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Dublin: 18°C Saturday 13 August 2022

'A grand experiment': Northern Ireland's creation will be commemorated in 2020

The Government of Ireland Act was passed in December 1920.

A customs check at the border in 1974.
A customs check at the border in 1974.
Image: PA Archive/PA Images

THE LEGAL CREATION of Northern Ireland will be marked in 2020. 

The centenary is controversial, as well as being somewhat confused, with the administration of Northern Ireland only really getting up and running the following year. 

It’ll also be the focus of much scrutiny in 2020 and 2021, as well as an opportunity to look back on how the Troubles started and the difficult question of Northern Irish identity today. 

The centenary will be a chance to assess the health of the peace process, even as the governance of Northern Ireland has remained at a standstill for nearly three years.

In September, DUP leader Arlene Foster told an audience that it was time to look ahead to Northern Ireland’s centenary. 

“In less than two years, on 3rd May 2021, Northern Ireland will be one hundred years old. This will be a day and a year that we can celebrate,” she said.

“For all our trials and tribulations over those years, we have endured, and we have succeeded.”

But it was the end of December 1920 that the Government of Ireland Act gained royal assent in the UK, in the process creating two parliaments – one for the six counties in Ulster and another for the rest of the country – and splitting Ireland in two for the first time.

The Government of Ireland Act 1920 was quickly superseded by the Treaty in the south in 1921, which granted full dominion status to Ireland and created the Free State. 

But in Northern Ireland, it set in motion the establishment of a separate parliament that would survive until direct rule was introduced in 1972 as the Troubles escalated. 

Looking back on the act in 1986, historian Richard Murphy wrote: “In 1920 it satisfied Ulster, but the nationalists had waited too long for too little.”

It’s a view echoed by Cormac Moore, a historian who has just written a book on the creation of the border. 

“It was there to solve the Ulster question,” he says. “The Government of Ireland Act was rejected by the majority of the people in Ireland and a significant one third in the six counties,” he adds.


The first two decades of the 20th century saw a rejection of parliamentary politics in Ireland and a growing acceptance – among nationalists and unionists – of the need for greater militancy. 

Home Rule for Ireland, which had dominated and disrupted British politics in the second half of the 19th century, had become increasingly unpalatable and inadequate even before the outbreak of World War One and the Easter Rising. 

Yet even as Home Rule was becoming unsatisfactory to nationalists, unionists in the North – led by Edward Carson and James Craig – were organising to ensure self-government for Ireland would never be introduced. 

The backdrop to the act then was the growing violence from both the Irish and Ulster Volunteers and the threat of conflict escalating further. 

However, this isn’t to say that partition came out of nowhere in 1920. “The challenge is where to find the origins for this,” says University College Dublin historian Conor Mulvagh. 

Capture David Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister, led the efforts to pass the Government of Ireland Bill. Source: PA/PA Archive/PA Images

In 1914, the pre-war Buckingham Palace conference considered the exclusion of some counties in Ulster from the rest of the country under a mooted Home Rule settlement – much to the opposition of nationalists in the North. 


When it came to formally dividing the island six years later, there was nothing straightforward about the creation of a new legal and administrative system in the six counties of the North. 

“It’s kind of a grand experiment,” says Mulvagh. 

After years of anti-Home Rule sentiment, led by the Ulster Volunteers and symbolised in the mass signing of the Ulster Covenant in 1912, the North would be partitioned off. 

For the British, the plan was nonetheless attractive for its simplicity. It met the British government’s promises not to give Ulster to the south, it allowed for a withdrawal of British rule and also offered an element of self-government. 

Crucially, nationalists could also theoretically claim that no part of Ireland was under British rule. 

But things didn’t work out like that. 


Some unionists, like the Dublin-born Carson, were initially opposed to any scheme that would abandon unionists in the south. 

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However, says Moore, “it soon dawned on them that devolved government was better”.

Others were worried that a nine-county Northern Ireland would mean that unionists could be outnumbered, with parliamentarians lobbying for a smaller, six-county state. 

 The British government, under pressure from unionists, finally relented and amended the bill to create the six-county Northern Ireland that exists today.  


“To create a whole new jurisdiction from scratch was a huge undertaking,” says Moore. “It was haphazard. This hadn’t been done before.”

The somewhat rushed nature of the North’s creation created some unanswered questions. “To this day we don’t know where Northern Ireland begins and ends on Lough Carlingford,” says Moore. 

More importantly, it also left bigger questions until later – including the exact delineations of the border and how permanent the entire arrangement might actually be. 

Certainly, for nationalists the six-county solution was perceived as a potential blessing in disguise. “The Free State governments act in a spirited denial in terms of Northern Ireland,” says Mulvagh. Up until the Seán Lemass government, it was referred to as the ‘six counties’ in all government documents. 

For Moore, the Free State government basically hoped that Northern Ireland would become an “unviable runt”. But this, he says, was a “naive” belief.  

Instead, Northern Ireland did succeed in achieving some element of normality. 

“It wasn’t a failed state by any means,” says Mulvagh. There was plenty wrong with it of course – it discriminated against Catholics and was deeply sectarian, he said. 

But, according to Mulvagh, “it was a relatively successful experiment in democracy”.

Ultimately, the legislation – passed 100 years ago this year – redefined politics forever on the island of Ireland.

By creating a new – and parallel – system of government in Ireland it enmeshed the tensions and tribalism that led to the flaring up of violence and war in the North. 

Describing the legacy the often forgotten piece of legislation, Mulvagh says: “It created the underpinnings of the Northern Ireland state but doesn’t succeed in creating a southern Ireland that is placated.”

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