The first Anti-Partition League

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


June 22nd is the centenary of the opening by King George V of the Northern Ireland parliament—perhaps the most symbolic of the successive steps that copper-fastened partition (the next was the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921, under whose terms Northern Ireland formally ‘opted out’ of the Irish Free State a year later, followed by the suppression of the Boundary Commission report in 1925). There had been no nationalist input into the underpinning legislation, the 1920 Government of Ireland Act. In addition, a sizeable section of unionist opinion was opposed to partition. It may come as a surprise to many readers to learn that the first explicitly anti-partition organisation was the Unionist Anti-Partition League (UAPL), a split from the Irish Unionist Alliance (IUA) in 1919. (See ‘To stop partition?’, pp 42–5.) So it is safe to say that partition was opposed by the vast majority of the Irish people at the time and is not regarded with any great affection a century later.

A prerequisite for this incremental partition was the establishment of the Ulster Special Constabulary (HI 29.2, March/April 2021, pp 34–7) in late 1920, with a remit for the six north-eastern counties only. A lineal descendant of the Ulster Volunteer Force, it had been set up not only to defend the border against IRA incursions but also, in the words of future Northern Ireland prime minister Basil Brooke, to keep Ulster unionist ‘hotheads’ from taking matters into their own hands.

Aren’t there echoes of this in the recent unrest in the North orchestrated by loyalist paramilitaries and the ambivalence of unionist politicians? An underlying factor is the nagging unionist/loyalist fear of betrayal by London—justified, in the light of Boris Johnson’s U-turn on the Northern Ireland Protocol—and a betrayal suffered by their southern brethren a century before. Surely it is time for unionist politicians to show some leadership and recognise once and for all the new dispensation of the Good Friday Agreement (now 23 years old!)? They might even consider reviving the Unionist Anti-Partition League!

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