A four nations approach to the Irish anti-partition campaigns of the 1940s and 1950s
This week, Jacob Murphy argues that the Anti-Partition of Ireland League (1945-1962) connected the four nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland (Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland) through a shared opposition to partition.
The Anti-Partition of Ireland League was formed in 1945 by Northern Ireland Nationalist MPs who sought the abolition of the partition of Ireland which had, since 1920, divided the island between the six county North and twenty-six county South. Whilst the anti-partition campaign was led in Ireland by Nationalist MPs and TDs both North and South of the border, the campaign in Britain focused much more on grassroots organisation through setting up branches throughout England, Scotland and Wales. This was particularly the case during the ‘flourishing days’ of the League (1949-1953)[i]where hundreds of branches were set up in and around Eamon de Valera’s anti-partition tour of Britain in 1948 and 1949. Despite this, the historiography of the League is limited and negative. Historians argue that the League was a failure because it did not achieve its aim of influencing public opinion to the extent that partition would be abolished by the British government. However, whilst this may be the case, I believe that the example of the Newcastle branch of the League shows how the anti-partition campaign rejuvenated the Irish community in this region, both politically and culturally.
Eamon de Valera’s tour of Britain in 1948 and 1949 aimed to unite the four nations of the British Isles under the banner of anti-partition. His visit included so-called strongholds of Irish nationalist support in Britain such as Liverpool, Glasgow, London, Newcastle, Manchester, and Birmingham but also in areas such as Cardiff. The latter was an attempt to play on Celtic nationalist sensibilities to increase Welsh support for the anti-partition cause. The anti-partition campaign led by de Valera included public meetings attended by people in their thousands, press conferences, networking lunches with civil dignitaries, University debates and Irish ceilidh dances. In essence, these visits were successful as the anti-partition message reached an extremely broad audience and because de Valera tailored the campaign to each particular region. For example, in Manchester he visited the grave of the Manchester Martyrs, in Glasgow he attended a Glasgow Celtic football match and in Newcastle he visited a Catholic seminary in Durham as a symbol of the shared history of early Christianity between Ireland and North-East England. It was de Valera’s ability to evoke a shared history of the four nations, based on Irish nationalism, which led to the continued support for anti-partition and the rejuvenation of Irish communities in Britain during the 1950s.
The four nations approach by the Anti-Partition of Ireland League helped establish a sense of belonging by Irish communities in Britain. In North-East England, the anti-partition campaigns developed in the early 1950s to include cultural and seemingly non-political events such as St Patrick’s Day concerts and informal receptions with Irish Ambassadors. Therefore, the campaigns not only increased support for the abolition of partition, they also helped rejuvenate, create and improve Irish community organisations throughout Britain. This was certainly the case for the Irish community in North-East England, which used the anti-partition campaign to transform itself from renting rooms at the Royal Arcade for gatherings in 1949 to owning its own premises by 1961 with a reputation known locally (BBC Newcastle), nationally (Irish Embassy in London) and internationally (Irish Government in Dublin).
To conclude, the campaigns of the 1940s and 1950s helped keep the issue of Irish partition in the background of British politics, both inside and outside parliament. Although it failed to abolish the partition of Ireland, it did begin to set out grievances which would be at the forefront of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland during the 1960s, in particular gerrymandering. In addition, individuals such as Hugh Delargy, Labour MP and Chairman of the Anti-Partition of Ireland League in 1949 helped lay the framework for organisations such as the Campaign for Democracy in Ulster. This organisation gathered substantial Labour Party MP support during the 1960s to resolve the issues surrounding Northern Ireland on the eve of the ‘Troubles’. However, the essential importance of the four nation anti-partition campaigns of the 1940s and 1950s was the impact it had on Irish communities in Britain. It enabled the Irish in Britain to (re)assert their authority and develop politically and culturally. Since the campaign to abolish partition was not as contentious as some later campaigns, such as the 1970s campaign for the withdrawal of British troops from Northern Ireland, the 1950s was certainly a flourishing period for the Irish community in Britain. I argue that this was the direct consequence of a four nation campaign which connected sections of people in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland (Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland) under the banner of anti-partition.
[i]Letter from the Irish Ambassador to the Secretary of External Affairs, 20 May 1957. National Archives of Ireland, Dublin, Anti-Partition of Ireland League, 1941-1962/Department of Foreign Affairs/P/203/1.
Jacob Murphy is an MA History graduate. His research has focused on the role of grass-roots, extra-parliamentary organisations in shaping British responses to the partition of Ireland during the 1940s and 1950s and the ‘Troubles’ in the 1970s. You can find him on Twitter @jjpmurphy92 and at his blog https://jjpmurphy.wordpress.com/.