Editorial: Northern Ireland at 100, The Government of Ireland Act 1920, Partition and Northern Ireland

Peter Donnelly, Editor

The 3rd of May 2021 marks one hundred years of Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom as we know it today.

The Grand Spectacle : The June 1921 opening of the Northern Ireland Parliament, as created by the Government of Ireland Act 1920 at Belfast City Hall. Getty/BBC

1920 and 1921 were foundational years for modern understandings of the history of Ireland, be it politically, socially, economically or constitutionally.

Following centuries of bitter political wrangling over Ireland’s constitutional future, the question of who should govern Ireland and how it should be governed; an issue which had defeated generations of British statesmen for seven hundred years, was settled – if only temporarily.

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.

The Landscape of Early 1920’s Ireland

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 also occupied that same position up until 1973.

The 1920 Act is an oft-neglected Act of Parliament which gave birth to the contemporary constitutional structures 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 failed to be the durable remedy to the perpetual ills 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 were invested in the Sinn Fein party which ran on an ambitious election manifesto, in 1918, for an independent Irish Republic. Sinn Fein’s seminal success at the polls, capturing 73 parliamentary seats, signalled somewhat of a hardening of opinion from within the nationalist electorate which has been described as a rejection of British rule and the constitutional home rule and concessional-style politics of the once robust Irish Parliamentary Party whose seats were reduced from 68 to 6. The Irish Parliamentary Party had been the voice of Nationalist Ireland since the 1880’s from the days of its leader Charles Stewart Parnell.

The First Site: The NI Parliament initially sat at the Union Theological College, behind Queen’s University, on Botanic Avenue, South Belfast until Stormont was opened in 1932. Nationalist representatives, including the old constitutional nationalist 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 as a meagre and outdated form of ‘home rule’ or self-government which.

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.

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. The counties of Antrim, Down, Armagh and Londonderry, four of the six counties which would form the Northern Ireland state, returned an overall Unionist majority, while in Fermanagh and Tyrone they were narrowly overtaken by the combined strength of the old Irish Parliamentary Party nationalists and Sinn Fein.

The notion that Ireland was an island of ‘two nations’ with two diametrically opposing communities presents itself most strikingly when the results of the 1918 election undergo a mere cursory examination. The Unionists of Ulster had seen little, if anything at all in an Ireland under home rule, 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 when the 1920 Act received Royal Assent.

The 1920 Act and the features of today

The 1920 Act set many precedents which remain crucial elements of the current 1998 Good Friday Agreement settlement – including all-island co-operation and the consent principle.

Drafted by an essentially anonymous committee of cabinet officials and advisers under the chairmanship of Walter Long, from October 1919, the Act provided for 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.

The Drafter: Walter Long headed the Committee which devised the 1920 scheme, beginning the bill in 1919. The bill, as originally presented before Parliament, envisaged a nine county Northern Ireland encompassing the whole historic province of Ulster. With this it was thought, in keeping with the Government’s Irish policy, that the merging of both Northern and Southern entities into one would be more likely. James Craig and his colleagues rejected anything more or less than six counties which would give Unionists adequate security.

The 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 Ireland would possess their own respective devolved legislatures and executives within the United Kingdom; with the presence of an all-island body, the Council of Ireland, to encourage ‘mutual intercourse’ between North and South administrations and subsequently aid the way to prospective unity.

Parallels with the 1998 Agreement are striking; with cross-border co-operation being deemed essential for a peaceful settlement. Thus, the North-South Ministerial Council could well be gifted the title as the 1920 Council of Ireland’s immediate successor.

Irish political historian Dr. Eamon Phoenix suggested that the 1920 Act represented a duplicitous attempt to substantively address ‘the Irish question,’ being an expedient method for the British Government to firstly address Ulster Unionist concerns. It left the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George and his Conservative-dominated coalition cabinet free to negotiate the Anglo-Irish Treaty with the leaders of Sinn Fein later from September until December 1921.

From the 1920 provisions it is evident that the consent principle, which is so 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 had fervently opposed home rule from 1886, but were ironically the only political group which accepted the ‘fourth home rule’ 1920 settlement. 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 due to the ongoing hostilities between British forces and Republican forces, 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 and manifested itself in constitutional and diplomatic custom and practice.

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.’

Northern Ireland 2021

2021 saw the worst rioting and civil disorder in Northern Ireland in a decade. The position of Unionism as a polity, as it was one hundred years ago, feels insecure. Yet as the centenary month has approached there has been relatively little soundings of old tribal divisions. Setting aside the vetoing by Sinn Féin of a ‘Centenary Stone’ promoted by the Assembly’s Unionist parties, the centenary has not been the site of bitter contention that one may have expected. There are of course differing factors at play in May 2021.

The Democratic Unionist Party, the largest Unionist party in Northern Ireland since 2006, is in a state of identity crisis, as the internal coup against the incumbent leader Arlene Foster proved to be a damaging internal affair.

Whoever successfully reaches the reigns of power in the leadership of the DUP, moderate or radical, will have a job of work to do to allay grassroots unionist unease and outright anger over the Northern Ireland protocol, which places regulatory customs divergences across the Irish Sea. The mainstream media has undoubtedly heightened the temperature of persisting referring to these post-Brexit trading arrangements, inefficient as they are, as an ‘Irish Sea Border’ knowing the inherent dangers of repeating such an incendiary phrase to Unionist thinking.

Centenary Sentiments: Continuing Relevance

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 a stark resonance with the current complexities and challenges Northern Ireland faces 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 and laudable sentiments, one hundred years on, remain yet to be imagined.


The Gown: Northern Ireland At 100

The Gown will continue its coverage of the closing Decade of Irish Centenaries including focusing on partition, the creation of the Northern Ireland State, the 1921 Truce in Southern Ireland, the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921, the foundation of the Irish Provisional Government, the slide to Civil War in the 26 counties of Ireland that would become the Irish Free State, and the foundation of a self-governing Irish State in December 1922, with the coming into existence of the Irish Free State as a British Empire Dominion.

Queen’s University and BBC Northern Ireland are collaborating on a joint project to remember the centenary from a range of academic perspectives. You can read more about this initiative here, which is sponsored by the British and Irish Governments as well as the British Academy and Royal Irish Academy. Running into the Summer of 2021, each Monday will see a new contribution by an academic released on the website.

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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