The emergence of the ‘Two Irelands’, 1912–25

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Home Rule Crisis, Issue 4 (Winter 2004), Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 12

Sir Edward Carson, with James Craig to his left, signs the Solemn League and Covenant in Belfast City Hall, 28 September 1912. While it declared that ‘Home Rule would be disastrous to the material well-being of Ulster as well as to the whole of Ireland’, it was clear that serious resistance could take place only in the North. (George Morrison)

Sir Edward Carson, with James Craig to his left, signs the Solemn League and Covenant in Belfast City Hall, 28 September 1912. While it declared that ‘Home Rule would be disastrous to the material well-being of Ulster as well as to the whole of Ireland’, it was clear that serious resistance could take place only in the North. (George Morrison)

No one anticipated the Irish revolution and the upheavals that accompanied it. By the outbreak of the First World War the Land Acts had transferred the ownership of most of the land of Ireland from a largely Protestant aristocracy or gentry to (mainly) Catholic tenant farmers. The Irish social revolution was effectively over before the political and military revolution began. In 1912 the establishment of a home rule government and parliament in Dublin seemed imminent, although it was expected that special arrangements would be made for unionist Ulster. For most Irish nationalists the future seemed both promising and secure.

 
Yet by 1925 Ireland was partitioned, its two separate areas ruled by mutually hostile governments. Unionists who had campaigned against home rule for Ireland as a whole were now happy to operate home rule within an area of their choice. In the south, republican revolutionaries ruled a Free State that enjoyed effective independence within the empire or commonwealth but remained linked unhappily to the British crown. In both parts of the island large resentful minorities rejected the legitimacy of the political systems under which they lived.

 
During the intervening years Ireland had experienced confrontation between labour and capital, involvement in a world war, rebellion, political upheaval, guerrilla war, civil war and sectarian conflict.
The Irish revolution and the division of the island form a phase in Irish history that is unusually complex and that, after almost a century, still remains controversial. Partition should not be seen in isolation. The conflict between unionists and nationalists before the First World War made possible other events—such as the Easter Rising and the triumph of the republican Sinn Féin party—which are otherwise hardly conceivable. Partition and revolution were linked closely together.

An accidental revolution?

Following the creation of two paramilitary forces—the Ulster Volunteers and the Irish Volunteers—much of Irish society became militarised; young men marched, drilled and prepared for conflict, as did these barefoot Dublin inner-city children. (George Morrison)

Following the creation of two paramilitary forces—the Ulster Volunteers and the Irish Volunteers—much of Irish society became militarised; young men marched, drilled and prepared for conflict, as did these barefoot Dublin inner-city children. (George Morrison)

The struggle between home rulers and unionists—and between their British supporters, the Liberals and Conservatives—dominated the politics of the United Kingdom before the Great War.

 

In one respect the Irish revolution could be seen as having been made possible by the House of Lords, which was one of the most anti-Irish elements in British public life. The Lords’ defiance of the Liberal government precipitated a general election that enabled home rulers to hold the balance of power in parliament, and it also brought about the loss of the Lords’ power of veto. This allowed the introduction of a new Home Rule Bill in 1912, which in turn led to the Ulster unionists’ armed defiance.

 
When the Liberal government offered concessions to the unionists it seemed that their extreme measures had been vindicated. Most Irish nationalists were dismayed by the apparently successful actions of Edward Carson and the Ulster Volunteers, and some of them felt inclined or obliged to copy the Ulster example; they formed the rival Irish Volunteers. Following the creation of these two paramilitary forces, much of Irish society became militarised; young men marched, drilled and prepared for conflict. A rebellion or even a civil war was widely expected, but the First World War erupted just before the crisis could be resolved. From the British point of view, a grave external threat replaced a grave internal threat. The following year the prime minister, H.H. Asquith, wrote that the outbreak of the war could be seen as the greatest stroke of luck in his lucky career.

 
A crisis in Ireland was averted in 1914. Nonetheless the formation of a nationalist private army and the importation of guns—both of these developments modelled on the initiative and actions of the Ulster unionists—allowed a radical, republican minority within Irish nationalism to stage an insurrection at Easter 1916. The rebels’ plans were disrupted, but they were fortunate that they could stage even a symbolic rising, a ‘protest in arms’.

 
Public opinion was changed by the knowledge that the insurgents had fought bravely, by the executions and the widespread arrests that followed their surrender, and by the failure of negotiations aimed at introducing home rule. During 1917 and 1918 a series of elections climaxed in the rout of the long-dominant Home Rule party, which had grown soft through lack of serious opposition. By then a politically radicalised nationalist electorate was prepared to vote for the image and for some of the objectives of the Easter rebels. In particular, they voted for a party that was committed to the achievement of an Irish republic—an aim that could be achieved only by violence. Many people hoped or feared, rightly, that 1916 would be simply ‘round one’.

The Great War

H.H. Asquith wrote that the outbreak of World War I, by averting the Home Rule crisis, could be seen as the greatest stroke of luck in his lucky career. (George Morrison)

H.H. Asquith wrote that the outbreak of World War I, by averting the Home Rule crisis, could be seen as the greatest stroke of luck in his lucky career. (George Morrison)

Until recently relatively little attention was paid to Ireland’s involvement in the European war, and for many decades it was written out of the officially approved ‘national memory’ of the Free State and the Republic. Its most direct and immediate impact was the enlistment of large numbers of Irish nationalists and unionists in the British army. There are widely different estimates of the numbers killed, ranging from the official total of 49,000 to a more modest—but still grim—27,000. (By way of contrast, even this lower figure is between seven and eight times greater than the number of those who were killed in all conflicts in Ireland between 1916 and 1923. Far more Irishmen died violently abroad, in France, Gallipoli or elsewhere, than at home in Ireland.)

 
The Home Rule Bill was enacted in 1914, although it never came into effect, and partly in gratitude for this victory John Redmond threw his weight behind the British war effort. But as the realities of life and death in the trenches became more widely known, and as the numbers of dead and wounded rose inexorably, the patchy enthusiasm for the war drained away. Redmond’s Irish Parliamentary Party was tainted by this shift in public opinion, and by the fact that home rule had still not been implemented. It became steadily less popular.

 
The war provided radical republicans with the possibility of foreign assistance and it encouraged them to view ‘England’s difficulty as Ireland’s opportunity’; they could stab the British in the back while they were distracted by their conflict with Germany. The Easter Week proclamation referred to support from ‘gallant allies in Europe’.

 
Another feature of the war was the fear of conscription, which was imposed in Britain in January 1916. Ireland’s exemption seemed anomalous and there were expectations that it would not endure. Finally in early 1918 the government decided to extend military service to Ireland. But the plan met with such widespread opposition—including hostility from all nationalist parties, from the trade union movement and from the Catholic Church—that it had to be abandoned. This victory over the British made a substantial contribution to the triumph of the radical Sinn Féin party over its home rule rival. It was not only the successor to the Easter rebels, it was also the ‘peace party’ that had saved Irishmen from the horrors of war.

 

Meanwhile, in July 1916 the unionists’ image in Britain was enhanced by the horrendous losses suffered by the Ulster division in the Battle of the Somme.

 
Events in London during the war had a significant impact on Irish affairs. In 1914 a Liberal government ruled the United Kingdom; in 1915 the Conservatives became the minority partners in a coalition; in 1916 they became preponderant when the Liberals split; and after 1918 they were the dominant party in government. This meant that power had shifted from the allies of Irish nationalists to the allies of Ulster unionists. The first three Home Rule bills—of 1886, 1893 and 1912—had been drafted by Liberals in alliance with Irish nationalists. The fourth—which became the Government of Ireland Act of 1920—was drafted by a Conservative-dominated government in alliance with Ulster unionists.

Partition

 

Some of the speeches made by the Conservative leader Bonar Law—seen in this loyalist postcard blocking Asquith and Home Rule—were almost treasonous in their tone and content. (Linen Hall Library)

Some of the speeches made by the Conservative leader Bonar Law—seen in this loyalist postcard blocking Asquith and Home Rule—were almost treasonous in their tone and content. (Linen Hall Library)

Southern and northern unionists had begun to drift apart long before the second decade of the twentieth century. The Solemn League and Covenant of 1912 had declared that ‘Home Rule would be disastrous to the material well-being of Ulster as well as to the whole of Ireland’, but it was clear to everyone that serious resistance could take place only in the North.

 
Ulster unionists and their Conservative allies stirred up opposition to home rule in both Britain and Ireland, and some of the speeches made by the Conservative leader Bonar Law were almost treasonous in their tone and content. Carson and his colleagues planned to seize power in north-east Ulster as soon as home rule became law.

 
Initially all sides shared the view that Ireland must be treated as an indivisible unit, but as the pre-war crisis dragged on they drifted slowly towards a compromise solution: partition. By summer 1914 each side was anxious to appear reasonable. A consensus was reached that home rule would come into effect only in part of the island and that ‘Ulster’ would be exempt. But there was no agreement on what comprised ‘Ulster’ (the nine-county province, the four Protestant counties, or the six counties which the unionists felt that they could control), and on whether such exclusion would be temporary or permanent. The problem remained unresolved after the outbreak of war in August 1914. Implementation of the Home Rule Act was postponed until peace would be restored and until special amending legislation would be passed for an unspecified ‘Ulster’.

 

The question resurfaced after the Easter Rising, and in summer 1916 a further attempt was made to reach an agreement. By now the unionists’ position had been strengthened by the inclusion of their Conservative allies in the government, while home rulers had been weakened by the ‘disloyalty’ that had recently been shown by some Irish nationalists. Redmond felt obliged to abandon the counties of Tyrone and Fermanagh, despite their small nationalist majorities—and despite his earlier passionate defence of their inclusion in the home rule area. He was not willing to concede permanent exclusion, and it was partly on this question that the talks broke down.
After the war Lloyd George’s government set up a committee to report on the Irish question, and its recommendations were dramatic. Ireland would be partitioned, and two home rule parliaments would be established in Dublin and Belfast. There would be no county plebiscites as had been envisaged by the pre-war Asquith government. To help protect minorities, both parliaments would be elected by proportional representation. (Proportional representation was soon abolished in Northern Ireland, where the dominant unionists wanted to maintain a polarised society, but despite the circumstances of its introduction it was retained in the south.)
Initially it was intended that the northern area would include all nine counties of Ulster because this would facilitate reunification at some time in the future, but after a lengthy confrontation the government yielded to the unionists’ demands that they be given only six counties. In such a reduced area their majority would be larger and they imagined that their position would be more secure.

 
Unionists in the three southern provinces and in the three ‘abandoned’ Ulster counties felt betrayed by the settlements of 1920–1, but most unionists in Northern Ireland felt that they had secured as good a deal as circumstances allowed. They had never sought devolved government, but once it had been imposed they appreciated its advantages. They believed that it protected them not only against nationalists (both north and south) but also against British politicians who might betray them in the future—as had happened in the past.

 
By 1921 partition was an obvious solution to at least some of Ireland’s problems. But the form that it took was facilitated by the abstention of almost all the Irish nationalist MPs, who had formed their own parliament in Dublin. Most Irish MPs were now unionists, and Ulster nationalists had few defenders in Westminster. (There is little reason to think that unionists would have responded to overtures from Irish nationalists. It is significant, however, that neither home rulers nor Sinn Féiners made any significant overtures.)

 
Home rule for southern Ireland never came into effect, but elections for a Belfast parliament took place in May 1921. As predicted and intended, the Unionists won a large majority; the Unionist leader James Craig took office as prime minister, and over the next few months powers were transferred from London to Belfast.

 
Only when the interests of Ulster unionists had been satisfied did Lloyd George turn his attention to Irish nationalists, and by then conditions in southern Ireland had been transformed.

 

War, peace and war, 1919–23

The first session of the Northern Ireland parliament, 7 June 1921, in the council chamber of Belfast City Hall—once partition had been imposed and the unionists had been ‘saved’, Lloyd George’s government chose to negotiate. (George Morrison)

The first session of the Northern Ireland parliament, 7 June 1921, in the council chamber of Belfast City Hall—once partition had been imposed and the unionists had been ‘saved’, Lloyd George’s government chose to negotiate. (George Morrison)

The general election in December 1918 widened the franchise and gave women (over 30) the vote for the first time. It resulted in the annihilation of the Irish Parliamentary Party, which managed to win only six seats as opposed to Sinn Féin’s 73. In January 1919 the newly elected Sinn Féin MPs proclaimed themselves the independent parliament of Ireland, the Dáil. They later formed a government that attempted to run the country and—in so far as was possible—to act as if British rule no longer existed.

 
Unsurprisingly, the British paid no attention to Irish claims, and the actions of some radical republicans soon ensured a return to war. The Anglo-Irish War (or War of Independence) was not a nationwide uprising. It was the work of a small number of people in certain parts of the country—particularly in Dublin, Cork and Tipperary. But, following the example of the Easter 1916 rebels, they succeeded in polarising the country, and they forced many moderate nationalists to support radical men and radical measures. Both sides resorted to terror, but it was British actions and British forces that provoked a far greater revulsion. The war became increasingly unpopular in Britain and ultimately, after partition had been imposed and the unionists had been ‘saved’, Lloyd George’s government chose to negotiate.

 
By now Ireland was seen as a millstone and a nuisance, and the British were prepared to concede vastly more than had ever been offered to Irish nationalists in the past. Recognition of a republic was inconceivable because that would represent British defeat and humiliation, but most other Irish demands were granted.

 
In the treaty negotiations the Irish side was weakened by the fact that the cabinet’s priorities differed from those of most nationalists. National unity and an end to partition were popular objectives, but the Sinn Féin leaders’ principal objective was the achievement of as much sovereignty as possible for the South. ‘Ulster’ was seen as a tactic, as a suitable issue on which to break the negotiations if that should prove to be necessary.
Nonetheless, in the end the Irish delegation led by Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins signed the treaty, on the grounds that it was the best deal that they were likely to secure in the circumstances of the time. In Collins’s words, it was a stepping-stone towards complete independence. Others, particularly President Eamon de Valera, rejected the treaty because they believed that it abandoned ‘the republic’, reinstated the monarchy and did not grant Ireland genuine independence.

 
Once more the question of ‘the North’ was postponed, and it was agreed that a boundary commission would decide the border between the two parts of Ireland. It is significant that the treaty split centred on questions of sovereignty and the oath of fidelity (‘allegiance’) to the king rather than on the question of partition. Few Dáil deputies discussed the matter. Either they felt that partition was already an established fact and that nothing could be done, or they assumed that the boundary commission clause would take care of the question. Some people were later embarrassed by this omission and tried to rewrite the record.

 
The treaty was supported by narrow majorities in the Irish cabinet and the Dáil, and in January 1922 Collins formed a provisional government. De Valera went into opposition, but the strongest opposition to the treaty came not from politicians but from elements in the IRA. Some soldiers were unwilling to accept civilian authority. Despite elections in June 1922, which revealed the popularity of the treaty (78 per cent of the first-preference votes were for candidates who supported it), civil war broke out soon afterwards.

 
The resulting struggle degenerated into a bloodier and more savage conflict than the recent war against the British, and both sides resorted to atrocities. But there was no swing of opinion against the government as had happened after 1916 and in 1919–21, and ultimately the republicans laid down their arms.

 
The civil war also ended southern concern with Northern Ireland and it brought to an end Collins’s attempts to destabilise Craig’s government in Belfast.

 
The civil war was only one factor among several that allowed time to elapse before the boundary commission was established, and not until late 1925 was it ready to complete its report. The chairman (South African jurist Richard Feetham, who was appointed by the British government) had the casting vote, and predictably he took a conservative and narrowly legal view of the changes that might be made to the border. Despite the hopes of the Irish delegation in the treaty negotiations, and despite the fact that one third of the population of Northern Ireland wished to join the Free State, the proposed amendments were minimal. To the shock of nationalists, it was even suggested that the Free State should hand over some of its territory. Ultimately the three governments decided that the border between North and South would remain unchanged.

 
Ulster unionists, whose opposition to home rule before the war had begun the pattern of militarising Irish life, were able to dominate a home rule Northern Ireland for decades to come.

Michael Laffan is head of the School of History in University College Dublin.

Further reading:

 

D. Fitzpatrick, The Two Irelands, 1912–1939 (Oxford, 1998).

T. Hennessy, Dividing Ireland: World War I and Partition (London, 1998).

A. Jackson, Sir Edward Carson (Dublin, 1993).

M. Laffan, The partition of Ireland, 1911–1925 (Dublin, 1983). 

This article is relevant to the ‘partition’ element of topic 3 (‘The pursuit of sovereignty and the impact of partition, 1912–1949’) of the Irish history later modern field of study (1815–1993) of the Southern Leaving Certificate syllabus and to module 6, option 5 (‘The partition of Ireland 1900–1925’) of the Northern history A-level syllabus.

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