Analysis: a tale of mistrust, diplomacy, imaginative accountancy and accusations of skulduggery in the early years of partition

By Noel LIndsay, Mary Immaculate College Limerick

The place of education amongst the controversies surrounding the partition of Ireland has largely gone unrecognised. But records in the National Archives of Ireland, the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland and the Eoin MacNeill papers in UCD Archives reveal a shadowy underworld of intergovernmental mistrust, imaginative accountancy and the North's minister for education accusing Michael Collins, minister for finance and leader of the provisional government of the Free State, of being complicit in skulduggery.

On February 1st 1922, the new ministry of education in Northern Ireland took control of schools in the province, making it responsible for the payment of salaries to teachers. Anticipating this, Joseph MacRory, Bishop of Down and Connor, told a meeting of the provisional government on January 20th 1922 that "the Northern Government had given no indication of their Education Policy, but that the salaries of the teachers were being paid from 1st Feb". 

In response, Collins told the bishop that the "Provisional Government would…finance salaries in the Six Counties". This would be part of the provisional government’s policy of encouraging northern nationalists to participate in a programme of non-compliance with the northern government. The republican idealism that aspired to a 32 county Ireland had, as of now, not diminished. 

Michael Collins addressing crowds in Skibbereen, Co Cork in March 1922. Photo:  Keystone-France\Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

The next meeting of the provisional government on February 11th recorded "that payment of salaries [to teachers in Northern Ireland] should be guaranteed", with the cost estimated at £33,000 per month, later revised down to £18,000. A memo from William O’Brien, secretary to the Irish Treasury, to Collins in April 1922 voiced concern that disguising the payment of £18,000 as part the ‘Secret Service’ budget was illegal and could lead to a loss of prestige. O’Brien concluded that "steps should be taken to terminate these obligations at the earliest possible date".

This creative accounting proves that the government was determined to keep its policy secret from the Northern government. Collins was willing to risk the provisional government’s reputation internationally at this stage in pursuit of the covert policy of non-recognition of the nascent Belfast government.

On June 7th, O’Brien wrote to Minister for Education Fionán Lynch advising him (on behalf of Collins) that as the ‘Northern Area’ was not in their jurisdiction, the provisional government had no authority to make payments to Catholic teachers. He added that Collins wished to discuss the matter "personally at an early date".

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From RTÉ Radio 1's History Show, Diarmaid Ferriter on Michael Collins' years in London between 1906 and 1916, and the experiences and people that influenced him there

Lynch, not inclined to be scapegoated, wrote back the following day reminding O’Brien that the "whole Provisional Government committed itself to this policy". He also warned that it would not be politically expedient to act that month with a general election "coming off on Friday week". Keeping the pressure on, O’Brien wrote to the department of education again the following week, demanding "that the obligation to pay these salaries should be discontinued".

Were finances and political expediency replacing the earlier aspirational fervour - or had something else contributed to Collins’ urgent change of heart? Belfast’s education minister, Lord Londonderry, wrote to Collins on April 5th to confront him about a conversation in London the previous week, where Collins claimed that "the Provisional Government was not responsible for these payments" to Catholic teachers. Discarding customary diplomacy, Londonderry now told Collins that he had "definite evidence" that the provisional government were indeed responsible, and demanded that they should cease immediately "if there is to be reasonable co-operation between the North and the South in educational matters".

Lewis McQuibban, the permanent secretary to the ministry of education, had penned a similar letter to his Free State counterpart, who replied that he had "no knowledge of the payment from Dublin to the teachers of Northern Ireland". Although there was a consolidated front of denial to the northern authorities, Collins had begun the process of ending the expensive practice. Perhaps Londonderry’s letter had provided the catalyst, or a convenient excuse, to escape from his earlier commitment.

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From RTÉ Archives, an RTÉ News' report from 1972 on the 50th anniversary of the death of Michael Collins

Then British secretary of state for the colonies, Winston Churchill, wrote to his cousin Lord Londonderry on September 20th to inform him that the "Provisional Government were now anxious to reverse the policy" of paying teachers in Northern Ireland. Churchill recommended that the £150,000 expense incurred by the provisional government as a result of the policy should be reimbursed "before questions are asked in the Dáil, as Cosgrave wants to adjust his policy…without publicly climbing down".

That the British Government had been receptive to channels of communication opened by the provisional government indicated how seriously they viewed the situation. On the other hand, it was shrewd politicking by the Free State government to seize the initiative and take advantage of the opportunity that the situation presented. They had not only undermined the authority of the Northern Government by bypassing it, but they were on their way to securing repayment for implementing an illegal policy. Were the British government influenced by the knowledge that the early stages of a brittle peace on the island had the potential to easily fracture? I am going with a resounding yes here.

Records also illustrate the impact all of this had on the teachers themselves, but suffice to say for now that not all of them participated willingly. Some had filled out their salary forms to be sent to the department of finance for payment only to learn later that their school managers had, unknown to them, sent them to Dublin instead. As with a lot of political arm-wrestles, it is the citizens’ heads upon which the winning arm slams down upon. There is a lot more to explore on this topic and I will be looking at it in greater detail in my PhD, which is looking at education in Northern Ireland from 1920 to 1930.

Were the British government influenced by the knowledge that the early stages of a brittle peace on the island had the potential to easily fracture?

In an essay written in early 1922 and referring to a policy of non-compliance in the north, Eoin MacNeill stated that "it is my belief that the kernel of the situation will be education". With a potential international situation having been avoided between two sovereign states, education became deeply controversial with both sets of religious authorities in the north.

Noel LIndsay is a PhD researcher and Departmental Assistant in the Department of History at Mary Immaculate College Limerick.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ