So what exactly is this curious border that divides the Irish island for and why is it there at all? The Irish border really is the oddest thing in terms of international boundaries.You might say that it is atypical ; a deviant creation in many respects and on a world-scale something of a unique oddity or anomaly.
In terms of its function and geographical context it deviates from the usual orthodoxy and even the very function of other comparable boundaries throughout the world.Ireland is in reality , a tiny island on the very edge of Europe and in terms of the global context it has been split into two separate political entities and its boundaries follow no appreciable physical divisions on the landmass. The whole island is probably smaller than a ranch in Texas.It is certainly no bigger than many states on many continents. The fact that it is also divided is an oddity in terms of its entire economy and infrastructure.
Its real origin lies in the creation by the British Government of artificially constructing a border encompassing a unique separate northern state ,which included the maximum possible amount of space while also ensuring that it contained a very strong Protestant /Unionist voting population within its confines. In this context it is a bit like a wild-life reserve more than anything else.Its purpose was to chop out a specific pro-British “homeland” within Ireland so that its population would be deemed distinctive and different from all its other Irish neighbours.in some respects it was like constructing a specific ghetto in Ireland. To do this , many of those same Protestant/Unionists neighbours who already lived throughout Ireland but fell beyond the new state’s reach, would necessarily have to be also excluded and abandoned from the new state, having fallen beyond those new boundaries.It also happened that by the same token a minority population of Catholic/Nationalists became unwilling partners of the new state ,encompassed within this totally unique new disposition. In some cases this newly devised border literally cut through the middle of the land and homes on which and in which these varied socio-political people lived and worked. You might literally have a border running right through the middle of your home ,leaving you living in two different jurisdictions.You might breakfast in one state and bed down in another.
All of this happened as a result of the enactment of the Government of Ireland Act of 1920. It was somewhat unrealistic when originally conceived in that it envisaged the idea to split the island of Ireland into two separate political entities, each with its own unique parliament but both still firmly under the aegis of Westminster.The British government’s objective was to ensure that Northern Ireland would be as large as possible , with as great a population that would be a Protestant/Unionist majority and crucially, that it would be also economically viable. All of this essentially came as a result of previous British Unionist agitation over Home Rule and the very idea that Ireland might rule itself as a nation.
The background to all of this went back centuries to the first English involvement in Ireland, but in more relatively recent times the tensions were more immediately supplied by increasing militarism across the board.Progress of any kind was slow in that any bill had to go through parliament three times.This enabled Ulster unionists to develop their opposition so that by 1914 they had taken the law into their own hands and threatened the government with armed resistance.They smuggled in a substantial cache of arms from Germany in 1914 to this seditionary end, in the very year that war began with that country. The British army stationed in the Curragh had also rebelled against the state ,leaving the British government toothless to oppose Unionist wishes in Ireland.By contrast Irish Volunteers who also attempted to import arms were met by bloodshed and confrontation by those same troops.
There was much head-scratching in the preparation of this unique scheme. It didn’t simply happen overnight.Earlier in July 1914 at Buckingham Palace ,at conference, it was concluded that like our current Brexit,none of this would be anything other than problematic.Counties Fermanagh and especially Tyrone were seemingly a problem They both contained small nationalist majorities, for one thing.County Armagh had a slight unionist majority at the time. There was even talk of dividing counties to suit the agenda but this was deemed almost impossible to achieve because of reasons of local “county identity”.The Prime Minister Asquith said that they had spent an hour and a half of the morning discussing maps of the counties and population figures but always returned to the huge stumbling block that was the County of Tyrone , which he described as ” that most damnable creation of the perverted ingenuity of man”.Curiously both opposing negotiators ,Carson and Redmond both agreed that they “had to have the whole of Tyrone, or die”. On this they were on the same page .
It wasn’t until after the First World War ended in 1918 that they came back to these deliberations by which time Sinn Fein had formed Dail Eireann in Dublin in 1919 outside the jurisdiction of Britain.The British Prime Minister ,Lloyd George ,delegated Walter Long ,the former Irish Chief Secretary, to draft legislation for Ireland, even as the IRA began a military guerrilla war in Ireland against British interests. Britain was still intent on partitioning Ireland into two parcels and were discussuing whether or not the Northern part was to consist of the nine traditional counties or possibly something smaller with only six chopped out of ancient Ulster.The British government really wanted Ulster to remain as it was with it s nine counties intact, the logic being that it made more geographical logic and sense and would be preferable in the face of possible future unity.Ulster Unionist lobbied at a late stage, before the bill was presented to parliament and managed to force the issue and ensure that the new Northern Ireland consisted of only six , more politically manageable counties.They had very obvious reasons for wanting a construct such as this.They split away from their fellow Ulster Unionists in Donegal, Monaghan, and Cavan with the intention that their then current unionist parliamentary majorities would be made secure.Rather than handling a slender 9:7 ratio in relation to the Unionist/ Nationalist balance, their preference was for a 2:1 majority which they thought would be a money in the bank for a “permanent ” Unionist majority for all -time. It has to be said that the rest of Ireland was virtually ignoring the act itself and its outworkings so it was not really a done deal and far from secure.
It was a fact that Britain, from a position of Empirical power, had virtually all the political leverage ranged against a much less powerful contender. One of the other provisions of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, Article 5, had stipulated that the Irish Free State would be responsible for paying a share of Britain’s debts related to the war, but the new Free State had no way to pay it. Michael Collins had done the initial dealings much againt his will , seeing it as a poison chalice but did it at De Valera’s insistence ; his successor , William Cosgrove ,as Chairman of the provisional Irish Government cut a deal in which Ireland would be absolved from any payment of this debt and the borders that had been established in 1920 would remain unchanged.It is assumed that he did not want these facts known or published. Indeed they were not known publicly until many years later.
It has to be remembered that we are speaking of a time when there was a very different kind of Ireland and indeed a time when there was an actual ” British Empire”. It was a time when Ireland’s vital industries were situated in the northern part of the island , centred around heavy industry , ship-building and the booming linen-industry.All of that is now long-since gone , just as the very idea of “empire” dissappeared within fifty years.
Protestant Unionists to a man, were in favour of gerrymandering the border to suit themselves , anyway.In terms of the then Empire , a solid Protestant Ulster would be be a prop in Ireland to that Empire ,without which the whole Naval strength of England would be seen to be jeopardized. A Protestant and Loyal Ulster would be an invaluable jumping-off point for the British Navy and Army ,if it was found necessary to use them in case of serious trouble in Ireland or elsewhere. This was their justification for supporting the six county policy. They saw it as a duty to defend” Ulster “,, or the “homeland”,for that reason alone should it only amount to one single county in terms of the Empire.It should be said that none of those reasons mean much in today’s world.
For nationalists their desire was that the Commission should redraw the border according to local nationalist or unionist majorities at the District Electoral Division level. Since the 1920 local elections in Ireland had resulted in outright nationalist majorities in County Fermanagh, County Tyrone, the City of Derry and in many District Electoral Divisions of County Armagh and County Londonderry (all north and east of the “interim” border), this might well have left Northern Ireland unviable. Unionists were content to have no further negotiations , naturally enough and leave things alone.
The 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty gave the idea of a border a temporary but qualified recognition but instead of what Britain might have preferred, they were left on one hand with a Dominion of the Irish Free State and on the other a northern devolved government still under their rule.
This was all a great cause of much debate. Newry and the surrounding area was an example where three quarters of the population, of obvious nationalist preference, would have preferred to have transferred to the new Free State .It possessed trade and transport facilities ,especially in relation to the then booming linen industry.This , it was thought was a valuable asset as regards supply , exports and marketing In this case the wishes of the inhabitants were over-ruled by British and unionist economics and the fact of the geographic location of the place in relation to the movements of goods. It didn’t matter what the local inhabitants wished for because money was the driver for the British government and they were prepared to support unionism all the way in this.
While what was effectively another Home Rule Bill going through parliament , there were also preparations afoot to recruit the Ulster Special Constabulary(the B Specials) to assist the police and the British Army under the new northern admiistration.
The final bill was drafted in the typically British ambiguity which we have all since become inured to .Some across the world accept that this kind of ambiguity was the stock-in-trade of British diplomacy and at best is perfect waffle. A perfect case in point was :
“a Commission…shall determine in accordance with the wishes of the inhabitants, so
far as may be compatible with economic and geographic conditions, the boundaries
between Northern Ireland and the rest of Ireland, and for the purposes of the Government
of Ireland Act, 1920, and of this instrument, the boundary of Northern Ireland
shall be such as may be determined by such Commission (article 12, Articles of
Agreement for a Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland as signed in London, 6
Previously there had been no mention of ” economic and geographic conditions ” but the final version made certain that these ideas outweighed any dreams and wishes those nationalist inhabitants might have .Their wishes were never even considered, in effect.
None of the details of any of this was released until 1969, when you can imagine , it may have been largely lost in the mix of the Civil Rights pandemonium on the streets that had swallowed both the world media and the various governments by the time of its release..
It appears that the Free State was effectiv
ely paid -off to turn a blind eye and bury the thought of any lack or lapse of negotiating skills, or political embarrassment, by its players , at the time .There was an urgency to push things through with haste and that these decrees should take immediate legal effect.The Free State engaged in hastily arranged talks with the British and Northern Ireland governments which culminated in a Boundary Agreement signed on 3 December 1925, containing three main elements :
#1.the Boundary Commission’s report would be suppressed and the existing Border would remain unchanged.
#2. A financial settlement would relieve the Free State from liabilities
due under article 5, the other dormant clause of the Treaty.
#3. the Council of Ireland was consigned to history, with its powers transferred
It has to be said that neither Carson , the Unionist,nor the Nationalist John Redmond thought it was a good idea to divide Ireland with such a border. Redmond thought the very idea of Ireland as a “Two-Nation” state was a blasphemy. Carson , for his part would really have preferred a nine county “Ulster”, if it came down to the wire, but Unionist militancy outside of government was growing and the threat of violence was growing .
When Collins and Craig were attempting to achieve some degree of agreement in relation to the shape of a border, they hoped to do so without too much outside interference.In the end the agreement was signed in March 1922 ,but by then their relationship had soured and that specific agreement was abandoned. Collins had every intention of returning to it but that didn’t happen.Within four months Collins had been killed , falling victim to splits within the republican movement and possibly as a result of De Valera pushing him to get involved in those negotiations in the first place.Collins saw De Valera as a more able negotiator and reluctantly accepted the challenge, leaving De Valera untarnished by any of its compromises. His death led to the Irish Civil War between opposing factions and claimed many more victims than did the Irish War of Independence.
When the border across Ireland was finally established, many nationalists believed that the Free State had, in effect, abandoned them to minority status in a new state that might last forever and many unionists also knew this to be a truth ,but were content with their lot. Those abandoned Unionist/ Protestants outside , were assimilated into the new Free State by the same token. Unionism in the north seemed to have no regrets at the break up of Ireland. They seemed to leave that specific union without much regret. After all wasn’t their battlecry “We are The People”. They had achieved their own little redoubt. In that respect nationalists were never going to count in this new northern state which would be claimed to be “a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people”. .From the British government’s viewpoint there was always the hope that Ireland might once-again be re-united some time in the future….their preference seems to have always been for a United Ireland and Britain together.