A century on from founding of Northern Ireland, it’s important to remember the historical context in which it was born, writes Brian Walker

As we mark the centenary of the partition and the establishment of Northern Ireland it is important to look at its context.

This period after the Great War saw a number of new states in Europe, such as Czechoslovakia and Poland. Shortly after 1921 Northern Ireland was joined by another new state in Ireland, the Irish Free State. Most of these states, like Northern Ireland, would suffer serious majority/minority problems, arising from national, religious or language divisions.

Why did partition occur in the first place? The late Donal Barrington wrote that it is misleading to say that partition was forced on Ireland by the British government against the wishes of North and South. He held that “partition was forced on the British government by the conflicting demands of the two parties of Irishmen”.

Both sides were dissatisfied with partition but that was because “the North wanted all Ireland for the act of union and the South wanted all Ireland for home rule”’. He wrote: “Both demands could not be met, neither party was prepared to give way, and the inevitable result was partition”’.

Existing divisions were at the core of the conflict. In 1921, alternatives to partition, such as an all-Ireland republic or an all-Ireland arrangement under the Crown, were not realistic or achievable due to these deep divisions.

Of course, the settlements finally arrived at in the two parts of Ireland left considerable problems. In Northern Ireland there was a significant Catholic and mostly nationalist minority who regarded themselves as being in a state which was not of their making or enjoying their support.

Their opposition to the state was expressed in non-violent forms of protest, such as boycotting the new parliament. More extreme nationalists, however, used physical force in the form of a major IRA offensive, with southern backing, against Northern Ireland in the first six months of 1922.

The Dublin government had to deal with two minorities. First, there was a Protestant, mostly unionist population, but their numbers were relatively small and after the Anglo-Irish Treaty their leaders declared support for the new state. Secondly, there was another large minority which rejected the Anglo-Irish Treaty for not delivering a republic (not because of partition). This treaty was backed by a Dáil majority and endorsed at the 1922 general election, a verdict which the anti-treaty minority refused to accept. Consequently, a civil war followed in 1922-3.

The birth of both Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State were marked by violence and strong challenges to the legitimacy of the two governments and the two states.

The new Northern Ireland government in early 1922 found itself facing nationalist/Sinn Féin- controlled councils and other local elected bodies which pledged loyalty to Dáil Éireann. By March 1922 the government had suspended some 20 such bodies and appointed commissioners to run them.

In early 1923 the Dublin government dissolved the county councils of Cork and Leitrim because of their anti-treaty sympathies and another 20 local authorities were taken over. Faced with continued challenges at local level, Ernest Blythe closed down all rural district councils.

Both governments took on sweeping emergency powers. Following the murder of the MP WJ Twaddell on May 22, 1922, the northern government activated its Special Powers Act. This included measures such as internment and the use of flogging, on top of a custodial sentence for possession of arms. This resulted in the immediate internment of some 300 republican suspects followed eventually by another 400.

Under Irish emergency legislation, penalties included the death sentence for possession of arms. By February 1923 there were some 13,000 republican internees and prisoners. When TD Sean Hales was murdered in November 1922 the Irish cabinet ordered the

summary execution without trial of four anti-treaty republican prisoners.

Many died as a result of this conflict. It is reckoned that in the first six months of 1922 around 300 people lost their lives in Northern Ireland. Fatalities in the Irish Free State during the civil war have been estimated at over 1,500.

At this time, other countries also experienced such violence and on a larger scale. In Finland a civil war in 1918 led to 25,000 deaths. Elsewhere, after partition and new borders there was permanent mass displacement of populations but this did not happen in Northern Ireland, as the 1926 census shows clearly.

In the end Northern Ireland survived. It has survived to the present. Other states established in these years collapsed only a few decades after their formation due to deep divisions and also external forces. Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State/Irish Republic are rare examples that survived.

The half century which followed their foundation involved failures and successes. In the case of Northern Ireland, there was a failure to establish a system of government and society which involved all communities. The Catholic and nationalist community experienced exclusion and discrimination.

Its main success was its economic and social policies. By 1971 the Northern Ireland population had increased by 22.2pc on the 1926 figure. The Catholic population enjoyed growth in numbers of over 30pc during this period.

Today things have changed. People’s rights are fully assured. There is a power- sharing government which means that all sections can feel involved in the state. Different national identities are respected.

In the case of the Irish Free State/Irish Republic, one of its successes was the establishment of a prominent independent role on the international stage. Its chief failure in the half-century after 1921 lay in its economic and social policies which led to emigration.

By 1971 the population of the Irish Republic had increased by a mere 0.2pc, or 6,256 persons, compared with 1926. Protestant numbers in this period fell by over 40pc. The census for Britain in 1971 recorded nearly one million Irish-born citizens.

Since then there have been significant changes in the country’s economic and social policies. This has resulted in a dynamic economy and a growing and diverse population. Today we are in a new place, a much better place.

Hopefully we can recall this earlier time with both understanding and empathy. 

Brian M Walker is professor emeritus of Irish Studies at Queen’s University Belfast

This article was first published in, and reproduced courtesy of, the Irish Independent.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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