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Black Friday: The day nationalists voted for Partition

On the day of the fateful Brexit poll political historian Éamon Phoenix recalls the ‘Black Friday convention', held on this day exactly a century ago – the day Northern Nationalists voted for partition

John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, threatened to resign at the Belfast meeting 100 years ago today
Éamon Phoenix

THE grim edifice of St Mary's Hall no longer stands in Belfast's Bank Street, demolished in 1989. Yet it was once the hub nationalist activity in the city. And, exactly 100 years ago today, it was the venue for an extraordinary conference at which the representatives of northern nationalism voted for the partition of Ireland.

The immediate background to that fateful conference was the Easter Rising. The bitter mixture of executions, mass arrests and martial law which followed transformed the popular view of the rebels from one of hostility to one of admiration. John Redmond, the embattled leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, realised that, unless a working Irish parliament could be salvaged from the chaos, Home Rule was doomed.

Already in May 1916, the British Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith had visited Dublin and decided that the crisis demanded an immediate settlement. To that end he chose David Lloyd George, his rival and minister of munitions, as his negotiator between nationalism and unionism. But as events were to prove, it would require more than the ‘Welsh Wizard's' mesmeric powers of persuasion to reconcile the conflicting aspirations of Carson and Redmond.

The essence of the Irish problem since 1912 had been the question of Ulster, and from that point of view there was little ground for optimism. On the one hand, the nationalist leaders rejected any form of partition while Sir Edward Carson and his pragmatic deputy, James Craig, insisted on the ‘exclusion' of six Ulster counties from Dublin control.

Lloyd George, however, avoided the pitfalls of every previous conference by dealing with each camp separately. What followed was a bizarre piece of chicanery: Redmond was persuaded to accept a Home Rule scheme based upon the exclusion of six counties in the belief that partition would be temporary – for the duration of the Great War; Carson was given to understand that the scheme would be ‘permanent and enduring'.

Clearly, had the two Irish parties met face to face for 10 minutes, the cat would have been out of the bag.

Under the scheme the six north-eastern counties would be ruled directly from Westminster through a secretary of state. The 100 Irish MPs would remain at Westminster and the future of the ‘excluded' area would be decided by an Imperial Conference after the War.

In early June 1916 Carson, armed with Lloyd George's written pledge, carried the scheme at a meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council in Belfast. The 80,000 loyalists of Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal reluctantly accepted the tearing-up of the Covenant.

But Redmond and Joe Devlin, the northern nationalist leader and Irish News director, found that the reaction of northern nationalists to the scheme was strongly hostile. To them the most bitter blow was the separation of Fermanagh, Tyrone and Derry city from the rest of Ireland without a plebiscite.

Realistically, many expressed the deeply rooted fear that a boundary, once drawn, would harden into permanency. Outside his west Belfast base, Devlin was shocked by the force of nationalist opinion towards ‘exclusion'. The northern Catholic bishops, whose consent was deemed essential, were implacably opposed. Bishop McHugh of Derry dismissed the proposals as "rot", while the shrewd Cardinal Logue warned his bishops to reject a scheme which might "brand them as the destroyers of the country".

West of the Bann, a number of influential priests and nationalist public figures, meeting in Omagh, openly rebelled against Redmond and protested vigorously against "the naked deformity of partition" and "betrayal of Nationalist hopes".

All eyes were now fixed on the crucial conference of northern nationalists scheduled for Belfast. On the eve of the meeting, Redmond's deputy John Dillon reported that "the priests are working hard in Ulster [against exclusion]... all day long". However, Devlin was making strenuous efforts to turn back the tide.

The convention met on June 23 1916 in St Mary's Hall. Over 750 delegates attended including MPs, councillors, clergy and representatives of the two main nationalist organisations, United Irish League and Ancient Order of Hibernians.

Redmond, Dillon and Devlin addressed the conference which was characterised by an atmosphere of bitterness and recrimination. Redmond warned that the proposed partition was merely a temporary expedient, but that if the scheme were rejected, "the constitutional movement would expire and with it the last hope of Home Rule".

He was attacked by a battery of anti-partitionist speakers, led by FJ O'Connor, an Omagh solicitor and powerful orator. John McGlone, a prominent Armagh nationalist, declared that these "dastardly proposals" would make the unionist position impregnable and pave the way for "an Orange Ascendancy" in the six counties.

After five hours of bitter argument, Redmond threatened to resign if his policy were defeated. At the close of the debate, a substantial majority of 475 to 265, voted to swallow the bitter pill. There were, however, claims that the convention had been ‘packed' with Devlin's Hibernians.

In a sense, the St Mary's Hall decision came to nothing since the controversial Lloyd George scheme was wrecked by southern unionists led by Sir Walter Long and Lord Lansdowne, a Kerry landlord, along with the Tory ‘Diehards' in the British coalition cabinet.

Yet the conference generated a fatal split in the Home Rule Party (soon eclipsed by Sinn Fein) and helped to dictate the final shape of partition in 1920. On the Northern nationalist side, its date was long remembered as ‘Black Friday'.

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