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The partition of Ireland—fighting the empire

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Simon Basketter looks at why Britain split Ireland up during its battle for independence
Issue 2751
Cork after attack from British forces in the Irish War of Independence
Cork after attack from British forces in the Irish War of Independence

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 and run on the basis of divide and rule.

From the 1870s onwards the Tories played on support for the union with Ireland, and for queen and empire, to build a popular base.

Lord Randolph Churchill summed up the tactics with his call to “play the Orange card”. Protestant landowners had set up the Orange Order in 1795 to crush resistance. The Order described itself as “a barrier to revolution and an obstacle to compromise”.

In 1912 the imperialists, landlords and capitalists played the Orange card against moves for Irish Home Rule.

Edward Carson—the lawyer who persecuted Oscar Wilde—and the Tories started a furious campaign that lasted until the First World War.

Tory leader Bonar Law said, “I can imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster can go in which I would not be prepared to support them.”

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

Division and rule in Ireland—how Unionism bolstered empire
Division and rule in Ireland—how Unionism bolstered empire
  Read More

Carson had two arguments for partition. One was to let Britain hang on to the profitable industries in the Protestant majority areas in the north east.

Britain had key economic and military interests in Northern Ireland.

Between 1870 and 1910 the labour force in shipbuilding grew five times and had a major engineering industry around it.

Carson’s second argument was on “the labour problem”. The period saw a huge outbreak of workers’ resistance in Britain and Ireland.

He argued that in the areas of Ireland where Protestants felt themselves to be in ascendence against Catholics, labour agitation was quieter.

Four counties—Derry, Armagh, Down and Antrim—had big Protestant majorities. But they were too small to form a separate state.

Carson suggested adding the predominantly Catholic counties of Fermanagh and Tyrone to the “safe” Protestant ones.

Against this arbitrary sectarian imperialism, 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.”

Northern Ireland—how Britain rules a last outpost of empire
Northern Ireland—how Britain rules a last outpost of empire
  Read More

While some nationalists supported the First World War, Connolly was a leader during the Easter Rising of 1916. It was crushed and Connolly shot—but repression didn’t work.

Mass strikes and demonstrations erupted when Britain raised the threat of conscription in 1918. In January 1919 Sinn Fein MPs set up their own illegal parliament in Dublin.

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.

In rural areas small farmers and labourers began to take over land. Mass support for the IRA meant that by 1920 a guerrilla war was stretching British control in Ireland to breaking point.

In May 1920, dock and railway workers refused to handle army supplies being imported to Ireland.

The British government responded with increased murderous repression.

In the North, Unionist leaders declared war on Catholics. The shipyards were cleared of all Catholic workers and “rotten Prods”—socialists. Hundreds of Catholic families were burned out of their homes.

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

After the Nationalists agreed to partition, some 30,000 IRA volunteers vowed to continue the struggle. A civil war between pro and anti-treaty forces lasted for two more years.

The border was entrenched and Northern Ireland was created as a society defined by discrimination. The empire was on its way out, but Connolly’s predicted carnival of reaction had arrived.

This is the first in a series of articles on the partition of Ireland. Read our coverage at

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