The Partition of Ireland, 1918-1925, by Robert Lynch, Cambridge University Press, 258 pp, £18.99, ISBN: 978-1139017619
Robert Lynch’s history of partition begins by following Irish journalist William Bulfin on his journey across Ireland in 1902. Bulfin’s quest for the authentic Gaelic spirit could not but end in disappointment upon his arrival in the northeast. Here, Belfast’s gloomy industrialism stood alien to the romanticised and idyllic landscapes of the rest of the island. Thanks to its bond with Britain and the empire, the stronghold of Protestantism in Ireland had prospered for decades when the Third Home Rule bill was drawn. Meanwhile, the Catholic South and West had seen no other growth but that of cultural movements, such as the Gaelic revival, fuelling a new kind of nationalism determined to eradicate the Anglicisation of the country.
Despite stating that the story of the division of Ireland is the story of how Belfast became an “un-Irish” city, Lynch does not present partition as the inevitable outcome of the northeast’s different character. This is consistent with his remark that “partition was a chaotic, confused and, at times, surreal process, far removed from the ‘natural’ conferral of statehood on pre-existing homogenous populations imagined by the partitioners and later historians”. The discussion of Belfast’s peculiarity traces the origin of the ascendancy of Ulster Protestants over unionism and of southern nationalism’s difficulty in dealing with the northeast’s opposition to independence. Once again, Lynch is careful to stress (here and in the following chapters) that partition was not simply the obvious byproduct of the irreconcilability of unionism and nationalism. Nevertheless, this difficult situation did result from the polarisation of Irish politics on the question of independence. This is an important consideration for Lynch’s analysis that develops across most of the book along dualistic lines opposing unionism and nationalism whilst drawing parallels between North and South.
Initially, unionists and nationalists equally opposed partition, which in fact was first proposed by British politicians in 1912 as a temporary, short-term expedient to overcome the deadlock reached by the Home Rule negotiations. In this context, the creation of two parliaments in Ireland served to delegate responsibility for unification to the Irish, rather than to establish two permanent and mutually independent states. Unionist leaders struggled to make sense of the arbitrarily designed portion of territory they governed, while southern nationalists stubbornly continued to refer to a phantom United Ireland, which became the geographic incarnation of the nation. How unnatural partition appeared to Irish people of all sides has been reiterated since the time of nationalist historian Alice Stopford Green; later scholars have pointed out that the division of the island failed to raise enthusiasm on either side of the Irish Sea.
Lynch draws attention to the fact that neither unionists nor nationalists had planned how to build two partitioned states and their lack of preparation contributed to increase poverty, militarisation and sectarian violence. Emblematic of both Irish governments’ disorientation and inefficiency was the dramatic situation of refugees, often overlooked by scholars. People and families who crossed the border to escape violence, unemployment or simply to leave a hostile country found grandiloquent sympathy and little help on their supposed “right side of the border”. Despite their proclaimed irredentism, governments were reluctant to take care of refugees, who were seen as an embarrassing reminder of their abandonment of a section of the national community they claimed to represent. Public solidarity gradually decreased as job competition became fiercer, and refugees returned to where they were from. The narration of these events constitutes one of the best parts of the book, as it vividly shows how partition materialised itself in the lives of people who were displaced and separated from their families while a partitionist mentality rapidly spread among Irish political leaders.
Lynch’s expertise in post-partition political violence in Northern Ireland emerges in his comprehensive and detailed account of the riots in Belfast between 1920 and 1922. However, the link between partition and violence remains elusive. Since clashes between the two communities had recurred periodically in the northeast for centuries, often coinciding with the drafting of previous Home Rule bills, Lynch should be more careful to explain the novelty of what Father John Hassan described as the “Belfast pogrom”. The analysis of the scale and brutality of the violence does not sufficiently illustrate its role within the two political communities and in the process of nation-building, giving the impression that the connection between partition and what is presented as its consequence is assumed rather than investigated.
Rightly, no parallels are drawn between violence in Belfast and the Civil War in the south, while Lynch highlights that post-partition political disarray and economic hardship affected both sides of the border. However, the juxtaposition of North and South appears sometimes as a stretched interpretation of the two realities and it is occasionally contradicted by a subsequent deeper discussion. For example, at the beginning of the sixth chapter, Lynch asserts that North and South both “faced aggressive political and religious minorities whose primary goal was to undermine and eventually destroy the states themselves”. Nevertheless, he then acknowledges a number of substantial differences between Northern Catholics and Southern Protestants, largely contradicting his previous statement. The book’s emphasis on parallelism is at times excessive. It is not necessary to force cross-border correspondences to demonstrate that partition failed to solve many of the issues that it was supposed to address, while creating new problems. This emerges clearly from the book, which, although not openly engaged with the Brexit debate, would tend to discourage strengthening partition through a return to a hard border.
Overall, the importance of partition in modern Irish history is persuasively argued and it is difficult to disagree with Lynch advocating for more scholarly attention to the subject. The rival ideologies that provided the basis for the establishment of the two Irish states did not only prevent dialogue and co-operation but also fostered the development of separate Northern and Southern historical narratives that failed to engage with partition as a topic for research in itself. When such narratives include partition, they differ in their presentation. In Northern Ireland, the need to construct a distinctive Six Counties identity (that is the need to imagine a Northern Irish community) produced a number of historical accounts conveniently overlooking the controversy and violence surrounding partition. On the other hand, Southern historiography has denied or downplayed the importance of partition for the Free State, even if the unification of Ireland recurred systematically in political propaganda for decades, as Clare O’Halloran and others have already noticed.
Both states capitalised on the misfortunes of their neighbours to strengthen internal consensus and stress their superiority: in the 1930s, the North exploited political instability in the South, while Dublin used the Troubles to depict the Republic as more democratic and advanced than Northern Ireland. Reconciliation between the two Irish states has yet to come and confronting partition and its legacy would arguably be a good starting point. Unfortunately, the discussion about the memory of partition is less accurate than other topics analysed in the book. The fact that partition is not remembered by memorials, unlike the First World War or Easter 1916, does not prove that after 1925 collective forgetting replaced reconciliation, as Lynch claims. Only a few pages later, he contradicts this claim by stating that the absence of partition from public commemorations does not mean that it was forgotten. Lynch is not an expert in the history of memory and his book does not study how partition was, or was not, remembered. Nevertheless, a more rigorous and theoretically sophisticated approach to this aspect would strengthen the argument about the place of partition in Irish history.
Cecilia Biaggi is a Marie Sklodowska Curie Researcher in the LEaDing Fellows COFUND program at Erasmus University Rotterdam.