The 1920 Government of Ireland act created a border that divided Ireland - but how did politicians approach the issue? David McCullagh explains

The Government of Ireland Act which became law in December 1920, and which divided the island of Ireland into two separate political entities, solved a problem for Britain without satisfying the aspirations of any group in Ireland.

For Britain, partition solved the dilemma of how to reconcile the competing demands of nationalists and unionists in Ireland by giving each a part of what they wanted – a measure of independence for the former, without leaving the latter under the control of a parliament in Dublin.

But from the Irish point of view, it failed to satisfy nationalists who believed an undivided, independent Ireland was their birth right; nor southern unionists and northern nationalists stranded on the wrong side of the new Border; nor even the northern unionists, who had wanted to stay under Westminster rule.

A Punch magazine cartoon from July 17, 1886 shows  Lord Salisbury, the Leader in the Lords of the Conservative Party, beating Liberal Prime Minister Gladstone. The support of Ulster unionists had been crucial in the defeat.  (Source: The Cartoon Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

The opposition of unionists in Ulster had been used to defeat Gladstone's attempts to introduce Home Rule in 1886 and 1893. While other Irish unionists were scattered across the island, forming a tiny minority in their communities, those in the north-east corner of Ireland were geographically concentrated. As a local majority, they could claim to have as much right to decide by whom they should be governed as the nationalist majority in the rest of Ireland.

This opposition was used to deny Home Rule to the entire island. But that tactic no longer worked when the Third Home Rule Bill was introduced in 1912. With the Liberal Government dependent on the votes of Irish nationalist MPs, and with the House of Lords veto abolished, it was now certain that some form of Home Rule would become law. Unionists in Ulster could no longer frustrate that development – but could they save themselves from Dublin rule by remaining under the control of Westminster?

Alternatives for Ulster

In the House of Commons, the first to suggest the exclusion of part of Ulster was Liberal backbencher T.G. Agar-Robartes. In June 1912 he proposed that Antrim, Armagh, Derry and Down should be left out of the new Home Rule parliament.

The Dublin-born leader of the Unionists, Edward Carson, made his own proposal – the exclusion of all nine Ulster counties – although he privately said that he expected to settle for the exclusion of six counties. 

A cartoon depicting the relationship between Edward Carson and the government. Photo: Sunday Independent, 14 March 1920

The Irish Party leader John Redmond, under immense pressure from his British Liberal allies, finally agreed to what he thought would be the temporary exclusion of part of Ulster – a concession which contributed to the party’s eclipse by Sinn Féin some years later.

While the Third Home Rule Bill finally reached the statute book in the summer of 1914, two important conditions were attached: the Act was suspended until the end of the First World War, and provision was to be made for "Ulster" before it came into force.

All is changed utterly

In the intervening period, the context was changed by the Easter Rising, the Conscription crisis, and Sinn Fein’s crushing victory in the 1918 General Election. Suddenly, Home Rule, so unacceptable to Ulster Unionists, was no longer enough for the majority of Irish nationalists, who were now seeking a more fundamental separation from Britain than Redmond had envisaged.

But the British government did not attempt to deal with this new reality; instead, it moved to satisfy unionists first by drafting the Government of Ireland Bill to replace the Home Rule Act. Walter Long, who chaired the relevant Cabinet Committee, was First Lord of the Admiralty at the time; more importantly, he was a former leader of the Irish unionists, and was implacably opposed to Sinn Féin.

Walter Long, circa 1902.  (Photo: The Print Collector/Getty Images)

Long proposed the exclusion of all nine Ulster counties from the Dublin parliament; importantly, though, he also recommended that instead of being ruled directly from Westminster, there should be a separate parliament for the North – Home Rule for those opposed to Home Rule.

Under Long’s scheme, partition was unlikely to have been permanent. The nine-county area was fairly evenly divided between nationalists and unionists, and demography would eventually produce a majority in favour of unity. Long also proposed a Council of Ireland in which the Dublin and Belfast parliaments were to co-operate on matters of mutual interest, increasing the tendency towards a united Ireland.

Faced with this proposal, Unionists quickly overcame their opposition to the principle of Home Rule, realising that a parliament in Belfast offered much greater security than relying on Westminster. But they successfully argued that only six counties should be excluded – the greatest area they could be certain of dominating for the foreseeable future.

This abandoned unionists in Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan, and in the other three provinces, to rule by Dublin, but Carson and his successor James Craig did not hesitate to do so.

The unthinkable

For Sinn Féin, meanwhile, partition was unthinkable – so very little time was spent thinking about it. As far as republicans were concerned, unionists were suffering from false consciousness, having been manipulated by the British to oppose independence.

Once the British withdrew, they would soon return to their natural allegiance to Ireland. This view underestimated the strength of feeling among unionists, as well as the reality that no British government could survive politically if it was seen to force them into a united Ireland. 

However, while it was considered politically impossible in London to "coerce Ulster", the same did not apply to the other provinces of Ireland, and the British made determined, though unsuccessful, efforts to suppress the Dáil government and its army, the IRA, in the War of Independence.

The Irish peace delegation at the Grosvenor Hotel, London in July 1921. (Men standing from left) Count Plunkett, Erskine Childers, Laurence O'Neill, Dr Farnam, Robert Barton. (Women from left) Lily O’Brennan, Mrs Farnam, Kathleen O’Connell. (Sitting from left) Éamon de Valera, Arthur Griffith.  Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

The inevitable compromise

However, if the British did not win, neither did the IRA; with outright victory out of the grasp of either side, a compromise became inevitable, and a Truce was agreed in July 1921, followed by negotiations which culminated in the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December.

The Treaty is sometimes blamed for the introduction of partition, but this reverses cause and effect. Partition didn’t happen because of the Treaty; the Treaty was only possible because of partition. 

While the War of Independence was raging, partition was becoming a reality. Even before the Government of Ireland Act became law on December 23rd, 1920, civil servants were at work building a separate administration in Belfast.

That work accelerated once the Act – and, therefore, partition – came into effect on May 3rd, 1921. Elections for the Parliament of Northern Ireland were held three weeks later; the Government of Northern Ireland formally came into existence on June 7th; and on June 22nd, the State opening of that Parliament heard a plea from King George V for peace in Ireland.

George V (centre) made a plea for peace in Ireland in parliament in June 1921. (Photo: Getty Images)

The King had been urged to make a conciliatory speech precisely because partition was now a reality. Jan Smuts, the South African politician, pointed out to the King (and to his Prime Minister, David Lloyd George) that the time was right for a peace move, because the "establishment of the Northern Parliament definitely eliminates the coercion of Ulster".

In other words, with the Unionists squared off, it was now politically possible to reach an accommodation with Irish nationalism.

Lloyd George duly wrote to the leader of Sinn Féin, Éamon de Valera, beginning the process that would lead to the Truce and ultimately the Treaty. De Valera and his colleagues believed it was still possible to undo partition, but as the negotiations slowly got under way, the border was becoming more entrenched.

On November 23rd, 1921, as the Treaty talks neared a conclusion, control of security was transferred to the Northern Government – a crucial step to making Craig’s government a reality.

Sitting on Ulster like a rock

In an effort to meet some of the Irish demands, Lloyd George did put pressure on Craig to offer some concessions, but Craig refused, saying "I’m going to sit on Ulster like a rock, we are content with what we have got." With Craig unwilling to move, and Lloyd George unwilling to push him too hard, the Irish delegation had to be satisfied with a proposed Boundary Commission to redraw the Border.

Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins were convinced this would return large areas dominated by nationalists to the Irish Free State, making the Northern State unviable. In the event, those hopes would be dashed.

While this was going on, Northern Ireland was enduring a violent birth – 550 people were killed between 1920 and 1922, 300 of them Catholics. In Belfast, Catholics were one quarter of the population but suffered 70% of the deaths. In response, Sinn Fein introduced the "Belfast Boycott" on goods from that city.

The boycott had little impact on the violence, but did help to entrench differences between the two parts of the island. The government in Dublin later made partition even more real by introducing customs checks on the border from April 1st, 1923. 

A lorry being searched at the Irish Border in 1925. (Photo: George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images)

Ulster unionists, reconciled to the idea of Home Rule once they were the ones doing the ruling, were secure in their majority for 50 years. Southern unionists adapted to the new independent Irish state, or left.

Southern nationalists continued to pay lip service to unity, but devoted most of their energies to deepening the sovereignty of their new State, which made unity less likely. It was northern nationalists who lost most, and found it most difficult to live with the new dispensation.

The Government of Ireland Act succeeded in its aim – for Britain. It helped make Irish problems disappear off the political agenda until the late 1960s. Ireland was once again neutralised as a political issue by the Good Friday Agreement, and the Irish border would have remained out of British politics, had it not been for Brexit.

And the ultimate political consequences of that development, for the two parts of Ireland and for the border, will take some time to become clear.