History of the Partition of Ireland

Political map of Ireland


The partition of Ireland was the means by which the United Kingdom Government of Great Britain and Ireland partitioned Ireland into two self-governing republics: Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland. It occurred on 3 May 1921 following the Government of Ireland Act 1920. The Act is meant for both home rule areas to remain within the United Kingdom and included provisions for their future reunification. The smaller Northern Ireland was duly formed with a devolved government and stayed a part of the UK. The larger Southern Ireland was not accepted by most of its citizens, who rather acknowledged the self-declared Irish Republic. Following the Anglo-Irish Treaty, Southern Ireland’s region left the UK and became the Free State of Ireland, now the Republic of Ireland.

The region that became Northern Ireland had a Unionist and Protestant majority who wanted to preserve ties to Britain. This was primarily due to 17th-century British colonization. The rest of Ireland had an Irish and Catholic nationalist majority who wished for independence. During the Irish War of Independence (1919–21), a partition took place after a guerrilla conflict between British forces and the Irish Republican Army (IRA). During 1920–22, partition was followed by violence “in defense or opposition to the new settlement” in what evolved into Northern Ireland. The capital Belfast saw violent and unprecedented communal violence, mainly between Catholic and Protestant civilians. More than 500 were killed, and more than 10,000 had to seek refugees, mostly Catholics. In early 1922 the IRA launched a broken offensive into few areas of Northern Ireland.

Since partition, Irish nationalists’ key goal has been to reunite Ireland, with the whole island creating one independent state. This goal battles with that of the unionists in Northern Ireland, who want the province to remain part of the United Kingdom. The British and Irish governments accepted, under the 1998 Belfast Agreement, that the status of Northern Ireland will not substitute without the approval of a majority of its native population.

In its white paper on Brexit, the United Kingdom government restated its commitment to the Belfast Agreement. Concerning Northern Ireland’s status, it stated that the UK Government’s “clearly-stated choice is to retain Northern Ireland’s prevailing constitutional position: as part of the United Kingdom, but with strong links to Ireland.”

The Process of Partition

The idea of suspending some or all of the Ulster provinces from the Home Rule Bills’ prerequisites had been mooted at the First and Second Home Rule Bills, with Joseph Chamberlain asking for Ulster to have its own administration in 1892. The unionist MP Horace Plunkett, who would later back home rule, rejected it in the 1890s because of partition risk.

The prohibition was first recognized by the British cabinet in 1912, in the setting of Ulster unionist opposition to the Third Home Rule Bill, which was then in development.

The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) shipped three million rounds of ammunition and 25,000 rifles from the then-mighty German Empire in the Larne gun-running of April 1914, and some concerns passing the Third Home Rule Bill could start a full-scale civil war in Ulster. The Curragh incident on 20th of March in 1914 had already led the administration to strongly believe that the British Army could not really be trusted to carry out its orders in Ireland.

Partition was the main focus of debate at the Buckingham Palace Conference held between 21 and 24 July 1914, although it was believed that all nine counties of Ulster would be divided.

The Home Rule Crisis was suspended by the sudden outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Westminster finally passed the Home Rule Bill on 18 September 1914, and it quickly received Royal Assent, but a Suspensory Act simultaneously postponed its implementation until the world war ended. Simultaneously, it was widely believed that the war would only last for a maximum of one year. However, as we know, that wasn’t the case. Following the April 1916 Easter Rising, Westminster appealed for the Irish Convention to find a proper solution to its Irish Question; it sat in Dublin from the July of 1917 until the March of 1918, ending with a statement, supported by southern unionist and nationalist members, calling for the institution of an all-Ireland parliament comprising of two houses with proper provisions for northern unionists. However, the report was rejected by the Ulster unionist members, and Sinn Féin had not taken part in the discussion, meaning the Convention was more or less a failure. Support for Irish republicanism had grown during 1917, with Sinn Féin winning four by-elections in one year. The Conscription Crisis of 1918 further strengthened the power of the republicans.

Starting on 21 January 1919 with the Soloheadbeg ambush, Irish republicans tried to bring about Ireland’s secession from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland through the Irish War of Independence. Meanwhile, Irish unionists – most of whom lived in the northeast territory of the island – were just as stubborn about maintaining the Union. The British Government pledged to implement Home Rule. They set up a cabinet committee under the leadership of southern unionist Walter Long. The Long Committee advocated establishing two devolved administrations, dividing the island into two regions: Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland. This was executed as the Government of Ireland Act 1920. The Act finally entered into force as a fait accompli on the 3rd of May in 1921 and presented that Northern Ireland would comprise of the six northeastern counties, while the rest of the island would form Southern Ireland. It was expected that each jurisdiction would be awarded home rule but remain within the United Kingdom. The Government of Southern Ireland never worked: the War of Independence continued until the two sides agreed on a truce in July 1921, concluding with the Anglo-Irish Treaty on 6th of December in 1921.

A year later, on 6 December in 1922, the Irish Free State achieved freedom from the United Kingdom following the treaty, which was given legislative effect in the United Kingdom by the Irish Free State Act 1922. The new state had the rank of a dominion of the British Empire.

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