There wasn't much seasonal cheer in official circles in Dublin, Belfast or London at Christmas 1920.

There just wasn't time.

These few weeks saw Partition become a reality for the first time, with the creation in law of Northern Ireland, and seemingly the hopes for peace on the island dashed, hopes that had flickered for a few precious months.

And yet, and yet...

No sooner than hope for peace had been crushed, it was raised again. The imposition of that most alien of concepts for Nationalists, the Partition of Ireland, had in fact created the conditions for making the peace with Britain, on terms well in advance of what the British had declared themselves willing to offer.

As the centenary of the setting up of Northern Ireland approaches, it’s important to remember that a decade before, no one on these islands, nationalist, unionist, Home Ruler, Direct Ruler, could have predicted such an outcome.

23 December 1920 saw the first important step in making Partition a reality in Ireland, establishing Northern Ireland as a formal entity on the island, with the enactment in London of the Government of Ireland Bill.

There was aspiration. And then there were facts

This Bill set out to create two separate entities on the island of Ireland, to be known as 'Northern Ireland’ and ‘Southern Ireland’, with a parliament for each, in Belfast and Dublin.

‘Northern Ireland’ would NOT consist of all the counties of Ulster. It would consist of six counties, Antrim, Down, Fermanagh, Tyrone, Armagh and Londonderry.

The Bill stated that both Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland would have separate governments, and that there would be an overarching body to govern relations between the two entities, called the Council of Ireland. It would administer any services that both parliaments would agree would best be provided on an all-island basis.

That was the aspiration. Of the whole apparatus envisaged by the Government of Ireland Act, the only part that ever came into being, was the six-county Northern Ireland. Nationalists ignored the Act, and never had any intention of working the arrangements.

The Government of Ireland Act was the British government's plan to reconcile the irreconcilable - Nationalists’ desire for independence from Britain on the one hand, Unionists’ desire for the continuation of direct rule from Britain on the other.

Sir Edward Carson MP, Unionist Party leader, inspecting UVF members after the Larne Gun-running

Thousands of rifles, millions of bullets

Since the first proposal of Home Rule for Ireland by Prime Minister William Gladstone in the 1880s there had been one ‘Home Rule crisis’ after another.

The standoff came to the verge of civil war by 1914. In March, the British Army faced what became known as ‘The Curragh Mutiny’, when officers based there told their commanders they would not march on Ulster to enforce any Home Rule legislation. The next month, the Ulster Volunteer Force, a private army of a 100,000 men, formed in 1913 in opposition to Home Rule, had imported thousands of rifles and millions of bullets. A month later, the Irish Volunteers brought in a much smaller load of guns and ammunition.

Whatever the difference in logistics, there were now two armed non-state entities on the island of Ireland, one nationalist, one unionist, and only the advent of the Great War a few months later, averted potential armed conflict.

Unionists had never wanted any form of Home Rule, not even for a separate entity in Ulster. They wanted direct rule to continue as it was, with the island of Ireland ruled as part of the United Kingdom.

The prospect of any kind of Home Rule settlement forced a re-think by Unionists. The first concept they had to address was the notion that there would be a separate entity in the northeast of the island of Ireland, where a Protestant majority prevailed.

The second concept was, what would this entity consist of? The nine counties of the Province of Ulster, or a smaller number of counties where the Protestant majority would be assured?

‘Six counties’

Thoughts hardened around the notion of a six-county entity. In September 1913, the leader of the Unionist Party, Sir Edward Carson MP, told the Conservative and Unionist Party Leader Bonar Law, that matters were heading towards a settlement on the basis of separate treatment for six counties in Ulster: "The minimum would be the 6...counties...I feel certain it would be the best settlement if Home Rule is inevitable."

In July of 1914, at a conference in Buckingham Palace, Carson revealed his ‘irreducible minimum’ that six counties of Ulster be permanently excluded from any Home Rule Act. Historian Eamon Phoenix wrote that this marked a change in the Unionist position, which up to then had been firmly for a continuation of direct rule from Westminster. This represented a pragmatic move to salvage as much of Ulster as possible from a Home Rule settlement. The Leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party in Westminster, John Redmond, argued for temporary partition, Carson demanded it be permanent.

Prime Minister David Lloyd George inspecting Auxiliaries

There matters rested, in September 1914, Home Rule was on the statute books, but suspended for the duration of the War. Special provision was to be made for ‘Protestant Ulster’.

The British Prime Minister Lloyd George was himself receptive to the concept of a separate entity in Ulster, in the event of Home Rule. His Coalition partner Bonar Law, was Conservative and Unionist Party leader, and later Prime Minister. By definition he was a strong supporter of a separate treatment for ‘Ulster’.

Pick a side...

In the General Election of 1918, the battle lines for the coming struggle hardened. Sinn Féin had led the campaign against the extension of conscription to Ireland that year, and was rewarded with a sweeping victory, almost wiping out the Home Rule-supporting Irish Parliamentary Party. Sinn Féin’s policy was to ignore any Home Rule legislation, on a platform of total severance of Ireland from Britain, Ireland to be a Republic.

In Ulster, the Unionist Party won major gains.

In Britain, the Conservative Party won a massive 339 seats. Lloyd George’s Liberals only won 136 seats. He felt himself from then on to be the ‘Prisoner of the Coalition’.

The Third Home Rule Bill was to take effect by default upon the end of the Great War. Lloyd George pre-empted this by setting up a committee to draft the Fourth Home Rule Bill, known as the Government of Ireland Bill.

For the first time in the Home Rule era, the main principle of the new Bill would not be Home Rule for Ireland. It would be to prepare an outcome for Ulster, separate to any settlement for the rest of Ireland.

This was the first time that the idea of two separate parliaments on the island of Ireland was formalised in legislation.

Who was ‘in the room’?

There was no Nationalist input into the drafting of the GOI Bill. Sinn Féin had boycotted Parliament. John Redmond had turned down the offer of a place in the Coalition government that would fight the Great War, so it can be argued that there would be no Nationalist ‘in the room’ when the new legislation was being drafted.

By contrast, there would be plenty of Unionists ‘in the room’.

Walter Long chaired the Committee that drew up the legislation that would become the Government of Ireland Bill. He had been Chief Secretary for Ireland from 1905, and had been appointed First Lord of the Admiralty in 1918. His Unionist credentials were impeccable, he was at one stage chairman of the Ulster Unionist Council. His Parliamentary Secretary was the Unionist James Craig; most of Long’s work was delegated to him and his associates.

On several occasions in Ireland in the summer of 1919, Walter Long, met the Lord Lieutenant for Ireland John French, and the Chief Secretary for Ireland, Sir Ian MacPherson.

 Sir James Craig, Unionist MP and Cabinet Undersecretary. Later the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland

On 24 September 1919, Long sent a memo to Lloyd George proposing a two-parliament solution. This formed the basis for the Government of Ireland Bill.

On 4 November 1919, Long’s report was presented to the Cabinet. It has been described by Historian Ronan Fanning as the most decisive shift in British policy on Ireland since the first Home Rule Bill in 1886.

It stated two basic principles:

(1) The unity of the Empire could not be broken, therefore there could be no question of ‘Ireland or any part of Ireland’ establishing a republic.

(2) Ulster must not be forced under the rule of an Irish Parliament against its will. Therefore there could not be ‘a single parliament for all Ireland’.

Another principle not expressed as such, was that Britain’s role in ruling any part of Ireland directly was itself part of the problem, and it should come to an end.

The preference was for one parliament for the three other provinces of Ireland, and one Parliament for Ulster, with a common Council of Ireland, in which both would be represented.

The government’s priority while driving the GOI legislation forward was to keep the Unionists on their side, and to get their backing for every detail of the legislation. It’s very significant that after the report was considered by the Cabinet, it was run by the Ulster Unionist leader and Parliamentary Secretary James Craig, who sent back word to the drafting Committee that he only wanted six counties covered by the legislation, not nine.

Craig was open about why he wanted six counties, not nine, in the final settlement. He told Ministers that the three excluded Ulster counties had a Nationalist majority, and so would not be effectively governed by a Parliament in the north of Ireland.

No Nationalist leader was consulted about the drafting of the Bill.

"You cannot knock parliaments up and down...once you have planted them there, you cannot get rid of them."

Unionists had never wanted a separate parliament, their preference was for the Union of Great Britain and Ireland to continue, unchanged, but as the reality of the looming legislation sank in, some began to see the possibilities. Even Lord Carson, as he lamented the discarding of the Union, warned Lloyd George that that this would be no temporary political expedient, that a Parliament granted "...cannot be interfered with. You cannot knock parliaments up and down....once you have planted them there, you cannot get rid of them".

James Craig's own brother, Charles Craig MP, told the House of Commons in March 1920:

"We see our having a parliament of our own, for we believe that once a parliament is set up and working well ... we should fear no one, and we feel that we would then be in a position of absolute security ... and therefore I say that we prefer to have a parliament, although we do not want one of our own."

Among those watching all this with increasing alarm were the Unionists of the rest of the island. A separate entity in Ulster meant, by extension, a separate entity on the rest of the island, that they would find themselves in.

The six-county plan went down badly in the rest of Ulster. On 27 May 1920, the Ulster Unionist Council declared support for a six-county parliament, not nine counties. Unionists from Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan resigned from the Council in protest.

Outside of Ulster, southern unionists left the Irish Unionist Alliance and formed the Unionist Anti-Partition League, in opposition to the impending partition of Ireland.

"When they have cast around them the imperial garb, what mercy, what pity, much less justice or liberty, will be accorded to us then?"

The Nationalists in what was destined to become Northern Ireland were even more alarmed.

Nationalist MP Joe Devlin asked the House of Commons, a few weeks before the GOI Bill was enacted: "What will we get when they are armed with Britain’s rifles, when they are clothed with the authority of government, when they have cast around them the imperial garb, what mercy, what pity, much less justice or liberty, will be accorded to us then?

'A contingency most remote'

The Sinn Féin leadership assumed that any Partition would not survive a withdrawal of Britain from the island of Ireland.

Acting Sinn Féin President Arthur Griffith believed the chances of the Bill coming into operation were "a contingency most remote....this Bill is repudiated by the elected representatives of the people of Ireland and its passage therefore does not compromise Ireland".

The IRA campaign had finally gained some traction in Ulster, and the summer saw sectarian riots and killings. Thousands of Catholics were expelled from their places of work across Belfast, people of both religions lost their homes, and there were 18 deaths reported in three days in the city.

‘The Belfast Boycott’, an attempt to retaliate against the expulsions and burnings by a ban on the buying by nationalists of goods and services from Belfast and other Northern towns, was unsuccessful, and actually counterproductive in alienating moderate Unionists and deepening sectarian divisions in counties like Monaghan.

On September 2 1920, with IRA attacks in Ulster increasing, James Craig pressed the Cabinet for immediate new measures to underpin the new entity envisaged by the GOI Bill.

General Sir Nevil Macready, Commander-in-Chief of British forces in Ireland

Craig got agreement to: A new Assistant Under-Secretary ‘for the six counties of the Northern part of Ireland’, and a new special Constabulary.

These measures were to take effect even before the enactment of the GOI Bill.

The new constabulary approved for Northern Ireland had at one stage been envisaged by James Craig as the Ulster Volunteer Force re-organised and re-armed. The Dublin administration, in the form of General Macready and Under-Secretary John Anderson, saw the danger of such a move, in the powder keg of an Ulster divided along sectarian lines. Macready warned that such a move would lead to civil war in Ireland, and threatened to resign if the proposal was accepted by the Cabinet.

Craig’s proposal was never formally adopted, but when the new Assistant Under-Secretary for Northern Ireland, Ernest Clark, sought advice on the formation of the new Constabulary, his advisors included James Craig, and Wilfred Spender, who had re-organised the Ulster Volunteer Force six months previously.

'Get the Parliament set up in Ulster'

As the date for the enactment of the Bill drew near, the conviction of the British government hardened, to get the Northern Ireland Parliament enshrined in legislation before any serious engagement in talks with Sinn Féin, and to keep up the campaign against the IRA. They had dismissed attempts during the summer by their own new Dublin Castle Administration, to press the case for Dominion Home Rule for the island of Ireland.

At a Cabinet meeting on Christmas Eve, two days after the enactment of the GOI Bill, it was being explicitly recorded that the government would 'postpone any future approach to SF until the GOI Act was brought into operation'. The Prime Minister wanted the GOI Act in operation at once in ‘Ulster’.

Sir John Anderson, Under Secretary for Ireland. The key Civil Servant in the Administration, he recommended Dominion Status for Ireland

On 30 December, the Cabinet met again, to formally instruct Chief Secretary for Ireland Hamar Greenwood to begin preparations for setting up the parliament in Northern Ireland.

The Cabinet Secretary’s diary for the last day of the year 1920 recorded that "the policy is to get the Parliament set up in Ulster, to undertake an intensive propaganda as to what the Act gives in Southern Ireland, which, it is hoped, will then be led to follow Ulster's example".

Such was the pious, on-the-record aspiration. In fact, no one on the British side ever expected Sinn Féin or the IRA to take the bait.

Paths to peace

The great misconception is that the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 begat Partition. In fact, Partition begat the Treaty. No Northern Ireland would have meant no peace, and no Free State.

Even as the war intensified in late 1920, the two sides began talking, and most importantly, kept talking, even when all hope seemed lost.

The chronology:

In late September 1920, members of the new administration in Dublin Castle reported that they were being asked by representatives of "Dáil Eireann" for meetings to discuss a truce, ‘as a prelude to discussing peace’. Acting Sinn Féin President Arthur Griffith was reported to be making the approaches.

Nothing came of the contacts, but one month later, Cabinet Minister Herbert Fisher met Patrick Moylett, Irish businessman and Volunteer, who was Arthur Griffith’s trusted go-between. They spoke for three hours.

Griffith asked Moylett to try to persuade the British government to recognise Sinn Féin.

Moylett then met Fisher and CJ Phillips, Fisher’s secretary and an official in the Political Intelligence Department of the Foreign Office.

"Would the Dáil nominate men to meet three or four from England?"

On the 29 October 1920, CJ Phillips told Moylett that the Prime Minister was interested in what he had to say, and asked would the Dáil nominate men to meet three or four from England, to discuss the basis of a formal conference. (Historian Ronan Fanning believes this to be the first time the term ‘Dáil’ was used by a senior British politician).

Griffith and Collins were reported to be delighted with this development.

On 12 November, Phillips asked Moylett would the Dáil, as a prelude to a conference, stop "policemen and soldiers being murdered" in return for a cessation of reprisals.

Michael Collins might have been pleased with the response from London, but that didn’t stop the orders being issued to the IRA.

Less than two weeks after Philips’ request to Patrick Moylett, Bloody Sunday happened (See earlier blog: Bloody Sunday: A day of horrors, in three acts).

'The slender thread'

What is most interesting, was Lloyd George's reaction. With 15 officers dead in Dublin, and 14 civilians killed at Croke Park, and armed police patrolling Whitehall and Westminster, for fear of IRA actions in London, he might have been forgiven, or at least understood, for breaking off contact.

Instead, what message did he send to Arthur Griffith?

To Moylett, he said: "Ask Griffith for God’s sake to keep his head and not to break off the slender thread that had been established."

Arthur Griffith, Acting President of Sinn Féin

Moylett met CJ Phillips in Downing Street every day of the week after Bloody Sunday, to discuss every angle of a possible settlement. From the location of the meetings alone, it’s clear the Prime Minister approved.

Lloyd George felt that if there was to be a settlement between the British government and Sinn Féin, it had to happen while the Liberal and Tory Parties were in coalition government. Otherwise each would take an opposing line to the other, were one of the parties to be in government and one in opposition. According to Dáil Minister Ernest Blythe years later, Sinn Féin President Eamon de Valera, upon his return from America in December, had exactly the same view as Lloyd George, at exactly the same time.

How much co-ordination there was between Downing Street and the military command in Dublin could be questioned, because on the 26 November, Arthur Griffith was arrested, against the wishes of the Prime Minister.

The churchman’s mission

The beginning of December saw the start of a short but intensive intervention by the Catholic Archbishop of Perth, Dr PJ Clune. How much store to set by his intervention is hard to decide, but what is not in doubt is his access to the people who mattered on both sides, and that makes his experience in those few weeks of December, worth exploring.

His involvement was almost accidental. His nephew Conor Clune had been arrested on mistaken suspicion of IRA membership alongside senior IRA officers Peadar Clancy and Richard McKee, and in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday, while in the custody of Auxiliaries in the Guardroom, beaten to death, possibly by several Intelligence Officers who had escaped death that morning.

While visiting his native Co Clare, the Archbishop had witnessed first-hand the actions of the Auxiliaries and Black-and-Tans, and in London en route home to Australia, he recounted his experiences to, among others, the Nationalist MP Joe Devlin.

'Prepare an atmosphere for negotiations'

Devlin prevailed on him to speak directly to the Prime Minister.

The next day, Clune met Lloyd-George in the House of Commons, and repeated his testimony. The Prime Minister asked Dr Clune to return to Dublin, to ask Sinn Féin for a temporary truce, to "prepare an atmosphere for negotiations".

Several days later, Clune was back in Dublin. Despite the fact that he was only there at the Prime Minister’s urging, no guarantee of safe passage or assistance from London was given Dr Clune.

He met Michael Collins in secret, and discussed proposals for a truce. He went to Mountjoy Jail to talk about the same thing to Arthur Griffith, his bona fides vouched for to the authorities by Andrew Cope, a member of the new Dublin Castle Administration.

After the meeting with Griffith, Cope asked Dr Clune to draft a proposal for a truce, that he could convey to the Cabinet in London.

No surrender of IRA arms

Dr Clune's proposal had one red line: No surrender of arms by the IRA before any talks.

The problem, as Andrew Cope saw it, was that the Cabinet was heavily influenced by the conviction of the military leaders in Dublin, Mcready and French, that the war was turning in their favour, and that talk of a truce would only take the pressure off the IRA.

Predictably, back came the counter-demand from the Cabinet, for a surrender of arms before any talk of a truce. There was even a deadline set for such a surrender, 27 December.

There was considerable scepticism in Sinn Féin ranks about Dr Clune’s mission and its chances of success. Dáil Eireann’s envoy in London Art O’Brien, told Michael Collins he believed the Archbishop to be no match for Lloyd George in negotiations, and too willing to believe protestations of a desire for peace from the Prime Minister. He even worried that in his well-meaning efforts to make contact with the Republican leadership, he would inadvertently lead the authorities in Dublin straight to Collins.

Collins himself saw no chance of success for the peace feelers, that beside Lloyd George’s words of peace had to be set the facts on the ground in Ireland, specifically the imposition of martial law in four counties on 10 December, and the burning of Cork by the Auxiliaries just a few days earlier.

Clune himself expressed his dismay at the new demand for a surrender of arms before a truce, a demand, he pointed out to Lloyd George, that the British had never made of the South African Boers in 1900.

He played to Lloyd George’s vanity as a statesman, but could not get past the sense that the divide in his government was of more importance to the Prime Minister, a sense reinforced by Press reports of conflicting interests in the Cabinet, influenced by heavy lobbying by the military leadership in Dublin.

Prime Minister David Lloyd George.

Events in Ireland had seemed to confirm the military's conviction of imminent victory, and stiffened Lloyd George’s resolve to take a hard line with the Republican leadership.

Two events in particular are believed to have caused Lloyd George to hold back in any peace feelers towards the Dáil government.

To the disbelief of the Dáil government and the IRA, a minority of councillors on Galway County Council, notwithstanding their previous pledge of allegiance to the Republican government, and the fact that most of their colleagues were in prison or on the run, passed a resolution calling on Dáil Eireann and the British government to send delegates to negotiate a truce.

Then, a Father Michael O’Flanagan sent a telegram directly to Lloyd George, asking him what steps he would take to start peace talks within days. The problem was that Father O’Flanagan happened to be

Sinn Féin Vice-President, and his telegram was taken by the British press as an official Sinn Féin communication.

Not even an immediate on-the-record dismissal by Eamon de Valera of Father Flanagan’s right to speak for the Dáil or the Dáil government, could undo the damage. Dr Clune’s own Secretary, Monsignor JT McMahon, considered that, taken together, they 'destroyed’ the Archbishop’s mission.

Still he persevered, bringing to London yet another proposal from Griffith and Collins for a cessation of hostilities to ‘create an atmosphere favourable to a meeting to bring about a permanent peace’.

Arthur Griffith and Eamon DeValera. Griffith was Acting President of Sinn Féin while Eamon DeValera was in America

The churchman’s cover is blown

The very next day, Archbishop Clune’s cover was blown. And it had to have been directed from the heart of the Cabinet.

The London Evening News carried a story with chapter and verse on the talks, right down to the divided Cabinet and the military’s demand that no concessions be given to the Republican leadership.

It was so obvious a planned leak, that Dr Clune considered there and then that he was being set up to fail, that the British government were getting ready to finally reject the overtures from the Republican leadership.

On Christmas Eve, Dr Clune was informed by telephone that because of the refusal by the Dáil government to countenance a surrender of IRA arms, the Prime Minister ‘would encroach no further on the Archbishop’s time’. Yet despite this seemingly final word, Lloyd George still did not let up, sending his Secretary Philip Kerr around to press the case for a surrender of arms, then writing personally on Christmas Day to ask for a few more days, until the Cabinet had heard again from the leadership in Dublin Castle.

Dr Clune gave Phillip Kerr one final set of proposals.

(1) A one-month cessation of hostilities to create a peaceful atmosphere.

(2) Dáil Eireann allowed to meet "to discuss among themselves, or with plenipotentiaries of the government the final settlement of the Irish question".

The two irresistible forces

But it was too late. Two irresistible forces rendered impossible any chance of peace by Christmas 1920.

One was the absolute conviction of the British government that without an established Northern Irish parliament and administration, there could be no talk of ending the war with the IRA.

At a Cabinet meeting on Christmas Eve, it was being explicitly recorded that the government would ‘postpone any future approach to SF until the Government of Ireland Act was brought into operation’. The PM wanted the GOI Act in operation at once in ‘Ulster’.

The other force was the hard-line faction in the Cabinet, led by Winston Churchill and Bonar Law, in alliance with the military leadership in Dublin and the Castle administration, convinced that victory over the IRA was close, almost certainly believing that the demand for a prior surrender of arms would make it impossible for the IRA to comply.

The last Cabinet meeting to consider proposals from the Republican leadership took place on the 29 December. Ominously for the prospects for those proposals, also present at that meeting were the military leaders in Ireland, General Sir Nevil Macready and Lord French. The outcome of the meeting, the rejection of Dr Clune’s last proposals, was a foregone conclusion.

Michael Collins, leader of the IRA,  and Arthur Griffith

So, why the hope for peace at Christmas 1920?

Lloyd George’s final words on the matter to the Archbishop after the meeting can be dismissed as honeyed words, or perhaps as a hint that the business with Sinn Féin and the IRA was not done yet.

Lloyd George told Dr Clune that at least he, Lloyd George, could now estimate the men in Ireland in their real character. He no longer believed they were a band of assassins baying for blood.

The next day, the Cabinet met again, to formally instruct Chief Secretary for Ireland Hamar Greenwood to begin preparations for setting up the parliament in Northern Ireland.

However, at the same time, with the Northern Ireland Parliament now established, the British government was preparing the ground to re-engage with the Sinn Féin leadership in 1921.

The first move was the explicit - as in, no mistakes this time - instruction by the British government that Sinn Féin President Eamon de Valera was NOT to be arrested. De Valera had returned to Ireland from America on the same day as the GOI Bill was enacted, 23 December. Secretary of State for Ireland Hamar Greenwood was now describing De Valera as "the one man who can deliver the goods".