A new documentary,  Partition, 1921, tells the story of how Ireland came to be to be partitioned from the perspective of the British and unionist politicians who divided Ireland. The memory of partition, as Fearghal McGarry of Queen's University Belfast explains, has continued to trouble Ireland over the past century.

In December last year the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis, Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, DUP First Minister Arlene Foster, and Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill participated in an event hosted by Queen’s University Belfast to mark the centenary of the Government of Ireland Act which partitioned Ireland by setting up Home Rule parliaments in Dublin and Belfast.

While Simon Coveney used the word "partition", Brnadon Lewis and Arlene Foster did not

Viewers could be excused for assuming the speakers were recalling different events. For Lewis, the centenary provided an occasion to celebrate the success of UK devolution and Northern Irish prosperity. The First Minister saw the Government of Ireland act as recognising that 'Ireland was one island with two nations’, whilst its centenary demonstrated that ‘belief in the Union was the settled will of Northern Ireland’.

For Coveney, partition – a word not mentioned by the preceding speakers – represented the sundering of relationships for minorities on both sides of the border, and a missed opportunity to resolve political differences on the island. While acknowledging unionist pride in Northern Ireland’s existence and achievements, Coveney described partition as a ‘a story of disappointment, and loss, and tragedy’ for northern nationalists.

Viewing Northern Ireland as a product of ‘colonialism, partition, and political division’, the Deputy First Minister did not see the creation of an ‘exclusionary Orange state’ that made ‘discrimination and state repression the lived experience for successive generations’ of nationalists as an occasion for celebration.

Fraught centenary

Marking the centenary of partition was always likely to be fraught. Doing so in the wake of the tensions stoked by Brexit, the return of border disputes over customs posts, and growing uncertainty over the future of Northern Ireland made it no less so.

Despite efforts to mark this difficult history in an inclusive way – such as the UK government’s establishment of a Centenary Forum and Historical Advisory Penal as part of its Northern Ireland centenary project – the commemorations have gone much as would be expected. Both nationalist parties boycotted the Centenary Forum, while Sinn Féin prevented the erection of a centenary stone at Stormont.

Stormont, where Sinn Féin prevented the erection of a stone marking the centenary

The slick website marketing the centenary project offers grounds for nationalist scepticism. Although its aspirational ‘Our Story in the Making: NI Beyond 100’ campaign aims to mark the anniversary in a ‘spirit of inclusivity’ and ‘mutual respect’ for ‘all perspectives’, it includes no reference to partition or any acknowledgment of its divisive impact and legacy. The campaign was soon mired in controversy following its appropriation of an image of Seamus Heaney to brand the initiative.

Usable history

Unionist commemoration of the establishment of Northern Ireland – an event accompanied by pervasive sectarian violence – was never easy, but remembering partition was infinitely more difficult. Instead, the pre-war unionist struggle against Home Rule, epitomised by the iconic Ulster Covenant, offered a more usable history than the more pragmatic calculations that saw unionists in six Ulster counties prioritise their interests above those of their brethren in the rest of the province and island.

Like their southern counterparts, northern unionists came to identify their state with a mythologised blood sacrifice in 1916, rather than the less heroic violence that led to its actual formation. Rooted in Orange rituals, remembrance of the Somme conflated Northern Irish citizenship with loyalty to Britain and Ulster's Protestant heritage, erasing the awkward presence of the territory’s large Catholic minority.

A paiting of the 36th (Ulster) Division advancing under fire towards German front line by James Prinsep Beadle. Source: The Print Collector via Getty Images

Commemoration of the First World War rather than the events marking the birth of Northern Ireland would provide the focus of the new state’s foundational rituals.

Rival collective memories of the creation of Northern Ireland emerged: a unionist narrative of a state under siege that had preserved Ulster for Britain and Empire, and a nationalist communal memory centred on the sectarian violence recalled as the ‘Belfast Pogrom’.

On both sides of the border, violence complicated official remembrance of state formation. Atrocities such as the killing by policemen of members of the McMahon family in north Belfast on 24 March 1922 – and the massacre of Protestants in Bandon Valley (26-28 April) and Altnaveigh (17 June) by republicans – could not easily be reconciled with the narratives of sacrifice promoted by both regimes.

Following the quashing of the Boundary Commission in 1925, which left intact the Irish border, neither state attempted to address the flawed partition settlement for almost half a century.

Lorry being searched at the border
A lorry being searched at the border in the 1930s. Photo: George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

Although the existence of the border was opportunistically raised by nationalists and unionists during elections on both sides of the border over the next century, partition itself – as Robert Lynch has observed – was rarely memorialised.

Although it facilitated the establishment of Northern Ireland, there was little appetite to commemorate a border that cut across unionist and Protestant communities and institutions, including the Orange Order and the Protestant Churches, as indiscriminately as Catholic and nationalist ones.

Presented by Michael Portillo, Partition, 1921 explores the background to partition a century on from King George V’s visit to Belfast 7 to open the Northern Irish parliament. Although the division of Ireland is often presented as the inevitable outcome of the irreconcilable demands of nationalists and unionists, Partition, 1921 explores a more calculated story of political intrigue.

We need your consent to load this comcast-player contentWe use comcast-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

The documentary traces how the line drawn across the island reflected the close relationship between Irish unionists and a powerful Westminster establishment, and Britain’s need to preserve its Empire against the challenges arising from a new era of self-determination.

You can watch Partition, 1921 on the RTE Player. Professor Fearghal McGarry was a consultant on the documentary.