Brian M Walker: Why no unionist MP voted for the creation of Northern Ireland 100 years ago

Many facts about the Government of Ireland bill of 1920 are not well known

29th December, 2020
Brian M Walker: Why no unionist MP voted for the creation of Northern Ireland 100 years ago
Sir Edward Carson was concerned that if the bill was rejected the 1914 Home Rule bill could be activated. Picture: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie

One hundred years ago, on 23 December 1920, the Government of Ireland bill received royal assent. It led to partition and became the cornerstone for the establishment of Northern Ireland. These facts are well known.

Other facts about the bill are not so well known and may surprise many. This title is incorrect, not a single Ulster unionist MP voted for the measure and the bill contained proposals for a parliament for all of Ireland.

This piece of legislation was actually called “An act for the better government of Ireland”. It was sometimes described as the fourth home rule bill but is better known in its shortened version as the Government of Ireland act.

The opening paragraphs of the act made its purpose clear. It established parliaments for Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland. Northern Ireland was defined as the six counties in the north east. Southern Ireland was the rest of the country. Next came information about a council of Ireland and proposals for a parliament for the whole of Ireland, after the “union” of the two parts. There followed great details about establishing both northern and southern parliaments and governments.

The act arose because of efforts at Westminster to provide a political solution to the conflict in Ireland. A committee was established under Walter Long and on February 25 ,1920 the bill was introduced into parliament. Much debate and amendments followed until December 23 when the bill received royal assent.

Curiously, Ulster unionist MPs did not vote for the bill, even though it proposed to establish Northern Ireland. In parliament on November 11, Sir Edward Carson explained the approach taken by himself and party members.

He had been against home rule in 1914 and he was still against it. He was concerned that it meant abandoning unionists in the rest of Ireland and would reduce the number of their MPs at Westminster.

Nonetheless, he said that the bill had great advantages. If it was rejected this could lead to the 1914 Home Rule bill being activated. The bill provided for self determination of the north. People in Ulster were now ready for their own parliament which would bring many advantages. It was best to accept the bill while they had friends at Westminster. He stated that they were not for the bill but would do nothing to impede it.

Of course, this new arrangement included only six Ulster counties. In March the Ulster Unionist Council accepted this position, to the anger of unionists in the three excluded counties.

On March 29 1920 in parliament Sir James Craig explained their view on the matter. They calculated that a nine-county Northern Ireland would give unionists a majority of only two or three in parliament, which was very precarious. A six county Northern Ireland would allow a majority of at least ten. For this reason, they backed, reluctantly, a six county state.

In parliament the bill was challenged strongly by Joe Devlin, MP for West Belfast. He believed that partition was a bad idea, did not reflect the views of the majority of the Irish people and left the catholic minority in the north in an exposed position. He was supported by a few other nationalist MPs but lacked the backing of the 73 abstentionist Sinn Fein MPs.

On December 23 1920 the bill received royal assent. The act came into operation on May 3 1921. Elections to the two parliaments took place on 24 May. In Northern Ireland unionists won 40 seats. Nationalists and Sinn Fein each won six seats but, due to inter party rivalry, only one Belfast seat. They refused to attend the parliament. Sir James Craig became prime minister.

On June 22 1921 the Northern Ireland parliament was formally opened by King George. In his speech he appealed for an end to strife and a “new era of peace, contentment and goodwill”. For a time such hopes seemed possible but lasted only briefly.

In the south at the May elections Sinn Fein swept the boards. They refused to attend the southern parliament which folded after a brief session. On July 11 a truce was called between the IRA and crown forces.

This was followed by negotiations between Sinn Fein leaders and the British government. The outcome was the Anglo Irish Treaty of December 1921 which set up a new Irish state and government with greater powers than allowed in the Government of Ireland act, but short of a republic.

Proposals for a council of Ireland and a parliament of Ireland did not materialise. Both north and south experienced great violence during 1922. The first five months of 1922 saw the IRA mount a concerted armed campaign against the Northern Ireland state. Two unionist MPs, Sir Henry Wilson and William Twaddell, were murdered. In Belfast some 230 people died.

Violence of this whole period disproportionally affected the catholic population. The late Jonathan Bardon estimated that between July 1920 and July 1922 the death toll in the six counties was 557, including 303 catholics, 172 protestants and 82 members of the security forces. During 1922, sectarian violence included the murders of six members of the Catholic McMahon family in Belfast and six Presbyterians at Altnaveigh, Co Armagh.

Tough emergency laws were enacted to deal with the security situation. 728 were interned. The violence had mostly ended by late June 1922.

After the first world war, other states were established in central and eastern Europe. Many, such as Poland and Czechoslovakia, contained majorities in favour of these arrangements and minorities opposed to them.

They resembled Northern Ireland in lacking homogeneity, in relation especially to national identity as well as to religion and language. The new Irish Free State also experienced such problems.

It had two important minorities. First, there was its protestant population, mostly unionist or loyalist in their politics. Between 1911 and 1926 all 26 counties experienced a drop of at least 20 per cent in protestant numbers.

This decline was partly due to the departure of army personnel and dependants and first world war dead. Another important factor was violence or threat of violence against members of this community which forced many thousands to leave, during the war of independence and the civil war.

The Irish government had a second minority to deal with. Like the Northern Ireland government, the Irish government faced armed opposition arising from division over national identity. This challenge did not come from the protestant minority whose leaders declared their support for the new state.

Instead, a minority rejected the Anglo Irish Treaty for not delivering a republic. This treaty was backed by a Dáil majority and endorsed at the 1922 general election, a verdict which the anti-treaty minority refused to accept. A civil war ensued which led to great loss of life, probably around 1,500 for this period alone. The Irish government took strong steps to deal with this crisis, just as tough as in the north. By February 1923 there were some 13,000 internees and prisoners.

Both Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State were born amid great controversy and violence. They survived unlike some of the other states established in these years. We can be proud of their survival and their achievements over the last century.

So far, in both parts of Ireland, the decade of centenaries has been handled reasonably successfully. Often it has been possible to show concern for all victims and respect for different narratives. It is important that we continue in this manner.

President Michael D Higgins has written: “The complex events we recall from a century ago are integral to the story that has shaped our peoples in all their diversity.”

He warned: “How they are recalled and understood will continue to shape us and the decisions we make into the future.”

Brian M Walker is professor emeritus of Irish studies at Queen’s University Belfast. His new book is Irish history matters: politics, identities and commemoration (History Press).

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