Partition 100 years on: Sir Ernest Clark, ‘Midwife to the new Province of Ulster'

In his latest article in a series examining the Partition of Ireland ahead of its centenary next year, historian Cormac Moore recalls Sir Ernest Clark, whose setting up of a civil service from scratch was key to the successful functioning of the northern state

After Partition Sir Ernest Clark became head of the Civil Service of Northern Ireland. He was later governor of Tasmania
Cormac Moore

RECENTLY there has been much discussion on how best to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland and what dates are most significant in making partition a reality. A key moment on the road to Partition, largely ignored despite its significance, occurred in September 1920, months before the Government of Ireland Bill was enacted in December.

Then, James Craig, who subsequently became Northern Ireland’s first prime minister, won two major concessions from the British government. Firstly, he demanded and was granted an Ulster Special Constabulary to just serve for the area that would become Northern Ireland.

He also secured the appointment of an assistant under-secretary – in effect a chief civil servant – Ernest Clark, with responsibility also just for the area that would make up Northern Ireland. Clark claimed his appointment was not a preliminary step to Partition. In reality, it was, and was a major victory for Ulster unionists.

Clark, a largely forgotten figure, was one of the main architects in giving the new Northern Ireland entity tangible form.

Born in Kent in 1864, Ernest Clark joined the British civil service in 1881 where he built up a reputation as a leading taxation expert. This brought him to the Cape Colony government in 1904-05 where he witnessed for the first time the establishment of a home rule territory, the South African federation.

He served as assistant under-secretary to Ireland from September 1920 until November 1921 when, with the formal transfer of services, he became permanent secretary of the Ministry of Finance and head of the Civil Service of Northern Ireland, a position he held until 1925.

He subsequently served as governor of Tasmania in Australia from 1933 to 1945.

His work as assistant under-secretary was crucial in creating the structures of a functioning government for Northern Ireland when it came into being in the summer of 1921.

John Anderson, joint under-secretary in Dublin Castle, recommended Clark for the post of assistant under-secretary. Anderson asked Clark, "I suppose you are not by any chance a Roman Catholic?" Clark, initially thinking the question as odd, later realised "that had I been a Roman Catholic I could never have been accepted by the northern government or been able to carry out my duties, even had I survived to undertake them."

Once Clark expressed interest, he was interviewed in London by Hamar Greenwood, the chief secretary for Ireland. Greenwood then brought Clark to James Craig’s office in the Admiralty where Craig was parliamentary and financial secretary. There, Clark was ‘vetted’ by Craig and two other prominent Ulster unionists, Wilfrid Spender and Richard Dawson-Bates.

James Craig, first prime minister of Northern Ireland

Clark later revealed "I afterwards found… that really I was on show to Craig (and possibly also to Spender and Bates)". At the meeting, Clark recalled the Ulster unionists "were full of grievances" and painted "a picture of the deathly peril which threatened all loyalists". He later "discovered by experience how necessary it has always been to emphasise, even to exaggerate, the conditions in Ireland in order to arrest the attention of the ordinary Englishman".

As the meeting was ending, Craig towered over Clark and said, "Now you are coming to Ulster you must write one word across your heart", tapping out with his finger on Clark’s chest "ULSTER"’.

Initially, Clark experienced a degree of distrust, even hostility, from some loyalists. Unionists were unhappy about Clark’s subordination to Dublin Castle as they believed many civil servants in Dublin Castle were nationalist, even Sinn Féin sympathisers.

They wanted Clark to have direct communication with the chief secretary, Greenwood, with no "possibility of leakage". Greenwood responded that Clark "can send me information he can withhold from the King, the Pope and James MacMahon".

MacMahon, a Catholic born in Belfast who grew up in Armagh, was, like Anderson, an under-secretary in Dublin Castle. Unionists believed MacMahon was a nationalist sympathiser and he came in for particular ire from them.

Clark remained answerable to Dublin Castle but as time went on became more and more independent of Dublin. He knew what was expected of him and he soon dispelled unionist apprehension. From the start he worked consistently and uncompromisingly for the interests of the future Northern Ireland government.

Northern Ireland was presented with a workable administration from the very moment it came into being, thanks largely to the efforts of Clark. He, supported by a small team of no more than 20, worked tirelessly from his appointment in September 1920 to set up the machinery of a new jurisdiction with very little to work with, as he testified, "I found myself… setting out to form a new 'administration' armed only with a table, a chair and an act of Parliament".

Clark himself worked 16-hour days, seven days a week to make sure Northern Ireland had a functioning government from its establishment. He claimed, "I will do my best to fulfil my role as 'John the Baptist', and as far as can be done with the small staff at my disposal, get together information and 'prepare the way'".

His first tasks were to establish and regularise the Ulster Special Constabulary and, a largely unsuccessful one, to negotiate the return of Catholics to the Belfast shipyards and other places of works after the riots of the summer of 1920.

He also established a framework for seven new government departments, organised buildings for those departments as well as their furniture and office equipment, recruited personnel for the new civil service, attempted to source accommodation for the new civil service, and secured instructions, guidelines and templates from different departments in London and Dublin on how to run a department.

Clark’s efforts were somewhat handicapped as the existing all-Ireland system was bureaucratic and cumbersome, "unsuited to modern means".

He was in constant communication with Craig in the lead-up to the formation of Northern Ireland, ensuring a functioning jurisdiction would be operational from day one.

Craig was directly involved in determining the appropriate number and functions of the future northern departments. Clark sent a memo to Craig on the recruitment recommendations for the Northern Ireland civil service including the instructions that "no preference to be given to anyone based on religious belief" and "competition for places should be open to women".

He warned "against adopting an official policy that would disadvantage Catholics in securing government employment" as religious discrimination was illegal under the Government of Ireland Act. Such advice from Clark was barely heeded.

As Northern Ireland looks to appoint a new head of the civil service, it is apt now to look at the first holder of that office, Ernest Clark.

Although Clark remains a relatively unknown figure, the crucial role he played in making Northern Ireland a reality should not be ignored. His work in creating government departments and recruiting a new civil service, at a time when the political environment in Ireland was extremely volatile, provided structures and a semblance of stability to the new political entity of Northern Ireland, vital at a time when its survival was most at threat.

It is for this reason that the future Northern Ireland prime minister Basil Brooke described Clark as "midwife to the new Province of Ulster".

:: Cormac Moore is author of Birth of the Border: The Impact of Partition in Ireland (Merrion Press).

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