Solving the Insoluble

Was the partition of Ireland an inevitable act?

Members of the Ulster Unionist party sign a covenant on ‘Ulster Day’ as part of  their campaign to halt the passage of the Third Home Rule Bill, 28 September 1912 © Hulton Getty Images.

This is the final volume in Charles Townshend’s trilogy tracing Ireland’s path to independence from Britain, which sets his earlier works on the Easter Rising and the revolutionary period in greater context. The partition of Ireland, seen by some as the only possible settlement of the ‘Irish question’, occurred during a period of simmering sectarian tension and British political confusion. As with his earlier publications, Townshend provides a highly authoritative account of the events leading to Irish independence, while also reflecting on the United Kingdom’s most recent constitutional crisis, which had profound consequences for both the UK and Republic of Ireland: Brexit. 

Townshend expertly crafts the narrative of how Britain impacted on Ireland, and vice versa, throughout this tumultuous period. Wider factors were also at play, not least British imperialism. For example, Townshend writes ‘the national trauma of the Boer War brought an interrogation of British identity’ and this then played out in both nationalist and unionist behaviour, with nationalists ‘almost all instinctively pro-Boer’. During the Boundary Commission negotiations of 1924-25, some unionists questioned the right of Catholics to land, ‘claiming, like the Afrikaners, that it had been empty when their ancestors arrived’. A hundred years later, northern Irish nationalists would identify themselves with Black Africans and South Africa’s non-white population during apartheid. As Townshend illustrates, this cultural piggy-backing was part of a wider trend for some Irish nationalists to ‘eliminate British cultural influence’ in an effort to ‘de-Anglicise’ Ireland. All of this helps to set the stage for the impact of, and opposition to, the Third Home Rule Bill of 1914. 

An aspect that sets this book apart from many others in the field is the author’s acknowledgement of the sectarian tensions underpinning the lack of progress on the Home Rule issue. Religion and religious institutions are seriously engaged with as motivating factors for division and misunderstanding. For example, Winston Churchill favoured the Home Office over the Irish Chief Secretaryship in 1910, claiming ‘the Catholic Church has ruined every country in which it has been supreme’. While Irish Protestants feared a papal takeover, Irish Catholics worried about proselytism from the Protestant churches. The threat of either was limited, but the 1907 decree by Pope Pius X requiring children of ‘mixed’ Catholic and Protestant marriages to be raised in the Catholic faith, added to unionist fantasies of Home Rule leading to a Catholic Church takeover. Townshend argues the decree remained significant for its ‘political resonance’, rather than any determinable impact on the very small number of mixed marriages during this period. The 1911 papal rescript of Quantavis diligentia, forbidding Catholics to bring any priest before a civil court without his bishop’s permission, heightened concerns that Catholic members of the Dublin parliament would be wholly subject to and under the control of the Church. With the Irish Catholic bishop’s ‘near paranoia’ over the issue of Catholic education in the newly formed Northern Ireland we see the issue of religious control continue. Townshend’s careful reconstructions of these debates adds greatly to our understanding about the role of religion and religious institutions throughout the Home Rule process. 

Townshend deftly describes how the Home Rule crisis ran out of control, acknowledging that both unionists and nationalists were being whipped into a frenzy by internal and external forces. The phenomena of ‘Ulsteria’, identified with the Protestant Orange Order marches, continued to ramp up tensions between communities on cultural, language, political and religious grounds. As early as May 1912, former military officers began training members of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and reports of arms shipments to the paramilitary organisation circulated. Unlike other scholars, Townshend focuses on British popular mobilisation against Home Rule and not only the debate in Ireland. As tensions rose, Townshend takes us to the brink – the genuine fears on both sides of the Irish Sea over civil war in response to the Third Home Rule Bill. It would be the First World War that paused the threat of violence in Ireland. Yet, as Townshend argues, from this point on there could be no ‘possibility of implementing Irish Home Rule without the exclusion of some part of Ulster’. The stage was set.

Townshend focuses on the perspective from Westminster during the negotiations that took place throughout the First World War. This gives us a political backstory rich in nuance. The detail surrounding the Cabinet’s decisions on the Government of Ireland Amendment Bill of 1918 clearly demonstrates a step on the path to partition. At times, the reader could be forgiven for reflecting on events a century later that seem strangely familiar. 

Partition created a physical and mental division in Ireland. Southern unionists wished not to be divorced from their Ulster counterparts. Partition would also bitterly divide Irish nationalists, resulting in their own civil war. Through official records and newspaper reports Townshend recreates the intimacy of these violent repercussions, when neighbour fought neighbour and whole communities were torn apart. 

While his Easter 1916 (2005) gave us the story of one fateful week, The Partition covers four decades and focuses overwhelmingly on matters from the perspective of high politics. Combing meticulously through British and Irish government archives, newspaper reports and political memoirs, Townshend weaves together a narrative of how politicians responded to events in Ireland. Townshend is able to reveal long simmering tensions, as well as specific sparks in the Irish Home Rule journey, a drawn out and messy divorce. 

Townshend argues that partition remained the only answer to the Irish Home Rule crisis. His dissection of discussion on the ‘hazy’ details surrounding the Boundary Commission feels familiar to contemporary news readers, including issues around a North-South customs barrier. The ‘potent’ metaphor that unionists soon saw the new Northern Irish state as ‘under siege’, part of a long line of siege mentality, was heightened by unionist insecurity over ‘faltering’ British support. Partition is regularly seen as a rushed, error-filled process that no one wanted. Yet Townshend challenges any view that a better arrangement was possible, highlighting throughout the severity of unionist ‘hostility’ to Home Rule, which many nationalists saw as ‘illusory’. While federalism existed as the ‘most sophisticated’ alternative to partition, Townshend deems it ‘well beyond English political capacity’ at the time. Therefore, Townshend argues, even the imperfect and highly volatile solution of partition was the only answer. One wonders how much has truly changed if, in light of Brexit, issues of sovereignty, trade agreements and the border continue to cause tension between politicians in the House of Commons today.


The Partition: Ireland Divided, 1885-1925
Charles Townshend
Allen Lane 340pp £25

Maggie Scull’s latest book is The Catholic Church and the Northern Ireland Troubles, 1968-1998 (Oxford University Press, 2019).