In the north, the provisions of the Government of Ireland Act came into effect in May 1921. Northern Ireland was born.
Elections to the new parliament were held on 24 May 1921, or Empire Day, an annual celebration of the British Empire and its achievements; the symbolism was not lost on unionists. ‘Vote for Ulster and the Empire, or Sinn Féin and disruption’, was the stark choice offered up by the Lisburn Standard.
In County Antrim, six unionist candidates stood for election, including Lisburn’s own John Milne Barbour (1868-1951), managing director of the Linen Thread Co., the world’s largest linen thread-making company.
In the weeks before the polls opened, the unionist candidates travelled throughout the county, campaigning. At one rally in Lisburn, the streets were thronged and bedecked with flags as Sir James Craig, who also stood for election in County Down, inspected ex-servicemen in Market Square before delivering a rousing speech at Lisburn Orange Hall. The future prime minister also spoke at Hillsborough, Drumbeg and Tullynacross.
To accommodate the election, Lisburn’s historic market – held since the 17th century – was moved and several of the town’s National Schools were used as polling centres. Local ‘B-Specials’ guarded the polling centres, providing ‘reassurance’ to voters.
When the votes were counted, unionists had swept the board, winning 40 out of 52 seats. John Milne Barbour and the five other unionists took seats in County Antrim, with nationalist Joe Devlin winning the seventh. He would abstain from attending the new northern parliament.
While Nationalists had campaigned on a united anti-partition ticket, Unionists had treated the election as a referendum on the very existence of a northern parliament.
The result copper-fastened the principle of partition as a solution to the ‘Irish question’ in Westminster.