Ending the revolutions: Easter rising and the partition of Ireland

Apr 20, 2021

For more than 90 years members of the Irish National Association, their friends and supporters, have assembled on Easter Sunday in front of the 1798 Monument at Waverley Cemetery to commemorate the men and women of the 1916 Easter rising in Dublin. This is an abridged version of the address given at that event on Easter Sunday 2021 by Dr Jeff Kildea, honorary professor in Irish Studies at the University of NSW. 

Today we gather on the 105th anniversary of the Easter rising, that singular event in Irish history which marked the beginning of the Irish revolution. A revolution that for the next six years was sustained by the will of the majority of the people of Ireland, leading to the establishment in 1922 of an Irish state no longer governed from Westminster.

But it is an unfinished revolution. Those who took part in it envisaged an Irish state that would encompass the whole of Ireland and not just the 26 counties that today comprise the Republic of Ireland. While we gather here today to remember the men and women who began the Irish revolution by taking part in the rising, in a month’s time we will be reminded of another revolution that occurred in Ireland. Not a revolution begun and sustained by the people of Ireland, but one imposed from Westminster by legislative fiat.

For, on 3 May 1921 Ireland was divided into two separate states: Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland, each with its own parliament with the power to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of the portion of Ireland within its jurisdiction, subject to certain matters reserved to Westminster.

Southern Ireland was stillborn, with the elections for its parliament having the unintended consequence, at least as far as Westminster was concerned, of providing elected representatives not to that parliament but to the second Dáil Éireann. Northern Ireland was a different story. Its parliament did meet as was intended, and the state thereby created, if not the original parliament, continues to exist today.

During the celebrations in 2016 to mark the centenary of the Easter rising, there were debates in Ireland as to the morality of the engagement of the men and women of 1916 in armed struggle. I was bemused at the time, and still am, at the handwringing of many of those engaged in those debates. Do the Americans have such qualms when celebrating significant anniversaries of their revolution; do the French?

For more than 40 years the Irish had used constitutional means to achieve self-government, sending a majority of home rule members to Westminster, only to be rebuffed time and again. Of course, people will resort to violence if their just demands go unanswered long enough. In such a case, moral culpability surely lies with those who persist in denying them justice, not with those who ask for it.

And so, it is right and fitting, that we gather here today, as members of the Irish family abroad, to honour the men and women of 1916 whose sacrifice began the revolution by which the people of Ireland gained their freedom after centuries of foreign rule.

But it is a revolution not yet complete, and the forthcoming centenary of that other revolution, the one imposed by Westminster and which resulted in the partition of Ireland, provides an opportunity for us to contemplate how the popular revolution started in 1916 might be brought to its fulfilment.

The first point to note is that the Government of Ireland Act 1920, which brought about the establishment of Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland envisaged partition as a temporary measure. A stop-gap solution to what was then perceived to be an intractable political problem: the reconciliation of the aspiration of the majority of the Irish people to be governed by a parliament in Dublin and the desire of the minority, mostly concentrated in the north-east, that they are not so governed.

Integral to the legislation was a third body, the Council of Ireland, set up with a view, and I quote, “to the eventual establishment of a Parliament for the whole of Ireland”. In other words, the ultimate goal of the 1920 Act was a united Ireland.

So, partition was never intended as an end in itself. Rather, its purpose was to provide a breathing space to enable the British government to extract itself from Ireland while providing the Irish people, north and south, with a pathway to a unified self-governing Ireland. No matter that from the point of view of the majority of the Irish people, who by then had moved on from home rule to a desire for independence, it was an unwanted solution imposed on them without their consent.

But in the world of realpolitik, as seen from Westminster, its policy of partition was a success. With a bit of a tweak, thanks to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921, which granted Southern Ireland dominion status and a new name, the Irish Free State, Britain was able to withdraw from Ireland in 1922.

Like so much of English rule in Ireland, partition was an expedient imposed on the Irish people to serve English interests 100 years ago, an expedient that was necessary because of the consequence of another English policy imposed on the Irish people as an expedient to serve English interests 300 years before that, namely, the plantation of Ulster.

From Britain’s point of view, the success of its Irish policy can be gauged by the fact that for more than 45 years after 1921 successive British governments hardly needed to think about Ireland, compared to the 45 years before during which Ireland was a running sore that dominated and often shaped British politics.

But by 1968 the contradictions inherent in Britain’s policy had accumulated to the extent that they burst forth like a flooded river breaking through a dam, plunging Northern Ireland into a civil war that demanded not only the attention of the government in Belfast but of those in London and Dublin as well.

In trying to end that civil war there were many missteps along the way that set back or failed to produce a resolution: internment without trial, Bloody Sunday, Sunningdale, the Anglo-Irish agreement. But eventually, after an excruciatingly protracted negotiation during the 1990s, the Good Friday agreement was signed in Belfast in 1998, ending the civil war in the north.

Twenty-three years on, the peace has held but the communal divisions remain. Nevertheless, the Good Friday agreement set up a convoluted three-dimensional framework that has enabled power sharing between communities. The sheer complexity of these arrangements, compared to the imposed set-and-forget solution of 1921, illustrates well the difficulty of achieving a solution on which all stakeholders can agree and which will endure.

And so, as we pass the 100th anniversary of the temporary solution of partition and look forward to the permanent solution of an all-Ireland political entity, it will be imperative to learn from the mistakes of the past. An imposed solution based on expediency, as in 1921, rather than a negotiated agreement respecting the aspirations of individuals and collectives, as in 1998, will fail to achieve a lasting result.

Under the Good Friday Agreement, the reunification of Ireland can only occur with the consent of the people of Northern Ireland and of the Republic of Ireland. But it would be a mistake to see the referendums, by which those consents are to be manifested, as an end in themselves. If winning 50 per cent plus one is seen as the goal then a satisfactory conclusion to the revolution begun in 1916 will continue to evade us.

Policymakers will need to think outside the square. A united Ireland does not need to be a single unitary state. There are many models of shared sovereignty to choose from. Our own federal structure is one. Switzerland is another. Nor does such a constitutional arrangement need to be tied to the current divide established 100 years ago between the 6 counties of the north and the 26 counties of the south. The possibilities are limitless.

However, it will not be easy. If it were, a solution would already have been found and implemented. There are practical and financial issues to be addressed. And even as the experts devise solutions to these practical problems, bumps along the way will threaten to derail the process.

Brexit, which some commentators have seen as a stimulus to reunification, might turn out to be one of those bumps. In the past few weeks, we have seen unionists and loyalists uniting around opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol, designed to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. They are blaming Ireland and the EU for their pain, seeing it is as a punishment imposed on them, rather than as a consequence of Brexit itself, thus threatening to resurrect the sort of them vs us mentality that has sustained partition for 100 years.

As we gather here this Easter Sunday, a day that proclaims hope for humanity, let us look forward to that Easter Sunday in the not-too-distant future when a speaker will stand here on this spot and declare to the assembled gathering that the revolution that the gallant men and women of 1916 began has as at last come to a successful conclusion and that partition did indeed turn out to be temporary. Whether that be in five years, ten years or longer, our hope here and now is that that day will come.

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