If you think your job is bad... British soldiers patrolling the border in County Fermanagh in 1976. Photo by Alex Bowie/Getty Images

December 23, 2020   6 mins

Ever since Britain voted to leave the European Union, the Irish border has threatened to derail the Brexit negotiations. And though it may now have been pushed off the front pages by French fishermen, the issue has not been resolved. It has presented a stumbling block to already complex negotiations, and drawn from the British government a notorious declaration that it was ready to break international law to preserve its sovereign integrity; its re-emergence even represents a potentially fatal blow to the Northern Ireland peace process.

This should have come as no surprise: the border was born amid civil war, and for nearly 80 years was repeatedly a site of conflict. Its steady disappearance, Cheshire-cat-like, since the Good Friday agreement was above all a product of the common EU membership of Britain and the Irish Republic. Its centenary should provoke reflection on the manner of its creation.

A hundred years ago, two days before Christmas 1920, the Government of Ireland Act passed into law, splitting the country into two jurisdictions — the North and the South. This “partition act” had been a long time coming; the fourth home rule bill, as it was known, had been introduced a year earlier, and had ambled through Parliament while Ireland slid ever deeper into the grim guerrilla insurgency in which the IRA battled the British Army and armed police, the “Black and Tans”. The summer of 1920 had witnessed the “Belfast pogrom” — the deadliest disorders in the city’s history — as Protestant shipworkers drove Catholic dockers from the city. November saw heavy blows inflicted on British forces in Dublin and Cork. In the week after that Christmas, martial law was declared in southwest Ireland in the counties of Cork, Kerry, Limerick and Tipperary.

For over 30 years before the Government of Ireland bill’s introduction, indeed, Britain had been haunted, sometimes convulsed by the “Irish Question” — the demand for Irish self-government. Three “home rule” bills had generated an extended political crisis. The first, launched in 1886 by the great Victorian statesman William Ewart Gladstone, was an attempt to devolve sufficient power to an Irish assembly to satisfy the demand for self-government, without breaking up the United Kingdom. It never got through the House of Commons; instead it broke Gladstone’s own Liberal Party, as Liberal unionists led by Joseph Chamberlain crossed to the Conservatives. Gladstone returned briefly to power in 1892, with a second home rule bill, which fell in the House of Lords; and the Lords stood for the next 20 years as the bulwark against devolution, until their veto was removed in 1911.

The Liberal government of Herbert Henry Asquith — the last Liberal to command a parliamentary majority — brought in a third home rule bill, and the effect was explosive. Unionists in Ireland — above all in Ulster — mobilised, raised an armed militia, and threatened a unilateral declaration of independence. This defiance of the law was supported by Unionists in Britain, who demanded a referendum and threatened to prevent the government from using the army to enforce home rule. In this constitutional crisis, amidst fears of actual civil war, the Liberals began to tinker with the home rule proposal to head off the Ulster resistance.

Like Gladstone’s two bills, Asquith’s assumed that Ireland would be a single political unit. But ever since Chamberlain’s rebellion, there had been a demand for some kind of special treatment for the north-east of Ireland. Most Unionists used this only as a tool to scupper the entire devolution project, but others saw that if home rule became inevitable, at least Ulster could be saved from it. In 1912, the phenomenon of “Ulsteria” took flight, unforgettably voiced in Rudyard Kipling’s angry poem “Ulster 1912”, pulsating with hostility to Irish Catholicism. “What answer from the North?”, Kipling asked, and the reply was ominous — “if England drive us forth, we shall not fall alone”.

Irish nationalists insisted that this threat of armed resistance was a bluff, and the loyalist sense of Britishness was a delusion. Liberals had so far accepted their argument that Ireland was a single nation, but by 1912 some Liberal ministers began to think there might be merit in the great historian Lord Macaulay’s view, expressed during the first campaign to repeal the Union in 1833, that its leaders could not “find a reason for having a parliament at Dublin which will not be just as good for having another parliament at Londonderry”.

Belfast had become vastly more significant since then, and claimed that its economic strength would be destroyed by home rule. But ministers hesitated to act. It was a Liberal backbencher, Thomas Agar-Robartes, who put down an amendment calling for the exclusion of four north-eastern counties (Antrim, Armagh, Down and Londonderry). His reasoning was that the two nations in Ireland were entirely “different in sentiment, character, history and religion”. The government’s Irish nationalist allies naturally denounced the idea of two nations as “revolting and hateful”, “something like sacrilege”. Asquith stuck by them in 1912, but over the next couple of years and as the confrontation over home rule escalated, he shifted position. By early 1914, when the “Curragh mutiny” suggested that the army was on Ulster’s side, he was prepared to offer exclusion for six years on the basis of a county-by-county vote.

When the Great War broke out, it looked certain that a northern area would be excluded when the Home Rule Act — passed in September 1914 but put on ice until the end of the war — was eventually resuscitated. It seemed likely, too, that any exclusion would effectively be permanent. This became clear in 1916, after the Irish rebellion, when Lloyd George (soon to become prime minister) tried to find another path to settlement. He immediately offered exclusion of six counties, with no time limit. And whereas Asquith had deliberately avoided talk of “partition” — preferring “exclusion” — Lloyd George frankly said that exclusion “was partition”. His project was scuppered by Unionists in the Cabinet, now a Liberal-Conservative coalition, but every subsequent attempt to reconfigure home rule would follow his model.

Partition of some kind now seemed unavoidable, but the line of division remained negotiable. At the war’s end, the 1914 act was supposed to be implemented — a prospect which did not enthuse Lloyd George’s government. The political context changed dramatically in the 1918 election, the first since 1910, with the Irish parliamentary party practically wiped out by a new separatist movement, Sinn Féin, which refused to attend Westminster, and set about building a republican counter-state. The appeal of home rule was waning; but the 1914 Act clearly had to be adapted, and yet another home rule bill was drawn up. The drafting committee found it easy to agree that there should be two Irish parliaments, one in Dublin and one in Belfast, but hard to decide whether the northern area should consist of the six counties or the nine counties of the historic province of Ulster.

The arguments for the latter were that the province “by its size was more suited to possess a parliament”, and also that its larger Catholic population would make partition look less blatantly sectarian — and also, some ministers thought, make eventual unification more likely. This was still being argued when the bill was about to go to parliament. The main counter-argument was that Ulster Unionists — their title notwithstanding — had already decided in 1916 to ditch three Ulster counties, precisely because their Catholic majorities would make the Unionist majority in the whole province worryingly slender.

The decision was painful, and grassroots sentiment held to the “Ulster Covenant”. But Sir Edward Carson, their leader, insisted that the nine-county area would be ungovernable. As to the frontier, he wanted a “clean cut”, using the existing county boundaries, even though some Unionists argued that if the border was adjusted to exclude as many Catholics as possible, the northern state would emerge stronger (if smaller). This desire for “homogeneity” would call for the use of plebiscites to determine the partition line — something familiar from a number of European cases under the Versailles settlement, and seemingly accepted by the government.

The Government of Ireland Act reached the statute book a full two years after the end of the war. The time lag might have been blamed on the most deadly virus of modern times, Spanish Flu, which swept the world in 1918-9, though there is little sign that the pandemic was accorded the disruptive power of its current successor. Political causes were more significant: deep hostility to home rule persisted among Conservatives, and Liberals were no longer optimistic about its viability.

But the delay carried a cost: by the time it was enacted, there was almost no chance that the “Southern Parliament” would ever meet. The Northern state apparatus, on the other hand, was already being put in place; its own security force, the Ulster Special Constabulary, was established several weeks before the formal creation of Northern Ireland. The elections to the two Irish parliaments in May 1921 would confirm Sinn FĂ©in and the Ulster Unionists as the only significant political groupings. A final settlement would require an accommodation between between Sinn FĂ©in and the British government.

The Northern state apparatus had effectively been established before the Act was passed, but the idea of adjusting the border to make Northern Ireland more “homogeneous” would persist for five years afterwards. A boundary commission, set up after the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed in December 1921, eventually recommended some limited territorial transfers. But no plebiscite was ever held, and the Irish government in Dublin rejected the settlement. The county line, with all its illogicalities and absurdities, became an international frontier, yet no passports were required to cross it; common citizenship across Britain and Ireland was maintained even before both countries joined the European community.

The border created many anomalous communal effects, but only in the 1970s, when the British Army began to fortify it in an attempt to stop IRA movement, did it really begin to fit the international model. Dismantling that physical structure has been one of the great achievements of the peace process, and avoiding its return will call for imaginative thinking of a kind that was in sadly short supply a century ago.

Charles Townshend is a British historian and Professor of International History at Keele University.