Between Truce And Violence: Nationalist Politics And The Birth Of Northern Ireland

Martin O'Donoghue | 2 August 2021

Britain and Ireland / Ireland / Northern Ireland / Politics

Joe Devlin, Irish nationalist politician and journalist. Image probably dates from the 1900s.

Recent events have marked the centenary of the truce agreed between Irish and British leaders on 9 July 1921, which came into effect two days later. However, as a ceasefire in the Irish War of Independence was reached, serious violence broke out in Belfast on 10 July. The city’s ‘Bloody Sunday’ came less than three weeks after King George V had opened the new Northern Ireland parliament.

The confluence of such events illustrated contrasting experiences as the British government sought to resolve the ‘Irish question’ almost a decade after the Asquith’s Liberal government had proposed to introduce home rule. For nationalists in Ulster survival in these years often trumped debate about political tactics. As partition was implemented, however, the dilemmas facing nationalist politicians - concerning abstention and cooperation between parties - were ones that would recur for decades to come.

Northern nationalism and political tactics

Home rule had originally been proposed as self-government on an all-Ireland basis, but much political energy had been expended by nationalists, unionists and British politicians in the meantime arguing the merits of unity or the exclusion (temporary or permanent) of Ulster counties (whether four, six or nine).

Taking the republic declared during the 1916 Rising as inspiration, Sinn Féin had swept the boards in much of Ireland at the 1918 general election. In Ulster, however, many nationalists still voted for the older Irish Parliamentary Party which had campaigned for home rule, in some cases due to an electoral pact designed to secure nationalist rather than unionist representation.

In other areas, however, like Belfast Falls this was due to the enduring popularity of leaders like Joe Devlin and Ancient Order of Hibernians, a Catholic fraternal body often viewed as a ‘green Orange Order’ and a political machine for the advancement of Catholics associated with the Irish Party.[1] Exclusive to Catholics born in Ireland or of Irish descent, it was a bogeyman for unionists as well as Sinn Féin activists who resented a religious test on nationalism.

Home rulers favoured attendance at Westminster as a constitutional route to achieve nationalist aims; Sinn Féin instead espoused abstention from the imperial parliament, establishing its own chamber, and appealing to post-war peace conference for Irish self-determination. After the general election, Sinn Féin became the established voice of Irish nationalism in three out of four provinces, but in Ulster as partition loomed, two prominent political traditions remained. Cooperation was possible, but often difficult and the path ahead unclear.


David Fitzpatrick observed that that the violence of the early 1920s meant many loyalists were sometimes more focused on survival than the partition question.[2] The same was arguably true for many nationalists - especially those in Belfast and its environs.

As violence between the IRA and Crown Forces increased around Ireland in the summer of 1920, thousands of Catholic and labour-leaning Protestants, so-called ‘rotten Prods’, were expelled from the shipyards in the city, beginning what nationalists called the ‘Belfast pogroms’.[3] Further attacks on Catholic communities followed the IRA’s assassination of police inspector Oswald Swanzy in Lisburn in August as widespread rioting and looting forced many to flee.[4]

While nationalists of all shades engaged in communal defence, there were also internal tensions. Tim Wilson determined nine Hibernians were killed by the IRA in this period compared to ‘at most’ one republican killed by Hibernians.[5] Belfast IRA officer Roger McCorley blamed AOH followers for looting of Protestant businesses in the city after the truce in July 1921.[6]

Abstention and anti-partitionism

Amidst such violence, Devlin maintained a constitutional approach by attending parliament. Devlin and the remnant of the old party bore little comparison, however, to the organised home rule party of the past. Irish unionist MPs also remained at Westminster, but Sinn Féin MPs returned in 1918 had reconstituted themselves as TDs of Dáil Éireann. Its largely southern leadership remained opposed to partition but offered few meaningful political strategies on the issue (though it instituted the Belfast boycott in August 1920).

Sinn Féin was absent as the Government of Ireland Act was introduced at Westminster - legislating for a division of the country into a 26-county Southern Ireland and a six-county Northern Ireland.

Neither of the northern parties wished to recognise the Belfast parliament and by extension partition. Yet, Devlin had always opposed abstention as a policy. Ultimately neither side opted to boycott the election for the new parliament entirely - or compete against each other and divide nationalist support.[7] In the end, Devlin’s nationalists, entered into a pact with Sinn Féin - but on the effective basis of Sinn Féin tactics: opposition to partition and abstention.[8]

Despite the compromise on parliamentary principles, this ensured Devlinities and Sinn Féin won six seats each. Unionists won the other forty. The election set a tone for nationalist approaches to parliament in Northern Ireland.


Devlinite constitutional instincts remained and nationalists furthest east of the new border became particularly anxious to attend parliament in the years that followed. Hopes that the Boundary Commission, provided for by the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, might make Northern Ireland unviable or at least transfer border regions to the Free State created east-west divisions in nationalist politics in addition to the Sinn Féin/nationalist cleavage. Violence in Northern Ireland worsened in the first six months of 1922 before the outbreak of civil war in the south, however, and the Boundary Commission collapsed in 1925 without any adjustments to the border.[9]

Devlin and his colleague T. S. McAllister took seats in the same year, and other nationalists later followed, but abstention remained a feature of nationalist politics - even after the Sinn Féin and Devlinite traditions united in the National League of the North in 1928. The basic arithmetic of the Belfast parliament meant nationalists could never even exert as much influence as the Irish Party had at Westminster before the First World War. In parliamentary terms, it was one of the ironies of partition that politicians in the south from Sinn Féin backgrounds accepted attendance in a Dublin parliament (even with an oath of allegiance initially) while those from the Irish Party tradition were often absent from a ‘home rule’ parliament in Belfast.[10]

Recent Brexit debates caused contemporary commentators to debate the wisdom of abstention from Westminster. However, in the early decades of Northern Ireland, nationalists not only eschewed the Belfast parliament, but often lacked ideological cohesion or organisation at either grassroots or parliamentary level.[11] It was a situation that persisted until Nationalist Party began to collapse in the face of more dynamic alternatives in the late 1960s.[12]

Dr Martin O’Donoghue is Teaching Associate in Modern British and Irish History at the University of Sheffield. His book, The Legacy of the Irish Parliamentary Party in Independent Ireland, 1922-1949,  will be published in paperback by Liverpool University Press this September.

[1] A. C. Hepburn, ‘Catholic Ulster and Irish politics: the Ancient Order of Hibernians, 1905-14’, A past apart: studies in the history of Catholic Belfast 1850-1950 (Belfast, 1996).

[2] David Fitzpatrick, ‘The Orange Order and the border’, Irish Historical Studies, vol. 33, no. 129 (May 2002), pp p. 57.

[3] For more on this, see Connal Parr, ‘Expelled from yard and tribe: the “Rotten Prods” of 1920 and their political legacies’, Studi Irlandesi: A Journal of Irish Studies, 11 (2021), pp 299-321. The expulsions followed the IRA’s killing of Colonel Gerald B.F. Smyth, a native of Banbridge, in Cork on 17 July. The unionist leader Edward Carson had delivered a speech at an Orange rally on 12 July which raised the possibility that the Ulster Volunteers could be reformed.

[4] The IRA believed Swanzy to be responsible for the murder of Tomás MacCurtain, the Lord Mayor of Cork.

[5] Tim Wilson, Frontiers of violence: conflict and identity in Ulster and Upper Silesia (Oxford, 2010), pp 127, 129-130.

[6] Roger E. McCorley statement, p. 25 (M.A.I. B.M.H., W.S. 389); Robert Lynch, The Northern IRA and the early years of partition 1920-1922 (Dublin, 2006), p. 97.

[7] A.C. Hepburn, Catholic Belfast and nationalist Ireland in the era of Joe Devlin, 1871-1934 (Oxford, 2008), p. 223

[8] Eamon Phoenix, Northern nationalism: nationalist politics, partition and the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland (Belfast, 1994), pp 114-119.

[9] Margaret O’Callaghan, ‘“Old parchment and water”; the Boundary Commission of 1925 and the copper-fastening of the Irish border’, Bullán; an Irish Studies Journal, vol. 5, no. 2 (Nov 2000), pp 27-55.

[10] Alvin Jackson, Home rule: an Irish history, 1800-2000 (London, 2003).

[11] Christopher Norton, The politics of constitutional nationalism in Northern Ireland, 1932-70: between grievance and reconciliation (Manchester, 2016).

[12] Norton, The politics of constitutional nationalism; Sarah Campbell, Gerry Fitt and the SDLP - ‘in a minority of one’ (Manchester, 2015).