Five Lessons from the Partition of Ireland
Courtesy of Ivan Gibbons
I recently read Partition: How and Why Ireland Was Divided by Ivan Gibbons. It’s a nice read, at under 200 pages. The fact that Ireland is divided into two countries is, obviously, very controversial. But the story of how that came to be is fascinating, and germane to many discussions about institutional reform, the contingency of history, and how public opinion shifts. Here are five brief lessons I took from the partition of Ireland.
Note: All facts are sourced from the book unless otherwise mentioned.
1: Cross-border mobility is low
Here is a surprising fact: Only 2.1% of the population of Northern Ireland was born in the South, and only 1.3% of the population of the Republic of Ireland was born in the North. This is despite the fact that the regulatory and linguistic barriers to moving between the two polities are non-existent.
Now, the obvious question to ask is whether the partition of Ireland caused low mobility between the two Irelands, or whether it would have been the same without it. I’ve been unable to find data directly on this question – but, anecdotally, the mere existence of a border does seem to create some psychological friction to moving.
Indeed, one upside of the partition of Ireland is that it would make for a great econometrics paper. I’ve written before on the Fitzwilliam about the economics of immigration. When you read about migration, you are struck by how little people move around, relative to the enormous economic gains on offer. Migrants are 3.6% of the world population – which is stunningly low, given the low standard of living in much of the world. This figure has been ticking up, largely because of refugee crises. But for most people, moving country is a fringe phenomenon.
Trade across the border is also surprisingly small. East-west trade between Northern Ireland and Britain is four times greater by value than trade between the North and the Republic. At various points, there were trade restrictions between North and South, including during the Anglo-Irish trade war. But Ireland and the UK were in a common market from 1973 on; trade seems lower than it should be based on geographical proximity and regulatory similarity.
Clearly, people choose to stay in their home countries through a combination of cultural and language barriers, regulatory barriers (i.e. they can’t get a visa), and personal preference. But, we have little idea, quantitatively, which of these factors is most important. The partition of Ireland was an ‘exogenous shock’ to labour mobility, insofar as people are dissuaded from moving merely by the existence of a border. In fact, it’s an unusually clean example: unlike India, Ireland was partitioned without any large-scale population transfers. And unlike East and West Germany, there were no barriers to moving, or sweeping institutional changes. It’s certainly possible that the border had no effect, but I would wager that partition per se cut down the flow of goods and people considerably. There does seem to be something deep in the human psyche that makes moving to another country a much bigger deal than moving the same distance away within your own.
2: Home rule almost happened
There are a few views on what precisely is meant by ‘Home Rule’ – but generally, it refers to a limited form of independence in which Ireland would remain in the UK and control things like taxation and education, but not foreign policy (not dissimilar to the devolved Scottish Parliament). The House of Commons voted four times on whether to give Ireland Home Rule:
First, in 1886, where it was defeated in the House of Commons.
Second, in 1893, when it passed the House of Commons but it was vetoed by the (overwhelmingly Conservative) House of Lords.
Third, in 1914, Home Rule for Ireland actually passed, but implementation was delayed indefinitely by the First World War. This was not because the Lords suddenly developed any affection for Irish independence; rather, the ability of the House of Lords to veto legislation was repealed in the Parliament Act 1911. And why would the Lords approve a piece of legislation largely curtailing their powers? Because King George V threatened to flood the House of Lords with Liberal Party members if they didn’t cooperate! In 1909, Herbert Asquith’s Liberal government had proposed the famed ‘People’s Budget’, a radical government spending plan that included the basics of a welfare state. There was no hope this would ever pass the House of Lords – and, indeed, at this point, the Tories’ view was that the Liberals were not far off being a coterie of illegitimate revolutionaries.
It’s worth keeping in mind that the Liberals had little-to-no intrinsic interest in Ireland. When the Liberals won a thumping majority in the 1906 election, Irish affairs were dropped almost immediately. But after 1910, the Liberals made up a minority government that was reliant on the MPs of John Redmond’s Irish Home Rule Party for support. This was an informal coalition of convenience; privately, most MPs’ views about Ireland were somewhere between indifference and contempt. At one point in his diaries, Asquith writes of Irish people, “I sometimes wish we could submerge the whole lot of them and their island for, say, ten years, under the waves of the Atlantic”. A lot of this, of course, was due to religion. There seems to have been a sense that Irish Catholics were traitors, perhaps going back to a time when Ireland was seen as the ‘western flank’ of Britain, which left it open to invasion by or influence from Catholic European powers, as when France invaded in 1798.
In any case, the First World War came at a convenient time, from the perspective of the British government; implementing the Third Home Rule Bill was completely impossible. In 1912, 500,000 (overwhelmingly Protestant) people signed the Ulster Covenant, pledging that they would use “all means which may be found necessary to defeat” Home Rule, and that they would not recognise any Irish parliament as legitimate. Home Rule was unacceptable to the unionists, and the only alternative – partition – was unacceptable to the nationalists. I mean, what would you have done?
The fourth and final Home Rule bill of 1920 was an attempt to implement the lapsed 1914 legislation. It’s what established partition in law: Northern Ireland would be governed directly from Westminster and ‘Southern Ireland’ would have its own parliament. It only came into force in 1921, which was toward the end of the Irish War of Independence. In essence, things were too far gone for (just) Home Rule to be a viable option. There were Irish parliamentary elections, but the Southern Irish Parliament sat only once, with four members present.
Home Rule is a fascinating historical what-if. If the House of Lords reforms had been effected twenty years earlier, then Ireland would have gained Home Rule in 1893. If this were the case, would the War of Independence and Civil War have been averted? Would the amount of sectarian violence have been more, or less?
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Ireland in this period threatened to push the United Kingdom into a civil war. Herbert Asquith would later say that Archduke Franz Ferdinand being shot was the luckiest thing to happen in his career – a pretty striking thing to say even as a joke! It’s also notable for being the last time that religion was a decisive factor in British politics, which has been remarkably secular since. As the irresistible tabloid headline has it, a Hindu Indian and a Muslim Pakistani are now arguing about the partition of Britain.
3: Public opinion shifted rapidly in favour of violent republicanism
One of the more surprising parts of the history of Irish nationalism is how unpopular it was. Most nationalists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were more modestly advocating for Home Rule (Ireland had its own parliament until the Act of Union in 1800.) The 1916 Rising was famously seen as an annoyance and didn’t have the support of most of the population at the time. James Joyce satirised those who were advocating for full independence with the character of ‘The Citizen’ in Ulysses.
Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Féin, wrote an academic book about the Austro-Hungarian Empire and how a similar ‘dual monarchy’ solution might be reached to implement Home Rule. By the time he died, the party was essentially unrecognisable, advocating for achieving a 32-county independent Republic by violent means.
Many factors led to an increase in the popularity of full independence and political violence. First, the constant delays. By 1916, the representatives of the people had first voted to give Ireland home rule twenty-three years previously; I don’t think it was unreasonable to be annoyed about this. Second, John Redmond, leader of the Home Rule Party, made the fateful decision to tell Irish nationalists to enlist in the First World War. His thinking was that, if Irish people showed exceptional bravery and determination in the war, they would be rewarded with some measure of independence. In 1916, many prime-age moderate nationalists were fighting in Europe – and, oftentimes, dead. Third, Britain handled the optics of the 1916 Rising poorly – for example, executing the ringleaders by firing squad and not allowing them proper Catholic burials, which had an incendiary effect on public opinion.
I’m speculating, but a fourth factor is that the ‘heirs apparent’ of the more moderate tradition of nationalism were sidelined. Charles Stewart Parnell, a former leader of the Home Rule Party, was largely abandoned by the nationalist movement after his affair with a married woman was exposed. Redmond died of a heart attack in 1918, and Griffith suffered ill health and died of heart failure in 1922. It wasn’t obvious who was left to lead, other than those who fought in 1916 or had sympathies with it.
4: Almost no one thought partition would last this long
Another fairly striking thing about partition is the extent to which people at the time viewed it as a highly imperfect solution that wouldn’t last long. Among the solutions offered to the ‘Irish Problem’ were:
First Home Rule Bill (1886): A unicameral assembly for Ireland, which remains part of the UK, with Irish MPs being excluded from the Westminster Parliament.1
Second Home Rule Bill (1893): A bicameral assembly for Ireland, which remains part of the UK, with the number of Irish MPs being reduced but not to zero.
Third Home Rule Bill (1914): A bicameral assembly for Ireland, which remains part of the UK, with the number of Irish MPs being reduced but not to zero, and the Dublin Castle bureaucracy of the British Empire being removed.
Fourth Home Rule Bill (1920): Ireland is divided in two, with the six-county Northern and 26-county Southern Ireland having separate assemblies, and Ireland having fewer but not zero Westminster MPs.
Anglo-Irish Treaty (1921): Northern Ireland remains part of the UK, and has its own parliament in addition to Westminster MPs. The Irish Free State is independent but must swear an oath of allegiance to the crown, allow the use of certain strategically important ports, and agree to various other conditions. More specifically, the Treaty gave Northern Ireland the right to secede from the Irish Free State and rejoin the UK, which it did, as expected, two days after the Irish Free State came into existence.
And there were various other permutations seriously discussed at the time – for example, including all of Ulster (nine counties) in Northern Ireland, or including just the four Protestant-majority counties. Interestingly, all of the Ulster Unionists in the House of Commons voted against partition, as they preferred that Ireland be treated like any other part of the UK. A Northern Irish Parliament within the UK was widely seen as a second-best solution by the unionist community.
All of this added up to a situation in which the constitutional status of Ireland was fairly contingent and liable to change. Gibbons remarks how shocked Irish people of the 1920s would be to learn that partition still exists in more-or-less the same form today. He posits that around 1932 is the year in which the window to change the form of partition mostly closed.
To my mind, the question is whether the extent of religious and ethnic tension was such that any solution to the Irish Question would always be “sort of a fudge” (to use my father’s language). A popular unionist slogan from the time was ‘Home rule means Rome rule’. And the prospect of Irish unity became the Sword of Damocles hanging over the island’s politics until, well… today.
5: The border was intended to be provisional
The border with Northern Ireland is coterminous with the outer borders of the counties that comprise it. As well as the fact of partition being reasonably historically contingent, its location was fairly contingent too. Some villages, and even some plots of land, were suddenly split into two countries.
The border is also kind of bizarre at points, like the existence of a protuberance in County Monaghan (in the Republic) that is literally impossible to access without crossing through Northern Ireland first, unless you jump over a river. Also, there is no agreed-upon sea border between Ireland and the UK in Carlingford Bay or Lough Foyle. As far as I know, if someone were murdered in a boat in either of these bays, nobody knows where the trial should occur! (This could form the basis of an Irish version of the TV series The Bridge.)
To deal with all of these issues, the British and Irish governments agreed to allow the county borders to be the same as the partition border temporarily, and established the Boundary Commission to conduct a detailed academic study and recommend a redrawing of the border. This was one of the terms of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, which gave Ireland its independence.
The findings of the Boundary Commission were leaked to The Morning Post newspaper in 1925, and it caused major public outrage in the South. Many areas of the North near the border had strong Catholic majorities, and it was expected that the Commission would recommend they be transferred to the Free State. Also, the Commission recommended transfers of land in both directions, while most southerners had presumed, perhaps arrogantly, that land would only be transferred from the North to the Irish Free State.
In response to this public outrage, Britain and Ireland agreed to essentially kill the report and enshrine the provisional border as permanent. W.T. Cosgrave, President of the Executive Council (precursor to Taoiseach), and Prime Ministers James Craig and Stanley Baldwin agreed to this in December 1925.
Interestingly, the Boundary Commission was such a political headache to all sides that its recommendations and findings were kept secret. The public did not know what the border with Northern Ireland was actually supposed to look like until 1969.
It’s vapid to say that the partition of Ireland left a mixed and complicated legacy. Partition was economically and politically important, in a way that, I would posit, a lot of the symbolism that has driven Ireland was not. Gibbons describes partition on the opening page as being the most important event in Ireland in the 20th century. Its history has much to teach us.
Sam Enright is executive editor of the Fitzwilliam. You can follow him on Twitter here.
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This was the only proposal that avoided the ‘West Lothian question’, a political dilemma arising when a region of a country has a devolved parliament and also representation in national parliament. Scotland has its own parliament and also Westminster MPs, so Scottish people can vote on policies that affect England, but English people can’t vote on policies that affect Scotland (except on the narrower range of policies not covered by the devolved parliament).