The origins of Partition: a sensible solution or the creation of a sundered island?

The origins of Partition: a sensible solution or the creation of a sundered island? Northern Ireland Customs Preventative Officers checking a car to see if there have been any replacements, or a new engine installed, in July 1949. Photo: Byline Times
Without a Dog’s Chance: The Nationalists of Northern Ireland and the Irish Boundary Commission 1920–1922

by James A. Cousins (Irish Academic Press 2020)

In July 1925, nearly a full century ago, the Irish Boundary Commission sat for the last time, bringing to an end a sorry business that began badly and ended in confusion. It may happen very soon with the outcome of Brexit, whenever that happens, that the Border will become once again a matter of controversy.

Back on April 26, 1924 the Irish Free State formally requested the British government to constitute the Boundary Commission provided for by article 12 of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921.

The governments of the UK, Irish Free State and Northern Ireland were to nominate one member each to the Commission. When the Northern Government refused to co-operate, the British government assigned J. R. Fisher, a unionist journalist, to the Commission.

The Commission consisted of Fisher, Eoin MacNeill, Minister for Education of the Irish Free State, and Justice Richard Feetham, a South African judge who was appointed chairman jointly by the British and Irish governments.

The Commission sat from November 5, 1924 to July 1925 and considered 130 submissions and examined 585 witnesses. The commissioners agreed not to publish or disclose their findings until they could agree on a joint report.

Apart from nominating Eoin MacNeill to the Commission, the Irish government appointed Kevin O’Shiel director of the North-Eastern Boundary Bureau, which was established in October 1922, to compile data for the Boundary Commission.

As part of this work he was sent to Geneva to examine material from other boundary commissions at the League of Nations archives. Subsequently, on behalf of the NEBB, O’Shiel prepared two proposals to be presented to the Commission.

The first was the so-called ‘Maximum Line’ which they anticipated ‘would fall flat’. The second was the ‘Minimum Line’.

This presented the Irish Free State with most of Tyrone, ‘a considerable slice of Co. Derry’, including Derry city, Fermanagh and the southern sections of Armagh and Down, ‘including the Borough of Newry’.

The three governments agreed that the border should remain as fixed”

In this comprehensive account of the Boundary Commission, the author highlights the main reasons why it ended in a fiasco. The nationalists in the border areas were the strongest supporters of the Commission. They hoped for a considerable transfer of land to the Irish Free State, as most border areas had nationalist majorities.

Those on the Northern Ireland side of the border were particularly keen to have this outcome. However, the nationalists in Northern Ireland were not at one with regard to the Commission.

While those in the border areas, who were almost all members of Sinn Féin, were avid supporters of the Commission, Joe Devlin, MP, and his followers in West Belfast and elsewhere in the internal areas of Northern Ireland saw little advantage to be gained from the re-drawing of the border and argued that they should rather be setting out by “peaceful and constitutional means to bring together North and South”.

In the meantime the Ulster unionists were aware that the British Government would not permit any outcome from the deliberations of the Commission which would impinge on their interests.

Then MacNeill, it seems, was not a very effective member of the Commission. His most significant intervention occurred in November 1925, when he resigned in protest at the publication of the Commission’s proceedings and findings in the Tory Morning Post.

It revealed that the commissioners would leave Cos Antrim, Derry, Down, Fermanagh and Tyrone as they were, while an area of east Donegal would become part of Northern Ireland and south Armagh would become part of the Irish Free State.

Amidst recriminations from all sides, the Commission was wound up. The three governments agreed that the border should remain as fixed by the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The British government formally established Northern Ireland by transferring its powers under the Council of Ireland to the administration in Belfast.

Thereby the nationalists of Northern Ireland became a ‘trapped minority’ which was to see two generations come and go before they managed to secure their due redress.