Partition 100 years on: The luck of Ulster's unionists

Amid the political manoeuvring and other forces that shaped partition a century ago, Cormac Moore argues that an under-explored theme is the extraordinary luck that Ulster unionists experienced from the time of the Third Home Rule crisis right up to the Boundary Commission decision of 1925

The Boundary Commission convened in 1924, but a year later its report had been shelved and the 'provisional' border adopted - an outcome that pleased Ulster unionists
Cormac Moore

IRISH nationalists were in a strong position by the end of 1910. The Irish Parliamentary Party held the balance of power in Westminster and agreed to support the Liberal Party in government so long as a new Home Rule bill for Ireland was introduced.

Also supporting the removal of the House of Lords permanent veto, which meant the upper house could only stall bills from the House of Commons for no more than two years from thereon in, the party appeared on the cusp of securing Home Rule for the entire island of Ireland.

Fifteen years later all had changed with the Irish Party assigned to history, Ireland partitioned and the contested new jurisdiction of Northern Ireland feeling more secure in itself by attaining a degree of permanency with the decision to shelve the Boundary Commission report and to retain the border as it was when it was created in 1921.

While Ulster unionists, under the leadership of Edward Carson and James Craig, were decisive in resisting Home Rule and largely effective in uniting all elements of Protestant society within the six counties that would make up Northern Ireland, unlike within Irish nationalism, luck was another factor.

Ulster unionists experienced extraordinary luck from the time of the Third Home Rule crisis right up to the Boundary Commission decision of 1925.

The balance of power in British politics swung completely from Irish nationalism to Ulster unionism in that period.

The Liberal Party was a far more lukewarm ally for the Irish Party than the Conservative Party was for Ulster unionists. The Liberal Party leader and British prime minister Herbert Asquith was, as described by Ronan Fanning, "an unwilling ally, a resentful partner in a loveless marriage" with John Redmond's Irish Party.

On the other hand, the Conservative Party leader Andrew Bonar Law, whose father was born in Coleraine, was considered an "Orange fanatic" who declared that if Home Rule was imposed on Ulster, he could "imagine no length of resistance" Ulster would go to "in which I should not be prepared to support them".

Ulster unionists were allowed to commit treasonous acts and arm themselves unpunished with the explicit support of the Conservative Party and the implicit acquiescence of the Liberal government.

A year after the start of the First World War, in 1915, a wartime coalition was formed consisting of Liberals and Conservatives. Both Carson and Redmond were offered cabinet positions but Redmond declined.

From then until the early 1920s, as Ireland's constitutional status was overhauled, British government policy on Ireland was decided by a coalition government, with strong unionist representation.

This strong unionist make-up resulted in practically every political decision favouring Ulster unionists. They were excluded from a Dublin parliament. The 'sacrifice' of agreeing to a devolved government turned out to be far more beneficial for Ulster unionists than remaining solely in Westminster.

A devolved government for Ulster had not been on the radar in pre-First World War Ireland. James Craig's brother, the MP Charles stated, "we have many enemies in this country, and we feel that an Ulster without a Parliament of its own would not be in nearly as strong a position as one in which a Parliament had been set up, where the Executive had been appointed and where, above all, the paraphernalia of Government was already in existence... We should fear no one and... would then be in a position of absolute security".

The more manageable area of six counties to make up Northern Ireland was agreed to instead of the entire nine counties of Ulster proposed by Walter Long's committee, tasked with finding a solution to the Irish question.

Ulster unionists were fortunate that James Craig was parliamentary and financial secretary to Long in the Admiralty as the Government of Ireland Bill was making its way through parliament for much of 1920. The Government of Ireland Act 1920 that partitioned Ireland reflected this by ultimately being an attempt to solve the Ulster question and not the overall Irish question.

Ulster unionists were even granted by the British government, their own reserve police force, the Ulster Special Constabulary, and a civil servant, Ernest Clark, to create the administrative structures of Northern Ireland, before the Government of Ireland Act became law.

Once Northern Ireland was established, the Ulster unionist government was allowed to govern as it saw fit, unimpeded from the British who financed the north's bulging security apparatus. The government was allowed to squeeze minority rights for Catholics, introduce draconian laws and ignore illegal killings by the security forces.

Under severe strain from the IRA in the first half of 1922, the northern government was fortunate that the start of the civil war in the south intervened to help secure the north's boundaries.

While the threat of a Boundary Commission under Article 12 of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty appeared to put significant parts of Northern Ireland in jeopardy, the delay in its convening caused by the Irish civil war, changes in government in Britain and non-compliance by the Northern Ireland government, favoured Ulster unionists.

Although the northern government refused to select an appointee to the Boundary Commission, the person selected by the British - former editor of the unionist-leaning newspaper The Northern Whig, Joseph R. Fisher - could not have been more agreeable to Ulster unionists.

Fisher was accused of widescale leaking of the Boundary Commission proceedings to Ulster unionists. The Commission chairman, Justice Richard Feetham, selected by the British, favoured unionists in all of his main interpretations of Article 12 of the Treaty.

He ruled out the holding of a plebiscite, the transfer of large units of land such as entire counties or poor law unions, and gave primacy to economic and geographic factors over the wishes of the inhabitants.

When the Boundary Commission report was shelved and the governments of Northern Ireland, the Irish Free State and Britain agreed to retain the border as it was - and as it is to the present day - the Ulster Review remarked: "The signing of the border agreement wipes the political slate for us in Ulster... We are like a garrison so surprised to find a prolonged siege suddenly raised, and the enemy quietly withdrawn, that we cannot believe our good luck."

Even one of Ulster unionism's main arguments in demanding special treatment from the rest of Ireland, Belfast's economic miracle, underwent a steep decline after Ireland was partitioned, with its shipbuilding and linen industries experiencing a significant waning in fortunes subsequently.

The century since has seen Northern Ireland almost totally reliant on the British exchequer to survive.

While Ulster unionists were united and decisive as Ireland was partitioned, they were helped by British governments who never acted as neutral go-betweens as they often proclaimed, and were faced with nationalists divided amongst themselves; extraordinary levels of luck also played a huge part in bringing about changes considered unimaginable in 1910.

Cormac Moore is author of Birth of the Border: The Impact of Partition in Ireland (Merrion Press, 2019).

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