CENTENARY OF CONFLICT: Remembering the events that led to the partition of Ireland 100 years on
Irish History

CENTENARY OF CONFLICT: Remembering the events that led to the partition of Ireland 100 years on

AS of this week, 100 years have passed since the partition of the island of Ireland.

In light of this controversial centenary, behind which lies the turbulent birth of a nation still divided, here we recount the key events that led up to May 3, 2021 - when the partition of Ireland was first enacted.

Initially seen as a temporary measure to assuage sectarian tensions until an eventual reunification, with both sides remaining under the UK umbrella, it soon spiralled into something beyond any one party’s control.

Cracks began to show immediately following the settlement, which divided the country into Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland, both still being UK entities.

Most citizens of what was then dubbed ‘Southern Ireland’ refused to recognise it as such, preferring – and in many cases, insisting – upon the official designation: The Irish Free State.

Trouble was also brewing in the Irish province of Ulster, still officially part of the South, as it had a Protestant and unionist majority who wanted to remain a part of Britain.

Origins of the Conflict

Before British colonisation took effect in the 17th century, Ireland was governed by a disparate network of warring clans and Catholicism was the only widely practiced religion.

This changed in 1536 when King Henry VIII, keen to split with the church and the religion that denied him his divorce, deposed the dominant FitzGerald dynasty, formerly Lords Deputies of Ireland, and declared a new Kingdom of Ireland seven years later in 1541.

With the stroke of his pen, the bloated and gout ridden monarch reshaped the established social order, and centuries of Irish political tradition were swept away and replaced with formalised, top-down rule from Whitehall.

What followed over the next 150 years was a creeping colonialism that came to a head in 1691 when the Irish Catholic Jacobinites surrendered to William of Orange’s forces at Limerick.

This heralded the beginning of Protestant dominance in Ireland and set the stage for the sectarian conflict to come.

The Road to Partition

By 1912, exactly sixty years since the end of the devastating potato famine, widely seen as a result of mismanagement by a series of British administrations, trouble started to boil over, and battle lines were drawn.

Following pressure from the Irish Home Rule Movement, the British agreed to introduce bills that would give Ireland a devolved government – the first steps toward independence.

This sparked the Home Rule Crisis and the formation of an Ulster unionist paramilitary group, the Ulster Volunteers, who vehemently rejected rule by an Irish Catholic government.

Plans were underway to give Ulster an exemption from Irish rule when the First World War broke out, relegating the simmering conflict to a side issue – at least for British government officials at the time.

The cataclysmic death toll of the war, as well as executions of devoted Irish republicans like Roger Casement, and above all the bloodshed of the failed 1916 Easter Rising, all gave a boon to support for the cause of independence during the war years.

Then, in 1918, the year the war ended, the Irish republican party Sinn Féin collected a clear majority of Irish votes at the ballot box and – extending their political remit – declared the whole of Ireland to be an independent republic.

Seen as an unacceptable overreach by the British, the declaration led to the Irish War of Independence, a guerrilla conflict between the newly formed Irish Republican Army and British forces – supplemented by the notoriously ruthless Black and Tans.

The bitter conflict that raged for over two years across Ireland’s rolling green hills was brilliantly portrayed in the film The Wind That Shakes the Barley, starring Irish actors Cillian Murphy and Liam Cunningham.

To put an end to the fighting, another bill was introduced, the Government of Ireland Act of 1921, creating two devolved governments, one for the six counties in the North, and the other for the rest of the island, formally partitioning the country to Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland.

While elections in the North led to the formation of a Northern Irish made up of Ulster unionists, the South refused to form a government on the grounds that republicans would only recognise an Irish Republic – also encompassing the breakaway six counties.

The birth pangs of partition spelled violence and bloodshed for the freshly constituted Northern provinces – both in the name of, and in opposition to, the new political settlement.

The Northern capital Belfast was host to extreme hostility, street skirmishes, and bouts of retributive violence between Catholics and Protestants.

Over 500 people were killed and more than 10,000 beleaguered citizens, mostly comprised of the Catholic minority, became refugees.

A truce was eventually called in July 1921, when the War of Independence gave way to a third treaty, the Anglo-Irish Treaty, that ushered in Southern Ireland’s departure from the UK and renaming to the Irish Free State.

The decision to remain part of the UK was put to a referendum in the North, and after a failed IRA offensive into the border areas in 1922, the result, Northern Ireland’s decision to remain part of the UK, cemented the new border arrangements – and the British Government's position – with a democratic mandate.

Legacy of partition

Far from appeasing both sides, this laid the foundations for the conflicts to come.

Over forty years of bad blood and hostility between Irish nationalists seeking to end partition, on the one hand, and Ulster unionists clinging onto the North’s UK membership, on the other, culminated in The Troubles in the late 1960s.

At the final body count of a conflict that spanned thirty years, more than 3,500 had been killed.

A formal ceasefire was eventually agreed upon during the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, and the conditions for reunification were established.

There can be no change to the status in Northern Ireland without the consent of the majority of its population, the Agreement stipulates.

Some commentators have opined that this would not only be a good thing were it to occur, but that it is likely to take place within a generation.

Max Hastings, former editor-in-chief of the Daily Telegraph and bestselling military historian, wrote in a Bloomberg column recently: "If Irish reunification takes place within a generation, as I believe that it will, a historic injustice will be righted.

"Such an outcome would serve the best interests of Irish people, save a rump of alienated Protestants, historically out of their time."