To stop partition?

Published in Features, Issue 3 (May/June 2021), Volume 29

Arguments for the parliament of Southern Ireland, 1921.

By M.C. Rast

Above: The Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction for Ireland (DATI) on Upper Merrion Street, where the parliament of Southern Ireland met on 28 June. (NLI)

After years of organisation and effort by Irish nationalists, a Home Rule legislature opened in Dublin on 28 June 1921. It was not the great national assembly envisioned by leaders like Parnell and Redmond. Ironically, the small coterie of lawmakers were not nationalists at all, but unionists. This was the parliament of Southern Ireland, a 26-county body established by the Government of Ireland Act (1920), sometimes called the Fourth Home Rule Act. It was intended to function in tandem with the six-county parliament of Northern Ireland. Only four out of the envisioned 128 members of the Irish House of Commons were present, all representing Trinity College, alongside fifteen out of 64 senators. They convened in the Department of Agriculture’s premises in Upper Merrion Street, which the Irish Times said felt better suited to ‘discussions about butter and foot-and-mouth disease, rather than for a meeting of the nation’s legislature’. The Southern parliament met again on 13 July for about fifteen minutes and was later superseded by the Irish Free State.

Failure inevitable?

Historians often describe this quixotic parliament’s failure as inevitable, its existence of little account. Most contemporaries ignored or were hostile to this legislature, seeing in the two parliaments the formalisation of partition by an Act of the British government. Nevertheless, after the Government of Ireland Act passed in December 1920, a few argued that the Southern parliament held great potential. In particular, the Council of Ireland created by the Act, comprising members of both Irish parliaments, might be expanded into an all-Ireland legislature.

A series of Irish Times editorials in January and February 1921 argued adamantly that the Southern parliament could attain practical goals, particularly the ending of partition. The newspaper had once been a vehicle for unionism throughout Ireland, but during the Third Home Rule crisis the Irish Times opposed partition, which was promoted by many unionists in Ulster and Britain. By late 1914 the newspaper was an effective mouthpiece for southern unionists only but remained influential.

Like its nationalist contemporaries, the Irish Times opposed the Government of Ireland Bill during its progress through parliament in 1920, calling it the ‘Partition Bill’. Southern unionists opposed partition for different reasons than nationalists; division would deprive them of the influence they could wield in conjunction with their more numerous Ulster compatriots, but opposition from this group was real.

Above: (Punch, 10 March 1920)

By January 1921, Irish Times editors insisted that they still opposed the measure but that it was law and its implementation in Northern Ireland was inevitable: ‘We have not abated our dislike of the Act’s provisions—its principle of partition and its costly duality—but it is a fait accompli’. The newspaper advanced three arguments for establishing the parliament of Southern Ireland. The meagre powers granted by the Act could be expanded. Acceptance would avoid ‘Crown Colony government’, which was the stick threatened by British authorities if the 26 counties refused the carrot of a truncated legislature. Most importantly, the Act offered a mechanism for all-Ireland co-operation that could lead to unity, but the Council of Ireland would function only if the Southern parliament nominated members. The editors assumed that Northern Ireland would develop tolerant, businesslike institutions and that the rest of the country must do the same to entice Ulster unionist co-operation. The newspaper even declared that ‘with Southern Ireland … rests the decision whether partition shall be temporary or permanent’.

Above: Chief Secretary Hamar Greenwood – encouraged the belief that the Council of Ireland would facilitate unity. (NPG UK)

In early 1921 there seemed to be momentum for making the Southern parliament really effective. Prominent individuals published statements supporting the idea, all of which emphasised hopes for unity. Lord Decies pleaded with ‘all Irishmen’ to ‘come forward and endeavour to produce from this Government of Ireland Act one united Parliament for the whole of Ireland’. Catholic Bishop Daniel Cohalan of Cork suggested that Sinn Féin use the Southern parliament ‘as a spring-board from which they could jump off to something better’. He also asserted that the reorientation of northern unionists’ political energy away from Britain gave hope of imminent reunification: ‘many in North-East Ulster, no longer facing to Westminster, are looking for commercial and political union with Southern Ireland’. British officials, including Chief Secretary Hamar Greenwood and Prime Minister David Lloyd George, encouraged the belief that the Council of Ireland would facilitate unity.

Irish public opinion

The mood in much of Ireland was not amenable to any settlement fashioned at Westminster. The Government of Ireland Act passed all its stages without a single Irish vote in its favour, even from Ulster unionists. Sinn Féin’s elected representatives were already meeting as Dáil Éireann and ignored government edicts. The IRA was prosecuting a guerrilla war against the RIC and British Army, whose reprisals against civilians increased distrust for the authorities. The Freeman’s Journal quipped in February 1921: ‘A vote for the Partition Act would be hard to get, but a vote for Greenwood and his Black and Tans will be impossible to collect’.

Above: Lord Midleton, founder of the southern unionist Anti-Partition League—‘… the imaginary line at present drawn between North and South should not become a permanent one’. (NPG UK)

Southern unionists might have been counted on to trust the British government, but their traditional organisation, the Irish Unionist Alliance (IUA), had split in 1919. The remaining rump of the IUA denounced any form of self-government, including the Government of Ireland Act. They insisted that the only way to avoid partition was to maintain the unaltered Union. The breakaway Unionist Anti-Partition League (UAPL) was formed by southern unionists who approved Home Rule during the Irish Convention (1917–18). League leader Lord Midleton said that the Act did not provide ‘genuine Home Rule’ and that the financial clauses should be amended, which British officials refused to do. Midleton added that Irish business and landed classes should ensure that ‘the imaginary line at present drawn between North and South should not become a permanent one’ but does not appear to have seen the Southern parliament as an effective instrument for doing so. Both southern unionist organisations refused to participate in the new legislature.

Constitutional nationalists, represented by the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), might have provided a natural constituency for the Southern parliament. After all, Home Rule was the party’s primary goal. Some local nationalist organisations nominated candidates for the elections to the new legislature, indicating that they might participate. A May 1921 statement from leader John Dillon reminded the public that the IPP won more than 225,000 votes in the December 1918 election and was far from a spent force. Dillon added, however, that IPP candidates would conflict with Sinn Féin. In opposing the republicans, they might even be identified with the ‘sheer brute force’ by which Ireland was being governed. Dillon recommended that IPP supporters not contest the polls. After this intervention, non-republican nationalists in the 26 counties withdrew their candidacies.

Above: Leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) John Dillon—recommended that IPP supporters not contest the polls. (Irish Independent)

Some southern unionists and constitutional nationalists supported the Irish Dominion League, which advocated giving Ireland the same status as Australia or Canada within the British Empire. The League declared that not only did the Government of Ireland Act grant fewer powers than a dominion but also its imposition without Irish consent made it a greater violation of Ireland’s ‘national rights’ than the Union. Far from seeing the Council as a step toward unity, the Dominion League protested, ‘not only does the Act dismember Ireland, but it subjects the development of self-governing institutions of Southern Ireland to the veto of Northern Ireland, and thus three-quarters of Ireland is subordinated to one-quarter’. The League would give ‘local autonomy’ to ‘North-East Ulster’, but this must be within their envisioned Irish dominion.

No political group contested the 26-county elections with Sinn Féin, which used the polls to select the Second Dáil. Even the Irish Times admitted that the Act would only produce ‘one Parliament which never will sit and another which will be disowned by a large minority of its electorate’. Nonetheless, its editors continued to promote the Southern parliament’s potential for future unity.

British government opinion

Given this lack of enthusiasm for the Government of Ireland Act, historians question why British authorities persisted in its implementation. A common interpretation is that officials were determined to safeguard Ulster unionists by establishing the Northern Ireland parliament before negotiating with Irish republicans. The Southern parliament was a necessary formality.

This interpretation has several drawbacks. First, the government and Sinn Féin nearly negotiated a truce in December 1920, before the Act’s implementation. Lloyd George’s cabinet delayed implementation and only began the process at Ulster unionist leader James Craig’s urging. British officials again considered a truce in May 1921, either a new round of back-channel negotiations or a limited cessation during the elections. Ultimately, the cabinet rejected these truce initiatives because they thought that the IRA was on the verge of defeat. This attitude was embodied by Greenwood, the cabinet’s primary representative in Ireland. He argued that victory was imminent if they persisted with their dual policy of coercion and the Government of Ireland Act. He wrote to Lloyd George on 5 May: ‘we’re pressing on after the IRA. I know we’re defeating them, though we’re bound to lose brave men.’ By contrast, Defence Minister Laming Worthington-Evans described the military situation as ‘anything but satisfactory’ and a ‘virtual stalemate’ that would continue for months. In the event, Lloyd George opted for Greenwood’s rosy view and there was no truce in May 1921.

Another factor indicating that British ministers were not waiting for the foundation of Northern Ireland alone to negotiate was their belief that both Irish legislatures would function. Greenwood insisted that ‘the time to consider cessation is after the elections when the two Parliaments are in existence’. Even up to mid-May, with the elections pending, some officials believed that they would be contested and show that Sinn Féin did not dominate Irish public opinion.

Many Britons considered the Government of Ireland Act’s terms generous. They thought that the IRA was a tiny murder gang, terrorising the populace and moderate Sinn Féiners, who would eagerly negotiate on the basis of the Act if freed from this menace. In May, Sinn Féin leader Eamon de Valera met with Craig directly. Greenwood thought that the former had been compelled to negotiate by the implementation of the Act, and assured Lloyd George that he would be credited with Irish unification: ‘I’m pleased to see the North and South coming together. It’s the result of your firmness in reference to the Act.’ Nothing came of the Craig–de Valera meetings, but at the time British officials saw them as proof that their policy was working.

Finally, the Northern Ireland parliament was compatible with Irish unity. Many nationalists conceded that ‘Home Rule within Home Rule’, or local autonomy for some part of Ulster, was the way to unified self-government. During the negotiations that led to the Anglo-Irish Treaty, Sinn Féin’s representatives did not ask for the six-county legislature’s closure; they wanted Northern Ireland transferred from Westminster’s purview to an all-island authority. Lloyd George was initially amenable to this. Greenwood, a Canadian accustomed to federal governance, supported the idea, just as he had the six-county legislature: ‘a parliament for all Ireland can be set up while at the same time an Ulster parliament can carry on … it is a simple matter’. The prime minister rejected the proposal after meeting resistance from Craig and British unionists, but his cabinet’s consideration shows that partition was negotiable, even after Northern Ireland’s parliament was established.


The primary argument for the parliament of Southern Ireland was that, through co-operation with Northern Ireland and the Council of Ireland, it provided the means to mitigate, and eventually end, partition. Apart from some southern unionists and constitutional nationalists, few found the argument convincing. British officials persisted with the Government of Ireland Act not only to safeguard Ulster unionists by establishing Northern Ireland; most were convinced that their entire policy would work. Up to the last moment, cabinet members argued that coercing the IRA and implementing the Act would produce two functioning legislatures, leading to peace and unity. Whether the Southern parliament could have been an effective tool for these purposes can only be guessed, but the flat refusal of most contemporaries to co-operate indicates that they believed it would not.

Some of the ideas embodied in the Government of Ireland Act survived in the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The geographical form of the two Irish states did not change, though the Boundary Commission held out hope that it might. The Council of Ireland was revived, though it never functioned. Bishop Cohalan’s suggestion that the Act could provide a ‘spring-board’ to more authoritative governance is reminiscent of arguments that the Treaty was a ‘stepping-stone’ to an Irish Republic.

The debate over the Southern parliament provides evidence that two political issues, Ireland’s form of government and partition, dominated public discourse in 1921. Few Irish people, even Ulster unionists, thought that dividing the island provided a positive long-term solution. Avoiding partition required a plan for unified government acceptable to most Irish unionists, nationalists and British politicians, combined with the political will to implement it. Whether this was possible is questionable, and no contemporary political figure had both a plan and the necessary support.

M.C. Rast is the author of Shaping Ireland’s independence: nationalist, unionist, and British solutions to the Irish Question, 1909–1925 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).


D. Ferriter, A nation and not a rabble: the Irish revolution, 1913–1923 (New York, 2015).

A. Jackson, Home Rule: an Irish history, 1800–2000 (London, 2004).


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