The partition of Ireland

partition of ireland

A 1914 cartoon of Unionist leader Sir Edward Carson ‘kidnapping’ Ulster

In December 1920, almost two years into the Irish War of Independence, the British parliament passed the Government of Ireland Act. This legislation introduced Home Rule but also formalised the partition of Ireland. It marked Britain’s fourth attempt to implement Home Rule, a step welcomed by moderate Irish Nationalists who celebrated the restoration of self government in Ireland. The introduction of Home Rule did not go far enough for Republicans, who sought independence from Britain rather than self government under British sovereignty. But the real opposition and threat to Home Rule came from Unionists in Ulster, particularly the six north-eastern counties. These Protestant Unionists refused to be governed by a Nationalist parliament based in Dublin; they feared a new Catholic ascendancy where Protestants would be marginalised, discriminated against and possibly persecuted. As war loomed in continental Europe, London was also confronted with the possibility of civil war in Ireland, as Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries mobilised to either defend Home Rule or make it unworkable. The British government’s response was to partition Ireland, a compromise measure to ease Loyalists fears.

From the introduction of the third Home Rule Bill in 1912, Unionists threatened to take up arms rather than submit to a Dublin government. Loyalists began forming and training paramilitary groups like the Ulster Volunteers; and in March 1914 they imported 25,000 rifles, purchased from German arms brokers. Nationalists responded by forming their own paramilitary wing, the Irish Volunteers, to protect the fledgling government from a Loyalist uprising. The introduction of Home Rule, it seemed, could tip Ireland into a state of civil war. When the Home Rule Act was finally passed in September 1914 its drafters included a safety valve: the six Loyalist-dominated counties in Ulster were to remain under British rule for a further six years. The entire Home Rule Act was itself set aside by the outbreak of World War I. The tensions in Ireland were deferred, though not eased. When Loyalist and Nationalist politicians gathered in Dublin in 1917-18 to discuss the logistics of Home Rule and the future of Irish government, the old divisions remained.

partition of ireland

A cartoonist’s view of British prime minister David Lloyd George and the partition

In 1920 the British passed the Government of Ireland Act, an attempt to short circuit and Irish civil war by dividing the island into two constituent parts: Southern Ireland (26 counties) and Northern Ireland (six counties). Both regions would be self governing dominions of Great Britain; London would retain control of significant policy areas like defence, currency, foreign affairs and trade. Partition was a both a compromise and an expediency, intended to implement Home Rule in Ireland without inciting well-armed Loyalist paramilitary groups. It was also considered a temporary measure: the terms of the act provided for cooperation, unity and eventual reunification. The division of Ireland incited division and controversy, even as it was being finalised by Westminster. Some politicians supported partition as a way of resolving Ireland’s sectarian crisis, though they unable to articulate how this might work. Others criticised it, like British cabinet minister Austen Chamberlain, who described it as “a compromise, and like all compromises it is illogical and indefensible”. The events of the 1920s widened the gulf between North and South and the partition, though intended to be temporary, became the norm. The partition was rejected by radical Republicans like Sinn Fein and the IRA, which vowed to continue their campaign of violence against British rule. The ongoing Irish War of Independence ensured that Home Rule was never fully implemented in the South. The Home Rule Act ordered the formation of a new political entity called Southern Ireland; it would have its own parliament, executive government and judiciary. But the disruption of the war and opposition from Sinn Fein and other Republicans meant the parliament never gathered or passed legislation. Another creation of the Home Rule Act, the Council of Ireland – a joint committee to allow cooperation between Dublin and Belfast – also never saw the light of day. Home Rule was accepted and implemented in Northern Ireland but in the South it died on the vine, ignored and sabotaged by Nationalists.

partition of ireland

Michael Collins (seated) signs the Anglo-Irish Treaty, December 1922

In July 1921 the British government, eager to end the violence in southern Ireland, offered a truce. A Nationalist delegation, headed by Dail Eireann member Arthur Griffith and IRA commander Michael Collins, travelled to London to negotiate a treaty. The president of the self-declared Irish republic, Eamon de Valera, did not attend but provided the delegation with instructions. On December 6th 1921 Griffith, Collins and the other delegates signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty. This agreement created an Irish Free State in the south and gave the six Ulster counties an option to withdraw from the treaty. But while the Irish Free State now legally existed, it drove a wedge between Ireland’s Nationalists. Republicans like Eamon de Valera viewed the Treaty as a betrayal, a failure to liberate and unify all of the people of Ireland. Michael Collins, in contrast, considered it the first of several steps towards achieving that goal. When the Treaty was presented to the Dail Eireann it sparked heated debates that triggered a split in the Nationalist movement.

“Northern Ireland emerged at the end of 1920 as a political accident – everyone’s least-worst option, loved by no one but accepted by sufficient numbers on both sides… It had a particular political character: the Unionists were not as British as in the rest of the UK, and Northern Nationalists were not quite as Irish as on the rest of the Ireland… Insecurity is stamped indelibly on the political psyches of both communities. In the end, we are on our own, joined at the hip to the very people we most mistrust, and in and out of love with our would-be suitors in Britain and the Republic of Ireland.”
Feargal Cochrane, historian

The Dail narrowly ratified the Anglo-Irish Treaty, 64 votes to 57, and set about forming a new Provisional Government of Ireland. Infuriated, de Valera resigned as president, vowing to “continue to deny the right of any foreign authority in Ireland [or] admit that our country may be carved up by such an authority.” Debates over the Treaty also forced a split in Sinn Fein. On April 14th 1922 around 200 members of the anti-treaty IRA occupied Dublin’s Four Courts, Dublin, hoping to incite a confrontation with Britain that might reunite Irish Nationalist forces. Collins, however, refused to take military action against the protestors. The stand off lasted for ten weeks until Collins, under pressure from London, bombarded the courts with artillery. The IRA men surrendered after two days but the incident triggered fighting between anti-treaty and pro-treaty forces across Ireland. This conflict, known as the Irish Civil War, would last for ten months. The IRA launched a phase of guerrilla warfare against Free State troops but by late 1922 it was obvious that the anti-treaty movement would not win the conflict. In August Michael Collins himself died at the hands of anti-treaty assassins, when his car was ambushed and sprayed with gunfire in County Cork. In January 1923 the Free State executed more than 30 anti-treaty IRA; the capture or killing of IRA leaders like Todd Andrews, Frank Barrett and Liam Lynch all demoralised anti-treaty forces and led to a ceasefire on April 30th 1923.

partition of ireland

A painting of the opening of the Stormont parliament, 1921

Events across the border in Northern Ireland also ensured the permanency of partition. The Northern Ireland parliament was convened for the first time in June 1921 and opened by King George V, who delivered a stirring appeal for reconciliation between London, Belfast and Dublin. James Craig, a Belfast-born Protestant and member of the Orange Order, became the first prime minister of Northern Ireland. Craig’s Unionist-dominated government was confronted with many problems of its own. Uncertain financial allocations from Westminster meant the Northern Ireland government was always short of cash, while the collapse of industries in Belfast and Derry pushed Northern Ireland’s unemployment up to almost 20 per cent. The Six Counties also had to contend with rising sectarian violence: rioting in Belfast in 1920-22 killed more than 450 people, while more than 20,000 Catholics were forced from their homes. But events in southern Ireland caused even more concern for Craig and his government. In December 1922 Southern Ireland reformed as the Irish Free State, a move that prompted Belfast to invoke its right under the Anglo-Irish Treaty and withdraw from its joint obligations with Dublin:

“Most gracious Sovereign, your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Senators and Commons of Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled, having learnt of the passing of the Irish Free State Constitution Act (1922), being the Act of Parliament for the ratification of the Articles of Agreement for a Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, do by this humble Address, pray your Majesty that the powers of the Parliament and Government of the Irish Free State shall no longer extend to Northern Ireland.”

partition of ireland
1. The partition of Ireland was decided by Britain in December 1920, as a means for implementing Home Rule.
2. Home Rule was threatened by Loyalist paramilitaries and their threats to resist any Dublin-based government.
3. The partition created two self governing dominions: Northern (six counties) and Southern (26 counties) Ireland.
4. Partition was intended to be temporary and included provisions for reconciliation, joint government and reunification.
5. The signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the Irish Civil War both ensured the continuation of partition and the separate development of Northern Ireland and the future Republic of Ireland. In December 1922, when the south re-formed as the Irish Free State, the Northern Ireland government severed its remaining ties with Dublin.

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This page was written by Rebekah Poole and Jennifer Llewellyn. To reference this page, use the following citation:
R. Poole and J. Llewellyn,, “The partition of Ireland”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date],