Book review — Partition: What Did It Do for Us? (Johnston McMaster)

Book review — Partition: What Did It Do for Us? (Johnston McMaster)
by Benjamin WHITE
21 June 2021

Partition offers an in-depth, historical view of the complex aspects of the partition of Ireland. It is a text designed for community education programmes, and the author, Johnston McMaster, elucidates its purpose early: “The learning and understanding process will spark personal, family and community memories and people will tell stories. … We deal with nested histories. Engaging with this educational programme and the accompanying book, should be engagement and exploration of all these layers of narrative histories.” (p. 8) The text provides great insight into the layers of partition. 

Introducing the context for the book, McMaster starts with a personal extract. Reflecting on the reunification of Germany and considering what such a moment might be like if Ireland was to be reunited, he asserts: “Europe is all too familiar with histories of partition and reunification, and imposed borders. All of this is not about lines on a map, but divisions in minds and psyches.” (p. 6) These divisions were created by an event that was never intended to be permanent.

Through the body of the work, the build up to partition is explored. This “long road” only came to fruition shortly after WWI, however, it was brewing through decades and centuries. Particular attention is given to the decade building up to the event, which McMaster coins the “Decade of Momentous Change”, one that “would see violence and bloodshed and end in the partition of Ireland.” (p. 18) The viscousness of this period is detailed, providing backdrop for the event. Nevertheless, as McMaster alludes to, the partition of Ireland could be said to be a “thoughtless” undertaking. (p. 7)

As he proceeds, Johnston details the extent to which the partition was a lose-lose situation on all sides: “[N]ot only the most momentous event in modern Irish history, it was the most complex and even confused and confusing. Partition created problems, perhaps even more that it solved problems.” (p. 29) And as further proclaimed by McMaster, nobody at the time got what they wanted; what grew out of this scenario was state security and state religion, with the north and south becoming defined by heavy-handed state security forces, calcifying into a militarised mindset for the population. At the same time, the new populations became decisively confessional; while the rest of Europe was becoming more secular, on the island of Ireland state and religion were tightly married in oppositional sects. Aware of the problems this created, McMaster contends: “Confessional states make for bad politics and bad religion.” (p. 33)  Thus, the north and south became two separate entities, both socially and politically conservative.

Johnston documents the partition of not only the state of Ireland, but the Unionist/Protestant and Nationalist/Catholic communities, each separated with a minority population “beached on the wrong side of the border”. (p. 72) The historic province of Ulster itself was partitioned, with six counties becoming Northern Ireland and the other three remaining in the south. For both beached populations, partition had been imposed and, as accorded by McMaster: “[A]ll sides bought into a militarised culture of violence.” (p. 72)

Before turning to matters of reconciliation and the future in the last chapter, McMaster scrutinises the Boundary Commission. The commission was set up by the British state to deal with the “Irish Question”: “The ultimate aim was the reunification of Ireland. The partition of Ireland was meant to be temporary.” (p. 85) The Irish War of Independence still raged, and with the British Government seeing the inefficacy in the military campaign, peace was in order. Nevertheless, neither side was inclined to concede: “The British promise of a Boundary Commission was seized upon by both sides because it offered a way of seeming to do something about partition without actually doing anything.” (p. 90) As such, McMaster describes the commission as “farcile and futile”. (p. 95).

McMaster opens his conclusion by discussing the Covid-19 pandemic and the issue of Brexit, with specific regards to what these two phenomena might mean in the context of Northern Ireland and partition. He explores the possibility that the union breaks up and what this could mean for the north, before considering such a scenario for the island of Ireland: “With Brexit, Covid-19 and the sea of change in geopolitics, a small island like Ireland will not be cocooned.” (p. 111)

In accord with the peacebuilding discourse, McMaster notes the long-term process nature of reconciliation; while there has been significant improvement in Northern Ireland since the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, sectarianism remains hard and strong. With that noted, McMaster debates what is necessary for reconciliation.

For the north, there are three main stands to reconciliation, as was core to the agreement: “those within Northern Ireland, between north and south and between east and west,  the British-Irish relationships”. (p. 100) However, these relationship strands are heavily political, and reconciliation is a far broader concept. Therefore, McMaster expands his definition of what is necessary for peace and reconciliation to take place in Northern Ireland: “They are political, economic, legal, environmental, socio-psychological, and socio-spiritual. Where any one of those strands is left out, peace and reconciliation will remain elusive.” (p. 101)

While McMaster’s stance on the partition is clear throughout, it is also clear he is less interested in merely documenting the cycle of violence that it precipitated. At the end of every chapter, the text lays out a set of prompts designed to help readers reflect. Examples are as simple as: “How have we lived with partition?” or “How will we live through the future?” (p. 84) In his concluding section, McMaster recognises the importance of narrative hospitality and ethical remembering: “History is interpretation … [w]ith all our presuppositions and biases there is no absolute objectivity.” (p. 104) This underlies how history can be an aid to reconciliation: “[Ethical remembering] is about raising questions about the use of violence to deal with differences and the resolution or defence of political causes.” (p. 105). Through this lense, one may begin to answer McMaster’s prompts.

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