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Column: The results of the UK general election could hugely impact the Irish border - and not for the first time

A December election does not come around often, writes Cormac Moore.

Home Secretary Priti Patel, Boris Johnson and MP Will Quince before a rally for the General Election campaign this week.
Home Secretary Priti Patel, Boris Johnson and MP Will Quince before a rally for the General Election campaign this week.
Image: AP/PA Images

DECEMBER ELECTIONS ARE never popular, and the UK general election later this month is the first December election in nearly a century, since 1923. 

The one before that, in 1918, was highly significant, taking place immediately after the end of the First World War. Despite their rarity, all three, including the one later this month, were and are crucial for the border in Ireland.

The result of the 2019 general election that has been largely dominated by Brexit could have huge ramifications for the Irish border.

Elections to the Westminster parliament in Northern Ireland in the past have tended to reflect the divided nature of northern society, essentially standing as sectarian headcounts.

This election uniquely has seen pacts agreed between remain and Brexit supporting political parties, not all allies on the major constitutional question.

The overall result in Britain is as important for the border as the 18 seats in Northern Ireland. It could determine if there is hard or soft border, whether there is a land border or one in the Irish Sea, or if the UK will leave the EU at all.

The December 1918 election, the last all-Ireland election, cannot be underestimated in bringing about the partition of Ireland, particularly in determining the nature of that partition.

The 1918 general election, the first since 1910, was one of the most decisive in Irish history. Sinn Féin obliterated the Irish Party by winning 73 of the 105 seats available in Ireland.

The Irish Party won just six seats. Sinn Féin decided to abstain from taking its seats in Westminster, meaning there would be just a handful of Irish nationalist voices heard in the House of Commons as the future of Ireland was decided.

The election was also a spectacular success for Ulster unionists. It was a success for two parties with polar opposite viewpoints; Sinn Féin seeking complete severance from Britain and Ulster unionists looking to remain fully integrated within the union.

Of the 37 seats available in the province of Ulster, unionists won 22. In the six counties that would form Northern Ireland, the unionists won 22 of the 29 seats available, with Sinn Féin winning just three.

Remarkably, nationalists had more seats in Ulster than unionists as recently as 1913, 17 to 16. By 1918, the electorate of Ulster had moved decisively in favour of unionism. Crucially, unionists won no seats in the counties of Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan.

This certainly was a factor in Ulster unionists insisting that Northern Ireland should consist of six counties, and not the entire historical nine-county Ulster province that the British government proposed.

Unionists were also bolstered by the success of their allies in Britain, the Conservative Party.

The British prime minister, David Lloyd George’s national coalition was easily re-elected. Most of the seats in the coalition were won by the Conservatives, with 339 to 136 seats for Lloyd George’s Coalition Liberals.

Afterwards, Lloyd George was sensitive to his own vulnerability in the House and felt himself on occasion to be a prisoner of the coalition. This greatly influenced his subsequent decisions on Ireland.

Ireland’s role

Ireland barely featured in this election in Britain.

In the Conservative Party manifesto, it ruled out two options on Ireland: “The one leading to a complete severance of Ireland from the British Empire, and the other the forcible submission of the six counties of Ulster to a Home Rule parliament against their will.”

After the election, Tory stranglehold on Irish policy tightened immeasurably. This was apparent when the decisive Government of Ireland Act was introduced in 1920 which led to the partition of Ireland.

The December 1923 UK general election also had an impact in determining the nature of the Irish border.

Under Article 12 of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty between the British government and Sinn Féin, Northern Ireland could opt not to join the Irish Free State, which it duly did.

As a result under the Treaty, a boundary commission would determine the border “in accordance with the wishes of the inhabitants, so far as may be compatible with economic and geographic conditions”. 

Due to the civil war in Ireland and political turmoil in Britain (between 1922 and 1924 there were three general elections and four governments in Britain), the boundary commission was put on hold.

After the December 1923 election, the British Labour Party under Ramsay MacDonald came to power for the first time in its history. It was a short-lived administration, lasting for just ten months.

The British Labour Party had previously supported home rule and opposed partition. However, as it came closer to power in Britain, its interest in and commitment to Ireland waned.

As prime minister, MacDonald made key appointments to the boundary commission. He appointed the chairperson, Richard Feetham, a judge based in South Africa.

Feetham, with a very vague clause from the Treaty to work off, decided not to conduct a plebiscite in border areas, choosing instead to assume a quasi-judicial approach and ruling out wholesale transfers to the south or the north.

With the northern government refusing to appoint its commissioner, MacDonald’s government intervened by selecting Joseph R Fisher, a barrister and former editor of the Belfast unionist leaning newspaper, the Northern Whig.

The northern government could not have selected a better candidate to advance the unionist cause. Fisher even privately advocated the inclusion of Donegal into Northern Ireland.

Even though MacDonald was in power for just ten months, the appointments of Feetham and Fisher to the boundary commission were crucial in retaining the northern territory as it was before, as it still remains to this date.

Despite many polls predicting an overall majority for the Conservative Party, the impact of the upcoming UK election on the Irish border still has to be determined.

However, if it resembles the last two December UK elections, it’s bound to have a major effect. 

Cormac Moore is author of Birth of the Border: The Impact of Partition in Ireland, recently published by Merrion Press. 

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