A Commission Steeped in Controversy? The nature and role of the Irish Boundary Commission in the early 1920s.
Nick Clifton | Kingston University
Issue 02 - December 2020
Members of the Irish Boundary Commission, 1924.
he Irish Question dominated British parliamentary politics for over a century, from the rebellion of Wolfe Tone in 1798, until the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921. In Britain’s 1918 general election, Sinn Fein won a landslide victory in Ireland and formed the first Dail Eireann (Irish parliament), which was suppressed by the British government and the Irish War of Independence began. Negotiations for a political settlement to the war began in late-November 1921, and a compromise was reached on 6th December with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The Irish delegates had compromised by accepting dominion status in return for an independent state, Saorstat Eireann* (Irish Free State), while the north-east region of Ireland, Ulster, would decide whether to remain in the United Kingdom. To placate the Irish delegates at the Treaty negotiations, a boundary commission was legislated under Article 12 of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Still, the compromise fell short of complete Irish independence and launched the Saorstat into civil war.
During the negotiations of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George used a devious ploy to resolve the Irish boundary question; he seems to have told each side what they wanted to hear. It was not until the fallout from the Commission’s report that it became clear that Lloyd George had been giving contradictory impressions to both the Saorstat and Northern Ireland. This could be blamed on the loose wording of Article 12 in the Anglo-Irish Treaty: a commission “shall determine in accordance with the wishes of the inhabitants, so far as may be compatible with economic and geographic conditions…”. Clearly, there is no indication of which territory, if any, would be transferred from one Ireland to the other. But the Saorstat’s Michael Collins was reassured by Lloyd George that a boundary commission would reassign the north-eastern counties of Tyrone and Fermanagh, parts of Derry, Armagh and Down to the Saorstat. Northern Ireland’s Sir James Craig had, however, been assured by Lloyd George that the Irish Boundary Commission would only rectify anomalies in the boundary created by the Government of Ireland Act (1920). Lloyd George had played both ends against the middle.
Map of Northern Ireland
Map of Northern Ireland. From the United States Library of Congress' Geography and Map Division.
The Boundary commission: nature and Objectives
Thus, the Irish Boundary Commission was created under Article 12 of the Anglo-Irish Treaty’s Articles of Agreement. The Commission would consist of three people; a representative from the Saorstat, a representative from Northern Ireland and a third, impartial, person to act as the Commission’s chairman. Immediately, the Northern Irish Government refused to cooperate. Northern Ireland’s governor, Lord Abercorn wrote to the British Home Secretary, Arthur Henderson, baldly stating that Northern Ireland had been consistent in denying there was a need for a boundary commission. Sir James Craig believed that the settlement of the Government of Ireland Act already defined the boundary between the Irish states. This was not ignored by the Saorstat’s North East Boundary Bureau, who believed that Craig had no intention of allowing a boundary commission and suspected him of trying to ignite a border war. A mutually hostile relationship between the two Irish states had developed due to IRA forays into the North, while huge anti-Catholic pogroms in Northern Ireland had enraged the Saorstat.
As the formation of the Boundary Commission stalled, the Saorstat declared to Britain that Craig was acting dishonestly. As well as impeding the boundary commission, Northern Ireland had begun to alter electoral district boundaries and had abandoned proportional representation which, in the words of the Saorstat’s Governor-General Tim Healy, would “practically disenfranchise the Nationalist population in large areas adjacent to the Boundary”.
Undoubtedly, the Saorstat Cabinet were infuriated by the continued delays, especially as Craig had postponed a meeting with the Saorstat to take a cruise around the Mediterranean. In a governmental dispatch to the senior British civil servant Lionel Curtis, Healy stated that “If the Northern Government’s continued postponement of the settlement of this problem” was not resolved, then “the personnel of the Boundary Commission should be completed by not later than the 1st May” with or without Northern Irish participation.
Britain’s Shifting Strategy
Britain could not allow Northern Irish intransigence to destroy the fragile Treaty settlement. The British government asked the Privy Council if the Boundary Commission would still be functional with only the Saorstat commissioner and the Commission’s chairman? If not, could Britain select Northern Ireland’s commissioner? Devastatingly, the Privy Council decided that neither Britain nor the Governor of Northern Ireland could appoint a commissioner on Northern Ireland’s behalf. Worse still, a commission without a Northern Irish representative would not be valid. Amending legislation allowing Britain to appoint the Northern Irish Commissioner was rushed through the Parliaments at Westminster and Dublin.
Unsurprisingly, the Saostat appointed its commissioner first, in July 1923. Eoin MacNeill was formerly Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers, an Irish nationalist military organisation founded in 1913, and was the Minister for Education in the Saorstat. He was an adept selection; he was born in Antrim, educated in Belfast and a practicing Roman Catholic.
Eoin MacNeill, From "The Times History of the War" Volume VIII, page 417, published 1916.
Britain had selected Justice Richard Feetham as chairman who, though billed as an impartial South African judge, was born in Britain. He was educated at Marlborough College and Oxford, where became friends with the influential civil servant, Lionel Curtis. Tellingly, on Feetham’s appointment, Curtis sent him a telegram stating, “England Expects”, and reassured Churchill that “Feetham’s exactly of the kind you contemplated”, boasting that the findings of Irish Boundary Commission now rested “on a commission on which we are to appoint two out of three”. Significantly, the Privy Council had ruled that any disagreement between the Irish Boundary Commissioners would be decided by the chairman’s vote. In comparison, the appointment of Joseph Fisher, a Northern Irish barrister and staunch Ulster Unionist, was a less controversial choice.
Justice Richard Feetham, from North China Herald, June 23 1932.
The Commission's Work
The Irish Boundary Commission was finally constituted on 31st October 1924. It is interesting to note that even then Craig attempted to hinder its progress. When Stormont had learned that Eoin MacNeill had been appointed to the Boundary Commission by the Saorstat, they were furious. MacNeill was a former Chief of Staff of the republican Irish Volunteers, and Craig felt, spuriously, that if MacNeill toured Northern Ireland, he and the Commission would be in grave danger from the loyalist population. This was refuted by Britain’s Imperial Secretary to Northern Ireland, S.G Tallents, who wrote to Home Secretary William Joynson-Hicks, stating that most people in Northern Ireland thought of the Boundary Commission as a matter of routine. It was the attitude of Northern Ireland’s politicians that concerned him.
Despite this, on the 7th November, the Irish Boundary Commission began its work. It was understaffed, and its chairman was, informally, encouraged by the British government to follow a restrictive interpretation of Article 12. This was notable in the refusal to accept any verbal commitment made by the signatories to the Anglo-Irish Treaty, either during the negotiations or after. This conveniently nullified promises made by Lloyd George to the Irish delegation at the Treaty negotiations.
This conservative interpretation continued as Chairman Feetham believed, as did James Craig, that the border created by the Government of Ireland Act was the accepted boundary, a compelling case would have to be made to change that. In the chairman’s mind, the work of the Commission was to ensure that any settlement left a Northern Irish state that would be able to continue as a distinct, separate, province of the United Kingdom. This is an understandable, but conservative, interpretation of the task the Boundary Commission was to undertake. It also demonstrates that the Saorstat would not receive what it believed had been promised from the start.
Taken after the arrival of the members of the Boundary Commission, with Secretaries, The Mall, Armagh. - Left to right - Mr. Francis Bernard Bourdillon, C.B.E., M.A. (Secretary to Commission); Mr. J. R. Fisher (Northern Ireland), Mr. Justice Feetham (Chairman), Dr. Eoin MacNeill (Free State representative), and Mr. C. Beerstacher (private secretary to Mr. Justice Feetham). 11 December 1924.
The Commission's Work
Perhaps the most questionable feature of the Boundary Commission’s interpretation of Article 12 was that it placed the “economic and geographical considerations” above the wishes of the inhabitants. If the wishes of the inhabitants contradicted these economic and geographic considerations, Chairman Feetham believed it was the duty of the Commission to override the inhabitants, despite the absence of an official, precise rule when deciding what the people wanted.
Predictably, the methods of gauging the inclinations of the nine counties’ inhabitants were limited. The Boundary Commission never considered using any form of referendum as the chairman argued that there was no mention of a referendum within Article 12. This is true, but the article did not rule it out either. In fact, the Privy Council had advised the British government that a referendum in any disputed area should be considered and the Ballot Act (1872) would provide the legislation to hold one. Significantly, Arthur Griffith, leader of the Irish delegation to the treaty negotiations, had understood that some form of referendum would take place.
But, instead, the Irish Boundary Commission relied on information from the 1911 census and admitted that using a 13-year-old census made it difficult to accurately assess the grounds for reassigning territory. This is significant as any transfer of land would only take place if it could be proven that a substantial majority of people in the area were in favour of it. For some unaccountable reason, council voting districts prior to the Government of Ireland Act, though more recent, were cast as inadmissible evidence.
A Flawed Commission?
In the following twelve-months the Irish Boundary Commission would receive 130 representations from political and professional bodies, businesses and individuals. The Commission also held several public and private meetings to assess evidence and listen to testimony. This work was shrouded in secrecy, neither of the commissioners nor the chairman appeared to have informed any of the three governments of their progress.
The Irish Boundary Commission’s Final Award.
However, this quiet progress was destroyed by the front page of England’s Morning Post on 7th November 1925; the newspaper had reported an apparently accurate account of the Irish Boundary Commission’s proposed changes to the Irish border. The Taoiseach, William Cosgrave, had immediately sought confirmation from MacNeill about the Morning Post’s headline; he was told that the article was uncannily accurate. It appears that Joseph Fisher had kept the Ulster politician, Edward Carson, informed of the Commission’s progress. Fisher stated to Carson that no area of importance had been ceded to the Saorstat and crowed, “If anybody had suggested twelve months ago that we could have kept so much I would have laughed at him”.
Clearly, the award was not what the Saorstat believed they were promised. Cosgrave told British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin that “the proposed award of the Commission was a settlement that was no settlement and was worse than the position would have been if there was no Commission”. For Cosgrave, it was a devastating blow. The reassignment of the border counties, Tyrone and Fermanagh, had failed to materialise. In fact, only 18000 acres and 31000 inhabitants of Northern Irish territory were scheduled to be reassigned to the Free State. Even worse, Northern Ireland would receive 50000 acres of Saorstat territory and 7500 of its inhabitants.
An evaluation of the award reveals the extent to which the Commission’s report favoured Northern Ireland. Derry/Londonderry, with its slight Catholic majority, was retained by Northern Ireland as it was a major industrial centre. More alarmingly for the Saorstat, 38,295 acres of County Donegal, across the border in the Irish Free State, was to be transferred to Northern Ireland to provide economic security for Derry/Londonderry. Donegal quintessentially represented Ireland’s Gaelic heritage as, a report by the Free State’s North East Boundary Bureau states, an estimated “1/3 of the inhabitants speak Irish and about 4000 of these Irish only”. Though Donegal may be undeveloped, “its cultural resources were limitless”. Donegal would be a significant loss.
Changes to Donegal and Londonderry by the Irish Boundary Commission.
Similarly, Northern Ireland also benefitted from the Boundary Commission’s findings on Newry, County Down. Newry’s substantial Roman Catholic, and by implication nationalist, community represented three-quarters of its population. This huge majority was viewed as an inadequate factor to guarantee Newry’s transferal to the Free State because of its status as a trading satellite of Belfast. The application of the Commission’s terms of reference had been unstintingly positive for Northern Ireland. The belief that the Irish Boundary Commission had not “weighted the scales” in favour of Britain and Northern Ireland perhaps needs revision.
Following the outcry in the Free State at the Commission’s award, Eoin MacNeill resigned from the Boundary Commission and from his position as Minister for Education. Critically, the Irish Boundary Commission refused to accept MacNeill’s resignation as in the chairman’s opinion, and Britain’s Law Officers, he had no legitimate reason to resign. Citing the precedent set by the Privy Council in the Arbitration of Ontario-Quebec, the Commission was entitled to come to a decision even without him. The Commission’s two other members stated that MacNeill’s resignation mattered little as the award had already been agreed. It seems that Curtis’ positivity that Britain was able to appoint two of three members to the Commission appears justified.
However, in a statement to the Dail, MacNeill contested that the Commission had decided anything; he believed they had only settled that any award must be unanimously agreed by all three members. MacNeill also claimed there were “profound differences…as to the fundamental principles upon which an award ought to proceed”, and he felt Feetham was implementing a “new and dominant condition onto Article Twelve…a political consideration which was made a dominant consideration…and which did not appear at all within the terms of the Article”. Through this new condition, Feetham held that “the political consideration was to override the wishes of the inhabitants”, and in doing so, favoured Northern Ireland. When the prospective award was revealed to MacNeill, he immediately resigned.
Obviously, MacNeill’s speech is full of self-justification, but this shows that the Irish Boundary Commission were not at all unified in their opinion, and their work was arguably biased from the start. Its chairman, and its terms of reference, were apparently not as impartial as had been believed.
Conclusion: New perspectives needed
In the final analysis, the work of the Irish Boundary Commission was clearly suspect and needs to be reassessed. Firstly, Lloyd George had evidently been dishonest at the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations. Then, Britain weighted the scales in favour of Northern Ireland through appointing a seemingly impartial South African judge, who had been born and educated in Britain with significant ties to senior members of the British political establishment. In truth, he was a judge who defined the terms of reference for the Commission, and he applied these terms inconsistently and in Northern Ireland’s favour. Lionel Curtis’ confidence in being able to appoint a member and the president of the Boundary Commission seems to have been suspiciously well placed.
For fuller details on the formation see: Ronan Fanning, Fatal Path (London: Faber & Faber, 2013).
K.J Rankin, The Creation and Formation of the Irish Border, available at: Queen’s University Belfast Centre for International Borders Research (https://www.qub.ac.uk/research-centres/CentreforInternationalBordersResearch/Publications/WorkingPapers/MappingFrontiersworkingpapers/Filetoupload,175395,en.pdf).
Also, the papers of the Irish Boundary Commission are available at The National Archives, Kew, in the file series:
The National Archives [UK]. Home Office. Ireland: Collection of Papers, formerly with the Colonial Office, Dealing with Partition Issues, HO 45/24813.
The National Archives [UK]. Home Office. Ireland: Collection of Papers, formerly with the Colonial Office, Dealing with Partition Issues, HO 45/24814.
Nick Clifton is a PhD candidate at Kingston University. His project is titled Terror, Collusion and the British Secret State in Northern Ireland, 1972-1994. His research interests are late British Imperial History, security studies and the sociology of state power.