Government of Ireland Act 1920

Government of Ireland Act 1920

An Act to Provide for the Better Government of Ireland, more usually the Government of Ireland Act, 1920, [This is its official short title; the formal citation is 10 & 11 Geo. 5 c. 67.] (and sometimes called the "Fourth Home Rule Act") was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. It provided for two separate Home Rule regions in Ireland and thereby partitioned Ireland into Northern Ireland (and established the Parliament of Northern Ireland) and Southern Ireland (where the Act was only partly implemented).


infobox home rule
Bill=Home Rule Act

country=Ireland into two autonomous regions Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland
govt=Lloyd George (Liberal-Conservative coalition)
unibi=2 bicameral parliaments
name="upper": Senate; "lower": House of Commons of Southern Ireland/Northern Ireland
size=Senate: NI 26; SI 61
Commons: NI 52; SI 128
westminster=42 MPs
executive=Lord Lieutenant (later replaced by the Governor of Northern Ireland)
body=Executive Committee of the Privy Council of Ireland, Privy Council of Northern Ireland
PM=none - but one evolved in Northern Ireland
to=no - but de facto responsibility to House of Commons of Northern Ireland
imple=Limited implementation in Southern Ireland, full in Northern Ireland

Various attempts had been made to give Ireland limited regional self-government, known as Home Rule, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The First Home Rule Bill of 1886 was defeated in the British House of Commons following intense Unionist and Orange Order opposition which caused a split in the Liberal Party, while the Second Home Rule Bill of 1893, having been passed by the Commons was vetoed by the House of Lords. The Third Home Rule Bill introduced in 1912 by the Irish Parliamentary Party could no longer be vetoed after the passing of the Parliament Act 1911 which removed the power of the Lords to veto bills. They could merely be delayed for two years.

Because of the continuing threat of civil war in Ireland, King George V called the Buckingham Palace Conference where Nationalist and Unionist leaders were invited to seek agreement. The conference eventually failed. Due to controversy over the rival demands of Irish Nationalists, backed up by the Liberals (for all-Ireland home rule), and Irish Unionists, backed up by the Conservatives, for the exclusion of most or all of the province of Ulster. After an amending bill which allowed for Ulster to be temporarily excluded from the working of the Act, it was passed to the statute books and received Royal Assent immediately after the outbreak of the First World War. The Act's implementation was suspended until after what was expected to be a short European war.

Long's committee

Two attempts were made by the Prime Minister H. H. Asquith during the First World War to implement the Third Home Rule Act, first in May 1916 which failed on reaching agreement with Unionist Ulster, then again in 1917 with the calling of the Irish Convention chaired by John Redmond. It consisted of Nationalist and Unionist respresentatives who, by April 1918, only succeeded in agreeing a report with recommendations for an 'understanding' on the conflicting issues. Based on these findings, with the Government, now led by David Lloyd George, committed, under all circumstances, to implementing Home Rule, the British cabinet's Committee for Ireland, under the chairmanship of former Ulster Unionist Party leader Walter Long pushed for a radical new idea. Long proposed the creation of two Irish home rule entities, Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland with unicameral parliaments. The House of Lords amended the old Bill, accordingly, to create a new Bill with two bicameral parliaments, "consisting of His Majesty, the Senate of (Northern or Southern) Ireland, and the House of Commons of (Northern or Southern) Ireland".

Developments in Ireland

During the Great War Irish politics moved decisively in a different direction. Several events - including the Easter Rising of 1916, and the conscription crisis of 1918 - and the subsequent reaction of the British Government, had utterly altered the state of Irish Politics, and made Sinn Féin the dominant voice of Irish Nationalism. Sinn Féin, standing for 'an independent sovereign Ireland', had won seventy-three of the one hundred and five parliamentary seats on the island in the 1918 General Election and established its own unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) state, the Irish Republic with its own extra-legal parliament, Dáil Éireann. [Dáil Éireann, after a number of meetings, was declared illegal by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. His declaration did not diminish Irish support for the new assembly and its republic.] Thus, when the Act was passed on 23 December 1920 it was already out of touch with realities in Ireland. The long-standing demand for home rule had been replaced among Nationalists by a demand for complete independence. The Republic's army was waging the Irish War of Independence against British rule, which had reached a nadir in late 1920.

Two 'Home Rule' Irelands

The Act divided Ireland into two territories, Southern Ireland and Northern Ireland, each intended to be self-governing, except in areas specifically reserved to the Parliament of the United Kingdom: chief amongst these were matters relating to the Crown, to defence, foreign affairs, international trade, and currency.

"Southern Ireland" was to be all of Ireland except for "the parliamentary counties of Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone, and the parliamentary boroughs of Belfast and Londonderry" which were to constitute "Northern Ireland". Northern Ireland as defined by the Act, amounting to six of the nine counties of Ulster, was seen as the maximum area within which Unionists could be expected to have a safe majority. This was in spite of the fact that counties Fermanagh and Tyrone had Catholic Nationalist majorities.

tructures of the governmental system

At the apex of the governmental system was to be the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, who would be the Monarch's representative in both of the Irish home rule regions. The system was based on colonial constitutional theories. Executive authority was to be vested in the crown, and in theory not answerable to either parliament. The Lord Lieutenant would appoint a cabinet that did not need parliamentary support. No provision existed for a prime minister.

Such structures matched the theory in the colonial constitutions in Canada and Australia, where in theory powers belonged to the governor-general and there was no theoretical responsibility to parliament. In reality, governments had long come to be chosen from parliament and to be answerable to it. Prime ministerial offices had come into "de facto" existence. [A prime minister of Canada had come into existence within a decade of colonial rule in Canada, while in Australia a prime minister appeared in the system of government from the moment the Commonwealth of Australia came into being.] Such developments were also expected to happen in Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland, but technically were not required under the Act.

Potential for Irish unity

A Council of Ireland would co-ordinate matters of common concern to the two parliaments, with each parliament possessing the ability, in identical motions, to vote powers to the Council, which it was hoped would evolve into a single Irish parliament. Both parts of Ireland would continue to send a number of MPs to the Westminster parliament. Elections for both lower houses took place in May 1921.


Northern Ireland

The Parliament of Northern Ireland came into being in June 1921. At its inauguration, in Belfast City Hall, King George V made a famous appeal for Anglo-Irish and north–south reconciliation. The speech, drafted by the government of David Lloyd George on recommendations from Jan Smuts [Jan Smuts was one of the best Boer commanders of the Second Boer War. His deep Commando raids into Cape Province caused considerable embarrassment and difficulties for the British Army. After the war he decided that his future and that of South Africa lay in reconciliation between Afrikaner and the British. In 1914 at the start of World War I the Boer "bitter enders" rose against the government in the Boer Revolt and allied themselves with their old supporter Germany. General Smuts played an important part in crushing the rebellion and defeating the Germans in Africa, before fighting on the Western Front. The South African establishment, of which Smuts was a part, in contrast to the British establishment in 1916, was lenient to the leaders of the revolt, who were fined and spent two years in prison. After this revolt and lenient treatment the "bitter enders" contented themselves with working within the system. It was his experience of the Boer–British rapprochement which he was able to bring to the attention of the British government as an alternative to confrontation.] Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa, with the enthusiastic backing of the King, opened the door for formal contact between the British Government and the Republican administration of Eamon de Valera.

outhern Ireland, The Irish Free State

Southern Ireland never became a reality. All 128 MPs elected to the House of Commons of Southern Ireland were returned unopposed, and 124 of them, representing Sinn Féin, declared themselves TDs (Irish for Dáil Deputies) and assembled as the Second Dáil of the Irish Republic.

With only the four Unionist MPs (all representing graduates of the Irish Universities) and 15 appointed senators turning up for the state opening of the Southern Ireland Parliament in the Royal College of Science in Dublin (now Government Buildings) in June 1921, the new legislature was suspended. Southern Ireland was ruled, for the time being, directly as a Crown Colony.

The House of Commons of Southern Ireland came back into existence again for a short time under the Anglo–Irish Treaty of 1921, to fulfil two functions. The first was to formally ratify the Treaty, which it did on 14 January 1922, after the Second Dáil (which had authority, in nationalist eyes, for ratifying the Treaty) had done so on 7 January. Secondly, it was required to put in place a Provisional Government, which it did, under General Michael Collins. Collins was then legally installed in office by the Lord Lieutenant, Viscount Fitzalan of Derwent.

Following elections, in June 1922, that created the Third Dáil, the Provisional Government enacted a new constitution for the Irish Free State which came into being on 6 December 1922.


The Treaty provided for the ability of Northern Ireland's Parliament, by formal address, to opt out of the new Irish Free State, which was a foregone conclusion. An Irish Boundary Commission was set up to redraw the border between the new Irish Free State and Northern Ireland, but the British and Irish governments agreed to suppress the report. The Council of Ireland never functioned as hoped, (as an embryonic all-Ireland parliament), as the Unionists simply refused to meet.

In the aftermath of the creation of the Irish Free State, the "Irish Free State (Consequential Provisions) Act" adjusted the Northern Ireland system of government slightly to cover the failure of Southern Ireland to function. The office of Lord Lieutenant was abolished and replaced by the Governor of Northern Ireland.

In 1977, John Hume challenged a regulation under the Special Powers Act which allowed any soldier to disperse an assembly of three or more people. Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, Lord Lowry held that the regulation was Ultra Vires under Section 4 of the Government of Ireland Act which forbade the Parliament of Northern Ireland to make laws in respect of the army. ["Robert Lynd Erskine Lowry; ODNB ]


The 1920 Act was repealed in its entirety under the terms of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, after the Belfast Agreement. In the republic, the Statute Law Revision Act 2007 repealed the Act 70 years after the republic's Constitution of Ireland replaced the Constitution of the Irish Free State in 1937. [Irish Times 10 January 2007, p4.]

See also

* Second Dáil
* Parliament of Southern Ireland
* Parliament of Northern Ireland
* Unionists (Ireland)
* Irish Government Bill 1886 (First Irish Home Rule Bill)
* Irish Government Bill 1893 (Second Irish Home Rule Bill)
* Government of Ireland Act 1914 (Third Irish Home Rule Bill)
* Government of Ireland Act 1920 (Parliamentary and Dáil constituencies)

* History of Ireland (1801–1922)
* History of the Republic of Ireland


* Robert Kee, "The Green Flag: A History of Irish Nationalism" (2000 edition, first published 1972), ISBN 0-14-029165-2.


External links

* [ Text of the Act as applied in Northern Ireland in 1956]
* [ Text of the Act as originally enacted in 1920] , from BAILII

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