North Belfast and the Partition of Ireland
23 December 2020 marked the centenary of the Government of Ireland Act. This legislation partitioned Ireland into two jurisdictions – a twenty-six county Southern Ireland and a six-county Northern Ireland. This blog examines the nature and purpose of the Act before exploring links with members of the North Belfast Heritage Cluster.
Partition carved out two new states reflecting the majority political/religious composition evident in both areas – the majority Protestant/Unionist north-east part of Ulster, and the Catholic/Nationalist ethos elsewhere on the island. The new states of Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland (later called the Irish Free State) were created after decades of parliamentary wrangling at Westminster and violent clashes following the Easter Rising of 1916. The exact location of the new border was provisional and subject to revision following a boundary review. The review’s recommendations were quashed in 1925 and the border remains unchanged to this day.
Partition was bitterly opposed south of the border. The Nationalist movement, dominated by Sinn Féin, eventually split in 1921 on the issue of sovereignty rather than partition. For many Republicans, dominion status within the British Empire – the most the British Government were prepared to concede in Treaty negotiations – represented insufficient freedom. For pro-Treaty Nationalists, dominion status conferred meaningful sovereignty and the opportunity to build an Irish nation-state. The Sinn Féin split created two new political parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, which remain the two dominant parties in the Republic of Ireland today.
Partition delivered northern Unionists with what they had feared most in a thirty-two-county context – Home Rule. A new parliament in Belfast governed six north-eastern counties (Down, Armagh, Fermanagh, Tyrone, Londonderry and Antrim). Northern Ireland was created with an inbuilt Unionist majority. The Unionist Party was elected in May 1921 and remained in power without interruption until the dissolution of the Northern Ireland Government in March 1972. The creation of parliaments in Dublin and Belfast allowed the British Government to extricate itself from day-to-day affairs on the island of Ireland. The Government of Ireland Act’s full title – ‘An Act to provide for the better Government of Ireland’ – hints at British realisation that direct rule from London had not delivered political stability in Ireland.
Partition occurred against a backdrop of considerable violence in Belfast. Episodic sectarian rioting had occurred in the city over several decades, but the scale and deadliness of the violence in 1920-22 was unprecedented. Working-class areas of the city, including parts of North Belfast, were badly scarred by conflict. In July 1920, 10,000 men and 1,000 women – Catholics and so-called ‘Rotten Prods’ (socialists) – were expelled by mobs from Belfast’s industrial workplaces. An estimated 450 people were killed and over 1,100 wounded in Belfast alone during the violence of 1920-22. By June 1922, violence in Belfast petered out but ‘bequeathed a legacy of bitterness and division that affected the psyche of both communities’ for decades to come.
Links between North Belfast Heritage Cluster members and partition can be identified across several areas. Lord Edward Carson, leader of the Unionist Party, was North Belfast’s MP from 1918 until his semi-retirement from active politics in 1921. Carson was given a state funeral and interred inside St Anne’s Cathedral in October 1935. Lady Carson and Lady Craig, wife of Northern Ireland’s first Prime Minister Sir James Craig, also played an active role in Unionist political life across the city. Both women were members of the Orange Order’s Ladies’ Branch and often delivered public speeches at high-profile events – unusual at the time even for women from aristocratic backgrounds.
Nationalists in Belfast were deeply unsettled at their minority status within the new state of Northern Ireland. The Catholic Church articulated some of their concerns. Dr Joseph MacRory, Bishop of Down and Connor, regularly delivered mass at St Patrick’s Church on Donegall Street. Bishop MacRory was a bitter opponent of partition and spoke frequently on the topic from the pulpit. On the eve of the Westminster election of December 1918, MacRory encouraged St Patrick’s parishioners to cast ballots ‘against candidates who stand for the Union, for partition, or for secularising the schools’.
During the first election to the Northern Ireland Parliament in May 1921, MacRory expressed his vehement opposition to the new state and partition during mass at St Patrick’s Church: ‘Who permitted 19 per cent of the population of Ireland to refuse to submit to a Dublin Parliament and now sought to compel 36 per cent of the six counties to submit to a Parliament in Belfast?’. The election campaign was fought in an atmosphere of feverish political tension and flashes of violence. The Donegal News reported that in the run-up to polling day ‘while a Sinn Fein collection was being made on Sunday outside St Patrick’s Catholic Church … revolver shots were fired’ in the direction of the crowd resulting in ‘Thomas Lynch (58) being wounded in the leg and taken to hospital’.
Oblique references to on-going tensions surrounding partition and the birth of Northern Ireland can be found elsewhere. At the 1922 Annual General Meeting of the North Belfast Working Men’s Club (NBWMC) David Fleck, Club President, referenced the strains placed on the club during the previous year. ‘Club members’, Fleck argued, ‘had every reason to feel extremely satisfied and thankful considering that trade had been considerably depressed during the year, and the city has been passing through strenuous times … one of the secrets of its success, he said had been because it was non-sectarian and every member seemed to be out to help the others’.
Belfast Quakers were disturbed at the violence and disarray in the city. The Frederick Street Meeting House released a statement in March 1920 appealing for peace:
We, the members of the Religious Society of Friends in Belfast, earnestly desire to express publicly our disapprobation and sorrow at the present state of bloodshed and dishonour in our city and to extend our heartfelt sympathy to all those who are bereaved or suffering in consequence, irrespective of party or creed.
Their appeal, unfortunately, largely fell on deaf ears. Belfast was soon enveloped by sectarian rioting and skirmishes between the IRA and the soon-to-be-dissolved Royal Irish Constabulary. Belfast Quakers continued their work for peace and fostering values of mutual tolerance in Northern Ireland during the later Troubles (1968-98).
The partition of Ireland, legislated one hundred years ago at Westminster, continues to play a significant role in political life north and south of the Irish border. Debates around partition, Irish reunification and border polls are still hotly contested in Northern Ireland. Partition was a compromise measure designed to address intractable political divisions on the island of Ireland. Although the Act formally divided Ireland into two jurisdictions, it contained clauses with ‘a view to the eventual establishment of a Parliament for the whole of Ireland’. This ambition quickly faded. Despite recent challenges, namely Brexit and Coronavirus, Dublin and Belfast increasingly work in the collaborative spirit envisaged in the 1920 Government of Ireland Act: ‘bringing about harmonious action between the parliaments and governments of Southern Ireland and Northern Ireland, and to the promotion of mutual intercourse and uniformity in relation to matters affecting the whole of Ireland’.
 Robert Lynch, ‘The people’s protectors? The Irish Republican Army and the “Belfast Pogrom” 1920-1922’ in Journal of British Studies, vol 47, no. 2 (2008), p. 375.
 Belfast News-Letter, 11 December 1920.
 Irish Independent, 10 December 1918.
 Irish Independent, 23 March 1921.
 The Donegal News, 14 May 1921.
 Belfast News-Letter, 1 April 1922.
 The Evening Echo, 9 March 1920.