Customs Examination station

Learning the lessons of the past

INSIDE STORY: Ahead of the centenary of the creation of the Irish border, historian CORMAC MOORE has published a book exploring the effects of partition on every-day life. Here he tells THOMAS LYONS how customs impacted the border, how intransigence is an unfair characterisation of unionists, and how he expects a border poll in the next decade...

The headline “Unrest on the streets of Belfast” could be plucked from any newspaper in the final 75 years of the last millennium. The rioting and street violence currently taking up column inches may be new to those less than a quarter of a century old, but to an older generation they are all too familiar.

On May 3, Northern Ireland will be 100 years old. Last Saturday, April 10, was the 23rd anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, or Belfast Agreement. The events of the last week are a reinforcement of the belief that borders mean different things to different people.

Significant dates marking the centenary of the birth of the border will soon follow, including the first election to the northern parliament on 24 May, the first northern parliament meeting, the selection of James Craig’s cabinet, and the official opening of the northern parliament by King George V, all of which are in June.

Against the uncomfortable backdrop of events in Belfast author and historian-in-residence with Dublin City Council Cormac Moore has launched his latest book examining partition from a 100 year remove.

“My last book was on the Irish soccer split, that was my PhD as well, a study of why there are two soccer bodies in Ireland while other sports are all Ireland like the GAA, IRFU or the Irish Cricket Union,” the author tells the Celt. “My researches examined how other bodies grew when partition happened. How it impacted on people and organisations on a day to day basis. That is where the idea came from. Not so much from a political violence perspective, but how it affected people on a day-to-day basis. How people deal with it, and how the border played out “

‘Birth of the Border: The Impact of Partition in Ireland’ explores those consequences through the prism of religion, education, business/trade, the law, the labour movement, infrastructure (railways, motor cars, fisheries, lighthouses, electricity, postal services), and sport, as well as politics and political violence.

Cavan is very much at the heart of this story. If the gestation period before the birth of the border was a little different then Cavan, and indeed Ireland, may have been a different place: “The unionists were offered a parliament of the nine counties. They rejected that when the Government of Ireland Bill was being framed. They felt that ultimately they would be “out bred” by Catholics quite soon.

“The split would have been 55% to 45% protestant-catholic in a nine county parliament. They rejected that as they wanted a more stable Unionist majority. Obviously protestants in Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal were disgusted with that and many left the Ulster Unionist camp because of that,” the author outlines.

In this time of political turbulence no decision came easy: “It took a while for the British Government to assent to unionist demands. It was late Spring 1920, just as the Government of Ireland Bill was being put forward in the House of Commons, that the government said they would agree to six counties instead of nine.”

The Craigavon ministry – led by James Craig, 1st Viscount Craigavon

One Ulster unionist, Cavan man Somerset Saunderson of Castlesaunderson, stranded on the ‘wrong’ side of the border declared ‘I have no country’. Not all protestants felt this way, but many did migrate across the new partition.

“It’s still hard to determine how many went to the other side of the border after the imposition of partition. Terrance Dooley [Historian] did a study of some 400 Monaghan protestants who went to Fermanagh after partition, but it is very difficult. We don’t have full census figures from 1926, the last one before that was 1911,” Cormac explains.

“We know that there is a big decline in protestant population in the 26 counties, but the exact reason we will never know. There were many different reasons that would have played into that including World War I, the removal of the British Civil Service from Ireland and, obviously, partition.”

The protestant community of the three Ulster counties that remained in the new republic adapted: “Many of them did get on with it. They had their lives, they had their social structures. The border didn’t affect people on a daily basis until the introduction of customs tariffs in 1923. It was a seamless border, more of an administrative inconvenience before that date. Customs barriers were the point at which the real effects became pronounced.”

The partition of 1921 was not inevitable nor pre-determined from 1912. Northern Ireland’s parliament received executive powers from London in November 1921 and its existence was confirmed under the Anglo Irish Treaty, signed the following month. In 1925 it was confirmed that the border would not be redrawn to reassign majority catholic and nationalist areas to the Irish Free State.

Cormac says partition was not an event, but a process that took a long meandering route to reach a level of permanence in 1925. In this decade of centenaries there are a number historically significant dates that require a deal of sensitivity around the appropriate ways of marking them.

“Commemorations are never about events of the past, they are always about the present,” the author contends. “The present situation in the North is quite changed from what it was in 2016. It’s all because of Brexit.

“Brexit has really changed the dynamic of the North.”

“I don’t think the skirmishes we are seeing in any way jeopardise the peace process. The whole debate about the Irish Sea border has inflamed tensions, that will be further fanned as we go into the centenary of partition.”

The reasons for the current tension is rooted in the past: “Unionists do feel they are threatened. Their domination in terms of population is over, that is clear. There is going to be a border poll. I think there will be one in the next 10 years. It’s not simply about two communities made 100 years ago, Catholics versus protestants or nationalists versus unionists. There is now a third wave of people who consider themselves Northern Irish, rather that unionist or nationalist.”

Cormac says the view of unionists as inflexible is not reflected in history and that change is in their vocabulary.

“They have to if they want to succeed. Who would have thought that the DUP would have sat in Government? With Ian Paisley as First Minister to Martin McGuinness? Of course things can change. Even 100 years ago, they negotiated with Sinn Féin, created links with De Valera, signed pacts with Collins. They have a lot more flexibility than meets the eye.”

The author says his book gives a broad perspective of the impact partition had: “I would like people to read it to get a better sense of what happened. When I look at most of the books on the North they focus on the political division, and the violence that came with that. Very few look at how it affected other bodies. I cover it’s impact on everything from business to sport. Most bodies ignored the new international frontier and went on as they were before, borders and partitions mean many different things to many different people.”