In early 1919 Lloyd George's coalition government was engaged in the realignment of European borders at the Paris Peace Conference but, by the Autumn of that year, attention was focused again on the Irish question.

Conscious that the outdated 1914 Home Rule Act was on the Statute Book and would operate automatically after the European treaties were finalised, the Prime Minister set up a special cabinet committee under the chairmanship of Unionist Walter Long to advise on new Home Rule legislation.

'Strange irony'

A passionate advocate of violent resistance to Home Rule, Long noted the 'strange irony' that he was charged with devising a plan for Irish self-government. Unsurprisingly, Long's committee was unionist in outlook. Nationalists were neither represented nor consulted.

The committee eventually settled on the idea that Ireland should be divided into two polities, each with a Home Rule parliament. As Chancellor of the Exchequer, Austin Chamberlain commented in March 1920 that 'the only hope of union in Ireland is to recognise her present division'.

Image - Walter Long, circa 1902. (Source: The Print Collector/Getty Images)

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

A divisive plan

Long's committee suggested establishing a Council of Ireland, comprised of an equal number of MPs from the two parliaments, with the ultimate aim of establishing an all-Ireland parliament. The report would form the basis of the Better Government of Ireland Bill 1920.

Lloyd George outlined the legislation in parliament on 22 December 1919, proposing to 'clothe the Irish Legislature with full constituent powers', after which it would 'rest with the Irish people themselves to determine whether they want union [of north and south] and when they want union.'

The debate over the jurisdiction to be covered by a Northern parliament continued until the first reading of the Bill in the House of Commons on 25 February 1920. Long's committee initially advocated for a nine-county northern parliament but adapted its recommendations to accommodate the Unionist preference for the six counties of Antrim, Armagh, Derry, Down, Fermanagh and Tyrone - the maximum area they felt they could hold with confidence. 

Such a six county Northern Ireland parliament would ensure an effectively permanent Unionist majority. 

Image - Arthur Griffith was highly critical of the proposal.

Arthur Griffith was highly critical of the proposal.

A 'scheme...to dismember Ireland'

Acting President of Dáil Eireann Arthur Griffith was critical of what he called 'England's present scheme, with her agent Carson, to dismember Ireland.' He was not too concerned, however, and was not alone in predicting that it would never come into operation. 

According to London's Unionist Saturday Review, 'nobody believes the Bill will ever become an operative Act …  It is a moral demonstration rather than a practical policy ... meant to put England right with the world, especially with the United States.'

Where it was taken seriously, the legislation was roundly condemned. In a lengthy letter to the editor of the Cork Examiner on Valentine's Day 1920, the Bishop of Derry, Charles McHugh was unrestrained in his outrage at the creation of a new disenfranchised minority of northern Catholics and nationalists.

He considered Lloyd George's description of the 'homogenous population' of the north east as 'an outrage on truth'. That population was not, as the prime minister had put it, 'alien in race, alien in sympathy, alien in religion, alien in tradition, alien in outlook from the rest of the population of Ireland.'  

'Bitter Government of Ireland'

Three of only six remaining Nationalist MPs in Westminster - Joseph Devlin, T.P O'Connor and Thomas J.S. Harbison - passionately rejected the bill, which, according to Devlin, was 'conceived in Bedlam'. On the second reading of the Bill in the House of Commons in March 1920, Harbison offered to make its title more appropriate to the situation in Ireland by altering one letter.

It should read, 'A Bill for the Bitter Government of Ireland' … not to create friendship but to create discord, and that not only between England and Ireland but between Irishmen and Irishmen.'

William Jellett, MP for Dublin University, was outraged at the government's willingness to to entrust the destiny of Southern Unionists

to the rebels, who fought side by side in favour of Germany. Those who have fought against their King and Empire will not suddenly become loyal by the passing of a measure which they do not want, and which they will ignore….Those who drew the sword to defend you are to be handed over to those who drew the dagger in the hour of your greatest agony, and stabbed the Empire in the back. 

Image - Edward Carson said he would not try to stop the Bill becoming law

Edward Carson said he would not try to stop the Bill becoming law

Carson accepted the Northern parliament in what Bonar Law called 'a spirit of sombre acquiescence'. 'I cannot vote for Home Rule', said Carson, 'and I will not vote for Home Rule. At the same time, I shall do nothing to prevent this Bill becoming law. Fellow Unionist Charles Craig returned to the theme of paradox in the March debate:

While on the one hand our hatred and detestation of Home Rule and all connected with it is as great as ever it was, and in fact more so owing to the action of the predominant party in Ireland to-day, yet on the other hand, we do see in this Bill the realisation of the objects which we aimed at when we raised our volunteer force and when we armed ourselves in 1913 and 1914. 

Despite the substantial and continued opposition to the Government of Ireland Act, the British government proceeded with its implementation. In the context of war, sectarian riots and boycotts, it was enacted on 23 December 1920. In a final paradox, as Robert Kee points out,

 'the area thus apparently lost to Irish nationalism was larger than that involved in the final offer to Redmond at the time of the Buckingham Palace Conference in 1914.' 

Image - Unionist leader James Craig. Source: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Unionist leader James Craig. Source: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

'A Protestant Parliament for a Protestant People'

By the time of the elections to the planned Northern and Southern Irish parliaments in May 1921, the initial reluctance of northern Unionists to accept the settlement and had given way to a practical resolve to secure parliamentary control.

Forty unionist MPs were returned to the fifty-two-seat Northern assembly. Six nationalist MPs and six members of Sinn Féin abstained from what Unionist leader James Craig called 'a Protestant Parliament for a Protestant People'. 

In the South, Sinn Féin leaders rejected the legitimacy of the Government of Ireland Act and instead used the 'Partition Elections' to renew their own mandate. Sinn Féin returned 124 members to the Second Dáil, which convened Dublin on 16 August 1921.

The Treaty

Less than a year after becoming law in December 1920, the Government of Ireland Act was superseded in the south by the Anglo-Irish Treaty which conferred domination status on the new Free State. Its long-term legacy, however, was the Northern Ireland parliament born into the bloody sectarian violence of Ireland in the early 1920s.

Partition was entrenched in December 1922 when James Craig's Northern Ireland government invoked the right to opt out of the Treaty clause allowing them to join the Irish Free State. 

Unionist Party leader Edward Carson proved prophetic on 31 March 1920 when he said 'It may turn out, if the Bill passes, that the only part of Ireland which will have a [Home Rule] Parliament, is the part that never asked for it.'

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.