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]