Queen’s University Lead Multidisciplinary Effort To Examine The Centenary of Irish Partition

Peter Donnelly, Editor

Queen’s University, Belfast/BBC Northern Ireland

Queen’s University, Belfast recently revealed their plans for examining the multi-faceted impact of the partition of Ireland one hundred years on. The series of talks, named ‘The Partition of Ireland: Causes and Consequenceswill feature prominent academics from and associated with the University.

The first in a series of weekly talks and online engagements will be available to view on a dedicated Queen’s University page and BBC Northern Ireland’s ‘QUB Talks 100’ website on Monday, 26th April.


The University has partnered with BBC Northern Ireland to produce publicly accessible content by academics on the various aspects of partition and the resultant creation of the Northern and Southern Irish states, as outlined in the Government of Ireland Act 1920.

The University’s Pro Vice-Chancellor for Internationalisation and Engagement, Professor Richard English, who is leading the programme of events, recognises that there will be little public or academic consensus on the precise nature and effect of partition, however, he said he is hopeful that the collective support and input from the UK and Irish Governments will allow all narratives to be discussed and analysed.

Professor English said: “The support of the Irish and UK Governments, and of the British and Royal Irish Academies, reflects the collaborative approach adopted here to the understanding of partition’s causes and consequences.”

Esteemed academics who will participate in this joint endeavour will include Mary Daly, Alvin Jackson, Jennifer Todd, Marianne Elliott, Diarmaid Ferriter, Roy Foster, Brendan O’Leary, Fearghal McGarry, Jane Ohlmeyer, Graham Walker, Margaret O’Callaghan, Henry Patterson and Diane Urquhart.

The University has said that the first instalment of the series will feature Lord Bew, Emeritus Professor of Irish Politics at Queen’s, discussing the events of the previous decade which galvanised the move toward partition, with the Home Rule Crisis, signing of the Ulster Covenant and Solemn League 1912 and the Easter Rising in 1916.


Partition Marred By Secterian Conflict in Ulster

June 2021 will mark one hundred years since King George V opened the first Northern Ireland Parliament in Belfast. Partition took place against the backdrop of a bitter conflict in the South of Ireland between Republican and British Crown Forces, with its effects spilling into secterian communal conflict in the six counties that would become Northern Ireland.

In Belfast alone, between July 1920 and the Summer of 1922, almost 500 people were killed. According to one source, involved in the fighting, the streets of Belfast resembled “a mass of brain matter and blood.”

The sizeable Catholic minority in the City regarded the violence of the early 1920’s as something akin to the pogroms against the Jewish people in Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Innocent civilians, from both sides of Belfast’s increasingly polarised communities lost their lives, alongside members of the Police and Army.

One of the most notorious killings in Belfast during that period was the March 1922 murders of six members of the McMahon family and Edward McKinney in North Belfast.

District Inspector John Nixon, a senior member of the Belfast Police and native of County Cavan, was widely believed to have led a gang of rogue secterian police or Special Constabulary men to the home of publican Owen McMahon on that bloody March night.

The murders attracted worldwide condemnation in the press. The Daily Express, commented on the murders, “No pleas of warfare or the like will serve. This is not warfare, which, barbarous as it is, has the virtues of duty and patriotism. This is cowardly assassination.”

The Irish News described the inter-communal violence in Northern Ireland during the 1920’s as “a carnival of terrorism.” Pictured is a riot in the York Street area of the City between, what is believed to be shipyard workers, mainly Unionists, and Republican strikers in September 1920. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Sir Winston Churchill, in 1922 the Imperial Government’s Minister for the Colonies with responsibility for overseeing the transition of Southern Ireland into the Irish Free State as Chairman of the Provisional Government of Ireland Committee, labelled the murders of the McMahon family as an act of ‘cannibalism’

Nixon, also a Unionist member in the Northern Parliament for Belfast Woodvale, was subsequently dismissed from the Royal Ulster Constabulary in 1924, although he always denied the allegations made against him until his death in 1949.

In the areas which formed the new border, particularly in parts of Counties Armagh, Derry and Tyrone, clashes between Northern IRA groupings and Security Forces were often characterised by ‘tit-for-tat’ reprisals against the local Catholic or Protestant communities.

The assault of a young Catholic woman by members of the exclusively Unionist Ulster Special Constabulary (‘A’ or ‘B’ Specials) in County Armagh was allegedly the trigger for members of the IRA’s ‘4th Northern Division’ to murder six Protestant civilians in Altnaveigh, South Armagh in June 1922.

The future Fianna Fáil Tánaiste, Frank Aiken, originally from Camlough, County Armagh and in the 1920’s an IRA Commander of the 4th Northern Division of the IRA, is widely believed to have been responsible for ordering or partaking in the attack on the isolated Protestant community in Altnaveigh.

Historian, Dr Marie Coleman, who will also participate in the Queen’s University series on partition, recently expressed her desire for State records from the early 1920’s period to be released for public and academic consumption.

Dr. Coleman suggested that the records of the Ulster Special Constabulary, established by the British Government in the North of Ireland at the end of 1920, would give a greater insight into the security situation of the times immediately preceding the formal partitioning of Ireland. The Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI), which has itself been running a series of events on this period, in a statement said,

“PRONI will scope the cataloguing and sensitivity review of the administrative records of the USC for the 1920s.

“PRONI will aim to open the files once classification, cataloguing and sensitivity review has been safely completed in line with Covid-19 protocols.”

Contemporary political reaction to the centenary has been predictably along tribal lines, with Sinn Féin and the SDLP turning down invitations to sit on the Northern Ireland Office’s Centenary panel. Already Nationalist-majority local Councils have dismissed suggestions to mark or celebrate the Northern Ireland centenary, seeing it as a divisive move.

2021 is a major milestone in the decade of centenaries. In July 2021, it will be one hundred years of the coming into effect of the 1921 Truce which effectively concluded the Irish War of Independence, between British forces and the IRA.

Later in December the historic signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty will prove particulalry difficult for the various political sects in the Republic, as that moment was viewed as precipitating the Irish Civil War the following year and centuries of mutual distrust between the two dominant ‘establishment’ parties south of the border – Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.


1921’s Difficulties, Reflected In 2021 Violence

Earlier in April, BBC Spotlight featured a documentary, ‘A Contested Centenary,’ on the creation of the Northern Ireland state and on how the events of the 1920’s have impacted families throughout subsequent generations, including losses they suffered during the most recent ‘Troubles’ from the late 1960’s until the late 1990’s.

The same programme commissioned a cross-border poll, by Northern Irish pollsters LucidTalk and Republic of Ireland organisation Ireland Thinks on the constitutional future of Northern Ireland, with the majority of respondents saying they saw Northern Ireland remaining within the United Kingdom in the next decade. Asked did they see Northern Ireland retaining its position in the UK in 25 years, the predominant verdict, expressed within both Northern Ireland and the Republic, said they did not.

On Thursday evening (22nd April) another poll, taken by the same pollsters, found that:

  • 46% of people in Northern Ireland and 21% of people in the Republic believe Ireland should adopt a different flag to accommodate unionist sentiments in a united Ireland;
  • 57% of people in Northern Ireland believe the Republic should change its national anthem to one that is “more inclusive”, compared to 38% in the Republic;
  • 40% in Northern Ireland believe the current Executive and Assembly should be retained under the authority of the Dublin Parliament, compared with 42% in the Republic

In an interview with the former BBC NI political editor, Mark Davenport, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said he could envisage the current devolution arrangements and instiutions remaining in place within a future all-Ireland State, with a continuing influence of the UK Government.

One hundred years on Northern Ireland knows little in the way of stability, with street violence marring the Easter period at the beginning of April.

Much of the anger emanates from Unionist and Loyalist communities concerned about the Northern Ireland’s position within the Union, as a result of the post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol, which entails regulatory checks on products entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.


The Gown – ‘On The Cusp of 100’

In December 2020, The Gown released a special feature on the Government of Ireland Act, one hundred years on from the date of it receiving Royal Assent. Click here to read it.

BBC News NI presenters, Tara Mills and Declan Harvey, are also presenting a weekly podcast, ‘Year ’21,’ on Partition and the creation of Northern Ireland which is available on BBC Sounds.

Published by The Gown Queen's University Belfast

The Gown has provided respected, quality and independent student journalism from Queen's University, Belfast since its 1955 foundation, by Dr. Richard Herman. Having had an illustrious line of journalists and writers for almost 70 years, that proud history is extremely important to us. The Gown is consistent in its quest to seek and develop the talents of aspiring student writers.

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