When King George V came to Belfast on 22 June 1921 to perform the opening ceremony for the new parliament of Northern Ireland, its overwhelmingly Unionist membership could congratulate themselves on an extraordinary achievement.

Not only had they managed to carve out a six county Ulster with an inbuilt two thirds majority, they had also successfully seen off concerted opposition from southern nationalists, British liberals and their own sizeable Catholic minority population.

Image - George V arrives to open parliament in Belfast on June 22nd 1921. Photo: Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images

George V arrives to open parliament in Belfast on June 22nd 1921. Photo: Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images

"Unmitigated disaster"

For this latter group the election, which preceded parliament's opening by a month, had been an unmitigated disaster. Despite an electoral pact between both brands of Irish nationalism and Eamon De Valera's sincere belief that nationalist candidates would win a third, possibly half of the 52 seats, the two parties gained only 6 seats apiece.

By contrast, every one of the forty Unionists who stood were elected. By June 1921 with a Unionist dominated Northern Ireland parliament now an established fact, the British government moved quickly to appease southern nationalists, resulting in a Truce the following month and negotiations which led eventually to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of early December.

The 1921 Northern Ireland general election

Maps showing the percentage of first-preference votes for each of the three main parties, and number of seats won, in the May 1921 general election for the Northern Ireland parliament. The election was held under proportional representation, as provided for under the Government of Ireland Act, 1920.

All forty Unionist Party candidates were elected, with almost 70 per cent of the first-preference votes; Sinn Féin and the Nationalist Party each had six candidates elected, receiving 20.5 and 11.8 per cent of the vote respectively. Five of Sinn Féin's six successful candidates were also members of the Dáil: Éamon de Valera, Arthur Griffith, Michael Collins, Seán Milroy and Eoin MacNeill. To have a closer look at the map, click here and zoom in.

[Source: B. Walker, Parliamentary Election Results in Ireland, 1918–1992 (Dublin, 1992)

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Despite the rhetoric, the Treaty negotiations dealt largely with the extent of southern independence, and the vexed issue of the border was addressed by the promise of a future Boundary Commission which many Sinn Fein politicians fancifully seemed to believe would award them up to a third of northern territory.

However, no mention was made of when the body would convene, how it would consult the affected populations or the extent of the areas to be transferred. The vagueness of the idea demonstrated that it was less a final resolution to the border issue than a way of once again sidestepping the insoluble problem of partition.

Image - Éamon de Valera and Arthur Griffith leaving Dublin on board the Curraghmore mailboat in July 1921, the day after the truce comes into effect, en route to negotiate with Lloyd George. Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

Éamon de Valera and Arthur Griffith leaving Dublin on board the Curraghmore mailboat in July 1921, the day after the truce comes into effect, en route to negotiate with Lloyd George. Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

The hopes and fears engendered by the commission amongst nationalists and unionists alike would be a source of constant instability on the new frontier over the succeeding months.

Certainly, the chief legacy of the Treaty was that southern nationalist leaders became the acknowledged representatives of the northern minority in the eyes of policy makers, the dangerous assumption being that the interests of southern and northern nationalists were identical.

For the Northern Catholic minority this was a risky strategy, as any change in the political resolve of the Dublin government was bound to impact on northern minority aspirations.

Image - Michael Collins had little faith in the future commission. Photo: Independent News And Media/Getty Images

Michael Collins had little faith in the future commission. Photo: Independent News And Media/Getty Images

Acting in bad faith

However, during the first six months of 1922, southern resolve to oppose partition seemed boundless. Michael Collins, who showed little faith in the future commission, reverted to his favoured methods of coercion and political agitation. He would be prominent in orchestrating the first sustained nationalist anti-partition campaign.

Through a deft mix of propaganda, diplomacy and the direct use of force, Collins was able to destabilise the Ulster situation and put the partition issue and the brutal excesses of the Unionist regime front and centre in Anglo-Irish relations.

Image - Northern Ireland prime minister James Craig. Photo: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Northern Ireland prime minister James Craig. Photo: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

With violence in the province escalating markedly, Churchill as colonial secretary brought Collins and James Craig together for a series of historic meetings in January and March. While the resultant Craig-Collins Pacts promised minority protections and equitable economic arrangements, both sides acted in bad faith.

Craig's principal aim in participating in the meetings was to gain recognition for his beleaguered state, while Collins saw an opportunity for the Dublin government to gain a direct say in the workings of the Belfast government.

Collins' duplicity was best demonstrated by the fact that he was personally involved in supplying covert military aid to IRA guerrillas in Northern Ireland, and also negotiating with anti-Treaty fighters to head north to aid with the offensive.

Image - Winston Churchill, who brought Collins and James Craig together in his role as colonial secretary

Winston Churchill, who brought Collins and James Craig together in his role as colonial secretary

The IRA campaign in the North ran with increasing intensity throughout the spring and early summer of 1922. Hundreds of acts of ambush, arson, assassination and sabotage created huge instability along the border meaning that by May 1922 civil war appeared far more likely in the north than in the south.

The rationale behind the campaign however remains hard to discern. While it certainly destabilised the Belfast government, it proved disastrously counter-productive for the Catholic minority, with small scale border incursions by IRA units sparking off prolonged bouts of reprisal rioting in the northern capital leading to over 200 deaths between February and May in Belfast alone.

Image - A Catholic child arrives in Dublin in June 1922, having fled violence in Belfast Photo: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

A Catholic child arrives in Dublin in June 1922, having fled violence in Belfast Photo: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Despite its confused aims, the campaign almost succeeded in spite of itself. Predictably, the Northern government responded to the disorder with harsh reprisals passing a Special Powers Act in March which allowed for repressive security measures, including internment and flogging.

Members of the security forces were implicated in all manner of unsavoury incidents including the notorious MacMahon murders of March 1922 which saw an RIC murder gang shoot six Catholic men dead in the basement of a prominent Catholic citizen. The IRA responded with its own sectarian atrocities, bombing trams filled with Protestant shipyard workers in Belfast and shooting dead six Protestant civilians at Altnaveigh in South Armagh in June.

Certainly, the growing partiality of the Unionist regime led to increasing tensions with the British government. Senior civil servants in London were particularly concerned about the escalating cost of shoring up the province's extravagant security apparatus.

By June 1922 Northern Ireland had a police force numbering almost 30,000 men furnished with an annual budget of over £1,800,000. Churchill was irritated by the failure of Craig to demonstrate any engagement with the Boundary Commission plan, and especially the need for British soldiers to directly engage Free State troops on the Fermanagh border around Belleek in June.

Image - British soldiers in Belleek, Co Fermanagh, in June 1922. Photo: Getty Images

British soldiers in Belleek, Co Fermanagh, in June 1922. Photo: Getty Images

Civil War

It was clear that the unqualified support demonstrated by Conservatives during the Ulster Crisis in 1912 had dissipated by 1922. A senior civil servant Stephen Tallents was dispatched to Belfast to investigate the workings of the Unionist government and it appeared that a re-evaluation of the whole basis of the partition settlement was now a serious possibility.

In the end Tallents' report would prove largely irrelevant. By the time it was presented in July, civil war had broken out in the twenty-six counties and southern focus on the north crumbled as the new state turned in on itself. Almost overnight the material and psychological support for the embattled northern minority was withdrawn.

Collins had found it impossible to placate the radical Republicans in the South, while at the same time retaining a public commitment to the Treaty. His death in August would further cement this retreat from confrontation with the instigation of a new peace policy by his successors in the Provisional Government. Roger McCorley, Commander of the IRA's Belfast Brigade, later admitted, 'When Collins was killed the Northern element gave up all hope.'

Image - Sir John Lavery's 1922 painting of Michael Collins lying in state, Michael Collins (Love of Ireland).

Sir John Lavery's 1922 painting of Michael Collins lying in state, Michael Collins (Love of Ireland).

High alert

Northern Ireland had survived by the skin of its teeth. The southern civil war gave the Belfast government a crucial breathing space allowing it to consolidate its power. Round ups of Republican activists continued apace, and Craig moved to abolish the safeguard of proportional representation, as enshrined in the Government of Ireland Act, almost as soon as the dust had settled in July 1922.

Despite the almost non-existent security threat, the Unionist government remained on a high state of alert. The emergency legislation in the shape of the Special Powers Act was renewed and later made permanent, while the 'B' Specials became the backbone of the Northern security forces.

In many senses, the Northern government never got over the torrid experience of its birth and for the next fifty years would remain in a virtual state of emergency.

Map showing the Boundary Commission's proposed changes to the border. In the areas marked for transfer to Northern Ireland, Protestant (or 'Non-Catholic', as was the term used) majorities were in the region of 63 to 66 per cent, while in the areas marked for transfer to the Free State, the Catholic majorities were much higher, ranging from 79 to 93 per cent. To have a closer look at the map, click here and zoom in. Source: National Archives, UK, Report of the Irish Boundary Commission, CAB/61/162

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The final act of partition came with the Boundary Commission which, after all manner of procrastination and delay, including bouts of illness for the two Irish leaders, finally sat in 1924. By then the context of Irish politics had totally changed.

Both Collins and Griffith were dead, and Lloyd George was out of power while the two new states had emerged from exhausting and expensive civil wars. The new Free State government under Cosgrave was to prove far less confrontational, favouring a policy of disengagement and normalisation.

Image - A check on the border in the 1920s. Photo: George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

A check on the border in the 1920s. Photo: George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

The Commission itself would end predictably in farce. After touring the border for nine months and pouring over an array of maps and statistics, its South African chairman, bewildered by the vague criteria with which he was forced to work, recommended only modest changes to the frontier.

However, a few weeks before the report was due to be published, its controversial findings were leaked to the right-wing press. After a series of denials, protests and resignations, frantic attempts were made to repair the political damage.

"Abandoned to Craig's mercy"

A hasty series of meetings was arranged between all parties and the decision taken to suppress the report, which would not see the light for almost forty years. The border was left as it was and the Dublin government was bought off with promises to reduce its liability for paying off the British war debt.

After this rather grubby compromise the two Irelands went their separate ways, leaving the northern Catholic minority, in the words of Cahir Healy, the prominent Ulster Republican, 'abandoned to Craig's mercy.'

This article is part of the War of Independence project coordinated by UCC and based on The Atlas of the Irish Revolution edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil and Mike Murphy and John Borgonovo. Its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.