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Unionisms and Partition


Richard Bourke

Two years after the 1920 Government of Ireland Act which first established Northern Ireland as a distinct jurisdiction within the United Kingdom, Ronald McNeill published a book justifying partition under the title Ulster’s Stand for Union. When it was finally completed in February 1922, McNeill’s work amounted to the fullest attempt to date to champion the legitimacy of Northern Ireland. To this day, it remains the clearest statement of the case for Ulster nationalism. McNeill, who had been educated at Harrow and Christ Church, Oxford, was the son of a Co Antrim landowner. He entered parliament in 1911 as a Conservative member for Kent. By that stage, he had already been active in public life, most recently in opposing the reform of the House of Lords.

McNeill went on to campaign against the introduction of Home Rule, approving of Ulster’s resistance to the prospect of self-government for Ireland in 1912. In September of that year, the Ulster Covenant was signed in Belfast by nearly half a million men and women. The division of opinion in Britain and Ireland over the future shape of the United Kingdom began to polarise. Over the next decade, as factions splintered, hostilities intensified. This led to the division of Ireland, followed by the onset of civil war in the South and mounting sectarian strife in the North. The rights of Ulster, McNeill maintained, underpinned the legitimacy of partition.

Ulster’s Stand for Union has been described by Paul Bew as “a classic unionist text”. This raises the question of what unionism actually stands for, with implications for what we make of partition. In both Britain and Ireland, debate about unionism has tended to be introverted and parochial, lacking any active sense of the wider history of political unions. The United States, as the name suggests, was inspired by unionist ideals. So too were Germany and Italy, as well as Canada and Australia. Some unions, like South Africa, have so far succeeded, while others, like Czechoslovakia, have failed. Yet comparative analysis rarely guides discussion of the United Kingdom. In light of the preceding examples, Bew’s description of McNeill’s tract stands in need of qualification.

The Union of Great Britain and Ireland, as established in 1801, and as previously tried under the Cromwellian Protectorate, entailed the abolition of a distinct Irish parliament. The abrogation of separate parliaments was unionism’s essential point. The first article of the 1801 Act provided that the two kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland be “united into one”. And the third article of the same Act stipulates that the resulting Kingdom “be represented in one parliament”. This, then, was the meaning of British-Irish unionism throughout the nineteenth century. As a doctrine, it denoted the incorporation of territories under a single parliament.

When, in the early twentieth century, the Dublin-based publicist Arthur Griffith started to argue for the establishment of a dual monarchy in these islands on the model of the Austro-Hungarian Ausgleich, his aim was to dismantle the Act of Union, thus bringing to an end the tradition of unionism as defended by leading exponents like AV Dicey and Arthur Balfour. Writing for The Times on November 6th, 1911, just months after the passage of the Parliament Act, and two days before his resignation as leader of the Conservative Party, Balfour defended unionism with reference to the integrity of a “Union Parliament”. Prior to 1782, Balfour noted, Ireland possessed what he called a “dependent” parliament. Then, from 1782 to 1800, an “independent” parliament, as Balfour termed it, presided over the island.

This was at best an approximate characterisation. But the important point is that Balfour argued that each of these experiments had ended in failure: the models of a dependent and an independent parliament had both broken down. By comparison, the Union parliament, as far as Balfour was concerned, had been a “success”. Unionism, we now see, involved capitalising on this success: it meant endorsing the practical wisdom of a unitary parliament. The creation of a parliament in Ireland under a federal system, as recommended by Gladstone in 1886, or a dominion parliament, as preferred by Griffith in 1904, were both regarded by Balfour as a subversion of the Union. This, indeed, was the view of the Conservative Party more generally: it was, fundamentally, the position of unionists in the historically relevant sense of that term.

Griffith, of course, was the founder of Sinn Féin. His party’s original platform was later to be transformed into a vehicle for separatist republicanism. At one time, Griffith had himself been a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. However, in the early years of the twentieth century, he was turning away from his previous doctrinaire commitments in embracing the idea of dual monarchy for Ireland. At that moment, perhaps ironically, he was reviving a proposal that had been mooted in the 1870s by the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII – reigning monarch as Griffith was developing his new programme. In any case, the Sinn Féin platform was a manifestation of a deviation from republicanism, attracting attention and support for precisely that reason. Yet it still formed part of a tradition of opposition to the status quo which crystallised around the notion of repealing the Union. This project stretched back to Daniel O’Connell and the later Isaac Butt. Griffith was thus innovating within a family of proposals which advocated two parliaments under a single crown.

In broad constitutional terms, the provisions of the Government of Ireland Act, which were intended to create two parliaments on the island of Ireland, fell short of Griffith’s demand for a dominion-style assembly. Unlike Griffith’s proposal, the 1920 Act envisaged a federal arrangement under which MPs from Northern and Southern Ireland would retain seats in the Westminster parliament. Nonetheless, importantly, the new constitution still represented a departure from unionism in its original, “classic” sense. In fact, the Act dismantled unionism twice over – first, by the creation of a subordinate parliament in the South and, second, with the establishment of a subordinate parliament in the North, with both jurisdictions represented in a partially federated Westminster parliament. Northern Ireland is the child of this founding Act of the British government which revised the Union in favour of a parliamentary federation – a setup which unionist statecraft had been determined to avoid.

More than this, the 1920 Act envisaged the creation of yet another union: an Irish union. This was to be created by the incorporation of the two parliaments on the island of Ireland and facilitated by the formation of a Council of Ireland. Despite the longstanding republican ascription of a wilful policy of partition to Britain, allegedly operating under the perfidious influence of a project to divide and rule, the text of the Government of Ireland Act in fact looked forward to the “eventual establishment of a Parliament for the whole of Ireland”. The united Irish parliament thus envisaged would still be subject to the sovereignty of the British legislature.

This vision of ever closer rapprochement between North and South receded in the aftermath of the Second World War, and still more decisively under the impact of the campaign of violence launched by the Provisional IRA after 1970. But the fact remains that the policy of the United Kingdom, as formulated when McNeill was writing Ulster’s Stand for Union, was strictly neither unionist nor partitionist in complexion. On the contrary, legislation was bent on disassembling the Union, while partition emerged as a concession to prevailing circumstances as interpreted by the government at the time. Needless to state, past British choices had played a major part in creating conditions which now constrained the direction of policy.

The British interest in Irish unity survived the bitterness of the War of Independence, fought between 1919 and 1921. The theme of unity figured prominently in the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which terminated the conflict, and which Griffith helped to negotiate. The Treaty stipulated that Northern Ireland, whose parliament first sat in June 1921, was prospectively incorporated into the Irish Free State, although the jurisdiction of the Southern government over its Northern neighbour was suspended for a period of one month. At the same time, under the provisions of the Treaty, the North was granted the freedom to opt out of the new dispensation, a right which it chose to exercise in December of that year. This means that, at its foundation, Northern Ireland was formed by secession from the Irish Free State, which had itself just become a dominion of the British Empire, also called a “Community” as well as a “Commonwealth” of Nations.

The legitimacy of the North was now established in British law by successive votes in Northern Ireland’s houses of parliament, although a boundary commission was also created to finalise the border. From this perspective, McNeill’s “stand” was not an endorsement of a United Kingdom settlement but a defence of devolution accompanied by partition. His vindication of Ulster was not an exercise in “classic” unionism, but rather an apology for the annulment of the Union as originally established. It stood for repeal in the simple sense that it endorsed the authority of a subordinate parliament, an arrangement which classic unionism had been designed to terminate.

The United Kingdom under “one parliament” as formed in 1801 had now given way to a system of three parliaments: the imperial parliament at Westminster, a dominion parliament in Southern Ireland, and a home rule parliament in the North. The last two parliaments faced immediate crises of legitimacy. They had been mandated by popular election and confirmed by parliamentary ratification. However, for some, questions remained over whether these processes of ratification had been adequately sanctioned. In Southern Ireland, this question drove the supporters of rival answers into civil war. In the North, it became the focal point for dissent against the new regime. McNeill’s aim was to disarm the arguments of these dissenters by confirming the validity of partition. This involved legitimising the exercise of popular will on whose basis Northern Ireland had been formed.

Partition is an emotive term in Irish political discourse. For its critics, it connotes a kind of rending. It conjures up the spectacle of a dismembered body politic. For that reason, it is often understood as a sort of violence against a people. At the same time, it is usually imagined in territorial terms. Curiously, it is standardly regarded as a partition of the island, when in fact it divides the remnants of the United Kingdom from Southern Ireland. Despite the sensitivities surrounding the idea, partition is a pervasive, sometimes brutal, and often necessary process. On account of the successive partitions of Poland, such treatment is associated with Great Power politics. The experience of Korea conforms to this paradigm. Yet the partition of Yugoslavia was not a product of outside interference. Neither was the partition of Sudan. In general, territorial divisions, from India to Palestine, cannot be subject to the same indiscriminate verdict. Judgment must depend on the values we apply under varying circumstances.

For McNeill, the partition of Ireland was a matter of democratic principle. In the culture of the modern West, no other precept could credibly be invoked. However, the problem is that a promiscuously cited concept can be used to serve incompatible objectives. As if to illustrate this difficulty, partition was described by its opponents as undemocratic and by its promoters as a matter of democratic right. The reason for this divergence lies in complications besetting the understanding of democracy itself. According to W Alison Philips’s study, The Revolution in Ireland, published in 1923, the hazards multiplied on account of the First World War, leaving Britain in particular with the overwhelming conundrum of “how to rule an empire through a democratic parliament under the party system”. A solution was sought in a scheme of delegated parliaments designed to substitute a unitary state. Yet the solution proved more taxing than the original puzzle.

Eric Hobsbawm argued that the phenomenon of nationalism “became increasingly central in the era of European democratization and mass politics”. It is easy enough to draw the connections Hobsbawm had in mind: democratisation is coterminous with modern nationalism. Beginning around the 1880s, the harmonious functioning of a democratic suffrage depended on shared loyalty to the polity. Put more abstractly, nationalism secures allegiance in democratic states. With the slow break-up of the Union between 1886 and 1920, a shared commitment to successor regimes proved impossible to generate. Unhelpfully, in contemporary parlance, this complication is described in terms of rival “identities”. But since identity is at bottom a pre-political concept it is poorly equipped to capture the dilemma of competing allegiances that habitually emerge in new democracies.

In Ulster’s Stand for Union, McNeill announced his adherence to a democratic ideal: “the majority must prevail, certainly”. He then raised an obvious problem: “But what majority?” As evidenced by the general election of 1918, there was majority support for Irish secession from the United Kingdom as well as majority support for Ulster secession from an Irish state. As McNeill put it: “To the Nationalist claim that Ireland was a nation [Ulster] replied that it was either two nations or none, and that if one of the two had a right to ‘self-determination’, the other had it equally.” In the aftermath of the First World War, this pattern of political fission was dubbed “balkanisation”, evident in the breakup of the Russian, Habsburg and Ottoman empires.

Today’s unionists are the descendants of a transformation of the Union from an integrated into a federal state. This new situation threw up fresh problems, not least in relation to the system of government designed for Northern Ireland. McNeill sought refuge from constitutional perplexity in the quality of fellow-feeling observable among Ulster Protestants. He recollected how the threat of submergence within an all-Ireland arrangement had “welded all the previously diverse social and political elements … into a single compact mass, tempered to the maximum power of resistance”.

A decade earlier, on April 11th, 1912, on the floor of the House of Commons, Herbert Henry Asquith, then prime minister, had echoed Charles Stuart Parnell in designating Ireland as “a nation”. In his mind, this justified conferring self-government on the island, even in the face of hostility from a “relatively small minority” located in the northeast. For Asquith, that minority of Ulster Protestants would ultimately align with their Irish compatriots in the South, exactly as the Boers of the Transvaal had done upon entry into the Union of South Africa. Yet for McNeill, the “single compact mass” of Northern resistance was, by virtue of its cohesion, entitled to self-determine. It followed that it held this right at the expense of the disaffected bulk of Northern Irish Catholics.

Ulster resistance, McNeill contended, was paradoxically based on loyalty – loyalty to the crown against an overbearing parliament. As I have been arguing, this unionism was already a revolt against the Union in its authentic sense. Scholars like David Miller have likened the stance of rebellious loyalty to the covenanting tradition. From this angle, the loyalist paramilitaries who emerged during the Troubles – the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defence Association – trace their roots to proponents of conditional allegiance deriving from the seventeenth century. According to McNeill, however, Ulster professions of loyalty distinguished between crown and parliament. He wrote: “in the eyes of Ulstermen … constitutional orthodoxy is quite a different thing from loyalty, and … true allegiance to the Sovereign is by them sharply differentiated from passive obedience to an Act of Parliament”.

One does not have to search the records of Cromwellian-era covenanters to make sense of this position. It was explicitly articulated by the colonists of North America in the years before the Declaration of Independence. However, in practice, the American appeal to the authority of a powerful monarch against the ambitions of an imperial parliament will hardly work as a cogent analogy for the situation of Ulster. Unlike George III in the eighteenth century, neither George V nor Elizabeth II in the twentieth played an active role in shaping either domestic or colonial policy. Above all, they could offer no protection to Ulster loyalists against the will of the British parliament.

As a result, Northern Protestants have progressively surrendered their ideals since promising resistance in 1912. First, in 1920, old-style unionism was aborted; second, in 1972, single party government was dismissed; and third, in 1998, the conditional status of Northern Ireland was officially approved by all sides. This means that, under with the Good Friday Agreement, the Northern Ireland polity can be voted out of existence by a bare majority of its population.

Devolution was never the intention behind the Union, just as transitory statehood was not the purpose of partition. This slow process of inadvertent capitulation has left Ulster unionists struggling to shore up what has effectively disappeared: the commitment of the British establishment to closer union with Northern Ireland. The recent determination on the part of the British Conservative Party to retain Scotland makes apathy about Ulster all the more transparent. Earlier this year, George Osborne, the former chancellor, declared that Northern Ireland was heading toward the “exit door”. Such publicly expressed sentiments by a pillar of Conservatism were inconceivable in the heyday of the Troubles. Now, following on from Northern Ireland’s situation after the Brexit negotiations, the exposed position of rebellious loyalism is more evident than ever.

None of this looks anything like self-determination. From their currently weakened condition, largely caused by British indifference, Northern partitionists should move towards negotiating with the South. This will not be with a view to achieving a “United Ireland”, or assimilating two separate systems of government, but in the interest of securing new opportunities.

Unionism’s fear is being swallowed whole by a conniving Southern administration, yet the truth is that the Republic is deeply uneasy about Irish unity, and its electorate will be reluctant to absorb the cost. This gives Ulster unionism the chance of pursuing a lasting settlement instead of idly protesting as its future is shaped behind its back. The price of empty defiance conducted over a century has been a culture of intolerance and intercommunal recrimination. The time has come for Northern Protestants to set their own agenda. They are in a position to make proposals that would be rejected by Sinn Féin yet conceivably accepted by the government of the South. Some leverage, at least, is in their hands.


Richard Bourke is professor of the history of political thought and a Fellow of King’s College at the University of Cambridge. This essay was originally delivered as a lecture in the Queen’s University Belfast series ‘The Partition of Ireland: Causes and Consequences’, broadcast by the BBC.