On The Cusp of 100: The Government of Ireland Act 1920, Partition and Northern Ireland

Peter Donnelly, Editor

The fact that the story of Northern Ireland is rarely discussed, yet its very existence provides the region’s political sects with their respective allegiances, illustrates that the understanding of history (or its misunderstanding) can easily be forgotten. Many of Northern Ireland’s people know nothing of the historical context and intricacies of the establishment of the state, into which they were born.

The Grand Spectacle : The June 1921 opening of the Northern Ireland Parliament, as created by the Government of Ireland Act 1920. The first NI Parliament sat at the Union Theological College on Botanic Avenue in South Belfast, behind Queen’s University, Belfast, until Stormont was opened in 1932. Nationalist representatives, including the constitutional West Belfast MP Joseph Devlin, declined an invitation to the event which, for many within the Nationalist minority, marked the beginning of fifty years of exclusion and discrimination. The Southern Ireland jurisdiction, as envisaged by the 1920 Act, was also rejected by the majority of Southern Nationalists, leading to its non-functioning. Getty/BBC

The creation of Northern Ireland, under the Government of Ireland Act 1920, must be seen within the overarching decade of significant centenaries from the home rule crisis in 1912 culminating with the end of the Irish Civil War in 1923.

December 1920 signals a milestone for modern understandings of Irish history in all its forms – political, social, economic and fundamentally constitutional. Following centuries of bitter political wrangling over Ireland’s constitutional future, the question of who should govern Ireland; an issue which had preoccupied and perplexed British statesmen and Irish representatives for seven hundred years, was settled – if only temporarily.

As the Northern Ireland Act, which gave statutory force to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA), is the fundamental law of Northern Ireland today; the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 occupied that same position up until 1973.

The 1920 Act is an oft-neglected Act of Parliament which effected watershed constitutional changes for the future governing structure on the island, not least the partition of the country and the resultant creation of the Northern Ireland state.

With the crucial addition of hindsight, it is obvious that the Government of Ireland Act did not provide the durable remedy to the seemingly perpetual ills to the ‘Irish Question,’ that the then coalition British Government, under David Lloyd George’s premiership, so desired. The War of Independence between British Government forces and the Irish Republican Army had been raging across the Southern counties of Ireland – most notably in Tipperary, Cork and Kerry – from the beginning of January 1919.

The aspirations of the bulk of Irish nationalist opinion was invested in Sinn Fein which ran on an ambitious election manifesto, in 1918, for an independent Irish Republic.  Sinn Fein’s triumph at the polls, taking 73 parliamentary seats, marked a hardening of opinion from within the nationalist electorate which has been described as a rejection of British rule and the constitutional home rule politics of the old Irish Parliamentary Party whose seats were reduced from 68 to 6. 

The Sinn Fein majority established the first Dáil in Dublin’s Mansion House as a counter-revolutionary, people’s assembly to the Dublin Castle administration and Westminster introducing its own Democratic Programme.

Ulster Unionists had been fervently opposed to their inclusion in a home rule Dublin administration, from the days of Prime Minister William Gladstone’s first home rule bill in 1886 until the beginning of the First World War in 1914. Following the Great War and the changed political landscape of Ireland, Ulster Unionists led by Sir James Craig, and an increasingly disillusioned Sir Edward Carson, cemented their hold on the north-eastern part of the country advancing their parliamentary seats there from 19 to 26, in the 1918 election.

In the counties of Antrim, Down, Armagh and Derry, four of the six counties which would form the Northern Ireland state, the Unionists won an overall majority, while in Fermanagh and Tyrone they were narrowly overtaken by the combined strength of the old IPP nationalists and Sinn Fein.

The notion that Ireland was an island of ‘two nations’ with two diametrically opposing ideologies presents itself starkly when the results of the 1918 election are subject to a mere cursory examination.  The Unionists of Ulster had seen little, if anything at all in an Ireland under home rule which was still within the United Kingdom, but in an Irish Republic they saw nothing whatever. 

The road to the exclusion of the unionist-dominated north, from an independent Ireland governed by a nationalist majority, was an unquestionable certainty by December 1920.


The 1920 Act and the features of today

The 1920 Act’s provisions, although no longer in effect, are worthy of examination as a means to discover how it set many precedents which remain crucial elements of the current Good Friday Agreement settlement in 1998 – including all-island co-operation and the principle of consent.

The Drafter: Walter Long headed the Committee which devised the 1920 scheme, beginning the bill in 1919. The bill originally envisaged a nine county Northern Ireland encompassing the entire historic province of Ulster. James Craig and his colleagues rejected anything more or less than six counties which would give Unionists adequate security. Long had a perspicacious knowledge of Irish affairs having been Chief Secretary for Ireland in the British Dublin Castle administration. He had been a keen supporter of the Irish Unionist crusade against home rule, from 1905 during the home rule crisis of 1912-1914. Following the Great War, his view on home rule mellowed, sensing the changed political realities in Ireland between 1916 and 1918.

Drafted by an essentially anonymous committee of cabinet officials and advisers under the chairmanship of Walter Long, from October 1919, the Act proposed what was the administrative partition of Ireland into the jurisdictions of Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland.  The structure of the Act was to all intents and purposes a wholly novel experiment, and the first of its kind in Britain or Ireland, in devolutionary governance.

During 1918 Long had toyed with the idea of UK-wide federalism. The concept of devolution grew increasingly attractive to some in Westminster, inspired by the seismic changes which were sweeping Europe and the wider world following the First World War. The Speaker’s Conference on Devolution in Westminster, between 1919 and 1920, considered the possibility of a scheme of ‘home rule all round’ for all nations within the UK. Interest in the concept gradually waned, however, as Ireland, once again, presented itself as the precariously pressing priority.

The 1920 Act provided for, what Nicholas Mansergh describes as “the complete withdrawal of British rule from Ireland in the sphere of domestic government.” Both Northern and Southern Irish entities would have their own respective home rule legislatures and executives within the Union; with an all-island body, the Council of Ireland, which would encourage ‘mutual intercourse’ between North and South administrations on a set of common concerns and subsequently aid the way to eventual prospective unity.  Parallels with the 1998 Agreement are particularly striking here with cross-border co-operation being deemed essential for a peaceful settlement.  Thus, the North-South Ministerial Council could well be gifted the title of the 1920 Council of Ireland’s immediate successor; however different the political niceties.   

Yet, Eamon Phoenix sees the 1920 Act as a less than genuine attempt to resolve ‘the Irish question’ but rather an expedient method for the British Government to firstly deal with Ulster Unionist concerns and aspirations. It then left the Prime Minister Lloyd George and his cabinet free to negotiate the Anglo-Irish Treaty with the leaders of Sinn Fein in the Winter of 1921. According to that theory, the ‘Ulster’ issue had been resolved, if only temporarily, by 1920.


From the 1920 provisions it is evident that the consent principle, which proved to be central to the GFA, was in the nascent stages of its development.  What distinguished the 1920 Act, from its 1886, 1893 and 1914 predecessors, was its statutory recognition to Ulster Unionist’s complete objection to an all-Ireland self-governing scheme.  One hundred years on, looking at this, is all the more striking.  Conciliation between the varying polities took priority before constitutional change – today that fundamental point remains unchanged.  Divergence was always a buzz word which invoked fear for politicians, north, south, east and west. 

The outcome of the 2016 Brexit Referendum has been the most recent manifestation of that unease. The rather elongated Brexit process, to say the least, was stuck with on the frontiers of the Irish border.  Both the UK and Irish Governments retreated to the 1998 consent principle which is now so central to the present Withdrawal Agreement; providing a veneer of provisional clarity.  It is for the NI Assembly to determine if it wishes to continue to have regulatory alignment with EU practices and procedures.  That principle of agreement and consent, arguably, stretches back to the 1920 settlement. 


As it was: The text of the Government of Ireland Act 1920 which effected the partition of Ireland into the devolved regions of Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland. Ulster Unionists who had fervently opposed home rule from 1886, were the only political group which accepted the ‘fourth home rule’ settlement in the end. The 1920 Act was the first phase of the ‘Irish settlement’ of the 1920’s which would provide the constitutional structures the island currently lives with today.

The fact that ‘Southern Ireland’ did not function, as envisaged by the 1920 Act, was a central impediment to any immediate prospect towards eventual unification.  The Council of Ireland, in which the drafter’s placed much emphasis to maintain an element of essential unity, was itself a primary casualty of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, agreed later in 1921.  From 1921 onwards, both Irelands were ominously set on divergent paths, both with discontented minorities and distinct political and economic problems.  North and South were not on constitutional pars, as the 1920 Act had envisaged.  The Irish Free State, which emerged at the conclusion of the Treaty talks between the British Government and Sinn Fein representatives, was afforded Dominion status within the overarching framework of the British Empire.  Northern Ireland’s official representatives wished to solidify its position in the United Kingdom, while the Irish Free State remained wedded to loosening any form of political connection to Britain. 

The advent of cross-border co-operation was incremental, to frame it in diplomatic terms.  The New Decade, New Approach, agreement which restored the devolved Stormont institutions in January 2020, demonstrated how much the relationship between Britain and Ireland has transformed, as has the sects between north and south.  All-island co-operation and the stability of Northern Ireland appear to be interdependent. New Decade, New Approach should be viewed within the prism of the GFA, as supplementing and supporting is key provisions.  The 1920 Act did not have that advantage; perhaps if there had been accurate oversight mechanism and the political will the Act could have provided lasting stability.  It remains one of Irish history’s great ‘ifs.’


Ahead to 2021

Political and constitutional discourse will undoubtedly subsume the year of Northern Ireland’s centenary. Politics and all that is particular to Northern Ireland will be inescapable. The old tribal divisions, which have significantly mellowed from the commencement of the peace process, have and will continue to rise to the fore. That, familiar, battle-cry of the narratives will be invoked as these developments, although a century old, are debated by politicians, academics and journalists; with all too expedient parallels being made with the contemporary political situation in Northern Ireland. Already tribalism has emerged with nationalist controlled councils rejecting any type of commemoration of partition and unionist-majority councils taking the opposite view.

For those who wish to engage meaningfully and respecfully in the 2021 centenary, the models of recognition of 100 years of Northern Ireland can be divided into three overarching approaches.

  1. Celebration (which is liable to unionist triumphalism),
  2. Commemoration (where both moderate shades of unionist and nationalist opinion can remember the hardships which partition brought to the minorities in the newly created north and south states as well as the progressive moves made),
  3. Marking the seminal year of 1921 through symposiums with the potential for all hues of political opinion to participate. 

The Coronavirus public health pandemic will likely have a significant impact oon any large commemorative gatherings in 2021, yet the fact Northern Ireland will be entering, albeit battered and bruised, its one hundredth year of existence will be undeniable and inescapable. 

One hundred years ago the people of Ireland – of all political sects – were under the weight of great uncertainty. Fast forward one hundred years on to 2020, stark parallels can be drawn – the public health situation, Brexit and its constiutional and political implications. However, as 2021 looms the Northern Ireland populace must be wary of retreating into the habitual camps of tribalism which has hindered the progression towards reconciliation.

The words uttered by King George V, at the opening of the Northern Ireland Parliament, at which no nationalists representatives were present, on June 22nd 1921 continue to have the same resonance with the complexities of Northern Ireland in 2021:

“I appeal to all Irishmen to pause, to stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation, to forgive and to forget, and to join in making for the land which they love a new era of peace, contentment, and goodwill. May this historic gathering be the prelude of a day in which the Irish people, North and South, under one Parliament or two, as those Parliaments may themselves decide, shall work together in common love for Ireland upon the sure foundations of mutual justice and respect. “

King George V, Belfast City Hall on the occasion of the state opening of the Northern Ireland Parliament, June 1921.

The expression of those hopeful sentiments remain yet to be imagined.


The history has set, it is now concrete. The future is not. With 2021 vision, both positivity and potential are plenty, if past attempts and failures, to resolve the country’s difficulties, are willingly heeded by all of the country’s society.


Editor’s Note

The Northern Ireland Office’s proposals for marking the centenary of Northern Ireland have been published here.

Published by The Gown Queen's University Belfast

The Gown has provided respected, quality and independent student journalism from Queen's University, Belfast since its 1955 foundation, by Dr. Richard Herman. Having had an illustrious line of journalists and writers for almost 70 years, that proud history is extremely important to us. The Gown is consistent in its quest to seek and develop the talents of aspiring student writers.

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