Ulster Volunteer Force, Belfast, 1914 Ulster Volunteer Force, Belfast, 1914. Photo: Public Domain

One hundred years since the partition of Ireland into north and south, Chris Bambery looks at the determination by government, police and big business to hold on to a part of Britain’s fading empire

At 1.20am in the early hours of 23 March 1922 five men used a sledgehammer to smash down the door of the Catholic McMahon family home in north Belfast. The family feared a bomb had been thrown into the house.

The intruders collected the women of the house, locking them in a back room. They then forced 50-year-old Owen McMahon and his five sons, ages 11 to 24, and McMahon’s 25-year-old pub manager who was also his lodger, into the living room. The leader of the assassins told the men, ‘you boys pray for your souls.’. As they were praying, the gang opened fire.

Owen McMahon and three of his boys died instantly, as did boarder Ed McKinney. Another McMahon son, Bernard, died of his wounds a week later. Amazingly, the shots intended for 11-year-old John McMahon missed. The boy, shrieking with fright, ran round the dining-room table. Two more shots were fired at him as he ran which ricocheted off the table into the wall. The boy managed to get under the sofa and lay there until the killers had fled. John McMahon later identified the killers as uniformed, but masked, police. He was absolutely categorical about the murderers’ identity in his statement to local clergy: ‘Four of the five men were dressed in the uniform of the RIC [Royal Irish Constabulary] but, from their appearance, I know they are Specials, not regular RIC.

The B Specials were a 100% Protestant armed police auxiliary unit which had already established a fearsome reputation for sectarianism against the Catholic minority in the new state of Northern Ireland.

John McMahon was correct. The murder gang was made up of B Specials but led by RIC District Inspector John Nixon operating out of Brown Street Barracks on the Shankill Road. Calling themselves the Cromwell Club, their attacks were directed by RIC County Inspector, Richard Harrison. Nixon and Harrison were trusted by the Unionist government but the RIC, the old all-Ireland police force, majority Catholic, was not. The Unionists would create an overwhelmingly Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary, armed of course, but that would take time – thus the B Specials were drafted onto the streets.

Mural of the RIC murders, Belfast. Photo: Ross / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

Owen McMahon was a pillar of Belfast’s small Catholic middle class made up of clergy, teachers, publicans and licensed grocers in the main, reflecting the marginalised nature of that community, in the main unskilled labourers excluded from skilled work in the city’s shipyards or engineering plants. He was friendly with the Nationalist MP for West Belfast, Joe Devlin, but was not politically involved. He and his family were targeted precisely because of that to send a message that any Catholic, no matter their views or social status, were potential targets of Loyalist murder gangs. Their aim was to intimidate and quell the Catholic population within a state designed to be a Protestant one for a Protestant people. It had been born in the previous summer of 1921 and feared the rest of Ireland, now committed to gaining as much independence from Britain as they believed possible.

The McMahon murders were not the only atrocities carried out by Northern Ireland’s security forces. In February 1922 Catholic children were playing in North Belfast’s Weaver Street, a Special Constable first herded children together before a bomb was thrown into their midst by one of two men who had accompanied a B Special patrol. Six women and children died in the attack and many others were badly injured. The men also opened fire on people coming to the aid of the injured. Outside Belfast special constables were implicated in other killings and attacks such as the burning of ten houses, including a priest’s house in Roslea and the burning of 161 houses and deaths of ten Catholics in Newry.

District Inspector John Nixon was involved in another attack a week after the McMahon murders. After the Irish Republican Army (IRA) shot a policeman, officers from Brown Street Barracks stormed into Arnon Street and went house to house killing six Catholics, including a former First World War soldier and a child.

The Belfast Brigade of the IRA identified Nixon. Michael Collins, a key figure in the IRA but now organising the new Irish Free State in opposition to his former comrades, passed on this information to the Northern Ireland government. Its ministers knew as much already but did nothing. Records of the relevant Cabinet discussions remain closed to the public today.

Nixon was elected five times to the Northern Ireland parliament and he was awarded an MBE by George V in 1923 for his ‘valuable service during the troubled period’. He was dismissed from the RUC in 1924 for making a political speech at an Orange Order rally but would never face trial for his murders. By 1924 the Unionist government no longer needed his services. They had established their sordid state.

The date chosen for the centenary of the founding of Northern Ireland, one decided upon by a panel of historians appointed by Boris Johnson’s government, is 3 May, the day the legislation which devised the new political structures came into force.

The 1920 Government of Ireland Act drew a border across Ireland for the first time. This was designed to create a Northern Ireland state with the greatest possible Unionist majority. So the historic nine county province of Ulster was itself partitioned with the counties of Monaghan, Cavan and Donegal excluded from the new state because their inclusion would have narrowed the Unionist majority substantially. The Act envisaged two parliaments meeting in Dublin and Belfast. The former, as decided upon in London, did not come into existence, the latter did.

But by the early summer of 1921 the British government had come to accept they could not win against the forces of Irish freedom. The fight for an Irish Republic was led by Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Army which had between 1919 and July 1921, through mass mobilisation, electoral success and guerrilla war, brought the British government to the negotiating table.

The ceasefire which came into effect only deepened Unionist paranoia as the IRA emerged into the open, including in Northern Ireland. That sense of unease and vulnerability was deepened by a suspicion of the government in London, a coalition of the Tories and a section of the Liberal Party, led by the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George. They were right to be uneasy. Lloyd George wanted a solution to the Irish problem and his commitment to maintaining partition was not going to get in the way of that.

In December 1921 the Irish negotiators in London signed a Treaty with Britain which accepted partition and left the new 26 county Irish Free State within the British Commonwealth, its elected representatives having to swear loyalty to the British Crown. The British promised a Boundary Commission to assess the Irish border and the position of nationalist areas within Northern Ireland, hinting strongly that Fermanagh and Tyrone would be transferred to the Free State. It was to be made up by a chair appointed by the British government, supposedly a neutral expert acceptable to all sides, and a representative of both Irish governments.

The Unionists viewed all this with deep suspicion and their leader, the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Sir James Craig, promised ‘not an inch’ of territory would be ceded to the south.

The other response was by a plethora of Loyalist murder gangs operating in Belfast targeting Catholics, any Catholics, including women and children.  The Irish Republican Army, which was attempting to target the security forces, was forced to retaliate, committing gruesome acts in turn, but it was an unequal struggle because the Loyalists were operating often in tandem with the security forces, and with the new Northern Ireland government turning a blind eye, even when they knew their own police officers were carrying out murder.

Three books mark the centenary this summer of the bloody birth of the Northern Ireland state: Alan F. Parkinson’s, A Difficult Birth; Charles Townshend’s The Partition: Ireland Divided 1885-1925; and Without a Dog’s Chance: The Nationalists of Northern Ireland and the Irish Boundary Commission by James A. Cousins. They complement each other. Townshend’s is a narrative explaining how the Irish Question dominated British politics for 40 years, and the machinations behind the December 1921 Treaty.

Parkinson tells the story of the violence which characterised Northern Ireland’s creation. He attempts to be fair by indicting Loyalists and Republicans for atrocities but consistently draws the conclusion that Loyalists, quickly incorporated into the new state’s security forces, carried out the great majority of killings.

Cousins’s book looks very much at the politics of the northern minority, particularly the hold the old Irish Parliamentary Party maintained (it supported devolution not independence), despite the fact that in the south it had collapsed as support for Sinn Fein surged.

The leader of the new Northern Ireland state, Sir James Craig, a wealthy whiskey distiller, came from the Unionist Party, allied to the British Conservatives, which had built itself on the back of sectarianism in alliance with the anti-Catholic Orange Lodge. In the two years prior to the outbreak of the First World War, the Liberal government in London, reliant on Irish Nationalist MPs’ support, attempted to pass a law giving Home Rule to Ireland.

The Unionists responded forcefully. They and their Tory friends created the Ulster Volunteer Force, threatened civil war and, weeks before European war broke out, bought and smuggled in thousands of German weapons. The Liberal government caved in after the British military in Ireland refused orders to seize the weapons and agreed the North East of Ireland would not come under the rule of any Dublin based parliament thereby effectively partitioning the country.

Ulster Volunteers, 1914. Photo: Public Domain

War put matters on hold until the Easter 1916 uprising in Dublin and the subsequent rise of Sinn Fein and then the IRA. The nature of the Ulster Unionist leadership changed too with the December 1918 UK general election. The Unionists took 60 percent of the vote in Ulster, winning 26 seats, while Sinn Fein swept the board in the rest of Ireland.

Until then the leadership had been landowners, members of the Protestant ascendancy class such as Colonel Edward James Saunderson, who led the Unionists up until his death in 1906. Saunderson was a substantial landowner in Cavan. After the 1918 general election, as Townshend points out:

‘Their social profile had changed, the once dominant landed gentry were reduced to a single representative; the majority of Ulster Unionists were now lawyers and merchants.’ (p126).

The UVF had been revived and when Nationalists and Sinn Fein took control of Derry City Council in early 1920 it launched sustained assaults on Catholic areas, with the British army doing little or nothing to stop them. In Belfast following the annual 12 July Orange marches, aimed at underlining Protestant supremacy, those Catholics employed in the shipyards, engineering plants and many other workplaces were driven out by force as sectarian rioting spread across the city. Two thirds of the 20 who died were Catholic. Overall approximately 7,500 workers lost their jobs, including 2,000 women. Over 1,800 Protestants were expelled, including ex-servicemen and members of the Orange Order, because of their support for the small Labour Party or because they were active trade unionists. In Belfast, Catholics in Unionist areas or in streets bordering them were forced out, often burned out. All told in 1920, 1921 and 1922 Parkinson calculates some 20,000 Catholics were driven from their homes (p47).

Craig pleaded with the British authorities in Ireland to be allowed to recruit a Unionist-run armed special constabulary but they refused. Instead he ordered the pre-war UVF commander to reform the UVF in order to harness loyalists’ ‘militant energies’. The UVF was revived in the summer of 1920 but not on the scale of 1913-1914.

What both Parkinson and Townshend makes clear is the creation of the Ulster Special Constabulary, with three sections, the full time A Specials, the part-time B Specials and the C Specials who could be called out to augment the B Specials if needed – all were armed and the B Specials kept their guns at home – was seen by Craig and his colleagues as vital to creating and maintain the new state. It was, to quote Winston Churchill, a policy of ‘arming the Protestants.’

As the IRA campaign grew, particularly in the south west and Dublin City, and with the British government prepared to ignore and even permit counter-killings and reprisals in Ireland, it decided that arming of loyalists would free up British forces to crush the rebellion. Craig was granted his special constabulary. Craig and the Ulster unionists controlled the new USC, while the British government financed and armed it.

By the end of 1920, 1,417 men had enrolled in the ‘A’ Specials, 2,993 in the ‘B’ Specials and just 32 in the ‘C’ Specials. The USC subsequently mushroomed in size, reaching a membership of 35,000 by June 1922. Then, one in six of all Protestant males in the north were members. There was one armed agent of the Northern Ireland government for two adult males in the Catholic population.

The Craig government wished to create its own regular Unionist police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, but that would take time, so it enlisted the UVF en masse into the heavily armed B Specials to police that minority. They quickly became hated by the Catholic population for their sectarianism and their involvement in killing Catholic civilians like the McMahons. But they were effective in intimidating the Catholic population and in countering the IRA, which they outnumbered and outgunned.

By the summer of 1921 the British government of Lloyd George, faced with an ailing economy and growing unrest in India, Egypt and newly acquired Iraq, and realising it could not beat the IRA and Sinn Fein, agreed to a ceasefire and negotiations. But it had also revived the partition plan drawing the boundaries of the New Ireland state so it would have a comfortable and seemingly permanent Unionist majority.

King George V travelled to Belfast to open the new Northern Irish parliament preaching reconciliation but crowning a new state born amidst a bloody assault on its minority population, which was discriminated against and excluded in any say over how that state was run.

Opening of the Northern Irish parliament, 1921

The Unionist government introduced the Civil Authority (Special Powers) Act in April 1922, a piece of ‘emergency’ legislation that was passed by the Northern Ireland parliament. It was directed and used almost exclusively against the Catholic population, the Act gave the North’s Minister for Home Affairs drastic powers to restrict and suspend civil liberties. It conferred wide powers of arrest without warrant, search and questioning on the RUC and `B’ Specials as agents of the Minister. The Minister also had power to detain and intern without trial, hang, flog, prohibit coroners’ inquests and to make regulations, each with the force of a new law, without consulting the parliament in Stormont.

Internment without trial came into force and remained in place until 1924. In the initial swoop 200 men were seized, few IRA commanders. The number held would rise to over 728. Internment was used in every decade of Unionist rule. The Special Powers Act (1922) was renewed until 1928 and was eventually made permanent in 1933. It was in operation for fifty-one years until 1973.

John Vorster, the South African Minister for Justice in the apartheid regime, introducing a new coercion bill in April 1963, commented that he ‘would be willing to exchange all the legislation of that sort for one clause of the Northern Ireland Special Powers Act.’

Alan Parkinson gives a figure of 498 deaths between July 1920 and June 1922. Protestants made up over three quarters of Belfast’s population, according to the 1911 Census. Yet 56% of the 498 killed was Catholic – so the number of Catholics killed was more than double their share of the population.

In the 16 months up to October 1921, there were 165 killings almost evenly split between the two communities – 81 Catholics and 84 Protestants, an almost-even split. But after November 1921, when Craig’s Unionist government gained control of policing and security, in the 12 months that followed there 333 killings, twice as many as in the first 16 months. The bulk of those killed were Catholics, 199.

What brought an end to this was the outbreak of Civil War in the south in June 1922 between the new Irish Free State and that section of the Republican movement opposed to it. The IRA’s Belfast Battalion sided with the Dublin government, many going south to join the new Irish army. That reflected the marginalisation of the Catholic minority and growing realisation that the security forces and the Loyalist murder gangs had the upper hand in Northern Ireland. The Unionists seized the chance to scrap proportional representation which had allowed the nationalists to run councils such as Derry. That increased nationalist marginalisation.

The convening of the Boundary Commission had to await the victory of the Free State (its reprisals against its opponents went beyond what the British had inflicted on Republicans). The British government’s choice as chair was the South African judge, Justice Richard Feetham, he represented, the British Government. Townshend says of him, ‘the solidity of his Ulsterism was beyond question.’ (p.248) Craig and his government refused to appoint a representative so the British government appointed Joseph R. Fisher, a Unionist newspaper editor, author and barrister to represent them. The Dublin government’s choice was Eoin MacNeill, the Minister for Education, the man who as head of the Volunteers had tried to call off the Easter Rising, sabotaging its effectiveness.

The Commission’s deliberations were supposed to be secret. Feetham kept in close touch with the British and Northern Irish governments. Fisher briefed the Unionists on a daily basis but MacNeill alone refused to report to Dublin or to northern nationalists. Meanwhile the British government insisted the Boundary Commission had been agreed only to iron out minor problems with a hastily drawn border. Feetham added to this by rejecting any votes at a county or parish level on which state people wished to belong.

Irish Boundary Commission final map, 1925. Photo: Public Domain

MacNeill failed to challenge this or to clarify the remit of the Commission. Then in November 1925 Fisher leaked the final report to the British Morning Post which proposed the transfer of areas such as east Donegal to Northern Ireland. The hapless MacNeill resigned and the British government put the report in a drawer where it stayed until the late 1960s. The Irish, Northern Irish and British governments hurriedly met in London to confirm the existing border – both Irish governments got financial reward from London. Northern nationalists who believed the Boundary Commission would reduce Northern Ireland to the Belfast area were deeply demoralised and left to the tender care of the Unionists. Realisation came that the Dublin government was more interested in protecting its own state rather than helping them.

Until recently, Northern nationalists were a marginalised community suffering sectarianism, repression and poverty, the hallmarks of the Northern Irish state. The British side played fast and loose in securing a settlement to the Irish issue. Lloyd George’s party trick was promising one thing to one side and another to the other. He never fully backed the Unionists but Craig generally got his way by threatening resignation and the British side would cave in seeing such an eventuality as destabilising things.

For over four decades it did nothing to interfere in the political slum that was Northern Ireland, formally part of the United Kingdom. Successive Irish governments had a rhetorical commitment to Irish unity but in practice pursued the interests of their own state, as they saw it.

Today, a century on, the issue of Irish unity is back on the agenda. The Unionists, now grouped in the DUP, and the Loyalists sense their own weakness and distrust the British. The Dublin government will, as always, try not to upset the apple cart. If Irish unity is to succeed it will require mass mobilisation north and south and a vision of what a new Ireland can bring to benefit its people.

Meanwhile as we mark the centenary of the creation of the Northern Ireland state spare a thought for the murdered McMahons, the victims of Weaver Street and Arnon Street and the many other victims of the sectarian violence in which that state was born, encouraged by its Unionist rulers, with Britain colluding, and remember those agents of the new state actively involved in murdering its citizens. I am sure those memories will be missing from the official celebrations marking the centenary.


Alan F. Parkinson, A Difficult Birth: The Early Years of Northern Ireland 1920-25, Eastwood Books

Charles Townshend, The Partition : Ireland Divided 1885-1925, Allen Lane

James A Cousins, Without a Dog’s Chance: The Nationalists of Northern Ireland and the Irish Boundary Commission, Irish Academic Press

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.