Friday 19 June 2009

Partition and repartition, part 2: the Boundary Commission

In 1924 the new government of the Irish Free State believed that "it was not contemplated by the Treaty that any area within 'Northern Ireland' should have the right to withdraw permanently from the jurisdiction of the Irish Free State, unless the majority of the inhabitants of such area were in favour of this course." It operated under the assumption, therefore, that nationalist areas of the new Northern Ireland would join the Free State according to the wishes of their inhabitants.

In support of its belief that these ideas would not be insignificant, it further stated that "The Parliament of 'Northern Ireland' was opened on the 22nd day of June, 1921, but 12 members elected for constituencies in 'Northern Ireland' refused to recognise the jurisdiction of that Parliament, and never participated in any of its functions. The said 12 members were distributed as follows:- namely, 4 were elected for the Counties of Fermanagh and Tyrone, 2 for the County of Armagh, 1 for the County of Antrim, 1 for West Belfast, 2 for the County of Down, and 2 for the County of Londonderry (including the Borough of Londonderry)." These members represented half of the 8 members of the NI Parliament from Fermanagh and Tyrone, half of the 4 members for Armagh, 1 of the seven for Antrim, 1 of the four for West Belfast, a quarter of those from County Down, and 2 of the five from Derry.

The Free State government expected, quite reasonably, that large areas of south Armagh, south Down, Fermanagh, Tyrone and Derry would be transferred to the Free State by the Boundary Commission.

However, the work of the Commission was wrecked, largely on account of the premature publication of its findings (including the map below) in The Morning Post on 7 November 1924. This showed that the Commission did not, in fact, propose the kind of large-scale transfers of territory that the Irish Free State had expected. The Commission, with a built-in British-Unionist majority, voted to leave the provisional border untouched, and in a sordid little deal the Dublin government acquiesced. The border, provisional, unpopular, incorrect, inefficient and unfair, has remained petrified ever since.

The work of the Boundary Commission remains controversial to this day. Its report was suppressed until 1968, and when released revealed a number of curious elements:

  • It made the decision to retain the Mourne Mountains within Northern Ireland because of the location of the Belfast Waterworks and sources of water there, although the region had a clear Catholic majority,
  • the Irish government anticipated large transfers of territory, chiefly at the expense of the six counties, but the British government looked only for minor adjustments. The Commission treated the existing boundary as the default unless there were convincing local reasons for adjustment.
  • it defined a zone on either side of the six counties boundary, varying from a few yards to 16 miles from the existing boundary in which they conducted their detailed investigations and took evidence from witnesses. They clearly did not plan to make changes outside this frontier zone, despite the large nationalist areas 'inland' from the border.
  • it concluded that changes could only be made were the majority was a “high proportion” of the inhabitants of the district concerned. No figure was given, but typically in areas proposed for transfer to Northern Ireland on the grounds of a Non-Catholic majority, the percentages are 63 to 66% of Non-Catholics in the total population, whereas in areas proposed for transfer to the Irish Free State the proportion of Catholics in the total population is typically much higher, from 79 to 93%. It seems that the Commission was operating according to double standards.

Nationalist Ireland was, and remains, scandalised by what it considered to be treachery – it had been tricked into a border that it felt disadvantaged it considerably and locked hundreds of thousands of nationalists into a state that was mutating into a 'Protestant state for a Protestant people'. Northern nationalists, in particular, felt abandoned and betrayed.

On one level, northern nationalists were betrayed – displaying a Machiavellian approach to the border, the Free State's Minister for Justice and External Affairs, Kevin O'Higgins, is reported to have written that "... the Boundary Commission at any time was a wonderful piece of constructive statesmanship, the shoving up of a line, four, five or ten miles, leaving the Nationalists north of that line in a smaller minority than is at present the case, leaving the pull towards union, the pull towards the south, smaller and weaker than is at present the case." Although this quotation is unconfirmed, it represents a line of thought that is still common today – that a re-partition leading to a smaller but more unionist Northern Ireland would make the eventual re-unification of Ireland harder. Better, for some people, that the minority of dissatisfied northern nationalists is as large as possible.

Despite the sense of betrayal, and sporadic campaigns by nationalist Ireland including the Dublin government to remove the border, no further serious proposals to re-draw the boundaries of Northern Ireland were made for another two generations. That was to change in the 1970s when the upsurge of violence and civil unrest made an increasing number of people, both in the British government and in the ranks of unionism and loyalism, question whether Northern Ireland could remain viable within its current borders.

[Next post: 1972]


hoboroad said...

Was Edward Carson not opposed to partition?I think he did not approve of Stormont as he was a real Unionist and wanted the whole Island intergrated in to the UK.I always laugh when Unionists of today try to copy him.Carson was a bit of a liberal in his day against the death penalty and for giving women the vote!

hoboroad said...

You can not talk about Partition without mentioning the UVF.The fact is Unionism of all stripes were prepared to consort with the Kings enemies on the verge of World War One.The Kaisers orange friends brought in 30,000 rifles to the North raise a private army of 100,000 to threaten the Government.And aiding and abetting in this enterprise were the Tory party.

Anonymous said...

The failure of a fair partition was and is a tragedy for all sides. The unionists would be better off if they had accepted a smaller state but had a more secure majority. Likewise many Catholics would not have had to have lived under British rule.

Anonymous said...

Probably because Carson was a Dub.

hoboroad said...

He also called Ireland "My Country"

Faha said...

There was another attempt to end partition in 1940. This was initiated by the British government in June 1940 after the German army occupied France and the British government was concerned about an imminent German invasion.Malcolm MacDonald was Dominions Secretary and Chamberlain was in the Cabinet as Lord President of the Council.The British proposed a United Ireland with a joint body to be set up to work out the constitutional details.Ireland would agree to enter the war and provide naval and air bases for the British in Ireland. Malcolm MacDonald met with the Irish Cabinet and I quote from " Notes of Malcolm MacDonald meeting with the Eire Cabinet-June 27,1940 ". " I said that the Eire Cabinet should take it as absolutely definite that if the plan were accepted as a whole,A United Ireland would come into being within a comparatively short period of time The declaration which we proposed that the United Kingdom should make on the matter would settle the issue once and for all...I said that we cerainly would not coerce Northern Ireland. We would not and could not march troops into the six counties to force a policy upon their government. But if the Eire government aceepted the plan, we hooped to persuade the Northern Ireland government also to accept it, and we felt that the present circumstances offered a very good chance of an agreement being reached". There were other and similar communications from Chamberlain. Malcolm MacDonald also noted that De Valera agreed that" Ulster would enjoy a great deal of autonomy in its own affairs. It would retain its Parliament to legislate on those affairs, and it would also send representatives to the Parliament of the United Ireland which would deal with all matters of common concern".De Valera and the Irish government agreed to all the
British proposals, except they wished to maintain neutrality in the war but would agree to British bases and would support mutual defense.In a letter from De Valera to Neville Chamberlain on July4, 1940 the Irish government declined to accept the proposals. " The plan would commit us definitely to an immediate abandonment of our neutrality. On the other hand , it gives us no gaurantee that in the end we would have a United ireland, unless indeed concesssions were made to Lord Craigavon opposed to the sentiments and aspirations of the great majority of the Irish people ....Lord Craigavon and his colleagues could at any stage render the whole project nugatory and prevent the desired unification by demanding concessions to which the majority of the people could not agree."
De Valera was very cognizant of the opposition of the unionist government. Indeed, almost to the day that he wrote this letter, Lord Craigavon wrote to the Brtish government requesting a brusque entry of British troops into Eire with " A Military Governor appointed over all Ireland for the period of the war.. with pamphlets in English and Irish explaining that the military were there to defend the intersets of the Irish people" !
Interesting history. My only criticism of the Irish government is that they should have agreed to all the proposals, including a declaration of war against Germany and Italy and that such decalaration of war would occur the day following the constitutional unification of a United Ireland. The decision would then have been entirely up to the British government to persuade the unionist government to agree to a United Ireland as soon as possible. Opposition by the unionist government would be seen as hindering the war effort since the only impediment to Ireland entering the war on the side of the British would be unionist refusal to cooperate on Brtish proposals that the government of Ireland had agreed to in entirety.

hoboroad said...


That is 100 percent true it might have worked also if the two main actors in the drama had not been Winston Churchill and Eamon de Valera.As neither man trusted the other I believe the offer was real on Churchills part but Dev thought once bitten twice shy as they say!

hoboroad said...

There was a documentary about this called Atlantic Bridgehead made by BBC Northern Ireland a couple of years ago.I think it might have worked if the US government had guaranteed the deal at the time acting as an honest broker so neither side could back out on there side of the deal.

Anonymous said...

Remember this is less than 20 years after partition and just following an economic war between Ireland and the declining but still powerful imperialist Britain. The British had very good reason to fear the Nazis and saw the south of Ireland as a huge weakness in the defense of the realm. Its called self preservation. The British Government at the time would have offered to shoot their grannies if the deal could be done but of course they knew that they would never be able to convince the Unionists of this and deliver their side. So did De Valera.

It was a matter of trust or should I say lack of trust and who could blame the Irish side.

I know in my heart and soul that it was an attempt to hoodwink the Dublin Government but then again we will never know for certain.

What could have been in the Emerald Isle?

MPG .....

Anonymous said...

Reply to Faha:

What the Irish government should have done is offered the U.K. a "trade". Say a 10-year naval and air bases lease in the Republic in exchange for one of Ulsters' counties being immediately surrendered to the Republic. Ideally the one with the highest percentage of Catholics. Had such an offer been made in the summer of 1940, when the British government was very close to panic, it would probably have been accepted. Please see the book 1940: MYTH AND REALITY. The Irish government lacked imagination.