Boundary Commission (Ireland)

Boundary Commission (Ireland)

The Boundary Commission was established by the Anglo-Irish Treaty that ended the Anglo-Irish War in 1921. Its purpose was to decide on the precise delineation of the border between the Irish Free State, which had seceded from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and Northern Ireland which was to remain part of the new United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. While nationalists hoped for a considerable transfer of land from Northern Ireland to the Free State (reflecting the wishes of people who lived along the new border), the Northern Ireland government obstructed the establishment of the Commission, resulting in the British government assigning a representative to represent their interest.

When the Commission decided on a very small net transfer of land to Northern Ireland (the reverse of what was expected), its conclusions were leaked to the "Morning Post" in 1925, causing protests from both the unionists and nationalists. In order to avoid the possibility of further disputes, the British, Irish, and Northern Ireland governments agreed to suppress the report, and the existing (Government of Ireland Act 1920) border was ratified by W. T. Cosgrave, Sir James Craig, and Stanley Baldwin in December 1925.

The provisional border 1920 – 1925

The Government of Ireland Act 1920 was enacted during the height of the Anglo-Irish War and partitioned the island into two separate Home Rule territories of the United Kingdom, to be called Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland. In its determination of this border, the Parliament of the United Kingdom heard the arguments of the Irish Unionist Party – but not those of most of the elected representatives of the nationalist population. Sinn Féin refused to recognise any legitimate role of that Parliament in Irish affairs and declined to attend it, leaving only the minuscule Irish Parliamentary Party present at the debates. James Craig's brother told the British House of Commons unambiguously that the six north-eastern counties were the largest possible area that unionists could "hold".

Article 12 of the Treaty

After a clause providing for Northern Ireland (as defined by the Government of Ireland Act 1920 to opt out of the new Free State, the remainder of Article 12 declares: []

Accordingly in 1922 the new Free State established the North-Eastern Boundary Bureau which had prepared 56 boxes of files to argue its case by 1925.

The Commission

Due to the delay caused by the Irish Civil War, it was not until 1924 that the Commission was appointed. The Northern Ireland government, which adopted a policy of refusing to cooperate with the Commission since it did not wish to lose any territory, refused to appoint a representative. Ultimately the Labour government in Britain legislated to allow itself to impose a representative on their behalf in order to enable the procedure to go ahead. The Commission was convened in 1925 consisting of:
* Justice Richard Feetham of South Africa as Chairman (appointed by, and representing, the British Government)
* Eoin MacNeill, Minister for Education (appointed by, and representing, the Free State Government)
* J.R. Fisher, a Unionist newspaper editor (appointed by the British government to represent the Northern Ireland government)


The Commission's report has never been officially released, continuing to be withheld by both Governments. However the negotiating positions have been known since 1925 from the Dáil debates (see below) and newspaper reports, but are seldom mentioned in mainstream history books. Arguably the report did not therefore need to be released, and describing it as "withheld" made it seem as if something had been hidden from the public. The republican view was that the entire partition and Boundary Commission process was a British imperial plan to divide and control Ireland; the Northern Irish unionist view was that it allowed them a measure of self-determination.

The nationalist interpretation of Article 12 was that the Commission should redraw the border according to local nationalist or unionist majorities at the finely granular District Electoral Division (DED) level. Since the 1920 local elections in Ireland had resulted in outright nationalist majorities in County Fermanagh, County Tyrone, the City of Derry and in many District Electoral Divisions of County Armagh and County Londonderry (all north and east of the "interim" border), this might well have left Northern Ireland unviable. Unionists were content to leave the border unchanged.

Although Justice Feetham might have used the Parliamentary Constituency boundaries, he evidently decided to maintain the status quo. His casting vote meant that the border created in the Government of Ireland Act 1920 was to remain unchanged. The final agreement between the Irish Free State, Northern Ireland, and Britain was signed on 3 December 1925. Effectively the agreement was concluded by the three governments, and the Commission then rubber-stamped it, so the publication or not of the Commission's report became an irrelevance.

Imperial debt

In the background, under the terms of Article 5 of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty the Irish Free State had agreed to pay its share of the Imperial debt:

"(5) The Irish Free State shall assume liability for the service of the Public Debt of the United Kingdom as existing at the date hereof and towards the payment of war pensions as existing at that date in such proportion as may be fair and equitable, having regard to any just claims on the part of Ireland by way of set-off or counter-claim, the amount of such sums being determined in default of agreement by the arbitration of one or more independent persons being citizens of the British Empire."

This had not been paid by 1925, in part due to the heavy costs incurred in and after the Irish Civil War of 1922-23. A tacit agreement was reached that the 1920 boundary would stay as it was, and in return, Britain would not demand payment of the amount agreed under the Treaty. Since 1925 this payment was never made, nor demanded. [C. Younger, Ireland's Civil War (Frederick Muller 1968) p516.]

Diarmaid Ferriter suggests a more complex trade-off; the debt obligation was removed from the Free State and non-publication of the report, in return for the Free State dropping its claim to rule the Catholic / nationalist areas of Northern Ireland. Each side could blame the other side for the outcome. William Cosgrave admitted that the security of the minority depended on the goodwill of their neighbours. [ Ferriter D. "The Transformation of Ireland" (Profile 2004) p.294. ISBN 1-86197-307-1]

Dáil Debates on the Commission, 7 - 10 December 1925

In the Dáil debates on the outcome on 7 December 1925, Cosgrave mentioned that the sum due under the Imperial debt was not yet fixed but was estimated at £5m. to £19m. annually, Britain having a debt of £7 billions. Cosgrave's aim was to eliminate this amount: "I had only one figure in my mind and that was a huge nought. That was the figure I strove to get, and I got it." [ [ Dáil Éireann - Volume 13 - 07 December, 1925 - TREATY (CONFIRMATION OF AMENDING AGREEMENT) BILL, 1925 ] ] Cosgrave also hoped that the large nationalist minority in Northern Ireland would be a bridge between Belfast and Dublin.

On the final day of debate, Cosgrave revealed that one of the reasons for independence, the elimination of poverty caused by London's over-taxation of Ireland, had not been solved even after four years of freedom:

:"In our negotiations we went on one issue alone, and that was our ability to pay. Not a single penny of a counter-claim did we put up. We cited the condition of affairs in this country—250,000 occupiers of uneconomic holdings, the holdings of such a valuation as did not permit of a decent livelihood for the owners; 212,000 labourers, with a maximum rate of wages of 26s. a week: with our railways in a bad condition, with our Old Age Pensions on an average, I suppose, of 1s. 6d. a week less than is paid in England or in Northern Ireland, with our inability to fund the Unemployment Fund, with a tax on beer of 20s. a barrel more than they, with a heavier postage rate. That was our case."

His main opponent was Professor Magennis from Ulster, who particularly objected that the Council of Ireland (a mechanism for future unity by the 1970s, provided under the Government of Ireland Act 1920) was not mentioned. quote|"There was in that wretched and much resisted Act of 1920 a provision for bringing about ultimate union. Some of our leaders would have said in those days that was all hocus-pocus, but, at all events, the Bill declared, just as the President's statement declared, that what was intended was to bring about a union of hearts. If I had the Bill by me I am confident I could read out a clause in which the seers, the diviners, and the soothsayers, who framed the Act of 1920, told us that, ultimately, it would bring about union. There was a date on which the Council of Ireland was to go out of operation, and that was a date on which by a similar joint resolution of both Parliaments—the Parliament of Ireland was to be set up. That was one of the clauses in the Act of 1920. Do we find anything to that effect in this agreement? Is there any stipulation in the four corners of this document for the ultimate setting up of a Parliament of all Ireland or anything that would appear to be a Parliament of all Ireland? No!"

The government side felt that a boundary of some sort, and partition, had been on the cards for years. If the boundary was moved towards Belfast it would be harder to eliminate in the long term. Kevin O'Higgins pondered: quote|"...whether the Boundary Commission at any time was a wonderful piece of constructive statesmanship, the shoving up of a line, four, five or ten miles, leaving the Nationalists north of that line in a smaller minority than is at present the case, leaving the pull towards union, the pull towards the south, smaller and weaker than is at present the case."

On 9th December a deputation of Ulster nationalists arrived to make their views known to the Dáil, but were turned away. [ [ Dáil Éireann - Volume 13 - 09 December, 1925 - DEPUTATION OF NORTHERN NATIONALISTS ] ]

After 4 days of heated debate on the 'Treaty (Confirmation of amending agreement) Bill, 1925', the boundary agreement was approved on 10 December by a Dáil vote of 71 to 20. [ [ Dáil Éireann - Volume 13 - 08 December, 1925 - TREATY (CONFIRMATION OF AMENDING AGREEMENT) BILL, 1925—SECOND STAGE (RESUMED) ] ] [ [ Dáil Éireann - Volume 13 - 09 December, 1925 - TREATY (CONFIRMATION OF AMENDING AGREEMENT) BILL, 1925—SECOND STAGE (RESUMED DEBATE) ] ] [ [ Dáil Éireann - Volume 13 - 10 December, 1925 - PRIVATE BUSINESS. - TREATY (CONFIRMATION OF AMENDING AGREEMENT) BILL, 1925—SECOND STAGE (Resumed) ] ]


ee also

*Partition of Ireland
*History of Ireland
*History of Northern Ireland
*History of the Republic of Ireland
*Anglo-Irish Treaty
*Republic of Ireland-United Kingdom border
*Repartition of 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 Act)
* Government of Ireland Act 1920 (Fourth Irish Home Rule Act)


*"Report of the Irish Boundary Commission, 1925" Introduced by Geoffrey J. Hand (Shannon: Irish University Press, 1969) ISBN 0-7165-0997-0
* "Ireland's Civil War" C. Younger, (Fred Muller 1968) pp515-516.

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