In the late 19th century, Ulster became the most prosperous province in Ireland, with the only large-scale industrialization in the country. Its linen industry thrived and its products were imported throughout the world. In the latter part of the century, Belfast overtook Dublin as the largest city on the island. Belfast was particularly famous for its huge dockyards owned by Harland and Wolff1. After the famine there was a preponderance of Protestants in Ulster, with a much larger number of skilled workers than the Catholics.
Ulster Unionism was and still is composed of two main elements; the protection and preservation of their religion and of the Ulster Economy. When the Home Rule party began introducing reforms such as the Land Act of 1870 Ulster Unionists began to feel threatened. They saw these reforms as the thin edge of a wedge which they feared might damage their interests2. Although there were vast gulfs of difference between them, they were able to unite remarkably well under the common banner of Unionism, a resolve which was strengthened with the start of land agitation in the North. They saw this as a direct attack on all they strove to protect3.
In the 1885 elections, the Home Rule party won 17 of the 33 Ulster seats, a development which shocked many Unionism and Gladstone introduced his first Home Rule Bill. While Gladstone prepared an Irish policy, Lord Randolph Churchill prepared for his own visit to Ireland. In February, he wrote, “I decided some time ago that if Gladstone went for Home Rule, the Orange card would be the one to play”4. Ninety-three of Gladstone’s own Liberal MPs voted against the bill, and it was defeated.
Disturbed at how close to success the Home Rulers had come, there was an influx of new members into the orange order. The Ulster loyalist anti repeal union was also established. They had a conditional loyalty to the crown which means they supported it as long as it did not interfere with their interests5. In 1886 the Belfast anti-Unionist riots damaged the Home Rule cause in the North. Also in that year Queens University became an independent University instead of affiliating to the other British Universities. In this way Unionists first began showing their feelings of self-reliance and autonomy6.
The struggle for home rule continued, and Gladstone introduced a second bill in 1893, only to see it defeated in the House of Lords. The Parliament Act of 1911 reduced the peers’ veto on legislation to a delaying power. At this time there were three strands of Unionism – the Ulster Unionism of Craig and the Unionist Council; the Irish Unionists with Edward Carson; and the British Unionism and Bonar Law.
The Irish position changed when Carson, M.P., for Trinity College, was invited to lead Ulster Unionists in February, 19107. A meeting was held at “Craigavon”, Craig’s home, to receive the new leader on 23 September, 1911; 100,000 people attended. The meeting marked the beginning of the campaign against the Home Rule Bill of Asquith which was to go before Parliament in 1912. This bill was rejected by the Lords, but became law in 19148.
On the 28th September (Ulster Day) the Solemn League and covenant was signed by Unionist men only. This showed their opposition to Home Rule. Some to show their intent signed it with their own blood. In January 1913 the Ulster Volunteer force (UVF) was founded9. Men paraded and drilled with wooden weapons at first. At the end of April 35,000 rifles and 5 million rounds of ammunition were landed at Larne by the Unionists. No moves were made by the army or police to thwart them and this caused much anger amongst Nationalists.
Herbert Asquith’s policy of ‘wait and see’ was not doing much for the situation and he failed to realise the intent of the Unionists. It was only in late 1913 that he began to take Ulster opposition seriously. The Curragh mutiny of July 1914 was a blow that showed his complete lack of power over Ulster10. The prospect of Ireland being partitioned began to be considered as a serious option around this time when Lloyd George suggested the temporary exclusion of parts of Ulster. Bonar Law stated that this should be permanent and Carson also refused to compromise. In July 1914 King George, recognising the looming crisis called the Buckingham Palace conference in an effort to make some progress. This conference was attended by Asquith, Lloyd George, Bonar Law, Carson, Craig, Redmond and Dillon11.
At the conference Carson immediately stated that he would not consider anything other than partition. The question was the area for exclusion and the time for which it would be excluded. Redmond suggested that each county could be given a plebiscite whether to opt in or out of Home Rule12. Carson disagreed and said Ulster should vote as a block. This was unacceptable to Redmond. Neither side would concede the counties of Tyrone and Fermanagh. It was here that the conference broke down.
The original intention of the Unionists was to defeat Home Rule for all Ireland. However, as time went on the idea of partition began to appeal more and more to them13. They began to see the safety from interference it would give them. What had began as a device for killing home rule had become an end in itself. The implementation of Home Rule had to be delayed for the duration of the Great War. A coalition government was set up and both Carson and Redmond were invited to become members. Redmond turned it down. This was to place him at a disadvantage that was to have severe consequences14.
Carson accepted his place immediately. Urged by Redmond many nationalists signed up to fight in the war. The Unionists also fought. Both sides suffered terrible casualties notably at the Battle of the Somme. The war also brought with it the chance the Irish republicans had been waiting years for. The old saying ‘England’s difficulty is Irelands opportunity’ rang clear as they started a Rising on Easter Monday 191615. As William Butler Yates later wrote about the event ‘alls changed, changed utterly’. All had changed.
After the executions that followed 1916, the Irish people would no longer be happy with Home Rule. Overnight Redmond and the Home Rulers lost much of their power. Lloyd George organised talks in September 191816. He talked to Carson and Redmond separately. Carson was told he could have immediate permanent Home Rule for the six counties whilst he convinced Redmond it would only be a temporary measure until the war ended. The Irish Convention was an assembly called by Lloyd George which sat in Ireland from July 1917 until March 1918 to address the Irish Question. However it did not have much success in resolving the problems.
By the end of the war John Redmond was dead, the Irish party was a spent force and Sinn Fein had come to power. Dail Eireann had been set up by the republicans as their own parliament to ignore Westminster. The British Government would have let Home Rule slide was it not for the fact it was still on the books. Walter Long was a British Unionist politician17. From October 1919 onwards, he was largely concerned with Irish affairs, serving as the chair of the cabinet’s Long Committee on Ireland. The purpose of this committee was to deal with the Irish question. He would only consider a settlement which was in the Unionists favor. In this capacity he saw them first reject the county by county option. Instead it was proposed that there would be two parliaments one in Dublin and one in Belfast. Both were directly answerable to Westminster. This move would give Unionists control over their own destiny18.
The British government’s official stance was in favor of ultimate unification. The Unionists were first offered nine counties. This was turned down as they feared nine was too big for them to retain full control over. Instead they demanded six counties. The government of Ireland bill was introduced on the 26th of February 192019. It caused much hostility in the border counties and rioting in Belfast between June and September. On 3rd May it came into effect, creating separate home rule governments for Southern Ireland and Northern Ireland, the latter he endowed with wider powers than its southern counterpart. Although in southern and western Ireland, this was soon superseded by the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which gave the new Irish Free State a much greater share of independence. The king opened the new parliament in Ulster in May 192120.
In conclusion, this essay has examined the reasons behind the partition question in Ireland and had accessed the causes of this divide in detail. It is ironic that the Unionist people fought so hard and so long against Home Rule just to later adopt it for themselves.
1J. J. Lee, Ireland 1912-1985, pages 9-11
2 Alvin Jackson, Ireland 1798-1998, pages 145
3 D. G. Boyce, Nineteenth Century Ireland, pages 200-201
4 D. G. Boyce, Nineteenth Century Ireland, pages 194-195
5 Pauric Travers, Settlements and Divisions, 116-117
6 Paul Bew, Ideology and the Irish Question: Ulster Unionism and Irish Nationalism 1912-1916 pages 8-9
7 D. G. Boyce, Nineteenth Century Ireland, pages 186-187
8 Michael Laffan, The Partition of Ireland, 1911-1925
9 Pauric Travers, Settlements and Divisions, pages 126-128
10 Alvin Jackson, Ireland 1798-1998, pages 151-153
11 J. J. Lee, Ireland 1912-1985, pages 17-20
12 D. G. Boyce, Nineteenth Century Ireland, pages 200
13 Alvin Jackson, Ireland 1798-1998, pages 156
14 J. J. Lee, Ireland 1912-1985, pages 13-15
15 Pauric Travers, Settlements and Divisions, pages 139-140
16 Pauric Travers, Settlements and Divisions, pages 145
17 J. J. Lee, Ireland 1912-1985, pages 19-20
18 Paul Bew, Ideology and the Irish Question: Ulster Unionism and Irish Nationalism 1912-1916 pages 17
19 Paul Bew, Ideology and the Irish Question: Ulster Unionism and Irish Nationalism 1912-1916 pages 118-119
20 J. J. Lee, Ireland 1912-1985, pages 24-25