One of the biggest misconceptions about the Irish border is that partition was created by the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921. In fact, Ireland had been effectively partitioned a year earlier with the enactment of Lloyd George's (Better) Government of Ireland Bill.

The act established the basis for a six-county northern and a twenty-six county southern polity. The most momentous piece of British legislation to affect Ireland since the Act of Union more than a century before was a compromise solution, introduced in the midst of an escalating Anglo-Irish war, which failed to satisfy any of the competing strands of Irish political opinion.

'A cumbrous, costly and unworkable scheme'

The Unionist-dominated coalition government was aware that nothing short of a Republic would satisfy Sinn Féin, so, as historian Ronan Fanning observes, 'the primary purpose of the Bill was to placate the Ulster Unionists'.

Image - Former Prime Minister Asquith was not impressed by the proposal

Former Prime Minister Asquith was not impressed by the proposal

Former Prime Minister Herbert Asquith and his vastly reduced Liberal Party opposed what they saw as the 'cumbrous, costly, and unworkable scheme'. Speaking during the second debate on the Better Government of Ireland Bill in March 1920, he pointed to the paradox inherent in Lloyd George's proposal: 

The position as regards Ulster is really this: they are having thrust upon them a Parliament which they do not want, by way of compensation and make-weight for simultaneously thrusting upon the south of Ireland a Parliament which it does not want. … In the annals of constitution-making, which contain the story of many strange and bizarre experiments, surely there is no record more paradoxical than this!  

Another misconception about partition is that it came out of the blue. But the prospect of partition was being considered at least six years before Lloyd George introduced his Better Government of Ireland Bill in the Spring of 1920.

Alternative Ulster

As the historian Richard English points out, 'the failure of most of nineteenth-century Ireland to industrialise helped to generate twentieth-century partition'. 

Ireland's north east prospered under the union with British. The availability of British capital investment, raw materials and export markets made it unsurprising that the majority Protestant population would reject separation from the hand that fed it.

The economic separateness of north-east Ulster was compounded by cultural and religious divisions; 'the pattern of settlement having left a far more concentrated Protestant population in the north east than was the case across the rest of the island.'

The origins of the Irish border, which delineated the cultural, religious and economic separateness of the six counties, can be traced to the Home Rule crisis of 1912 to 1914.

Enter Asquith

The machinery of Unionist opposition forged during the threats of Home Rule in 1886 and 1893 was called into service again in 1906 when the long-serving Conservative government was replaced by Herbert Asquith's Liberals, a party that was historically more amenable to Home Rule for Ireland.

Unionist concern translated into action after the 1910 general elections when Asquith promised a third Home Rule Bill in exchange for Irish Parliamentary Party support. In the meantime, the Parliament Act of 1911 reduced the power of veto of the House of Lords, removing a major obstacle to Home Rule for Ireland.

Image - Edward Carson gives a speech. He urged Ulster unionists to form their own provisional government if a Home Rule bill was finally passed.

Edward Carson gives a speech. He urged Ulster unionists to form their own provisional government if a Home Rule bill was finally passed.

The cabinet committee that planned the Third Home Rule Bill in 1911 opposed any special status for Protestant Ulster within majority-Catholic Ireland. In a speech in the same year, Unionist Party Leader Edward Carson declared that the event of a Home Rule bill passing, Unionists should be prepared to establish a Provisional Government comprising the districts over which they had control – this meant at least four of the nine Ulster counties with a Protestant Unionist majority.

After the introduction of the Third Home Rule Bill in April 1912, Conservative leader Andrew Bonar Law publicly declared the support of his party for any 'length of resistance to which Ulster will go' to oppose the measure.

In September, Ulster Unionists harnessed popular support in almost half a million signatures to the Solemn League and Covenant pledging to use any means necessary 'to defeat the conspiracy to set up a Home Rule parliament in Ireland.'

Image - A Belfast gathering of Ulster Volunteers

A Belfast gathering of Ulster Volunteers

With the emergence of two opposed armed paramilitary forces in Ireland (the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Irish Volunteers) in 1913, the British government was forced to consider the idea of special provision for Ulster when Home Rule was due to become law in 1914.

'A devil's brew of Irish civil war'

Under significant pressure to defuse what Arthur Conan Doyle described as 'a devil's brew of Irish civil war', Irish Parliamentary Party leader John Redmond declared his party open to the idea of the Home Rule of Ulster within the Home Rule of Ireland.

The concept was dismissed immediately by Carson who sought a 'clean cut' for all nine counties of Ulster. The Prime Minister then suggested 'temporary exclusion', whereby individual Ulster counties might opt out for a period of six years, after which they would automatically come under the jurisdiction of an all-Ireland parliament.

Redmond would be harshly criticised by nationalist opinion for conceding to even such a temporary measure, but his agreement in principle made partition, in some form, almost a certainty. The question remained: how much of Ulster would be excluded and for how long?

The border begins to take shape

Conor Mulvagh notes that 'the government quietly began to make contingency plans by drawing up the area to which exclusion might apply. It is in this phase the modern Irish border began to take shape and was first put on paper.'

An all-party conference was convened at Buckingham Palace in July 1914 in an effort to release the deadlock over the inclusion of Tyrone and Fermanagh – which had Catholic nationalist majorities - in a southern Home Rule parliament. For Carson and the Unionists, a four-county area of self-government might be too small to be viable.

Image - Buckingham Palace. The conference held there ended in predictable failure.

Buckingham Palace. The conference held there ended in predictable failure.

Notable for the continued intransigence of both Nationalist and Unionist leaders, the Buckingham Palace Conference ended in predictable failure. But the Home Rule Bill, placed on on the Statute Book (as the Government of Ireland Act 1914) on 18 September 1914, contained two important conditions. 

Firstly, a Suspensory Bill stipulated that the Home Rule Act would not come into operation until the end of the war, and secondly, parliament had the Prime Minister's assurance that special provision must be made for Protestant Ulster. 

In the aftermath of the 1916 Rising, and with American opinion in mind, Asquith tasked David Lloyd George with initiating negotiations to implement the 1914 Home Rule Act 'at the earliest practicable moment'. After separate negotiations, both Redmond and Carson agreed that six counties in Ulster would receive special treatment.

The 1916 proposals would see the immediate enactment of Home Rule for twenty-six counties only, and the continued attendance of Irish MPs at Westminster for the duration of the war. Once the European conflict had ended, an Imperial Conference would be held to forge a final settlement for Ulster.

Image - David Lloyd George

David Lloyd George

A 'glorious irrelevancy'

Lloyd George gave written assurances to Carson that the border would be permanent while he simultaneously allowed Redmond to believe that partition would temporary. An assembly of Ulster nationalist delegates at St. Mary's Hall Belfast on 23 June 1916 voted in favour of supporting a policy of temporary exclusion. 

The 1916 negotiations broke down by the end of July but were significant in that they exposed Redmond's willingness to concede even the temporary loss of Fermanagh and Tyrone, whose exclusion he had so passionately opposed at Buckingham Palace. 

They also demonstrated that, under the leadership of Lloyd George, the government would commit to the permanent exclusion of much of Ulster from Home Rule.

The Irish Convention in July 1917 represented the next attempt to resolve the Irish question. Once again, the assembly ended in failure, a 'glorious irrelevancy' because it was boycotted by Sinn Féin and Labour. 

The 1918 election

By the time the war finally ended in November 1918, Irish politics was unrecognisable from what it had been in 1914. Campaigning not for Home Rule but for an independent Irish Republic, Sinn Féin, swept the boards in the general election of December 1918.


Image - A Sinn Féin poster for the 1918 election

A Sinn Féin poster for the 1918 election

In Britain, Lloyd George's coalition won a decisive majority. The Conservative and Unionist Party was the largest single grouping, winning 383 seats compared to the 133 for Lloyd George's Liberals. In the words of historian Ronan Fanning, 'the implications for Irish policy were immense and ensured that Lloyd George could and would never adopt any Irish policy that did not command unionist support'.

The coalition's manifesto in relation to the Irish question was set out in an open letter by Lloyd George to Bonar Law, published in the Times in November 1918:

we regard it as one of the first obligations of British statesmanship to explore all practical plans towards the settlement of this grave and difficult problem on the basis of self-government. But there are two paths which are closed - the one leading to a complete severance of Ireland from the British Empire, and the other to the forcible submission of the six counties of Ulster to a Home Rule Parliament against their will.' 

Find out more about how the border was drawn up here.

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