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Partition and the establishment of Northern Ireland in 1920-1925


King George V, at Belfast City Hall accompanied by Queen Mary to the opening of the first Ulster Parliament. 22/6/1921.

King George V, at Belfast City Hall accompanied by Queen Mary to the opening of the first Ulster Parliament. 22/6/1921.

King George V, at Belfast City Hall accompanied by Queen Mary to the opening of the first Ulster Parliament. 22/6/1921.

“Ulster turns her face eagerly and hopefully towards the dawn. She knows that the future is in her own hands. She means to shape that future to noble ends and the achievement of a happy destiny”. With these optimistic words, an editorial in the Belfast Telegraph welcomed the opening of the new Northern Ireland parliament by King George V on 22 June 1921.

Northern Ireland was formally established as a result of the Government of Ireland Act which received royal assent on 23 December 1920. This act laid down structures for a new government and parliament. Over the next five years such arrangements would be sorely tested.

After King George gave his assent he remarked that the act was ‘the fruits of more than 30 years of ceaseless controversy’. He also expressed his hope that it would help to bring conciliation to Ireland, as it covered both Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland.

The late nineteenth century in Ireland witnessed the emergence of a clear political divide over the national question. Nationalists wanted some form of independence for Ireland while unionists sought to maintain full union with Britain. Unionists were based most strongly in Ulster.

Another feature of politics was a strong correlation between denominational attachment and politics. Most unionists were Protestant and most nationalists were Catholic, although there were important exceptions.

The nationalist and unionist parties failed to reach a compromise on the national question. This led to the formation of armed forces, in the shape of the Ulster Volunteer Force, on behalf of northern unionists, and the Irish Volunteers, on behalf of nationalists. Only the outbreak of war prevented violent conflict in 1914.

After the 1916 Dublin Rising there was a rise in support for a more advanced form of Irish self-government. In 1918 Sinn Fein became the dominant nationalist party and the following year saw the beginning of the War of Independence fought by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) against crown forces. While Ulster did not experience the same level of violence as in Munster, Belfast saw violent riots.

At Westminster efforts to find a political solution resulted in the Government of Ireland Act which partitioned Ireland into two political entities. Given the confrontation between unionists and Sinn Fein/nationalists, there was no realistic alternative to partition in 1920.

A 32-county state, run from Dublin, with an oath of allegiance, would almost certainly have found itself facing, as historian Tom Garvin has written, ‘not one but two civil wars, one in Munster and one in Ulster’. At the same time, this settlement left important national and religious minorities in each jurisdiction which were not happy with the arrangement.

Sinn Fein did not accept the Government of Ireland Act and so only Northern Ireland, based on the six north-east counties of Ulster, came into existence. On 7 June, the parliament met for the first time and a cabinet was formed with Sir James Craig as prime minister.

On 22 June King George conducted the official opening of the parliament in a ceremony at Belfast city hall. In his speech the King called for peace among the people of Ireland. Afterwards he conferred honours on a number of prominent citizens, including a knighthood on Robert Baird, owner of the Belfast Telegraph.


The Belfast Telegraph coverage of the first Parliament

The Belfast Telegraph coverage of the first Parliament

The Belfast Telegraph coverage of the first Parliament

On 11 July a truce was called between the British government and Sinn Fein. Negotiations led to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921 which established a new government in the south with considerable powers of self-government but not a republic.

The first five months of 1922 witnessed great violence in Northern Ireland. The IRA, with the support of the southern government, mounted a concerted armed campaign against the state. Two unionist M.P.s, Sir Henry Wilson and William Twaddell, were murdered.

Between December 1921 and the end of May 1922, 236 people were killed In Belfast, consisting of 147 Catholics and 89 Protestants or members of the security forces. Sectarian violence included the murders of six members of the Catholic McMahon family in Belfast and six Protestants at Altnaveigh, Co. Armagh.

The Northern Ireland government assumed responsibility for law and order in late November 1921. It relied on the army and the Royal Irish Constabulary until their disbandment on 31 May 1922 when they were replaced by the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

The government also relied on the Ulster Special Constabulary, particularly the ‘B’ specials, established in late 1920. Tough emergency laws were enacted to deal with the security situation. By June 1922 there were over 500 republican internees.

The violence had mostly ended by late June 1922, due in part to divisions in republican ranks over the terms of the treaty which led to a civil war in the south that lasted until May 1923. The Irish government brought in emergency legislation of even greater severity than that in the north. By February 1923 there were around 13,000 republican prisoners and internees.

Despite the cessation of violence, the Northern Ireland government still faced problems, in particular the threat posed by the boundary commission contained in the Anglo-Irish Treaty. This commission, however, had unintended consequences, as both Michael Collins and Ernest Blythe later acknowledged.

The government saw the commission as a threat to the boundaries of Northern Ireland and the viability of the state. Consequently steps were taken to end PR in local government elections and to redraw council boundaries, in anticipation of the commission’s work. These changes restored unionist control in a number of key areas, such as Co Fermanagh where the county council had declared allegiance to Dáil Éireann.

In 1925 the report of the commission was shelved. This was followed by the 1925 Tripartite Agreement which declared that the Irish Free State, British and Northern Ireland governments, were “united in amity... and resolved mutually to aid one another in a spirit of neighbourly comradeship”, confirmed the 1920 boundary and recognised the powers and position of Northern Ireland.

At this stage there were hopes that political relations would improve. The nationalist leader Joe Devlin boycotted parliament in 1921 but took his seat in 1925, saying that nationalists must “recognise that parliament as a sacrosanct institution of democracy”. He urged that “at such a hopeful time it would be cruelly wrong to revive old controversies, stir up forgotten feuds”.

The Belfast Telegraph, on 1 January 1926, reported how at a meeting attended by Devlin, J.M. Andrews, minister of labour, expressed his hope that “the better spirit which had been growing in Northern Ireland would continue to grow and that in future their differences would not be exaggerated unnecessarily”.

Such aspirations did not materialise in the end. The constitutional issue remained at the centre of political life, linked to religious divisions. Politics became deeply polarised.

In the early 1920s other states were established, such as Czechoslovakia and Romania. They also contained majorities in favour of these arrangements and minorities opposed to them. They resembled Northern Ireland, and indeed the Irish Free State, in lacking homogeneity, in relation especially to national identity, but also religion and language. Eventually some of these countries collapsed because of such deep divisions.

In spite of early and subsequent difficulties Northern Ireland survived. Today we can be proud that it has existed for 100 years.

Brian M. Walker is Professor Emeritus of Irish Studies at Queen’s University Belfast. His most recent book is Irish history matters: politics, identities and commemoration (History Press)

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