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Long Read: Community, church and culture in boundary-making: the legacies of partition in the two parts of Ireland.

Published: 3 May 2021
Author: Jennifer Todd

In a talk prepared for the BBC at Queen’s University Belfast, Jennifer Todd reflects on the legacies of partition one hundred years on.

Partition was transformative of politics and social relations on the island of Ireland. It crystallized communities, empowered churches, and slowed the process of cultural change, ensuring that it happened in a different way North and South.  Was this the  ‘carnival of reaction’ that James Connolly predicted? Or did it simply give political form to existing divisions on the island? And with what longer term effects?

To address these questions I use two concepts: the concept of ‘boundary’ which allows analysis of the differentiated political and cultural effects of partition and the asymmetries North and South; and the concept of transformation, which I take as major change in both political and cultural boundaries, and which may be incremental or sudden. Here I analyse boundary making in both Irish jurisdictions in the hundred years since partition and examine how community, church, and everyday cultural practices fed into it.


Boundaries are ways of consolidating power, and boundary-work changes power.  Territorial boundaries assert armed force and state authority, and frame everyday experience within a state-centered imaginative grid. Institutional boundaries define how different categories of people are separated in education, economy and leisure, and how distinctions are made and discrimination enacted; they can be formal and legal, or informal, based on convergent social understandings.

These feed into symbolic boundaries, that mosaic of beliefs and values about what distinctions matter and what actions and interrelations are appropriate: this facilitates mobilisation into solidaristic groups – in Northern Ireland after partition, unionists and nationalists, in the Republic of Ireland into different sorts and statuses of nationalists.

And this feeds back again into politics and state functioning, which in turn reproduces national-political and ethno-religious boundaries so that they become very difficult to change.  

But everyday informal and symbolic boundaries are also where ordinary people can make a difference in laying the foundations for transformation. Transformation involves power shift – what Sewell called a dislocation of power – and meaning shift – a relocation of symbolic boundaries at the everyday level. It can be incremental  – as boundaries gradually become more porous and plural, or sudden. Either way, wider social transformation requires parties and movements to connect diffuse and diverse public feeling to actual political opportunities.

Partition: how it changed symbolic boundaries

Partition was transformative of boundaries. Before partition there was a complex cultural mosaic on the island with spaces of Protestant and Catholic, industrial and agricultural, and British and Irish predominance lying on  North-South and  East-West axes. This patterning was cross-cut by local, regional, religious and class linkages. Boundaries existed but they were permeable: studies have shown the diverse changing perspectives of cultural nationalists, Protestants and Catholics in this age of transition at the turn of the twentieth century. 

The process of partition transformed this complexity into a sharp territorial line, it turned the cultural mosaic into solidary communities divided one from another, and it created a clear moral-political boundary, with different values embodied in each of the new political systems, which offered a sense of dignity, honour and self-respect for the majority while the minority’s status and national self-esteem were undermined.

Unionist values were articulated early. In 1896, Thomas MacKnight editor  of the liberal newspaper The Northern Whig, said that Home Rule would ‘place the loyal in the power of the disaffected; the wealthier, educated, professional and more industrious classes under their social inferiors, the comparatively ignorant, the comparatively idle; they who were attached to the Crown and to the Empire under those who made no secret that their ultimate object was national independence.’

Like later unionists, he identified the British state with modernization, with a global reach, great power, religious liberty, wealth and industry and progress. Irish nationalism was portrayed as backward, traditionalist, parochial, dependent rather than powerful, subservient to Catholic authority, poor, and rooted in the peasantry rather than what they thought of as the progressive social classes.

Nationalists reversed the values and changed the content. Irish nationalism provided high ideals - humane development rather than soulless modernization; freedom dignity and self-determination rather than abject dependence on a British centre and status system; equality for the colonized rather than affirmation of imperial power. These coexisted, sometimes in the same people, with a pervasive conservativism and Catholic communalism sometimes mixed with anti-materialism, anti-semitism, and anti-Englishness.

With partition unionist and nationalist ideas and values were simplified and state belonging invested with moral significance. Minorities had to cope with a moral as well as a status change. Nationalists in Northern Ireland had to give up on freedom and self-determination, and turned to a defensive conservative communalism asserting their organic links with the South: T.J. Campbell, leader of the Nationalist Party from 1934, described Northern Ireland as a  branch cut off from ‘the ancient stem of Ireland’.

 In the Free State, territorial boundaries were a source of conflict and disappointment, but symbolic boundaries were fully asserted by the state, and Southern Protestants lost their presumed place in the social and moral hierarchy.

State building and the asymmetry of boundaries

After partition, Northern Ireland took on many of the powers and most of the symbolism of a state and in both parts of the island, governments took the churches as their allies and agents. The Irish Free State partnered with both Catholic and Protestant churches and let them administer education and welfare, in part because of its own weakness and lack of resources, in part because of the social conservatism of the winners of the civil war. The unionist government partnered with the Protestant churches – for example in state schooling - so as to keep the unionist alliance solid. The effect in each jurisdiction was to augment church power and political clientelism, and to institutionalise religious boundaries – in the South more consensually, in the North with increasing antagonism.

Political practices were overtly exclusionary in the North where successive  Unionist government listened to all and only Protestant groups. They were informally exclusionary in the South, where the Catholic church, as a major actor on which the state was dependent for many of its social functions, had in practice the ear of the government and significant influence on its policy.

The economy was sectoralized on religious grounds in each part of the island. In the North this reinforced the political and social weight of the Protestant majority.  In the South, disproportionate Protestant representation in some higher professions and finance counterbalanced Catholic majoritarianism. Religious division was politicised in the party system in the North, informally in voting patterns and  formally through the role of the Orange Order in the Unionist party. It was not so politicised in the South. It was embedded in the Northern state apparatus – with a strong and disproportionate Protestant advantage in the civil service, judiciary and security forces. In the Irish Free state, Protestant percentages in state positions fell after partition, but in key areas such as the judiciary, not below proportionality.

Meanwhile, religious division permeated associational life in each jurisdiction, in  Catholic and Protestant bowling clubs, tennis courts, ‘socials’, and separate pubs, butchers, bakers, lawyers, doctors and dentists.

These were conservative societies. Discrimination – indirect and direct – was pervasive in the North, in part political and legal, and in part a function of the normalisation of the dominant unionist ethos and the lack of any legal redress for nationalists and Catholics. In the South, despite some well-publicised cases of discrimination, religious boundaries were informal and more permeable than in the North, although national boundaries were asserted for example in the insistence on Irish language education.

There were areas of permeability in each society, and those who wanted to engage across boundaries could find ways to do so. There was considerable dissent, and many modernizers in each society for whom work, education and interests – pursued in accordance with best international practice of the times - dominated over sectarian concerns. But this did not change the national-religious boundaries embedded in state institutions and church power.  These were not seriously shaken until after the second world war.

Transformations and reversals  – 1958-72

The 1950s and 1960s marked the beginnings of major shifts in institutional and symbolic boundaries. In both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, massive changes in the international economy after the Second World war required a modernisation of politics and economy to attract Foreign Direct Investment and to lower unemployment, and in the Republic of Ireland to stem emigration.

In Northern Ireland the Keynesian Welfare State was an additional force for  change, increasing educational provision, stimulating movement around the province to new schools and hospitals, generalising a modernising ethos that highlighted the fact that Catholics had lesser opportunities than Protestants.

In the Republic of Ireland, the new economic departure of 1958 opened up the economy. It also lessened the political role and influence of the Catholic church and increasingly marginalised the socially conservative Catholic middle class who had guided the state in its early years. The nationalist ideology of the state was remade for the new project – now the nation would be open to global currents and its distinctive national excellence would lie in navigating them. In both states, Vatican Two stimulated greater religious permeability.

By 1965, the economic conditions and the modernizing aims in each jurisdiction, were sufficiently similar to allow two meetings between Taoiseach Sean Lemass and Prime Minister Terence O’Neill.

In Northern Ireland, where modernisers were now at the head of the Unionist party, the 1960s seemed like a period of social transformation. The civil rights movement was mobilising large segments of the population, young Protestants as well as Catholics.  In the first opinion polls of 1967 and 1968 there was flexibility: John Whyte (76-9) notes that nearly half of the population of Northern Ireland – and 40% of Protestants - would have supported a united Ireland linked in some unspecified way with Britain (1967). It is also true that nearly half of Protestants were willing to fight to keep Ulster Protestant. Equally half were not and the unionist modernisers, although they met increasing resistance, they gained about half of unionist votes through to the early 1970s. Meanwhile old fashioned nationalism was swept away by the civil rights movement. There was a potential for transformative change but the everyday push for change was coming from many different directions, with opposition between generations, religions, and classes.

As we know, unionist resistance grew, the government lost control, Stormont was prorogued, and two decades of violence and repression ensued. Everyday change still occurred but in so many different directions that it did not give a viable political alternative – the Peace People of 1976 was the biggest mass movement since civil rights, but it was too diverse to hold together in face of hard questions of security and prisons.

The upshot in the North was a concertina effect, opening, closure, opening, closure, without transformation.

In the Republic of Ireland, the new economic and political openness was widely welcomed and there was increasing public questioning of old certainties. In the 1960s, a challenge to Catholic social power  developed, for example among the feminists who took the contraceptive train from Belfast, but it did not lead to institutional change. Change was, however, happening in another sphere - the closed Protestant world began slowly to open up, first the schools, later the associational life.  While this was largely for demographic reasons, it converged with the ongoing changes in society as a whole, and informal boundaries slowly shifted.

The upshot in the South was an incremental process of reform, where governments increasingly sidelined the Catholic church from economics and political management, and brokered a bitter divide between traditional Catholicism and its critics. It was only in 1995 that there was a paper-thin referendum vote to permit divorce.

50 years later

The structural changes of the 1990s and 2000s gave another opening for transformative change.

In the Republic of Ireland, economic boom in the late 1990s and 2000s led to increased immigration, and a new generation was formed in an Ireland open to global currents. Meanwhile, trust in the Catholic church had been destroyed by paedophilia scandals. Then in 2008 came economic bust followed by economic bailout. The public lost trust in politicians. The 2011 Fine Gael-led government instituted a series of Citizens’ Assemblies. These set the agenda for major change through referenda on marriage equality and on the constitutional ban on abortion.  In each case, predominantly youthful social movements campaigned for a yes vote and used the dense social networks still linking generations in the South to win over uncertain older voters. The outcome was transformative. After 2018, the Catholic church’s dominant place in the nation, the state and public morality was gone – to be Irish is no longer to be Catholic. It is still to be different from the North.

In the North, the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 led to a major change in political institutions, an acceleration of economic reform, and a move towards cultural equality: state institutions now became agents of boundary-work against informal discrimination and embedded expectations of inequality: it was widely expected that everyday informal and symbolic boundaries would slowly follow. And indeed they did begin to open up.  In surveys in the mid 2000s, well over half the population declared a hybrid identity, at least in part British and Irish; almost all supporters of the Union would accept democratic change to a united Ireland, and all except a tiny handful of nationalists would accept a democratic decision to remain in the United Kingdom; by 2010 nearly half of the population declared themselves neither unionist nor nationalist. In a large scale qualitative study which measured how people moved away from bloc identities in the 2000s, I found that Northerners did this twice as frequently and much more radically than did Southerners.

But the everyday changes went in every direction – moderate unionism, pluralist nationalism, privatisers, radicals, cosmopolitans – and its political impact was much less than the numbers warranted. There was no party or movement or government able to broker this into a majority project. By the 2010s, there was disillusion and detachment from politics. With the flags protest of 2012 and later Brexit of 2016, we saw the concertina effect again: major changes and opening through the 2000s closed a decade later without any transformative outcome.

The legacies of partition

What then are the legacies of partition?

Partition crystallised a moral boundary in church and state that hardened political divisions in each jurisdiction and between them. It radically increased the importance of the churches in each jurisdiction thus embedding division in daily life. 

Much of this has changed. The old moral binaries that divided the states and the jurisdictions have gone: after Brexit the British state affirms both national self-determination and globalism, as the Irish state has long done. Institutional boundaries now counter discrimination, there has been slow change in informal boundaries, and quite radical change in symbolic ones. But the impact differed North and South.

In the Republic of Ireland after 1958, everyday change became cumulative. Fifty years later, after a major dislocation of power, changed public expectations were mobilized to transform the very idea of the nation.

In Northern Ireland, there was a more radical power shift and more radical everyday change. It was not transformative. The everyday changes were diverse and the social movements unable to hold together a coalition for change. The result has been a concertina effect of opening and closure, with much contention and no transformative outcome.  

The different dynamic of change in each part of the island has reinforced the symbolic boundary between them even as structural contrasts have lessened and institutional linkages have been built.

The legacy of partition lies in its continued capacity to prevent incremental transformation. The 100 year commemoration gives an opportunity to think how things could be different.

Jennifer Todd is the Research Director of the Institute for British Irish Studies at UCD.

Image: Creative Commons, Rob Mader