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Troubled Times

Peter Hadden

Troubled Times

Section One
The Creation of Two States

Chapter 6
Partition Carried Through


The 1914 Home Rule Bill was technically on the statute book and the government was required to come up with a decision on whether to scrap it or put it into operation. In October 1919 a special cabinet committee was set up to look into this, but in reality to come up with an answer to the threat not just of independence, but of socialist revolution. Lord French was one of those who was appointed to serve on it. On November 4th it reported:

“In view of the situation in Ireland itself, of public opinion in Great Britain and still more of public opinion in the Dominions and the United States of America, they cannot recommend the policy either of repealing or of postponing the Home Rule Act of 1914.” [31]

In advocating a new Home Rule Bill they recommended significant changes on the old. The 1914 Bill had proposed a single parliament for Ireland but with the north or part of the north to be excluded. The new proposal was for two parliaments, each with similar powers to those envisaged in 1914, and with a Council of Ireland to control matters of common concern. The powers of this council could be enlarged with the agreement of both parliaments. After consideration it proposed that the northern area should be made up of six of the nine Ulster counties.

The purpose of this was to partition the country so as to divide the working class, while at the same time allowing the government to pursue its tactic of splitting Sinn Fein. It was not unionist pressure which persuaded the government to set up a parliament in the north, a measure of ‘Home Rule’ which unionists had never asked for or desired. This, and the associated proposal for a Council of Ireland was to allow imperialism to divide the country while giving an impression that their policy was really to see Ireland as one self-governing entity. This was the bait which they hoped Griffith, perhaps De Valera, and other moderate Sinn Fein leaders would swallow. With the working class divided and weakened, and with Sinn Fein split, the government would then be able to use coercion to tame those who stood against.

This is the real meaning of the deliberations of the special cabinet committee, and of the Government of Ireland Act which implemented their main proposals and brought about partition. At this particular moment the ‘historical separateness of Ulster’ currently being exaggerated by historians was being melted down in the furnace of the class struggle. Partition was imposed to re-establish it.

As the Government of Ireland Act made its way through the Westminster parliament in 1920, unionists in Ulster prepared for its implementation by a ferocious assault on the labour movement and a determined effort to break the unity of the working class. Belfast Labour would still have been exultant at its success in the 1920 local elections when Carson made it the target of his venom at that year’s Twelfth of July Orange platform. “The most insidious method is tacking on the Sinn Fein question and the Irish Republican question to the labour question.”

At this point of his speech a voice from the crowd reminded him that “Ireland is the most Labour centre in the United Kingdom”. Carson did not contradict this:

“I know that. What I say is this – these men who come forward posing as the friends of labour care no more about labour than does the man in the moon.... Beware of their insidious methods. We in Ulster will tolerate no Sinn Fein, no Sinn Fein organisation, no Sinn Fein methods.” [32]

Carson’s words and those of other unionist leaders were intended to invite attacks on the organisations of the working class. By lumping Labour and Sinn Fein together in the same breath he gave the excuse. Small organisations made up of Protestant bigots, such as the Belfast Protestant Association, or the Ulster Ex-servicemen’s Association, took these leaders at their word.

Late in July systematic expulsions began from the two Belfast shipyards, from engineering firms and from some linen mills and smaller factories in Belfast. These were more extensive attacks than in 1912, more than 7,000 workers were expelled as opposed to some 3,000 then. Of those expelled an estimated 1,800 were Protestant. These, and many of the Catholic victims, were trade union, labour and socialist activists. A delegate from the printers trade union told the 1920 British TUC conference:

“Every man who took part in the trade union movement and in the labour movement has been absolutely driven from the (Queens) Island.” [33]

These expulsions, which Carson publicly commended, were a turning point for the labour movement. The class offensive begun in 1918 was halted, in the north at least. The tendency to united action by workers, Catholic and Protestant, north and south was thrown into reverse.

Sinn Fein’s response, which was to organise a boycott of Belfast goods through the rest of Ireland, only helped to confirm and widen the growing separation of Protestants in the north from the rest of the working class. This was especially so when, despite the initial opposition of Cathal O’Shannon and some on the left of the union, the ITGWU gave its active support to the boycott.

Cuts in pay

The workers left behind in the Belfast factories were rewarded by the employers with a round of pay cuts. Left leaderless by the expulsions they could not resist or even take part in resistance. When, for example, the British shipbuilding employers withdrew a pay rise they had given to joiners in May, joiners in Britain went on strike but those in Belfast voted not to take part. In the 1919 engineering dispute and other past struggles the Belfast workers had been in the vanguard. Now the marvellous unity demonstrated during this ‘Belfast Soviet’ was broken.

Although the industrial movement in the rest of the country continued, with land seizures, occupations, strikes, even local ‘soviets’ – it did not decisively end until the defeat of a series of important strikes by dockers, farm labourers in County Waterford and other well organised sections of the working class in 1923 – the ruling class were successful in removing the biggest potential threat to their rule, the possibility of a united movement of the working class of Ireland as a whole.

The Government of Ireland Act did not succeed in its other objective of splitting Sinn Fein – not even the most moderate of Sinn Fein leaders could be persuaded to switch from the carriage of independence to that of ‘Home Rule, plus partition’, even if it did have the words ‘Council of Ireland’ embroidered on its side.

The only immediate option now left to the government was to try for a military solution. Coercion, reprisals, repression became ever more the watchwords of its policy. On December 23rd the Government of Ireland Act became law amid a sustained effort to subdue the southern counties by force. Two weeks earlier, on December 10, counties Cork, Kerry, Limerick and Tipperary had been placed under martial law. Two days later part of Cork city was burnt by the Black and Tans in reprisal for an IRA ambush. The new year opened in a similar vein. On 4th January martial law was decreed in counties Clare, Kilkenny, Waterford and Wexford.

Although it had not achieved all that the ruling class had hoped, the Government of Ireland Act did put them in a more advantageous position. With the fact of a divided territory and a divided working class it was easier to lean on one part of the country while dealing blows against the social and national revolt in the other. It was in their best interests to bolster the new northern state. During and after its painful delivery British imperialism spared no resource, material or other, to help it through its infancy.

Not so, say the school of ‘Ulster separateness’, ‘inevitable partition’ and ‘British neutrality’. To these people partition was forced by Protestant resistance. British imperialism merely shuffled the cards which the various participants in Ireland handed to them. They had no particular interest either in the formation of the northern state or in maintaining it. Not only where they prepared to undo partition, this was their preferred course of action.

So runs the argument. Because there is a reaction against the republican oversimplification that imperialism divided the country without reference to Ireland or the Irish, it is an argument which has recently gained some support. But it simply does not fit in with what happened.

During the pre-war crisis the unionists had concentrated on developing resistance in Ulster because they thought this the best way to destroy the whole idea of Home Rule. The British put forward the idea of partition towards the end of this crisis at a time when the Tories and Liberals were seeking a compromise. They felt the proposal would leave the unionists with no choice but to accept, because the very nature of their campaign in Ulster would make it difficult for them to explain to public opinion in Britain why they should refuse this ‘offer’.

When Lloyd George again raised the issue in 1916 the unionists found themselves in a similar quandary. Carson felt they could not reasonably object and still keep the British public behind them. He persuaded a reluctant Ulster Unionist Council, for the first time, to back this idea. Even then many unionists looked to partition only in the hope that it would bring down the whole Home Rule idea.

What they had come to was a policy of exclusion of Ulster or some part of Ulster. The modified idea contained in the Government of Ireland Act that there should be two states and two parliaments was thought up and put forward by the British cabinet for the reasons already explained. The unionists had never sought, demanded or campaigned for a separate state.

As for the idea that it was unionist pressure which forced the hand of the government, the real truth is that no such organised pressure existed. There were none of the mass rallies, seditious speeches or armed volunteers of the 1911-14 crisis. The unionist leadership did not feel that this earlier resistance had worked, they felt their English ‘allies’ had manoeuvred against them, and they were not wont to repeat it.

After 1918 the remnants of the UVF handed many of its arms over to military custody. In 1919 Carson issued threats to revive the UVF but nothing was done.

Those extreme loyalist organisations which did exist were a far cry from the pre-war UVF. They had more of the character of lumpen gangs made up mainly of unemployed Protestants who were taught to blame Catholics and labourites for their plight. They did not mobilise around grand appeals to resist Home Rule. Rather their sordid business was to act as shock troops against the labour movement. Take the Ulster Ex-servicemen’s Association as an example. Until 1919 there had been two organisations for war veterans in Belfast – the ‘Comrades of the Great War’ and ‘The Discharged Soldiers and Sailors Federation’, commonly known as ‘The Federation’. Dawson Bates who was Secretary of the Ulster Unionist Council wrote to Carson complaining that the ‘Comrades’ was “very socialist in its management” [34] and that ‘The Federation’ was going the same way.

The Ulster Ex-servicemen’s Association was a rightwing loyalist split from ‘The Comrades’. It grew in 1920 as did other seedling fascist organisations and was among the instigators of the August 1920 workplace expulsions.

Unionist leaders

The attitude of the unionist leaders was to encourage these organisations in their attacks on Catholics and on the labour movement, but always from a distance. They let the UESA, the Ulster Protestant Association and others do their dirty work for them while they kept their hands clean.

At the same time as they applauded, sometimes secretly, the actions of these lumpen gangs, the well-to-do and respectable unionist leaders were concerned that they might get out of hand, going too far with pogroms against Catholics. There were plenty of signs that the UESA, BPA and others were keen to develop their influence further. This was especially so after the August expulsions when they moved to set up vigilante groups in some areas, but there was evidence of it earlier.

While leaning on these lumpen bands the unionist hierarchy preferred that they would have a force more directly under their control. In July 1920, in the same breath as they invited attacks on socialists and Catholics in the workplaces, leading unionists began to take concrete steps to reform the UVF.

This decision had nothing whatever to do with pressurising the government to partition the country or give them a state. The Government of Ireland Act was by now all but law. The decision was taken amid rising concern that troops would have to be withdrawn from the north to quell strikes in Britain. Knowing that they were to be given a state, the unionists wanted to have a ready-made instrument of coercion which they could use to keep its citizens, Protestant and Catholic, some of their more zealous supporters included, in line. While beginning to re-establish the UVF, with mixed success, unionist leader James Craig approached the British government with a proposal for a special Ulster constabulary. On 1 September he sent a memorandum to the cabinet which, of course, spoke about the need to have a force to counter Sinn Fein but added that it would also be

“partly to restrain their own followers from acts which are regrettable and in large measure ineffective ... a special constabulary would ensure that as large a proportion of the population as possible were brought under discipline.” [35]

There was concern at this proposal in lower circles of government. Officials in Dublin Castle pointed out that it would inevitably be a Protestant force which would engage in its own ‘disciplined’ pogrom.

But within the top circles of government Craig was pushing at an open door. The earlier steps to re-form the UVF had only been taken after consultations with the government through Sir Hamar Greenwood, Chief Secretary for Ireland. He had told the Unionists that Lloyd George was privately in support of the idea.

Ministers had no illusions about what would be the nature of such a force. Indeed its sectarian make-up was part of its appeal. It would provide an extension of the divide and rule tactic underlying the Government of Ireland Act.

Churchill argued that ‘Protestants’ should be given weapons and “charged with maintaining law and order and policing the six counties”. [36] On September 2nd Bonar Law wrote to Lloyd George:

“We cannot afford to have everyone in Ireland against us and I think now the time has come when we ought to make special arrangements to let the loyalists in Ulster be in a position to preserve order there.” [37]

This sentiment re-echoes that of General Lake, one hundred and twenty years earlier, when he boasted of helping divide Orangemen and United Irishmen and argued that Orangemen should keep their weapons:

“Were the Orangemen disarmed or put down, or were they coalesced with any other party, the whole of Ulster would be as bad as Antrim and Down.” [38]

It is in line with that age-old policy of divide and rule and in total contradiction to the idea of a ‘neutral’ British administration.

By September 8th the decision to set up a force of special constabulary had been taken. This decision was implemented by the British who appointed a senior civil servant, Sir Ernest Clark, to carry it through. Clark acted in close liaison with the leaders of the UVF and with no pretence that the new force would be anything other than the UVF in different uniforms. The arms and finance for it came from the Westminster parliament who retained direct control over it until November 1921, months after the Northern Ireland government had taken office.


31. Boyce, op. cit., p. 45.

32. Morgan, op. cit., p. 267.

33. Ibid., p. 270.

34. Ibid., p. 262.

35. Ibid., p. 289.

36. Michael Farrell, Arming the Protestants, Pluto Press 1983, p. 32.

37. Brian Barton, Brookeborough. The Making of a Prime Minister, Queens University 1988, p. 38.

38. Liam De Paor, Divided Ulster, Pelican 1971, p. 27.

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Last updated: 4.1.2011