Northern Ireland: Policy of the Dublin Government from 1922 to 1969

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Northern Ireland: Policy of the Dublin Government from 1922 to 1969

The Sinn Féin leaders who persuaded the British government to concede the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty were aware of the complexity of the Ulster question. They admitted that the northeast needed a custom-made solution and were willing to concede some form of local autonomy, provided that it was devolved from Dublin and not London. This was provided for in the Treaty but was undermined by another provision which granted the recently established Northern Ireland government the right to secede from the Irish Free State. This secession was inevitable, but it obliged northern leaders to accede to the findings of the Irish Boundary Commission which would revise the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State.

Southern leaders remained publicly optimistic that the commission would so delimit Northern Ireland that it would prove unviable and that the logic of geography would deliver Irish unity. As it happened, the Irish Boundary Commission proposed only marginal changes to the border and—heresy to southern politicians—recommended the ceding of some territory to Northern Ireland. This threatened the very stability of the Free State, and a hastily convened Anglo-Irish summit resulted in the scrapping of the Irish Boundary Commission, the acceptance of the existing border, and the waiving by Britain of the Free State's contribution to the British national debt.

When W. T. Cosgrave described this as "a damned good bargain" it did not endear him to nationalists within Northern Ireland who felt betrayed by the Dublin government's acceptance of partition. This outcome encouraged those Irish nationalists most opposed to partition to vest their hopes in Eamon de Valera. He was a more pragmatic politician than his reputation had suggested, and in no way did he demonstrate his pragmatism more than in the manner in which he took ownership of the antipartition strategy during his decades of political ascendancy in the southern state. Having founded Fianna Fáil as the vehicle for his political rewriting of the Treaty settlement, de Valera repetitively lectured Irish republicans on how force would prove counterproductive in attempting to win Irish unity. He maintained that the issue was one for resolution between Dublin and London, and that it would only be resolved "in the larger general play of English interests."

While never missing a diplomatic or propagandistic opportunity to rail against the injustice of partition, de Valera remained vigilant in ensuring that the grievance did not destablize the southern state. Vulnerable to the republican jibe that he had settled for leadership of a partitioned state—"three-quarters of a nation once again"—and under pressure to declare a united Ireland in his new constitution in 1937, his solution typified his genius for casuistry: Article 2 claimed for the nation jurisdiction over the entire island of Ireland; Article 3 accepted that de facto the laws of the state could only be exercised in the twenty-six counties "pending the reintegration of the national territory."

De Valera smuggled the partition issue into the Anglo-Irish talks of 1938 to the surprise of the British. Both he and Neville Chamberlain spoke at length about it, but these were not negotiations, merely the reiteration of what were by then the very well known views of both sides. When invited by the British to concede some trading preferences to Northern Ireland, de Valera declined, thereby underlining his disinclination to ever engage with the Ulster Unionists. During World War II, de Valera's Fianna Fáil government established and maintained Irish neutrality, eschewing a number of overtures by the British to join the Allies in return for some prospect of Irish unity. Although much has been made of these British kites, the small print invariably revealed that Churchill considered Ulster's acquiescence to be essential.

De Valera's policy of neutrality united all elements in the state; any other policy would probably have led to civil war, with the greatest threat to stability coming from the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which was actively encouraging Hitler to intervene in Ireland. Paradoxically, although it was often criticized by unionist and British sources, de Valera's policy was best suited to the interests of the Allies: thousands of volunteers joined the British forces; Irish emigrant labor and agricultural exports proved vital to Britain's war effort; and, strategically, de Valera's contribution to keeping the South as a demilitarized zone concided with the interests of the Allied war effort. Ironically, this in turn was facilitated by the presence in Northern Ireland of British and, later, U.S. troops. Partition facilitated Irish neutrality, itself the most solemn proof of sovereignty since the Treaty settlement.

The experience of the war consolidated partition, winning the Ulster Unionists new friends in London. Meanwhile, de Valera's lack of progress on Irish unity left his party electorally vulnerable to a new socialist and republican party, Clann naPoblachta, led by Seán MacBride. Winning only ten seats in the 1948 election, it joined an all-party government united on only one policy: to remove de Valera after sixteen years in power. MacBride, as foreign minister, developed what became known as "the sore thumb" approach to partition, instructing all Irish diplomats to engage in a propaganda onslaught on the issue. In a world recovering from the most catastrophic war in history, this proved futile. It did prompt de Valera to compete to be the best antipartitionist. This competition probably led to the controversial decision of the interparty government to break even those tenuous ties with the British Commonwealth that de Valera had maintained in the hope that they would prove a "bridge" to the Ulster Unionists.

Thus, what had been the Irish Free State from 1922 to 1937, and had been named Éire under de Valera's constitution, became from 1949 the Republic of Ireland. The British retaliated with the Ireland Act of 1949, which proved the most serious setback to the South's antipartition strategy. Whereas London had hitherto refused to consider Irish unity by citing Ulster's veto, under this act it granted custody of the veto to the Northern Ireland parliament. This precipitated an even shriller antipartition campaign, which arguably led to a resurgence of the IRA and to the opening of a sporadic campaign of force against Northern Ireland in 1956. This proved futile and was opposed most successfully by Fianna Fáil, which had the self-confidence—as an avowed republican party itself—to end this campaign by introducing internment in the South.

De Valera retired from party politics to the largely ceremonial office of the president in 1959. His successor, Seán Lemass, had always shown a greater interest in pragmatic cooperation between North and South on issues of energy, transport, fisheries, and trade. Such cooperation had already yielded mutually beneficial outcomes since partition, but this had been delivered by civil servants who had left the cold war rhetoric to their political masters. Lemass saw partition not as an issue which London must undo, but rather as a matter which could be ameliorated only by better cooperation between North and South. To this end, in 1965 he made the historic journey to Stormont as a gesture of mutual friendship with the Northern Ireland prime minister, Captain Terence O'Neill.

Encouraged by an outstanding civil servant, T. K. Whitaker, secretary of finance, Lemass and his successor, Jack Lynch, pursued a constructive policy of North-South rapprochement whose potential can only be guessed at because it was overtaken by the rise of the civil rights movement and the failure—or inability—of the Ulster Unionists to accommodate its demands, which in turn led to the outbreak of the "Troubles" in the summer of 1969.

All governments in Dublin from the Treaty settlement and the North-South thaw of the 1960s had vehemently denounced partition, but they had also entrenched it. Their policies on the Irish language, on church-state relations, and on neutrality were all inimical to the very goal of Irish unity which they constantly espoused. Moreover, Dublin was expected to champion the complaints of northern nationalists, of which there was no shortage—many of them justified. But if Northern Ireland's first prime minister, Sir James Craig, could be mocked for calling Stormont "a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people," did not the southern state in its first half-century after independence come too close to fashioning "a Catholic state for a Catholic people"?

SEE ALSO Constitution; Declaration of a Republic and the 1949 Ireland Act; Northern Ireland: History since 1920; Politics: Nationalist Politics in Northern Ireland; Primary Documents: On Community Relations in Northern Ireland (28 April 1967); Statement by the Taoiseach (13 August 1969); "Towards Changes in the Republic" (1973)


Bowman, John. De Valera and the Ulster Question, 1917–1973. 1982.

Kennedy, Michael. Division and Consensus: The Politics of Cross-Border Relations in Ireland, 1925–1969. 2000.

O'Halloran, Clare. Partition and the Limits of Irish Nationalism. 1985.

John Bowman

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Northern Ireland: Policy of the Dublin Government from 1922 to 1969

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Northern Ireland: Policy of the Dublin Government from 1922 to 1969