The Boundary Commission Debacle 1925, aftermath & implications.

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 2 (Summer 1996), Northern Ireland 1920 - present, Volume 4

British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.

British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.

The story of the ill-fated Boundary Commission has often been told: how it was established under Article XII of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty to determine the extent of the North/South border ‘in accordance with the wishes of the inhabitants, so far as may be compatible with economic and geographic conditions’; how it was imposed upon a reluctant Belfast parliament by Britain; how it was accepted by most of Nationalist Ireland as offering substantial territorial concessions; and how finally in early November 1925 that belief was shattered by the Morning Post’s revelation of a two-way transfer of territory designed merely to rectify the existing frontier. Less often told is the story of how the agreement which replaced it was secured and of the implications which flowed from it.

Diplomatic disaster for Free State

Late in November 1925 Dublin government denials of the Morning Post’s prediction were embarrassingly confounded by the resignation from the three-man Boundary Commission of its representative Eoin Mac Neill, who, it was subsequently disclosed, had agreed with the overall verdict of his colleagues the previous October. In desperation W.T. Cosgrave, President of the Free State’s Executive Council, flew to London on 25 November for an urgent meeting with his British counterpart Stanley Baldwin at 10 Downing Street. For Cosgrave it was to be a diplomatic disaster, with each argument he put forward trumped by the response from the British side.
His complaint that the question of a six- or four-county Northern Ireland, on which the 1914 Buckingham Palace conference had broken down, ‘seemed to have gone by the board’ was met with a reminder from Austen Chamberlain, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, that no such arrangement had been envisaged under the 1921 Treaty, a point with which Cosgrave was forced to agree. The British, Chamberlain insisted, had at all times contemplated a two-way transfer of territory. Cosgrave could only counter lamely that Lloyd George, the then Prime Minister, had ‘given the impression’ of more substantial alterations favourable to the Irish side and admitted to Chamberlain that the Irish side would have expected the British to enforce such an award on Unionists.
The chief concession for which Cosgrave, arguing for ‘a justice above the law’, had hoped, an Irish-British intergovernmental conference to resolve the boundary issue, was turned down flatly by the British, who suggested instead that he resolve the matter through negotiations with Sir James Craig, Northern Ireland Prime Minister, which they were prepared to facilitate. Cosgrave on his return to Dublin placed this proposal and a related promise to release details to the Dáil to avoid the risk of dividing his own party.


Stability of Treaty settlement threatened

Within forty-eight hours another Irish delegation had arrived in London led by Dublin’s Minister for External Affairs, Kevin O’Higgins. They began where Cosgrave had left off, hoping to ‘extract some new arrangement’, in this case intervention by the League of Nations. Confronted with the same intransigent response they outlined the direness of their situation: if they were to appear before the Dáil with the package presented to Cosgrave they would ‘disappear politically’, Patrick McGilligan, Free State Minister for Commerce, told the British. If the Boundary Commission went ahead the Southern government might attempt to enforce its award but would not itself survive, O’Higgins assured them. The entire Treaty settlement and the stability it promised for both islands hung in the balance. A possible life-line, O’Higgins told Tom Jones, British Cabinet Secretary, would be far-reaching concessions to Northern Catholics who had endured serious infringements of their rights over the previous three years and were at that moment experiencing the full weight of the B Special mobilisation, in anticipation of the Boundary Commission’s report. Such concessions, for example the restoration of proportional representation in local elections and greater equity in public appointments would, O’Higgins suggested, help diffuse Northern Catholic anger by dividing the border Nationalists, who had expected inclusion in the South, from those in east Ulster who had never any room for such hope. But even this Machiavellian game plan went awry, when the long-awaited meeting with Craig finally took place. On proposal after proposal put to him by the Southern delegation—the disbandment of the special constabulary, the reinstatement of proportional representation, the ending of discrimination—he refused to budge. He accused the Free State of having lived in a fool’s paradise in its expectation of major territorial transfers from the

Boundary Commission and reminded them of Michael Collins’s preference for a round-table conference to avert precisely what had now happened. Other leading Irish political figures, including O’Higgins, had privately foreseen the possibility of two-way transfers, albeit on a smaller scale.

Eoin MacNeill, the free state’s representative on the Boundary commission.

One last card

With this avenue blocked, with the British refusing any outside arbitration and with the prospect of electoral extinction looming back in Ireland, only one card remained for the delegation to play. Article V of the Treaty had committed the Free State to a share of the United Kingdom public debt, subject to agreement between the governments. A possibility existed, therefore, of a trade off between the abandonment of Article XII and the securing of concessions under this article. That way they could, in O’Higgins’ words, ‘deaden in the twenty-six counties the echo of the outcry of the Catholics in North East Ulster’. The Irish delegation emphasised the Free State’s financial plight: a national debt of almost £2 billion; 250,000 people occupying uneconomic holdings; as well as the economic cost of the Civil War (over £21 million had been spent on the army in the first three years of its existence). Despite British misgivings, notably from Churchill, these arguments met with success. The Boundary Commissioners were prevailed upon by the British to suppress their report (It’s eventual publication in 1969 confirmed the accuracy of the Morning Post’s forecast) and on 3 December at the Colonial Office an agreement of the three governments amended the Treaty of 1921, in the name of improved relations between the two Islands. Article XII was revoked, the existing boundary was confirmed and the Free State was to assume responsibility for the cost of the Anglo-Irish war (referred to as ‘malicious damage’ in the accord) and to pay compensation for similar ‘malicious damage’ in the period from the truce to the end of the Civil War. Other clauses provided for the continued payment of land annuities to Britain and the transfer of Council of Ireland powers to Northern Ireland. The financial provisions of the pact were elaborated on in a supplementary arrangement in March 1926.

President of the Executive Council,W.T. Cosgrave - 'a damm good bargain'

President of the Executive Council,
W.T. Cosgrave – ‘a damm good bargain’

Stormy Dáil debate

On 10 December 1925 the agreement signed by the British, Free State and Northern governments came before the Dáil which passed it after a stormy debate by seventy-one votes to twenty, with fourteen abstentions (The forty-eight Sinn Féin deputies were boycotting the Dáil). The Labour Party, the bill’s opponents in the house, objected in particular to the Free State’s assumption of the entire cost to the Anglo-Irish war as an ‘admission that Ireland had no right to wage that war and had not the status of a treaty-making power’. The finalised agreement was later lodged with the League of Nations as an international treaty.

Northern Nationalists, encouraged to believe in Article XII, had long suspected a betrayal. Now their fears were to be confirmed. O’Higgins admitted to the British that the charge of having sold them was ‘no more than a half-truth’. Their representatives were denied access to the Dáil debate. Cosgrave, who had hailed the new arrangement as ‘a damn good bargain’, told the house that the only security for minorities lay in the good will of the people amongst whom they lived.
An exchange between Patrick Baxter, the Farmers’ Party representative for Cavan, and Patrick McGilligan, himself a Northern Catholic, captures the mood of the debate.

Baxter: No young Nationalist can go to a neighbour’s house or a ceilidhe without…being liable to being searched half a dozen times by a next door neighbour with a revolver. Three or four Nationalists cannot stand at a crossroad, without B Specials coming along to deny them their rights.’

Minister for External Affairs, Kevin O'Higgins- hoped to extract some new arrangement.

Minister for External Affairs, Kevin O’Higgins- hoped to extract some new arrangement.

McGilligan: I have brothers who do all these things without any of this happening.

In the new spirit of neighbourliness between the two Islands the function of the Northern minority according to Cosgrave was to serve as ‘a connecting link’. With this in mind he unsuccessfully pressurised their abstentionist MP’s to enter the Northern parliament, ironically using as his contact the Morning Post’s representative in Ireland.

Northern Nationalist despair

The claim that Northern Catholics had been ‘thrown to the wolves’, dismissed by O’Higgins as ‘rhetorical bombast’, found a ready echo across the Nationalist North, particularly in the newspapers of the border regions. From the depth of their despair Northern Catholics began to reassess the route which led them to this situation, most of them, particularly those in the border areas, coming to look afresh on the previously despised de Valera and his soon-to-be-formed Fianna Fáil. Others like Cahir Healy, MP for South Fermanagh and a Sinn Féiner from pre-1916 days, came to a more fundamental reappraisal of the tradition to which he belonged and the one which it had replaced. ‘John Redmond’, he ruefully recalled, ‘was driven from office for accepting partition for five years. Our present leaders have accepted it forever.’ De Valera, the principal beneficiary of Northern Catholic alienation, claimed his 1937 constitution, with its assertion of the ‘national territory’, revoked the recognition of partition contained in the 1925 agreement, a claim repeated by him as late as May 1957 in response to a Dáil question during his final term as Taoiseach. Yet in 1958 at his party’s Árd Fheis he baulked at the prospect of taking the issue before an international tribunal, remarking to his followers, ‘you know the way these tribunals are’. His reasoning in this respect may well have been sound.

The border - a political, not a legal, problem.

The border – a political, not a legal, problem.

Political, not legal, dispute

A secret Department of Foreign Affairs memorandum dated 26 October 1969 considered the claim that the 1925 agreement did not survive the 1932 change of government, the 1937 constitution and the 1948 Republic of Ireland Act and concluded:

The basic principal of respect for treaties (pacts sunt sevanda) means they may not be unilaterally terminated. International relations would be very haphazard and unstable if changes of government or unilateral acts by governments were to mean a termination of their international commitments.

It went on to quote from a ruling of the permanent Court of International Justice in 1932 that a state ‘could not cite its own constitution as evidence but had to reply on international laws and obligations’. The memorandum concluded that Ireland’s dispute with Britain ‘was a political dispute’ and they had ‘little basis on which to make it a legal one’.
When the seventieth anniversary of the 1925 tripartite pact arrived last December it passed without comment in the Republic. With that society enjoying its second Christmas free from the economic effects of Northern violence, with a pan-Nationalist front, however shaky, in existence for the first time since the 1950s and with an increasing willingness through the cult of Michael Collins to romanticise the State’s violent birth, there was, unsurprisingly, little desire to recall an agreement which denied the legitimacy of Ireland’s independence struggle, recognised partition and abandoned Northern Catholics to decades of discrimination.

Enda Staunton holds a doctorate in Northern Nationalism.

Further reading:

D. MacCardle, The Irish Republic (London 1937).

M. Laffan, The History of Partition (Dublin 1983).

C. O’Halloran, Partition and the limits of Irish nationalism (New York 1987).

E. Staunton, The Nationalists of Northern Ireland (Cork forthcoming).


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