Socialist Worker

The hard truth about the border in Northern Ireland

by Simon Basketter
Issue No. 2594

Most of Pettigo lies in the Republic of Ireland, but some in Northern Ireland

Most of Pettigo lies in the Republic of Ireland, but some in Northern Ireland (Pic: Wikimedia/Creative Commons)

The village of Pettigo is nearly obliterated by a red line on maps of Ireland. Most of it lies in County Donegal in the Republic of Ireland, but some is in Northern Ireland.

Borders are imagined then created. They are not fixed, they can be moved and they can be abolished.

When Ireland was partitioned in 1921 Pettigo was cut in two.

The Irish Republican Army (IRA) occupied the village until the British army moved in to take it back.

During the Second World War a blackout against air raids came into force in Northern Ireland. Homes on one side of Pettigo were in darkness while on the Southern side, which remained neutral during the war, the lights remained on.

There and elsewhere during the Troubles following the repression of the Civil Rights Movement the British army blew up or blocked many of the hundreds of “unapproved roads” and bridges across the border.

Locals uprooted the “dragon’s teeth” barriers, filled in craters and built makeshift bridges.

Whatever Boris Johnson thinks, this is different than a journey across London boroughs.

Ireland was Britain’s oldest colony and some of it still is. Britain prevented the economic development of much of Ireland. The country’s wealth was sucked straight into Britain.

Britain ran Ireland on the basis of divide and rule.

The notion of an independent Ireland horrified whole sections of the British landed aristocracy and the Tory party in particular.

But by December 1910 Irish Nationalists held the balance of power in Westminster. The Liberals had 272 seats, the Tories 271.  

The Irish Parliamentary Party had  74 MPs and kept Liberal prime  minister Herbert Asquith in office. They demanded a Home Rule Bill that would grant Ireland independence.

Liberals reluctantly published their Home Rule Bill. It covered all of Ireland.

In 1912 Liberal MP Agar-Roberts put down an amendment to the Bill to exclude from it the whole of Ulster, the northernmost of the four provinces of Ireland.

Effectively this meant that Home Rule could be achieved by Catholics in three quarters of Ireland, while Protestants would stay part of Britain in the other quarter.

The movement to oppose independence was led by Edward Carson, who had made a name for himself as a lawyer in the persecution of Oscar Wilde.

Carson and the Tories started a furious campaign that lasted through 1912 until the outbreak of the First World War.

Tory leader Bonar Law said, “There are things stronger than parliamentary majorities.

“I can imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster can go in which I would not be prepared to support them.”

These words soon turned into guns as Carson’s Ulster Volunteers were armed in huge numbers to fight against Home Rule. It was a sectarian private army with 100,000 members.

The British army was openly incited by the Tories to refuse to intervene. Fifty eight officers at Curragh military base in Ireland signed a statement effectively refusing to take up arms against the Ulster Volunteers.

Carson had two arguments for partition. The first was financial. In 1907 the value of all manufactured goods exported from Ireland was £20.9 million. Nearly 95 percent of manufacturing industry was concentrated in and around the burgeoning city of Belfast.


With this area safe the only substantial profits of British capitalists in Ireland would be secure.

The second argument Carson called “the labour problem”.

The period saw a huge outbreak of workers’ resistance in Britain and Ireland. Carson argued that in the areas of Ireland where Protestants felt themselves to be in the ascendant, labour agitation was quieter.

So how many counties should be in the new British enclave? Ulster had too small a Protestant majority.

The four counties of the north east—Derry, Armagh, Down and Antrim—had big Protestant majorities. But together they were too small to look viable as a separate state.

Carson chose six. The predominantly Catholic counties of Fermanagh and Tyrone were added to the four “safe’’ Protestant ones.

Nationalist leader John Redmond made his position plain in a speech in 1912. “The idea of two nations in Ireland is revolting and hateful,” he said. “The idea of our agreeing to the partition of our nation is unthinkable.”

But Redmond and the Nationalists did go for the unthinkable. They were negotiating for partition.

They had the votes to bring down the Liberal government. They had the support for Home Rule for all Ireland from the vast majority of the Irish people. But they were “practical” politicians.

Against this the Irish Marxist James Connolly wrote, “Such a scheme, the betrayal of the national democracy of industrial Ulster, would mean a carnival of reaction North and South, would set back the wheels of progress.”

War broke out in Europe. The Home Rule Bill was left “on the table”. Redmond became recruiting sergeant for mass slaughter on behalf of the Empire they were trying to get their country to leave.

James Connolly was one of the leaders of the Easter Rising of 1916. The rising was crushed and Connolly was shot.

Just after a month after the rising was crushed, the new British prime minister, Lloyd George made a sudden attempt to “solve” the Irish question once again. It was an effort to persuade the US to join the war on Britain’s side.

He proposed Home Rule for the 26 counties, with the six counties of the north east excluded as a British enclave.

But there was a wave of resistance. When the British raised the threat of conscription in 1918 it provoked widespread resistance through mass strikes and demonstrations.

By the time elections took place in December 1918, the “criminal” insurgents from Sinn Fein won 73 out 105 seats. Half of Sinn Fein’s candidates were in prison at the time.

In January 1919 they set up their own illegal parliament in Dublin, the first Dail.


Neither British rule nor partition was guaranteed. Also in 1919, as the war of independence got under way, the British army was suppressing a strike for a 44-hour week involving more than 40,000 mainly Protestant workers in Belfast.

Mass support for the IRA meant that by 1920 a guerrilla war was stretching British control in Ireland to breaking point. The British government responded with increased repression.

Support for the struggle was not simply expressed through elections. For example, in May 1920, dock and railway workers refused to handle army supplies being imported to Ireland.

In many rural areas small farmers and labourers began to take over land owned by hated Unionist landlords.

By 1921 the British were forced to concede that Ireland was ungovernable and entered into negotiations with Sinn Fein.

The British ministers had a plan which was well summed up by Bonar Law. “I would give the South anything,” he said “or almost anything, but I would not enforce anything on Ulster.”

A diplomatic game was then played out. 

Days were spent discussing the Oath of Allegiance which future Irish MPs should or should not take to the Crown, the access to Irish ports by the British navy in time of war and the question of tariff and trade barriers.

All agreed that the question of Ulster should be left to last when the treaty was almost complete.

In a “final” offer Lloyd George suggested a Boundary Commission which would look into the fairness or otherwise of the six county state. Again the nationalists thought the unthinkable.

Lloyd George also threatened immediate and terrible war if the treaty was not signed. That was a bluff. British imperialism was stretched to near breaking point in policing its empire.

The Irish leader passed the treaty. Some 30,000 IRA volunteers vowed to continue the struggle. This struggle was waged as a civil war between pro and anti-treaty forces for two more years.

As it happens the last battle Irish nationalists who were both for and against the treaty fought together against British soldiers was fought in Pettigo. 

In 1922 some 55 pro-treaty and 21 anti-treaty IRA members held out for a week against 1,500 troops. The British used tanks and artillery. People were forced to leave their homes.

After the battle the same artillery was lent to the new Irish government to shell the anti-treaty forces in Dublin.

By the end of the civil war the border was entrenched and Northern Ireland was created as a society based on discrimination. Connolly’s predicted carnival of reaction had arrived.

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