Towards the end of 1919, Prime Minister Lloyd George explained to the House of Commons the two awkward ‘facts’ of political life which the Government of Ireland Act (1914) had failed to address.
First, “that three-quarters of the population of Ireland are not merely governed without their consent, but manifest bitter hostility to the government” and, secondly, “a considerable section of the people of Ireland … are just as opposed to Irish rule as the majority of Irishmen are to British rule”.
With the end of the Great War the government revisited Home Rule with a view to resolving the conundrum by establishing a cabinet committee in October 1919 under the chairmanship of Walter Long to draft fresh legislation.
Long’s appointment to chair the committee tasked to draft the Government of Ireland Bill (effectively the fourth Home Rule Bill) came as a great surprise to him because of his life-long opposition to Home Rule.
Unlike the three previous Home Rule Bills, Long’s committee proposed squaring the circle by the establishment of Northern and Southern Irish parliaments in Belfast and Dublin.
Long was adamant that the government could not impose Irish unity but believed that a nine-county Northern Parliament, coupled with a Council of Ireland, would facilitate Irish unity in the long term.
On February 25, 1920 the Government of Ireland Bill was introduced in the House of Commons.
On March 10 the Ulster Unionist Council met to consider the terms of the Government of Ireland Bill. The UUC decided to acquiesce in the terms of the bill but without accepting any responsibility for it.
Unionists also insisted that Northern Ireland, the area to be placed under the jurisdiction of the Belfast Parliament, should be a six-county rather than a nine-county entity, indicating that they would accept no other settlement.
The formal unionist position towards devolution was set out by James Craig: “As a final settlement and supreme sacrifice in the interests of peace the Government of Ireland Act was accepted by Northern Ireland, although not asked for by her representatives.”
However, the establishment of a Northern Parliament in which unionists could confidently expect to be in the majority and to form the government was not without attraction. James Craig’s brother Charles, the MP for South Antrim, touched on this when he candidly explained to the House of Commons on April 2, 1920:
“We would much prefer to remain part and parcel of the United Kingdom … But we have many enemies in this country, and we feel that an Ulster without a Parliament of its own would not be in nearly as strong a position as one in which a Parliament had been set up, where the Executive had been appointed and where, above all, the paraphernalia of government was already in existence … We should fear no one … and would be in a position of absolute security.”
Charles Craig’s calculation was that if the Union unimpaired was unavailable and if some form of Home Rule was inevitable, the bill represented the least threat to their British identity.
The bill became law when it received the Royal Assent on December 23, 1920.
The terms of the act were implemented in stages by a series of ‘appointed days’ and on March 24, 1921 the Privy Council decreed that May 3 was to be the date on which the provisions of the Act would be brought into operation generally.
The devolved powers of the Parliament included all major aspects of domestic policy except crucially major taxation.
Despite Charles Craig’s speech in the Commons in April 1920, unionists did not embrace Home Rule with unalloyed enthusiasm but, as Hugh Pollock, Northern Ireland’s future finance minister, reiterating James Craig’s view, explained to Wilfrid Ewart, a Times journalist covering events in Ireland and the author of ‘A Journey in Ireland, 1921’: “The present Act of Parliament is the only form of Home Rule acceptable to us. We never asked for the Government of Ireland, but in my opinion it is a good act, and we mean loyally to work it, whatever happens. In doing that, we are only carrying out the law.”
Turning to the Council of Ireland, Ewart then asked Pollock whether it would result in Irish unity. Pollock thought that ‘constant contact’ through the Council of Ireland would render “the possibilities of ultimate union, on the whole, great”.
Nationalists did not share Pollock’s assessment. They saw no value in the Council of Ireland which they dismissed as “a mere academic debating society”. Outside the six counties which made up Northern Ireland, the act was a dead letter from the outset (a possible explanation why Pollock could afford to be so relaxed about the potential political impact of a Council of Ireland).
Home Rule was simply no longer sufficient to satisfy huge swathes of Southern Irish opinion. Former Home Rulers now demanded what was termed ‘Dominion Home Rule’ (the status enjoyed by Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa), while Sinn Feiners were insistent on a republic outside the UK.
Ultimately Sinn Fein split on the issue after the Anglo-Irish treaty of December 6, 1921, with the pro-treaty faction of Sinn Fein settling for dominion status within the Empire.
With respect to the Council of Ireland, it is interesting to observe how over 50 years later unionist and nationalist positions on a Council of Ireland were in general terms dramatically reversed.
At the Sunningdale constitutional conference in 1973, nationalists embraced a Council of Ireland with enthusiasm. The SDLP grossly inflated its significance and fanned unionist fears by claiming that it would produce the dynamic that would ultimately result in a unitary state or, in the words attributed to SDLP Assemblyman Hugh Logue, “the vehicle that would trundle unionists into a united Ireland”.
The SDLP’s nightmarish vision of a Council of Ireland destabilised the unionist community, undermined Brian Faulkner’s hitherto enormous credibility with the unionist electorate and ensured the eventual collapse of both the power-sharing executive and the whole Sunningdale Agreement in May 1974.
— to www.newsletter.co.uk