality was much more complicated.
If the influences of religion and region really do explain Ireland’s ‘two nations’, why did similar factors not result in partition in other countries with long histories of religious difference, such as Germany or Quebec, or regional disparities, such as the US? The reality is that the notion of ‘two nations’ is not a uniquely Irish construction, and religion and region do not explain what Townshend calls ‘The Cut’.
He is on more solid ground when dealing with what’s usually referred to as the third Home Rule crisis, introducing the policymakers, academics and thinkers who from 1912 proposed ‘solutions’ for Ireland, none of which rested on the exclusion of the six or even nine counties of Ulster. Imperial federation and Home Rule All Round (a parliament for each of the four UK nations) were just two of the ideas: the issue of Irish self-government was considered in tandem with the broader question of how the polity and empire might be better managed. Townshend emphasises how late in the day some of these schemes were proposed. Even after the six-county scheme was conceived, there was no homogeneity within Ulster unionism. A discussion held by the Ulster Unionist Council in March 1920 showed that ‘the arguments for a nine-county Ulster came not only from the three marginal counties’ (Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan), contrary to the popular view that only Southern Protestants objected to the six-county settlement. The nine counties were recognised as Belfast’s economic hinterland, and it made sense that they be included in the North, if only to help shoulder the cost of administration. There was even a suggestion – ironic in retrospect – that ‘the Unionist majority in a six-county parliament would actually be too great for healthy politics.’ Townshend shows that even after the new Northern Irish Parliament was opened by George V in June 1921, the prime minister, Lloyd George, was still prepared to alter the new region’s makeup to aid negotiations with Éamon de Valera, the leader of Sinn Féin, to end the conflict between Irish republicans and the British state.
In short, the transgenerational positions that Townshend asks us to accept seem very far from fixed. His analysis undermines his larger argument in other ways, too. His discussion of the shared council of Ireland, a body proposed by the 1920 Act with the aim of preserving an all-Ireland political structure – and usually dismissed by historians as a failure (as it ultimately was) – is perhaps the first to engage properly with its provisions. He reveals that Edward Carson, the Dublin-born lawyer who led the unionist opposition to Home Rule, was a strong supporter of the body and ‘optimistic enough to hope [that it contained] the germ of a united Ireland in [the] future’. Similarly, Townshend’s exploration of the Boundary Commission demonstrates that the ‘frontier’ was more significant in the treaty deliberations than historians have suggested. He shows that the issue of partition – enshrined by the 1920 Act – did not derail discussions between Sinn Féin and the British in 1921 because of Lloyd George’s renewal of the idea of a Boundary Commission to determine the precise position of the border. The details of the commission’s remit were usefully hazy. Nationalists dreamed of a vast restoration of people and territory to the South and agreed to its formation; the government didn’t really care about the outcome but thought it might help along the negotiations; Ulster unionists boycotted it from the start; the head of the commission, Richard Feetham, had a methodology of his own design, which was unlikely to satisfy nationalist hopes. But Townshend shows that the promise of the commission enabled the negotiations to continue, eventually resulting in the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921. The delay in the commission’s deliberations due to the civil war over the terms of the treaty gave the new jurisdictions, North and South, time to bed down. It finally began work in late 1924. When its report was leaked to the press in 1925, the vagueness of its remit was thrown into stark relief. Nationalist dreams were quashed: the report proposed some minor transfers of people and territory to the South as well as transfers to the North. After more than a decade of political strife, successive wars and new governments in Westminster, Dublin and Belfast, it suited everyone for the report to be forgotten. The territory of Northern Ireland remained as the 1920 Act had decreed.
A century on, the Irish border is once again a subject of general concern, with the Northern Ireland Protocol (which enforces a sea border between Britain and Northern Ireland), implemented as part of Brexit, a source of fresh tensions. In Northern Ireland, there is an impression of continuity with the conflicts of the past. The paramilitaries have not gone away; many politicians continue to describe identities in terms of political binaries, and the media follows suit. Religion is still important to many and conservative values persist across political divides. Residential patterns and education remain largely segregated, while Orange parades (and republican ones) continue. Townshend ends his book by saying that ‘the fundamental attitudes which produced partition are still in play a century later.’
But history will not repeat itself. The Troubles are over, even if its legacies remain unresolved. There are no longer British soldiers on the streets of Northern Ireland. Catalysts which turned civil unrest into a protracted conflict, such as the Bloody Sunday massacre in 1972 and the policy of internment, were contingent developments in a context that cannot be directly replicated. Northern Ireland has a police force that is much more representative of the people it serves. Citizens of the region can be both British and Irish. Younger generations have no direct memory of the conflict and tend not to share the social conservatism of their elders. It is sometimes said that the South jumped straight from the 19th to the 21st century in a few decades: there has been a decline in religious observance, a growth in wealth, the incorporation of people of different ethnicities, and the passage of legislation allowing gay marriage and abortion.
So why are we back to talking about the border? The impetus does not derive from unstoppable forces that have been in operation for eight hundred years, from some kind of hereditary Irish disease. Our present-day circumstances are to blame. And these are the fault of Brexit, a policy made in England.
Listen to Niamh Gallagher discuss this piece on the LRB Podcast.