Media Library


Alvin Jackson: Empire, war and partition

25th February 2021


I am most grateful to you for the invitation to speak today, and I am honoured to be part of this event.

Can I begin, perhaps, with the theme of empire, since you have placed this at the heart of your concerns for our discussion – and since Professor John Horne has highlighted the issue in his eloquent introduction.

Let me then move to consider partition, particularly in relation to unionism, since this has a relevance and challenge in terms of the President’s emphasis on ethical commemoration. Let me also attempt to follow John, if I can, in his European and global approach to the history of Ireland a century ago.


As John has said, there is indeed a distinction between the great dynastic empires of the early 20th century, such as those of the Habsburgs, and the contemporary colonial empires of (for example) the French and the British. But there are also ways in which these categories overlap – and there are even senses in which there is an overlap between the concept of empire and that of union.

In pursuing the idea of empire and imperialism, let me first take an example which was much invoked in the Home Rule era, and which has been mentioned already by others. Austria-Hungary, the Dual Monarchy, was the focus of a great deal of earnest Irish nationalist and British liberal reflection, most famously by Arthur Griffith, in his ‘Resurrection of Hungary’, but also by John Redmond and other home rulers in Ireland and Britain, including Gladstone and the Scottish scholar of central Europe, Robert Seton-Watson. All saw various forms of parallel or paradigm between Ireland and Britain and the constitutional relations within Austria-Hungary. Some of these efforts to find an ideal in central Europe were unrealistic. However, a careful comparison of the two, the UK and the Dual Monarchy, remains instructive as we reflect upon the history of Ireland’s relationship with union a century ago.

Austria-Hungary lacked an overseas colonial empire; but it was associated with periodic efforts at annexation and settlement in southern and eastern Europe, including, in 1908, Bosnia. Austria was associated with the military subjugation of its insurgent peoples. I would therefore add to the taxonomies already mentioned the notion of ‘internal colonialism’ – the idea that polities like the Dual Monarchy - or the United Kingdom - a century ago were characterised by complex colonial or colonial-style relationships with neighbouring territories, as well as having (in the case of the UK) an overseas imperial enterprise.

Such empires were commonly associated with different forms of social as well as territorial division, with in particular the notion of divide and rule; and this was applicable both in a dynastic empire like Austria-Hungary as well as in the multinational union and empire that was the United Kingdom. In Austria-Hungary at the beginning of the 20th century there were favoured nationalities and political classes through which Habsburg rule was sustained; and indeed the very basis of the compromise of 1867 which shaped the Dual Monarchy was essentially an agreement between the emperor and the Hungarian political elites to the exclusion of others. So, too, in Ireland: the union was effectively founded upon an agreement in 1801 between the British government and the Irish elite, that is to say the protestant ascendancy interest. Ireland under the union (certainly at first) was ruled in association with a privileged social and economic class, just as other continental European empires were held together partly through the agency of similarly privileged groups.

Associated with ‘divide and rule’, however, were other policies of (what might be defined as) partial reinforcement, and which were practised throughout the history of the Habsburg monarchy as well as of the British and Irish unions: these embraced the simultaneous application of periodic reform as well as (often together with) suppression, and were captured in the notion of ‘constructive unionism’, which characterised so much of British policy in Ireland (and Scotland) in the 19th and early 20th century, as well as in a variety of Habsburg stratagems.

Expressing this in another way, British government applied both coercion and conciliation, ‘kicks and ha’pence’, in Ireland, where the Habsburgs and the Magyars applied what were sometimes labelled as ‘horsewhips and oats’ in the Dual Monarchy.

Unions and empires survived for a time both because they demonstrated flexibility with the violent suppression of dissent. But since both in the United Kingdom and the Dual Monarchy the imperial centre held control over power and resource, so-called ‘subsidiary’ nationalities and groups were effectively encouraged to apply pressure and negotiate there, rather than to negotiate and deal with each other. And these were lessons learned and deployed both by Unionists and Nationalists.

Empires and unions were similarly affected by the First World War, a conflict which has been described as being both between and against empires and empire. We still tend to define the War in terms of the victors and the defeated; and there are obvious reasons for this continuing emphasis, given the complete collapse of the Dual Monarchy in 1918.

In fact the impact of the war on complex multinational polities like the United Kingdom bears some comparison with its multinational and imperial adversaries. In both Austria-Hungary and the United Kingdom war brought the further marginalisation of ‘subsidiary’ nationalities such as the Irish. In both central Europe and the United Kingdom war brought the escalation of existing national tensions, as the smaller nations within wider unions saw themselves as being failed by their dominant partners.

War brought the hugely increased influence of imperial military establishments, whether in London, Vienna and elsewhere across Europe, with concomitant restrictions on civil liberties. War brought an end to the kinds of flexibility and ambiguity which had hitherto been essential in sustaining the governance of these complex multinational polities.

In short, war magnified a set of tensions which were evident in different multinational unions and empires across Europe before 1914, and in the case of the Austro-Hungarian empire it opened up a pathway to failure and dissolution. But even in the United Kingdom, one of the victors, and one of the arbiters of the post-war settlement, the impact of the war was felt in some broadly similar ways, and ultimately with some similar results: the relegation, alienation and insurgency of a ‘subsidiary’ nationality, the Irish.


Empires were, as John has said, closely embroiled with partition in terms of the appropriation and delineation of conquests or territorial acquisitions. Partition has been closely associated with both the processes of decolonisation in Ireland, India and Palestine. It has also been closely associated with the fall-out from the First World War, with the deconstruction of the great European empires after 1918 and the complex definition of the boundaries of successor States.

Let me finish by reflecting a little on these issues, not least because they have a bearing on the President’s theme of ethical commemoration. My particular focus today is on partition and unionism.

First I would recall that for unionists in Ireland partition was originally a means to an end. Throughout the home rule era Irish unionists, including Ulster unionists, rejected Irish nationalism because they said that they feared for their civil and religious liberties, and for their economic prosperity, in the event of Irish legislative independence. This was their repeated message across the home rule era; and it was enshrined in their central canonical text, the Solemn League and Covenant of September 1912.

Unionists, including Ulster unionists, for the first 28 years of their movement (between 1885 and 1913) did not seek the division of Ireland – because the division of Ireland was also the fundamental division of unionism itself. They worked with (what was originally) an outside suggestion of partition as a means by which to weaken, or even wreck, home rule; and they moved from nine county to six county partition, and from there to, again, an outside notion of a six county home rule scheme. Into this they subsequently entrenched themselves. But the purpose of their political agitation had now often been replaced by the means; that is to say the effective upholding (as they saw it) of their civil and religious and economic rights had been overshadowed by the agency of partition. Means had overtaken ends.

Second, and related to this, I would suggest that, in a sense, unionism after partition became that which it had ostensibly opposed. Just as the dissolution of the European multi-national empires produced successor states which were often themselves forms of mini-empire or indeed mini-union, so with the redesign of the United Kingdom in 1920-22, Northern Ireland was a form of successor ‘state’ to a failed union, and an empire in crisis.

Northern Ireland possessed home rule, or devolution, within a sovereign United Kingdom state: it was not itself sovereign, but it had some of the markers of a State. And it bore some comparison to other interwar continental European polities, products of the dissolution of empire, and with their own dominant and subordinate nationalities and cultures. The North was closely linked to an evolving ‘Ulster’ identity, which developed alongside unionism, and which was by definition exclusively protestant; and it drew upon an imagined colonial or planter narrative of challenge and survival. There was very little space or sanction in the North for those who lay beyond this dominant identity; and the consequences of this for northern Nationalists and their civil rights were very bleak indeed.

Putting this another way, unionism was originally (at least in terms of its expressed ideals) about integration within a supranational union, and about protecting rights that (they said) were under imminent threat; and yet unionists later embraced an exclusivist set of identities and at times unjust set of actions which they themselves had once fearfully attributed to their purported enemies. They became a version of that which they had claimed to oppose.

The third point that I’d suggest is that, while partition has for long been associated with the single British parliamentary measure, the Government of Ireland Act of 1920, it was in fact a process, and not a single event. Partition was a dynamic which ultimately produced a radically different form of border to that which was originally and painfully debated by Edward Carson and John Redmond in 1912-1916.

Partition in Ireland (as then conceived) involved the possible creation of an administrative border between two polities associated with a substantially redesigned United Kingdom; and even the Government of Ireland Act itself envisioned two home rule territories in Ireland which could have remained closely interconnected. The partition settlement which was finally confirmed in 1925 was reached by incremental steps, but it ultimately involved an economically and politically much more profound division of the island and of its people than had been foreseen when the notion had first gained traction in the years before the First World War. Expressing this another way, the story of partition is in part the story of unintended consequences in Irish history.

Let me make a brief, fourth and final point in relation to partition and empire, and in doing so return to central Europe. One of the major themes within the current history-writing on Austria-Hungary is a focus on those who lived their lives, pursuing their personal, familial, social and professional priorities relatively distant from the wider political and military concerns of nation and empire; people whose values, ideals and integrity were expressed within the intimate and the local rather than any wider canvas. These notions have a wider relevance, including for Ireland, as the first ‘Machnamh 100’ seminar discussed.

It is worth underlining that not everyone a hundred years ago was a hero either of the union, or of the nation and of its revolution; and that (as the work of different scholars has pointed out) Irish people often led their lives quietly and in politically undemonstrative ways far removed from the epic struggles of resistance and liberation.

Ethical commemoration

‘The point of commemoration’, John has rightly said, ‘is to interrogate the past for the sake of the present’. And perhaps it may be about the interrogation of the past for the shaping of our vision of the future.

Historians are ever-conscious of the burden of presentism and of the dangers of unduly shaping their work according to contemporary preoccupations. They are also, at best, sceptical or unwilling futurologists, as the Scots historian Tom Devine has said, “the future is not my period.”

The complexity of the past, and an unquenchable curiosity, are historians’ stock-in-trade. It is certainly instructive to reflect on past ideals and idealists, and upon the distance sometimes separating them and subsequent history. It is instructive, too, to pursue the comparative contexts within which Ireland and its future were defined and envisioned in the age of home rule and revolution. And it is surely worth reflecting on the contingent and dynamic nature of our history – and on the extent to which past commemorations, both North and South, may have sought to isolate or photo-shop particular moments or particular people or particular classes to the exclusion of a much richer whole.