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Partition 100 years later: the luck of Ulster trade unionists

The IRISH nationalists were in a strong position at the end of 1910. The Irish parliamentary party held the balance of power in Westminster and agreed to support the Liberal Party in government as long as a new Self-Government Bill Ireland was presented.

Also supporting the removal of the House of Lords’ permanent veto, which meant the upper house could only block House of Commons bills for a maximum of two years, the party emerged on the verge of securing Home Rule for the whole island. from Ireland.

Fifteen years later that had all changed with the Irish part assigned to history, Ireland divided and the new contested jurisdiction of Northern Ireland feeling more secure in itself reaching a degree of permanence with the decision to put aside the report of the Boundaries Commission and keep the border as it was when it was created in 1921.

While the Ulster Unionists, under the leadership of Edward Carson and James Craig, were decisive in resisting Home Rule and largely effective in uniting all elements of Protestant society in the six counties that would make up Ireland of the North, unlike Irish nationalism, luck was another factor. .

Ulster trade unionists have been extraordinarily fortunate from the crisis of the third autonomy until the decision of the Borders Commission of 1925.

The balance of power in British politics shifted completely from Irish nationalism to Ulster unionism around this time.

The Liberal Party was a much more lukewarm ally for the Irish Party than the Conservative Party was for the Ulster trade unionists. Liberal Party leader and British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith was, as Ronan Fanning has described it, “an unwitting ally, a resentful partner in a loveless marriage” with John Redmond’s Irish Party.

On the other hand, Conservative Party leader Andrew Bonar Law, whose father was born in Coleraine, was considered an “Orange fanatic” who said that if Home Rule was imposed on Ulster, he could “not” imagine no length of resistance ”. to “where I shouldn’t be ready to support them”.

Ulster trade unionists were allowed to commit acts of treason and to arm themselves unpunished with the explicit support of the Conservative Party and the implicit assent of the Liberal government.

A year after the start of World War I, in 1915, a wartime coalition was formed, made up of liberals and conservatives. Carson and Redmond were offered ministerial positions, but Redmond declined.

From then until the early 1920s, when Ireland’s constitutional status was reshuffled, the UK government’s policy on Ireland was decided by a coalition government, with strong Unionist representation.

This strong unionist composition resulted in virtually all political decisions in favor of Ulster trade unionists. They were excluded from a Dublin parliament. The “sacrifice” of accepting decentralized government has proven to be far more beneficial to trade unionists in Ulster than to stay only in Westminster.

A decentralized government for Ulster had not been on the radar in Ireland before World War I. James Craig’s brother MP Charles said: “We have a lot of enemies in this country, and we believe that an Ulster without Parliament would not be in as strong a position as one in which a Parliament has been put in. place, where the Executive had been appointed and where, above all, the paraphernalia of the Government already existed … We should not fear anyone and … would then be in a position of absolute security “.

The more manageable area of ​​six counties to make up Northern Ireland was accepted in place of the nine Ulster counties proposed by Walter Long’s committee tasked with finding a solution to the Irish question.

Ulster trade unionists were fortunate enough to have James Craig serve as Long’s parliamentary and financial secretary in the Admiralty as the Irish government bill made its way through parliament for much of 1920 to resolve the issue. Ulster question and not the Irish question as a whole.

Ulster trade unionists were even authorized by the British government, their own reserve police force, the Ulster Special Constabulary, and an official, Ernest Clark, to create the administrative structures of Northern Ireland, before the Government of Ireland Act does not become law.

Once Northern Ireland was established, the Unionist government of Ulster was allowed to rule as it saw fit, unhindered by the British who funded the burgeoning security apparatus of the north. The government was allowed to restrict minority rights for Catholics, introduce draconian laws and ignore illegal killings by security forces.

Under severe pressure from the IRA in the first half of 1922, the northern government was fortunate that the start of the civil war in the south intervened to help secure the northern borders.

While the threat of a Boundary Commission under Article 12 of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 appeared to endanger significant parts of Northern Ireland, the delay in its convocation caused by the Irish Civil War , the changes of government in Great Britain and the disrespect by the government of Northern Ireland, favored the trade unionists of Ulster.

Although the Northern government refused to nominate a member of the Boundaries Commission, the person chosen by the British – former editor of the unionist-leaning newspaper The Northern Whig, Joseph R. Fisher – could not have been nicer to the unionists in Ulster.

Fisher has been accused of widely disclosing Boundary Commission procedures to Ulster trade unionists. Commission President Justice Richard Feetham, chosen by the British, favored trade unionists in all of his main interpretations of Article 12 of the Treaty.

He ruled out the holding of a plebiscite, the transfer of large units of land such as entire counties or poor law unions, and gave precedence to economic and geographic factors over the wishes of the inhabitants.

When the Boundaries Commission report was put aside and the governments of Northern Ireland, the Irish Free State and Britain agreed to keep the border as it was – and as it was. ‘she is still today – the Ulster exam remarked: “The signing of the border agreement clears the political slate for us in Ulster … We are like a garrison so surprised to find a prolonged siege suddenly lifted and the enemy quietly withdrawn, that we cannot believe in our good luck.

Even one of Ulster unionism’s main arguments for demanding special treatment from the rest of Ireland, the economic miracle of Belfast, saw a sharp decline after the partition of Ireland, its shipbuilding industries and flax which subsequently declined significantly.

The next century saw Northern Ireland almost completely dependent on the British Treasury for its survival.

While the Ulster trade unionists were united and decisive in the partition of Ireland, they were aided by British governments who never acted as neutral intermediaries as they often proclaimed, and were faced with nationalists divided among themselves; extraordinary levels of luck also played a huge role in bringing about changes considered unimaginable in 1910.

Cormac Moore is the author of Birth of the Border: The Impact of Partition in Ireland (Merrion Press, 2019).


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Jacob C.

The author Jacob C.

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