How Did Northern Ireland Become Part of the UK?

Northern Ireland History - The Early Days

As we have seen the history of Ireland is one where violence was a very regular happening.  It should be no great surprise to us then that Northern Ireland History was born into a bath of blood and widespread violence.  This was true when it first became part of the United Kingdom. (UK) From 1920 to 1922 there were more than 550 deaths of which 300 were Catholics, 170 were Protestants and 80 were members of the security forces.  In the city of Belfast, Catholics had been driven out of their jobs, many forced out of their homes and around 500 Catholic businesses had been destroyed. 

There was also a lot of IRA activity aimed at preventing the peaceful set up of the new state.  Protestants were also angered at the sectarian assassinations being carried out against other Protestants in the South of Ireland.  In the South of Ireland in what is often termed the "War of Independence",  the IRA ambushed and raided police barracks and inflicted many casualties with over 600 deaths and many wounded on the Crown forces.  They also lost over 700 of their own IRA volunteers with many more wounded.  Clearly this was a very unsettled beginning for Northern Ireland and a difficult time for all living there.

Ulster Special Constabulary

The Unionists in Northern Ireland grew ever more wary of the violence in the south of Ireland.  Afraid that it could spread or even threaten their new country they formed a three tier Ulster Special Constabulary.  These would simply be classed as A, B and C forces.
  • A Class - There would be full-time "A" Class police who would be full time employees
  • B Class - "B" class who would be part-time and unpaid (They became known as the B Specials)
  • C Class -  Class "C" who would be a reserve force. 

This force was essentially a reorganised UVF with around 3,500 full time members, 16,000 Class B and 1,000 reserves.  The nationalist and unionist people were divided about this policing force.  They were viewed as a symbol of repression by Catholics and at the same time were viewed as defenders of the state by Protestants.

The first election of the Northern Ireland Parliament took place and Sir Edward Carson declined to become the First Prime Minister.  This left the role open for James Craig.

Much discussion took place between the Irish Party and Sinn Fein as to what their electoral position should be.  It was eventually agreed between Michael Collins, Eamon De Valera and Joe Devlin that they would run candidates but not take their places, emphasising that they did not recognise a separate state.  This would become known as a policy of abstentionism and is still practised by Sinn Fein today when they win seats at the British Parliament in Westminster.
The first Northern Ireland election took place in May 1921.  40 Unionist candidates won seats and the Irish Party and Sinn Fein shared the other 12 seats.  The parliament was opened by King George V and was sworn in by the Lord Governor of Ireland a Viscount Fitzalan.

Negotiations continued between the various parties and a truce was declared by the IRA to allow talks to continue.  Their respective positions remained unchanged and apart from a lot of rhetoric, very little progress was made.  Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins represented Sinn Fein and had discussions with the British Government and Lloyd George.  Lloyd George then wrote to Craig setting out the terms for a settlement with Sinn Fein and proposed a United Ireland.  Craig refused this and negotiations broke down on the principle of a self-governing Ireland.

Sinn Fein had offered an Irish Republic outside the British Empire but Lloyd George insisted that it must be within the Empire and with allegiance to the King, otherwise there would be war and a war with in three days.  Sinn Fein were forced to accept this and a Treaty was agreed that Great Britain and Ireland that would create a 26-Country Irish Free State.

Irish Flag
Flag of Ireland

Craig and Collins

Violence continued in the North and the Ulster Special Constabulary was re-introduced having been recently stood down.  Then Craig and Collins met in 1922 and tried to agree to sort out the boundary mutually between the two governments.  There were various small concessions on either side with the IRA stopping the violence and Craig agreeing that he would help Catholic workmen return to work and to provide relief. 

They met again in February 1922 and at this meeting Michael Collins produced a map outlining that he wanted almost half of Northern Ireland including Derry, Tyrone and Fermanagh.  Craig had been surprised with this tactic and stated that Unionists would never abandon Londonderry and Enniskillen.  These two towns held a strong loyal and important military history for Unionists. The meeting ended without agreement and the only outcome that guaranteed was a return to violence with the IRA carrying out cross border raids and more deaths across the North of Ireland.

In a now familiar pattern Craig and Collins met once again in March 1922 and agreed another pact which again failed miserably.  More IRA attacks followed and transfer of security powers moved to Belfast in May 1922.  The IRA was proscribed and internment was introduced.  The Northern Ireland Government introduced the Special Powers Act which was the civilian equivalent of Martial Law.

A civil war had broken out in the South of Ireland between those who were in favour of the 1921 Treaty and those who were vehemently opposed to it.  This distracted the Free State Government from an interest in the North.  Collins died during this war and the IRA had been greatly weakened.  Before his death Collins had agreed in July 1922 to call off the Northern campaign and by January 1923 the Free State Government had decided to disband the pro-Treaty IRA organisation in the North.

With the threat of violence now gone, work began on the actual border commission and it was still considered by many back then, that indeed some counties of Northern Ireland would end up in the Irish Free State.  The problem for Craig was that he was now dealing with a Free State Government which was split in its views, one half wanting an Irish Republic and the other half wanting a Free State within the British Empire.  Craig opposed any type of boundary commission declaring that what we have, we hold.

Nationalists in Fermanagh and Tyrone had a clear expectation that their two counties would move to the South of Ireland.  This however concerned other nationalists in the east of Northern Ireland as with these two counties gone, the remaining nationalists would feel more vulnerable.  James Craig remained opposed to any type of boundary commission and called a General Election in 1925 to show unionist hostility to any proposed commission.  In the end the Commission went ahead.  It secured Northern Ireland's boundaries, which disappointed border nationalists and created a political crisis in the Irish Free State.  The Free State's representative Eoin MacNeill was forced to resign and the boundaries of Northern Ireland were now agreed in law.

Early Divisions in Northern Ireland

With Northern Ireland now formed the voting system was changed from a Proportional Representation (PR) system to one dating back to 1919.  Although this caused controversy with the Nationalists, Craig did this to reduce the threat from the Labour Party, who was also anti-partition.  Craig wanted this kept a clean fight between unionism and nationalism.  PR was finally abolished in 1929 and that created a reversion to single member areas and constituencies.  This is commonly known as “first past the post”.

This worked for Craig as although nationalists won around a third of the vote, the Labour Party was the big loser and Craig's Unionist Party, the big winner.  The change in the electoral system did however mean a change in the electoral boundaries of Northern Ireland and this was the controversial element in the change to the voting system.

Nationalists were outraged and boycotted the commission, once again leaving the Unionists to draw up the boundaries.  Nationalists were convinced that this exercise was little more than the Unionist government conducting an exercise known as "gerrymandering." This meant that the boundaries were drawn up to ensure that Unionists would win the majority of the seats in many of the electoral areas.

This was done by rearranging the electoral units within wards.  This way where there were more unionist populated units within a nationalist ward, it would ensure a Unionist candidate was still elected.  A good example of this was done in Omagh where after the units within the ward were re-drawn, 5,381 unionists living there were guaranteed 21 seats, whereas 8,459 nationalists living there were guaranteed 18 seats, assuming of course the people voted as would be expected of them.

There was also the additional element whereby a man owning a property could also have a vote in a unit and this was used by both parties to their benefit.  Strange as it may seem back then, women did not have any right to vote at all.  Under the new voting arrangements the results were staggering with the nationalists losing control of 12 councils, including Londonderry County Borough, a strong nationalist area.  The nationalists had only control of eleven councils out of a total of 73.

The other interesting thing that began in the early days of Northern Ireland was that the Catholic bishops insisted that Catholics should have their own education system, so as they could be taught the Catholic faith in schools.  That also meant that Protestants would go to state schools and so children were divided at an early age on sectarian grounds.  Northern Ireland History was being set for the years to come.