The Partition of Ireland

Hausarbeit, 2001

13 Seiten

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1. Introduction

2. Preconditions of the Partition
2.1. 1910 - 1914: Home Rule discussions and World War I
2.2. 1916: Easter Rising
2.3. 1918 - 1919: Sinn Féin’s rise
2.4. 1919 - 1921: Anglo-Irish War or War of Independence

3. 1921: Partition of Ireland

4. Consequences of the Partition
4.1. 1921 - 1923: Irish Civil War

5. The beginning of a new state: National reconstruction

1. Introduction

This paper already starts in 1910 - eleven years before the partition - to give a little overview over the most important events that led to this decisive point in Irish history. Nevertheless, the emphasis is laid on the years from 1918 - 21. Those years were one of the most momentous periods in the history of this island. This period included the installation of the first Dáil, the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the temporary political supremacy of Sinn Féin, and above all the partition of the country into two states. This was followed by a civil war in the southern state, when the Irish fought against their own countrymen and against the English.

To some extent, this paper should explain the fundamental problems that are still present today in Ireland.

This cartoon should serve as an introductory element of this paper. It portrays the partition of Ireland as a new and untried “trick”, the outcome of which is far from certain.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

(Douglas, Harte, O’Hara 1998: p. 226)

2. Preconditions of the Partition

2.1. 1910 - 1914: Home Rule discussions and World War I

The elections in 1910 resulted in a situation when neither the Liberal party nor the Tories won enough seats to form a government without votes from John Redmond’s Irish Parliamentary Party. Quickly, a deal was struck. The Irish party voted in favour of the Liberal Herbert Asquith for Prime Minister, who was then able to form a coalition government. In turn, the new government agreed on a bill giving Ireland a separate Home Rule Parliament.

During this time, the whole island of Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, being represented in the House of Commons in London by eighty-four Irish Nationalist MPs, seventeen Unionists, one Liberal and one Independent.

The Conservative party (usually at this time calling themselves Unionists), who had an overwhelming majority in the House of Lords, were deeply opposed to Home Rule, as were most of the big Protestant landowners in the southern parts of Ireland, together with the Protestant majority in the north.

Since the electorate was 75% Catholic, the proposed Home Rule Parliament would be dominated by them. The Protestants in Ulster quickly saw the danger. In front of a huge Union Jack, thousands of Protestants swore never to agree to a separation from the mother country. Several signature lists were laid out, where numerous people signed with their own blood. However, all this was not restricted to demonstrations, the first protestant paramilitary militias came into being. They decided to react by use of arms because they would lose lots of privileges under Catholic rule. The Protestants would lose their properties, and Belfast, which enjoyed great prosperity because of the Industrial Revolution, would lose its status. Edward Carson, who was the leader of them, wanted to defeat Home Rule entirely. So that in 1913, the Ulster-Protestants started to form the biggest Protestant paramilitary militia, called the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), to wage war against the proposed new government unless it excluded Ulster.

To counteract the Ulster Volunteers, the supporters of Home Rule in the south of Ireland reacted with the formation of their own paramilitary group, the Irish Volunteers with their leader Eoin MacNeill. The aims of both of them were not new, but incompatible. The Protestant majority in Ulster wanted to keep the British rule while the Catholic minority in Ulster and the majority in the rest of Ireland strove for political independence.

The militias of both sides rearmed massively now. The UVF bought a huge amount of weapons abroad, which they smuggled - under the eyes of the English - into Ireland. That was similar to what the Catholics did, but in this case, the British were more careful.

By April 1914, the Ulster Volunteer Force had 90,000 men. That month, in the spectacular Larne gun-running, it brought in substantial quantities of up-to-date weaponry. The rival Irish Volunteers responded with their own gun-running at Howth in July.

Politically, considered men, both Catholics and Protestants tried to prevent the outbreak of force by making compromises. It has come to the agreement that, after the granting of the right of self-determination for the whole island, the inhabitants of Ulster should decide whether they want to stay with Ireland or return to Great Britain. But, before all those compromises could have been realized, World War I broke out. Britain quickly realized that Irish Home Rule was not its most pressing issue, so they passed hastily the aforementioned Irish Home Rule Bill, which should come into force after the end of the war. This would have created a bicameral legislative body in Dublin, confined to internal Irish matters, including considerable powers of taxation. Ireland would continue to send forty-two MPs (instead of 103) to the Imperial Parliament. Amendments had been proposed to exclude, in the one case, the six counties of Ulster with clear Protestant majorities, and in the other, the entire nine counties of the province in the north-east. The law concerning self-determination was postponed until after the war.

During the war, surprisingly, the men of both paramilitary organizations joined the British army. The leaders of the Catholics hoped that the self-determination issue could be realized in their favour after the end of the war, because their volunteers served and supported the British.

2.2. 1916: Easter Rising

While now Irish volunteers fought at all fronts of the World War, the radicals of the Catholic’s leaders saw their chance. Their watchword was: In England’s difficulties lays Ireland’s opportunity. The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), which nobody has heard of for decades, appeared again. The attention of the English government was concentrated on the war.

The IRB wanted to use the situation and planned an armed nationwide revolt. The weapons should have been got from Germany, England’s enemy. Sir Roger Casement went to Berlin to look for German support for an Irish rising against the British. He believed that without the force of 50,000 German troops, a rising would be useless. Berlin agreed to ship 20,000 weapons and ammunition to Ireland. But the British secret service got to know from this plan, captured and scuttled the German ship. After this, the planned revolt had been militarily hopeless, so that every attempts to get men and arms failed, and the famous Easter Rising was almost exclusively a Dublin affair.

Nevertheless, on Easter Monday, April 24 in 1916, 1500 badly-armed Irish patriots marched through Dublin and occupied public buildings including the General Post Office in O’Connell Street, where the leader Patrick Pearse read out the self-written proclamation of the Irish republic. Pearse, a poet and Gaelic scholar, believed that a rebirth of Irish nationalism required “blood sacrifice” (Connolly 1998: p. 437), and he was willing to give his own life in the insurrection to achieve it. Some days later, Pearse had to surrender, having caused the destruction of Dublin’s city centre by the reaction of the English, and the death of sixtyfour rebels, 134 soldiers and policemen and at least 220 civilians.

In spite of warnings, the British government executed three leaders of the so-called Easter Rising. Casement, who had come to Ireland in a German submarine to advise against the rising, had been captured and hanged as a traitor. During the following days, more shootings were carried out, which caused a drastic change within the population, that at first laughed at the rebels, but now supported them, because all of this reminded Irish Catholics that Ireland never wanted anything from England except to be left alone. Within a short period of time the shot rebels had become martyrs, and those who had been imprisoned became legends. As an act of goodwill, the new British prime minister Lloyd George, released 560 Irish prisoners at Christmas, and at Easter in 1917 others followed. Among these were Arthur Griffith, Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera, who played - more or less - important roles during the Easter Rising.

2.3. 1918 - 1919: Sinn Féin’s rise

The implementation of Irish Home Rule, which had been enacted in 1914, was to remain in abeyance for the duration of the war. Now, that the war was over, the politics of Ireland had changed.

The first general election after the Great War was a measure of the changes which had taken place in Ireland since 1916. The once great Irish Parliamentary Party was reduced to a mere six seats, while the Irish republican party Sinn Féin (“Ourselves alone”), which had existed since 1905, was victorious because it was, erroneously, thought to be responsible for the Easter Rising. It secured seventy-three seats, compared with forty-eight for Conservatives and Unionists and sixty-three seats for the Labour party.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

(Marwick 2000: p. 56)

In this time, the public opinion came out against the English. In particular, the return of Eamon de Valera, for the constituency of East Clare, was an indication of the change taking place in Ireland. Born in New York in 1882, of a Spanish-Cuban father and an Irish mother, de Valera was brought up in Ireland and became closely associated with the Gaelic cultural movement and with the Irish Volunteers. He narrowly escaped execution in 1916 for his part in the Easter Rising. Released from prison in June 1917, he quickly became the leading figure in the republican ranks, especially in terms of political policy and tactics. His election as president of the Sinn Féin movement and also of the Irish Volunteers strengthened his personal position.

After the electoral victory in 1918, the influence of Sinn Féin grew. The seventy-three elected MPs boycotted the Westminster parliament and founded an own parliament in Dublin, the Dáil Eireann (“Assembly of Ireland”) to make British government unworkable. These elected members for Irish constituencies were summoned to meet in the Dáil on 21 January 1919 where they passed a Declaration of Independence and “ratified” the Republic that had been proclaimed during the Easter Rising in 1916. They declared themselves to be the parliament and passed resolutions declaring that they had the exclusive power to make laws for the Irish people and that the British parliament had no jurisdiction over Ireland.

To say it shortly: The main aim of Sinn Féin was to separate Ireland from Great Britain. They established republican courts and elected a government, with de Valera as President and Griffith as Vice President. Michael Collins was appointed Minister of Finance, as well as Commander of the IRA, which consisted of former members of the Irish Volunteers.

Nevertheless, the functions of the Dáil Eireann were mainly propagandist rather than administrative, and the new Republic was to win international confidence. It sought to secure a hearing for the Irish case at the Paris Peace Conference. After May 1919, the hope for a hearing died, and the republican propaganda was redirected towards mobilizing the Irish abroad in verbal and financial support of self-determination. De Valera’s protracted American tour as “president of the Irish Republic” raised over 5 million dollars.

From 1920 onwards, the Dáil government was able to control local administration through the newly elected councils.

2.4. 1919 - 1921: Anglo-Irish War or War of Independence

Sinn Féin and the IRA worked constantly together, and they thought that the English only understood the language of weapons. Within short times, their fight developed into a civil war-like situation, and again, the British underestimated this new enemy.

The principal figure in the IRA was Michael Collins. He built up a great intelligence network, together with a squad which assassinated British intelligence officers and key Irish detectives.

This new strategy of a guerrilla war of the IRA made them look helpless. Hundreds of British died in the fire of the ambushed members of the Irish Republican Army.

To fight the IRA effectively, London quickly raised a military force. Known as the Black and Tans, alluding to their uniforms, they did criminal actions, including rape, torture and the burning and slaughter of entire towns. In these years, the IRA developed their tactic, which is still pursued today: with murderous attempts against police barracks, communication institutions, army depots and against Protestants in a leading position, they make the situation for the British hopeless. The Black and Tans reacted towards every operation of the Irish Republican Army with similar brutal use of force, and so they did on 21 November.

This day was the first Bloody Sunday in the history of Ireland, when the IRA killed 12 British officers and the Black and Tans responded with the murder of 13 civilians during a Gaelic football game in Dublin. The Bloody Sunday and the other atrocities triggered worldwide condemnation of the British government, which responded by enacting the 1920 Government of Ireland Act, proposing to establish separate parliaments for “Northern Ireland” and “Southern Ireland”. It was intended that each would enjoy a limited measure of legislative autonomy while remaining an integral part of the United Kingdom. This Act, the last of the “Home Rule” measures, was the first to give effective form to the partition of Ireland. The territorial division made in Ireland by the 1920 legislation was not to be altered by any developments.

This attempt to resolve the political difficulties of Ireland was ignored by the republicans and reluctantly accepted by the Ulster Unionists. In the south, the republicans’ demands continued to be presented in terms of independence for all Ireland and when elections were held, in May 1921, under the provisions of the Government of Ireland Act, they were simply treated by Sinn Féin as new elections for Dáil Eireann. In Northern Ireland, the local “Home Rule” parliament was elected, with the Unionists gaining forty out of the fifty-two seats in the Lower House. Sinn Féin controlled the Dáil, the Unionists were now established in the north.

3. 1921: Partition of Ireland

Now, the partition of the country could not be stopped anymore. The situation got more and more critical, so that a war between Great Britain and Ireland was imminent.

As the Government of Ireland Act provided no solution, the negotiations between the British government and the representatives of the Dáil seemed to give some hope for a solution. The truce of 11 July 1921 officially brought the fighting to a halt. The protracted negotiations lasted until the end of the year. The issues were the future relations of Ireland with the United Kingdom and the place of the new Northern Ireland in any settlement.

These negotiations showed no real results, so that in October 1921, once again the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, invited de Valera to participate in a meeting because a compromise had to be found. De Valera, staying in Dublin, appointed Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins to lead the negotiating team. Though Lloyd George and the British negotiators were prepared to make concessions on minor points, they held to the position they had already established. They favoured a dominion status for Ireland which gives Northern Ireland the right to remain within the United Kingdom. As the Irish negotiators had no well defined proposals, they were offered greater financial independence and threatened with a renewal of war. The Irish delegates, without consulting Dublin, decided to accept an agreement with Great Britain.

In the early hours of 6 December 1921, the “Articles of Agreement for a treaty between Great Britain and Ireland” were signed. This Anglo-Irish Treaty partitioned Ireland into two entities.

One was a 26 county self-governing dominion, called the Irish Free State, which had nearly full independence from England, and the other entity consisted of six counties carved out of Ulster, formally named Northern Ireland, which remained a part of Great Britain, but which was given its separate parliament in Belfast. Later, Northern Ireland was to decide whether it wanted to join the new state or not.

The Irish signatories argued that it was the best possible settlement that could be obtained and that economic pressure and a border revision would soon bring Northern Ireland into a united Ireland. Right after the signing, Lord Birkenhead turned to Michael Collins and said, “I may have signed my political death-warrant.” Collins replied, “I may have signed my actual death- warrant.”… (

The treaty quickly became the most controversial issue in the history of Ireland. For the pragmatic Michael Collins, the Agreement was a step closer to full independence. To the advanced republicans, however, it was unacceptable, especially the provision of an Oath of Allegiance to the British Crown. De Valera found that “external association” (Connolly 1998: p. 577) to the Empire was acceptable, full membership was not.

Finally, it granted the 26 counties greater independence than Ireland had enjoyed in over 700 years. Compared to the modest Home Rule Act of 1914, the treaty was a huge step forward for Republicans.

There were bitter debates in the Dáil on the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which ended on 7 January 1922 with a narrow vote in favour of the treaty: sixty-four votes to fifty-seven. After the ratification, a provisional “Free State” government was formed to implement the treaty. But Eamon de Valera resigned rather than serve in the provisional government, so that he was replaced by the founder of Sinn Féin, Arthur Griffith. The treaty found widespread support and the bulk of the IRB agreed with their leader, Collins, in regarding the treaty as opening the way to greater independence at a later date.

4. Consequences of the Partition

Short after that, Sinn Féin split into two warring factions. The pro-treaty faction, led by Griffith and Collins, acknowledged that the treaty was less than perfection, but argued that it was the best possible solution, which could lead to a true republic in future. This faction was supported by the Irish people, who wanted to end the hostilities.

The anti-treaty faction, led by de Valera and most of the IRA-leadership, who saw this treaty as betrayal, wanted to accept nothing less than a true republic which at most was “externally associated” (Connolly 1998: p. 577) with Britain. They refused to sit in the parliament because of the required Oath of Allegiance to the British Crown.

Some other IRA units supported the treaty and transformed themselves into the army of the new Irish Free State, giving up the name IRA, while other units were against the treaty and continued to function under the name IRA and became known as the Irregulars.

The tensions between the pro- and anti-treaty military elements grew and the peace in Ireland was fragile. The elections in June clearly showed the strength of the pro-treaty elements. Out of 128 seats in the Dáil Eireann , pro-treaty Sinn Féin and other groups willing to accept the treaty, won ninety-three seats. The anti-treaty Sinn Féin share was only thirty-five seats. After that, the drift into open conflict was rapid.

4.1. 1921 - 1923: Irish Civil War

Almost immediately, the Irish Civil War broke out. In the Irish Free State, Catholics fought against Catholics, and in Ulster Catholics fought against Protestants. Using artillery borrowed from Britain, the Free State government bombarded IRA headquarters, and with military assistance from Britain, it set about destroying the rebellious opposition. The government used the same tactics that had been most effective against them when they were rebels. It executed seventy-seven advocates who spoke out against the treaty, burnt down homes and imprisoned over 11,000 citizens.

During this war, in August 1922, Michael Collins was killed in an ambush by those IRAmembers who were against the treaty. In the same month, an ailing Griffith died.

As head of the republican administration, Eamon de Valera ordered to cease fire on 24 May 1923 because the main republican forces were defeated. The Civil War was over, but the situation was the same as before. The Protestants in Ulster were even more deterrent to join the Free State, so that the IRA could not reach their goal of a united Republic of Ireland.

5. The beginning of a new state: National reconstruction

By December 1922, the new Saorstat Eireann (“the Irish Free State”) had come into existence. It was a full member of the British Commonwealth and the British were guaranteed naval and other military facilities in Ireland in times of peace and war. The Free State government, with William T. Cosgrave as Prime Minister, began the task of national reconstruction.

The facts that the Irish government was able to take over an intact administrative structure from the departing British, and that many Irishmen in the British public service offered to serve the new state, helped Cosgrave in the task of reconstruction.

The organization of the Cumann na nGaedheal party (“party of the Irish”), in April 1923, gave the new Prime Minister a firm basis on which to build up a political structure. With a successfully organized civil police force and a functioning parliament, the Free State administration had good reasons for a cautious optimism. But, however, there were some signs of danger. The so-called Irregulars and Sinn Féin were unreconciled and there was still some sporadic violence.

On 27 August 1923, elections were held and the republicans won forty-four seats compared with Cosgrave’s sixty-three (39,o per cent). As before, the republicans refused to enter the Dáil, and it was left to a small Labour party to serve in the role of a parliamentary opposition. As the republicans did not attend the Dáil, it seemed that Collins’ basic republicanism was being abandoned by the growing conservatism in government circles. The new government came to accept dominion status as a satisfactory end in itself, which was liked by minority groups, such as the Anglo-Irish gentry and the Protestant middle class, who had traditionally supported the British connection. Generally, the revolutionary past was put aside by the new rulers of the Irish Free State.

Another critical test for the new Cosgrave administration was the Boundary Commission which had been set up under the terms of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. The Irish negotiators in 1921 were convinced that boundary revisions would make almost impossible the economic and political survival of Northern Ireland. When the Commission finally met, in 1924-25, the outcome was unsatisfactory for the Free State, but suited well the interests of the Northern Ireland administration.

Nevertheless, on 3 December 1925, the Free State government hastily made an agreement with Great Britain which preserved the status quo on the border, released the Free State from certain financial obligations to Great Britain and made some vague provisions for consultations on common interests between the Free State and Northern Ireland, which were - by the way - never implemented. As expected, the border issue caused sharp criticism of the Irish government in republican circles, though the critics provided no useful suggestions to a united country, where nationalist and Unionist interests, Catholics and Protestants are not willing or able to reconcile.

“’Tis better to have fought and lost, than never to have fought at all.” (Irish proverb)

(O’Farrell 1980: p. 40)


Beckett, James C. (1991); Geschichte Irlands; Stuttgart: Alfed Kröner Verlag

Connolly, S. J. (ed.) (1998); The Oxford Companion to Irish History; Oxford: Oxford University Press

Douglas, Roy; Harte, Liam; O’Hara, Jim (1998); Drawing Conclusions: A Cartoon History of AngloIrish Relations 1798 - 1998; Belfast: The Blackstaff Press

Foster, R. F. (ed.) (1989); The Oxford Illustrated History of Ireland; Oxford: Oxford University Press

Marwick, Arthur (2000); A History of the Modern British Isles 1914 - 1999; Oxford: Blackwell Publishers

O’Farrell, Padraic (1980); Irish Proverbs and Sayings: Gems of Irish Wisdom; Dublin: Mercier Press

O’Toole, Fintan (1997); “Irlands Weg in die Unabhängigkeit”; The Ireland Series 8: 4-5

Penninger, Reinhard (1989); (Nord-)Irland; Wien: hpt - Verlagsgesellschaft

Resources from the Internet

CAIN Web Service: “Towards Partition” - Chapter 4 from “The Making of a Minority”, by Colm Fox, (2001-04-01)

“Ireland Unfree - A brief Overview: Ireland, a History of Conflict” (2001-04-01)

“Desmond’s Concise History of Ireland” by Jerry Desmond; Chapter 12: “The Easter Rising and Independence, but with Partition” (2001-04-01) The Wild Geese Today: “The Anglo-Irish Treaty: Seed of ‘The Troubles’” (2001-04-01)

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The Partition of Ireland
Universität Rostock
The Importance of Not Being English
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Partition, Ireland, Importance, Being, English
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Anika Hummel (Autor), 2001, The Partition of Ireland, München, GRIN Verlag,


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