Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 3 (May/June 2021), Volume 29

Haus Publishing
ISBN 9781913368012

Reviewed by Cormac Moore 

Dr Cormac Moore is author of Birth of the border: the impact of partition in Ireland (Merrion Press, 2019).

Chronologically this book mainly covers the years from 1900 to 1925, whilst still delving into developments in the nineteenth century that contributed to partition as well as providing an aftermath that reflects on 100 years of Northern Ireland up to the present day. Its primary strength is the perspective it offers on how partition was conceived and perceived within British politics. Gibbons show that the partition of Ireland did not happen in a vacuum. There were many more moving parts that brought it about other than the ethno-religious community divisions within Ireland. He shows how Ireland was ‘not the only European country to be carved up’ in the ‘tumultuous period after 1918’ and that the partition of Ireland was considered alongside a ‘federalist reordering’ of the United Kingdom that was a feature of British politics in the early twentieth century. Whilst an overall federalist approach was abandoned, vestiges of federalism can be seen in the Government of Ireland Act 1920.

Gibbons also provides good insights into the manoeuvrings of the major political parties in Westminster on the Irish question during the Third Home Rule crisis. In claiming that the Conservatives ‘proved better allies for unionists than the Liberals ever were for the Home Rulers’, he also contends that both the Conservatives and Liberals were opportunistic concerning Ireland. For the Tories, Home Rule was used ‘as a stick with which to beat their Liberal rivals’, while the Liberals espoused demands of Irish nationalism ‘to be able to form a government’. Having previously written extensively on the British Labour Party’s relationship with Ireland, Gibbons shows how the party’s commitment to a Home Rule solution for Ireland waned the closer it came to power.

His reading of the framing of the Government of Ireland Bill is less assured; he hardly challenges the tactics used by the British government in drafting a bill that it knew would never gain the support of the vast majority of the people of Ireland. He bizarrely claims that if the Home Rulers rather than the ‘extreme nationalists of Sinn Féin’ had still been the dominant force in the South, the Government of Ireland Act would have been a ‘brilliant solution’. All strands of nationalism were vehemently opposed to the Act, including the remnants of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP). One of the major issues that I have with the book is its simplistic interpretation of the political environment in Ireland at the time. Gibbons continuously refers to Sinn Féiners as extreme, zealous, dogmatic, ‘doctrinaire republicans’ who used ‘extra-paramilitary violence’ on the one hand, and Home Rulers as moderate, pragmatic and constitutional on the other. The reality, as it was internally within Ulster unionism, was a lot more complicated. Ged Martin’s observation holds true that ‘the upheaval in southern Irish politics may be more apparent than real in relation to Partition’, a view shared by Michael Hopkinson, who bemoaned the tendency for historians ‘to emphasise consistency and dogmatism as opposed to flexibility’. There were many within Sinn Féin open to solutions other than an Irish republic, as events in 1921 bore out, and the tactics of the IPP of compromise and reason had not brought about any tangible results, as its leading MP left in Westminster, Joseph Devlin, himself testified: ‘Each time we conceded anything our position was imperilled amongst our friends and the problem was not correspondingly brought any nearer solution’.

Gibbons also claims that the Government of Ireland Act’s passing was facilitated by the absence of Sinn Féin from Westminster. Given that the British government had an overwhelming 300-seat majority after the 1918 general election, it is not plausible to suggest that Sinn Féin would have made any impact on the final act, especially considering the opportunistic way in which British political parties dealt with Ireland. He also contends that the Ulster question was settled once the Government of Ireland Act was passed. The reality again is a lot more complicated, as James Craig and his followers discovered in the summer of 1921 with the non-transfer of services to Northern Ireland and the number of attempts made by David Lloyd George in July and November to force Craig into an all-Ireland parliament.

The chapters on the politics and recommendations of the Boundary Commission, a key component of Article 12 of the December 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, are impressive, showing the considerable toing and froing that mired the convening of the commission. Gibbons highlights the complex machinery of the commission, the lack of consensus amongst Northern Catholics depending on how close to the border they were located, and the importance of economic and geographic interests overriding popular will in the decision-making process, which ultimately resulted in maintenance of the status quo.

For a concise book there is a tendency for too much repetition, often making the same point over and over again in concurrent pages. Gibbons also engages in too much speculation throughout the book on what would have happened if events had turned out differently, which serves little purpose. Overall, it is an accessible, well-written concise history of partition, but its brevity does lead to an over-simplified analysis of what was an incredibly complex and fluid process.


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