H.T. Barrie and the Irish Convention

Published in Issue 3 (May/June 2019), Letters, Volume 27

Sir,—In his otherwise extremely interesting article on H.T. Barrie MP (HI 27.2, March/April 2019), Aaron Callan states:

‘Barrie, however, went to the [1917 Irish] Convention to safeguard the Ulster Unionist position—namely that partition had already been agreed in the 1914 Act (albeit for a “temporary” six-year period)—and this was the outcome he would reaffirm’.

It is not totally clear from the context to which Act the author is referring—or, indeed, whether he is referring to the facts as they were or to Barrie’s (and his fellow Ulster Unionists’) perception of the facts of the situation in 1917—but if it is intended here to convey the impression that the 1914 Home Rule Act (and that is what one would normally presume to be meant by the reference to the ‘Act’ here) contained that provision it is inaccurate (at least technically). The compromise arrived at in August 1914 in the face of the outbreak of the Great War permitted Redmond the fig-leaf of not having to accept, openly, the concession of partition, which he had accepted in principle, in secret. The Home Rule Act was passed into law but its operation was suspended until an indefinite date ‘not later than the end of the present war’ in the Suspensory Bill passed in September 1914, whereas the final stages of the separate but related Amending Bill, which contained the draft provisions for the exclusion from its scope of the six north-eastern counties (i.e. partition), were deferred. As Ronan Fanning (Fatal path [2013]) succinctly put it:

‘This, then, was the compromise that put Ireland on ice for the duration of the Great War. Redmond agreed to the suspension of home rule; Asquith agreed to the suspension of partition.’

Redmond’s followers were largely unaware that the principle of partition had been effectively conceded; ‘he nourished the nationalist delusion that the partition of Ireland was avoidable’ (Fanning).

Of course, the Asquith government simultaneously satisfied Carson and the Unionists with firm assurances that Ulster would not be coerced, thus convincing them that, despite the suspension of the Amending Bill, partition was definitely acquis. But the issues of the duration of Ulster’s exclusion and the precise geographical area to be excluded remained unresolved. It was not, in fact, until the Government of Ireland Act 1920 that the legislative process begun and suspended in 1914 was resumed and put into effect (though implemented in Northern Ireland only through the establishment of its parliament). It took another two years before the ratification of the Anglo-Irish Treaty brought the rest of the country into line, while Northern Ireland opted out of the Irish Free State and another three before the border was finalised.

Thus, although the Ulster Unionists, Barrie included, may have believed (with some grounds for optimism) that it was all settled in the—suspended—Act of 1914, in fact it was not.—Yours etc.,

FRANK COGAN

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