Political Conflict in East Ulster, 1920-22

While most studies of the Irish Revolution focus on republican violence and on the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922, Dr Christopher Magill’s book takes a very different approach by examining Unionist activities and violence, and the creation of the state of Northern Ireland.

When I began studying east Ulster during the period of the Irish revolution, I restricted my interest to County Antrim, where I was born and raised.  Dr Fergus Campbell suggested that I explore the area during that tumultuous time while I was studying at Newcastle University. My approach was heavily influenced by other county studies of the Irish revolution, most notably Peter Hart’s research in Cork, with a major focus on the forces of republicanism. What would set my initial research apart was the focus on the most Protestant county, as opposed to a mainly Catholic one. I asked many of the same questions: how did the IRA develop, how successful were they, and how did this fit into the national story?

However, the more I looked the more I found, and more questions were raised. I could not answer those initial questions to my satisfaction without inquiring about other groups, as Antrim’s demography and political composition set it apart from other counties in many ways. It was not just the most Protestant county in Ireland; it was also one of the last remaining strongholds of constitutional nationalism, a major hindrance to the development of republican politics beyond a certain point. But equally as important, if not more, was the strength of counter-revolutionary organisations and political parties, such as the Ulster Volunteer Force, the Ulster Special Constabulary, and the Ulster Unionist Party.

To find out why the republican revolution failed in the six counties that formed Northern Ireland from 1921, I needed to understand these groups. I broadened my geographical area of interest to incorporate County Down and I gained access to a wider array of archives, some of which were (and still are) officially closed to the public. What I discovered about the unionist forces gave shape to Political Conflict in East Ulster. As such, the book contains one chapter on republicanism and nationalism. The rest is primarily focused on unionism and loyalism.

The creation of a Northern Irish state was no one’s ambition before the Irish revolution. It became a solution of convenience for the cluster of unionists in the north-east of Ireland, but one they were willing to fight and die for once it was established. The unionist narrative of this period, however, is less steeped in nostalgic glory than the Irish nationalist narrative. Republicans gained something in 1921: an imperfect settlement, but a settlement none the less, for most of the country. Unionists, by contrast, conceded 26 counties, including three in Ulster. This signified a major betrayal of Ulster Covenant signatories and Ulster Unionist Council members. Unionists look back less fondly on the early 1920s and as such much of the history is overlooked or forgotten.

But rediscovering what has been forgotten is what makes the study of history so compelling. In Political Conflict in East Ulster we see how Lisburn, a town on the southern outskirts of Belfast, was partially destroyed by rioting in the aftermath of an audacious IRA assassination of a police district inspector in the town. We see how the Ulster Special Constabulary was established as much to control loyalists as to suppress the IRA and that its members, contrary to a widely-held republican view, were not recruited based on their willingness and ability to attack and oppress Catholics. Other explanations for such oppression are discussed, such as the psychological strain of fighting an unconventional conflict. Finally, we see how the Northern Ireland government covered up the killing of three Catholic men in Cushendall in 1922 by the Ulster Special Constabulary by exploring the evidence of a British inquiry which pointed at the police’s guilt.

Much of the forgotten history was only forgotten by one group. Often those aligned with the victims remember, but as far as historical research goes little currently exists. Hopefully Political Conflict in East Ulster is one step towards rectifying this.


This guest post was written by Christopher Magill who completed his doctorate at Queen’s University, Belfast.

Political Conflict in East Ulster, 1920-22
By Christopher Magill
9781783275113, Hardback, £48.75 or $78