Boundary Commission

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Boundary Commission

The Boundary Commission established in Article 12 of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty was intended to redefine, "in accordance with the wishes of the inhabitants, so far as may be compatible with economic and geographic conditions, the boundaries between Northern Ireland and the rest of Ireland" (Fanning et al. 1998, p. 358).

The notion of a boundary commission had first been voiced in 1912 during the discussions surrounding the third Home Rule bill, but the form of the commission proposed in the 1921 treaty had its origins in the procedures for boundary revision in Eastern and Central Europe laid down in the treaties of the postwar Paris Peace Conference of 1919. The proposal for an Irish Boundary Commission emerged from an agreement between Minister for Foreign Affairs and Chief Delegate of the Irish delegation Arthur Griffith and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George in November 1921 during the treaty negotiations in London. The remit of the proposed commission was loosely defined, but it was accepted by the Sinn Féin delegates, who expected large territorial transfers from Northern Ireland and the collapse of the reduced territory of the Northern Ireland state, or rump, that would remain following any transfers of its territory to the Irish Free State. Their acceptance enabled Lloyd George to prevent the Irish delegates from breaking off the negotiations on Ulster as they had planned, and it neatly pushed the issue of Northern Ireland beyond the immediate treaty talks.

During negotiations in early 1922, the chairman of the Irish Free State provisional government, Michael Collins, and the Northern Irish prime minister, Sir James Craig, hoped to decide the North-South boundary without recourse to the commission, but agreement proved impossible. The commission was triggered on 7 December 1922, when Northern Ireland exercised its right under Article 12 of the treaty to opt out of the Irish Free State, which had come into official existence on 6 December 1922. Civil war in the Irish Free State from June 1922 to May 1923, the ill health of Sir James Craig, and the rapid change of governments in Britain all delayed the initiation of the commission's work. So too did difficulties in interpreting the responsibility of the commission, particularly the problem of reconciling the "wishes of the inhabitants" and "economic and geographic conditions," as laid down in Article 12.

The Irish Free State appointed Minister for Education Eoin MacNeill as its Boundary Commissioner on 12 July 1923. In May 1924 the Northern Ireland government refused to appoint its Boundary Commissioner, arguing that it was not a party to the 1921 treaty. After the passage of special legislation at Westminster it was agreed that Britain could appoint the Northern Ireland commissioner. The commission, when it finally met for the first time in November 1924, was comprised of MacNeill (representing the Irish Free State), J. R. Fisher (representing Northern Ireland), and South African Supreme Court Justice Richard Feetham (for Britain), who was also the chairman.

Through late 1924 and early 1925 the commission toured the border region seeking written submissions regarding local views on possible boundary changes and on the work of the Commission and holding meetings in towns and villages to hear the views of nationalists and unionists. Though the Northern Ireland government did not recognize the commission, it did not openly hinder its work. Belfast was secure in its belief that possession of its territory was nine-tenths of the law: "not an inch" and "what we have, we hold" were the contemporary slogans in Northern Ireland. It would be very difficult to remove territory from the control of the Northern Ireland government.

The Free State government, which had established the North-Eastern Boundary Bureau in 1922 to collect material on partition and to press the Free State case for revising the boundary in its favor, doggedly believed it would be awarded large territorial transfers by the commission. However, there is evidence to suggest that W. T. Cosgrave, President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State and Kevin O'Higgins, Minister for Home Affairs of the Irish Free State, were less sanguine about the chances of the commission finding for the Free State. One of the most striking failures in the Free State's handling of the Boundary Commission was the apparent lack of contact between Dublin and James McNeill (Eoin MacNeill's brother), who was Irish high commissioner in London. Dublin should have been able to use McNeill to get an insight into the opinions of senior British figures towards the Commission and they should have queried him about his brother, Eoin, who was Irish Free State Boundary commissioner. Another shortcoming on the part of the Free State was the weak case that the Free State counsel made to the commission when legal arguments were heard in December 1924. A certain weariness and an overall lack of realism not evident in other areas of foreign policy pervaded the Free State's Boundary Commission policy. Perhaps government ministers were lulled into a false sense of security by a dogmatic belief in their own rhetoric and propaganda.

In the summer of 1925 the commissioners retired to London to write their report in secret. A well-founded and accurate leak in the British pro-Conservative Morning Post newspaper on 7 November 1925 suggested that the commission would recommend only minor alterations to the existing border. More worrisome, the paper also suggested that the commission's report would recommend that the Free State cede territory to Northern Ireland (something Dublin had never envisaged) and vice versa. The first draft of the commission's report had been finalized on 5 November, two days before the leak, and J. R. Fisher, with his strong unionist views and press connections as a former editor of the unionist Northern Whig, was strongly suspected of leaking the document. The disclosure led to the resignation of Eoin MacNeill as Irish boundary commissioner on 20 November, and as Free State minister for education on 24 November. (Historians question why, before the leak, MacNeill remained supportive of the commission when he must have known that the proposed transfers were not going to find favor in Dublin.)

The press leak threatened a political crisis in the Free State that, it was feared, would bring down the Cosgrave government: A main plank in its policy of implementing the 1921 treaty had fallen away. Hurried meetings between the Irish, Northern Irish, and British governments were held in London and at Chequers to try to avert a catastrophe. By an agreement signed in London on 3 December 1925 by representatives of the three governments, the Boundary Commission was revoked and its report shelved. The political crisis predicted for the Free State never occurred and the Cosgrave government remained in power. The border between the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland remained as it had stood since partition in 1920. Dublin received a sweetener of sorts: the December 1925 agreement forgave a considerable portion of public debts and war-pension payments owed to Britain under Article 5 of the 1921 treaty. The planned North-South Council of Ireland was also quietly shelved, to be replaced by periodic meetings of prime ministers. Even so, the first meeting between the two prime ministers in Ireland did not take place until January 1965. The 1925 report of the Irish Boundary Commission was not finally made public until January 1968.

SEE ALSO Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921; Civil War; Collins, Michael; Griffith, Arthur; Politics: Independent Ireland since 1922


Fanning, Ronan, Michael Kennedy, Eunan O'Halpin, and Dermot Keogh, eds. Documents on Irish Foreign Policy, Volume 1, 1919–1922. 1998.

Fanning, Ronan, Michael Kennedy, Eunan O'Halpin, and Dermot Keogh, eds. Documents on Irish Foreign Policy, Volume 2, 1923–1926. 2000.

Kennedy, Michael. Division and Consensus: The Politics of Cross-Border Relations in Ireland, 1922–1969. 2000.

Lord Longford. Peace by Ordeal. Reprint, 1972.

Report of the Irish Boundary Commission. 1969.

Michael Kennedy