Northern Ireland: a century of uncertainty

By: Seán Bernard Newman

Beyond the arguing over the correct form of address for the Irish president – or should that be President of Ireland – and legal challenges over luminations at Belfast City Hall (neither example is surprising), perhaps the biggest surprise of Northern Ireland’s Centenary Celebrations/Commemorations/‘Events to Mark and Reflect’ (delete as appropriate) is that they are taking place at all. Northern Ireland’s historical foundations are fragile. Constitutional self-government in Northern Ireland is especially sensitive to political forces, and the pressure of contemporary politics – Brexit, IndyRef2 and legacy issues – puts significant strain on the institutions of devolved government. The unlikely story of Northern Ireland’s one hundred year existence is at a complex and fast-moving chapter.

This piece looks at the uncertain, changeable and compromised historical constitutional foundation of Northern Ireland and considers the alternatives discussed a century ago. It explores the emergence of Ulster Unionism as a distinct political force, and discusses how policymakers and political leaders looked to accommodate that Ulster exceptionalism in the third Home Rule Bill, before considering how attempts to implement that halted constitutional legislation finally failed when Ulster Unionists and Irish Nationalists were unable to grasp the consensus that seemed so close. History demonstrates that Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions and its place within the molten constitution of the United Kingdom is, and always has been, unsettled and changeable; something worth bearing in mind in the current political context.

This article forms part of a wider paper on the precarity of Northern Ireland in the vestigial Union, and those issues and later proposals during the Sunningdale and Anglo-Irish Agreement eras will be considered in the context of the pressures of the contemporary political and constitutional climate.

Ulster exceptionalism

Northern Ireland is a Cinderella state. During the Orange Agitation (1910-1914), Ulster Unionists mobilised for the status quo while nationalists called for something between de facto legislative independence and devolution; neither side sought partition.[1] It is little wonder that the compromises and hastily changed constitutional arrangements provided such unstable and even temporary support over the past century and continue to lurch and sway today. Never inevitable, Northern Irish self-government even seemed unlikely, and its ultimate but unsettled form in the Government of Ireland Act (1920) is merely one of many iterations proposed.

The ‘1904’ Ulster Revolt shifted opposition to Irish Home Rule from a pan-island movement for Union to an Ulster-focused campaign.[2] ‘Constructive Unionist’ reforms that accommodated nationalists led to a local backlash in the province and, much to the terror of the Ulster Ascendency class, the emergence and growth of popular and working-class Independent Orangeism. A younger generation of Ulster-centric Unionist MPs – led by Charles Craig and William Moore – challenged colleagues they considered Westminster-centric, too closely aligned to the Conservative government and ‘inactive’ in opposition to ‘Constructive Unionism’. Seen as more responsive to the demands of ‘rank-and-file’ Ulster Unionists, the revolt’s leaders co-ordinated Ulster MPs to abstain in an unsuccessful no-confidence motion against Balfour’s Conservative government and established the Ulster Unionist Council (UUC). With deep(ish) orange water between the Ulster Unionists and the Westminster Conservatives, the UUC MPs became a distinct ‘Ulster Unionist Party’ within the broader Conservative and Unionist parliamentary party. More significantly, the UUC gave Ulster Unionists the means to mobilise and campaign inside and outside of Parliament for Ulster-centric Irish Unionism; the lack of a similar organisation in the other three provinces ensured that Irish Unionism withered while Ulster Unionism grew. With a growing likelihood of Irish Home Rule – especially after the Parliament Act (1911) – resistance to it and legislative compromises for it focused almost entirely on Ulster.

Ulster Unionist leader Edward Carson maintained that the complete defeat of Home Rule across Ireland remained Ulster Unionism’s objective. Carson raised the rhetoric and urged the rank-and-file to demonstrate their opposition to Home Rule – by force if necessary – to the British electorate who could ensure a policy change with the threat of electoral defeat. Inconclusive General Elections bookended 1910. The nationalist Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) held the balance of power with their support for the Asquith government dependent on introducing a third Home Rule Bill, but Ulster Unionists rested assured that the Lords would veto any bill. The Parliament Act paved the way for the Liberal Budget, but an unintended for the British parties –although glaringly obvious –consequence of the Act was to remove the Lords’ veto on Irish devolution. Not for the last time did English and British political priorities cause chaos in Ireland. Within a month, 300,000 Ulster Unionists rallied at Craigavon in a foretaste of the massive mobilisation that followed. The battle against Home Rule entered a new phase.

Temporary solutions

With Home Rule set to become law within a few short years, Ulster resistance made its implementation next to impossible. Asquith introduced the legislation in April 1912, and from the beginning, the Prime Minister hinted at ‘separate treatment’ for Ulster.[3] In June, Liberal backbencher Thomas Agar-Robartes proposed ‘separate treatment’ in an amendment to the Bill and suggested the exclusion of four counties (Antrim, Armagh, Down and Londonderry) from the ‘operation of Home Rule’. Demonstrating the unwillingness to compromise that became a hallmark of the next decade of Irish politics (and revolution and civil war), both the IPP, and Carson and the UUP rejected the conciliatory measure. For nationalists, the suggestion of partition jeopardised the paradigm of Irish unity, while for Ulster Unionists, any form of Home Rule was anathematic. Agar-Robartes’ geographic compromise looked to place in statute the separatist tendencies of Ulster Unionists who established the Ulster Provisional Government (UPG) in September 1911. For the next two years, the limited hopes of compromise faded as events outside Westminster drove the situation into a series of crises. The Ulster Solemn League and Covenant, the creation of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), the establishment of the Ulster Provisional Government, the Curragh Mutiny and the Larne Gun-running showed the unwillingness of Ulster Unionists to find a middle ground. The creation of the Irish Volunteer and the Howth Gun-running showed how unlikely nationalists were to compromise either. By May 1914, the Bill passed the House of Commons for the third time, triggering the Parliament Act’s provisions.

In the summer of 1914, impending global war refocused minds –distracted by the prospect of Irish and possibly a United Kingdom-wide civil war –on compromise. George V convened the Buckingham Palace Conference on 21-24 July 1914, intervening in an attempt to break the constitutional and political impasse a fortnight after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. In the days before the king convened the conference, Asquith met with Unionist emissary former Liberal MP Alexander Murray, Master of Elibank. Building on Agar-Robartes’ Amendment, Elibank proposed four-county exclusion but suggested the nationalist areas of south Antrim and south Armagh fell outside the excluded area that instead included the Unionist areas of east Donegal and Monaghan. Elibank highlighted the strength and likely effectiveness of the UVF.[4] That day George V convened the conference.

Representatives from the United Kingdom government, the IPP, and the Conservatives-UUP attended the conference chaired by the Unionist Speaker of the House of Commons. With legislation due to pass imminently, the onus for compromise rested with a government preparing for international war; Nationalists were on the cusp of achieving Home Rule (but perhaps also bloody civil war), and Unionists stood ready to seize power with the UPG using the highly organised and extensively armed UVF. Asquith proposed temporary four-county exclusion based on the Agar-Robartes Amendment but with border areas assigned according to the community make-up of Poor Law Unions or parliamentary constituencies. Both sides demanded whole counties. Carson showed a glint of conciliation, suggesting – only if nine-county exclusion proved impossible – the exclusion of the six ‘Plantation Counties’ (the Agar-Robartes four, plus Fermanagh and Tyrone), but with ‘Administrative Autonomy’ and majoritarian (i.e. Ulster Unionist) local government; here Ulster Unionists first hinted at self-government for the six counties of future Northern Ireland. Nationalists pressed for the nationalist majority County Tyrone. Unionists insisted on excluding County Tyrone as Ulster Unionists made up the majority of ratepayers; Asquith proposed a compromise to the compromise and suggested County Tyrone’s exclusion for two years, followed by a county plebiscite. Ulster Unionists rejected the idea as the county’s nationalist majority would vote for inclusion. Delegates went their separate ways.

As the United Kingdom marched closer and closer to war in the next few days, future Ulster Unionist leader and Northern Ireland’s first Prime Minister, James Craig MP suggested implementing Home Rule followed by a general election. A significant Unionist majority would repeal Home Rule. A small Unionist majority would exclude the whole of Ulster. If the Liberals gained a majority, Craig wanted to have his cake and eat it; the Ulster Question would be reconsidered. The declaration of war on 4 August 1914 precluded a general election. Both Unionists and Nationalists agreed on a truce for the duration; King and Empire came first. The Government of Ireland Bill passed its final stages between 15-18 September in tandem with the Suspensory Act (1914); Home Rule was law, but non-operational for two years, or six months after the cessation of hostilities, whichever was longest. Both Acts gained Assent on the understanding a third – amending bill – would pass before implementation, formally excluding an undefined part of Ulster for an undefined period. The Ulster Question, like the operation of Home Rule, was put on the long finger.

Lasting solutions

The truce between Unionists and Nationalists held through the war, but through a failure of intelligence, the Irish Republican Brotherhood’s Easter Rising – enter a third and soon to be dominant Republican movement – caught the government off guard in April 1916. Destruction in Dublin and horrific bloodshed and stalemate on the Western Front drove the government, Unionists, and Nationalists to find a final settlement, resolve the Irish and Ulster Questions, and focus on defeating the Central Powers.

Republican notions of installing a Prussian prince on the Irish throne – seeing no irony in declaring a republic and proposing a monarchy, just as loyalists and unionists saw no contradiction in offering revolution and separatist government – reflected more the mantra of ‘England’s Difficulty Is Ireland’s Opportunity’ than a realistic constitutional settlement. However, the tripartite Irish Convention starting in July 1917, was a serious attempt at framing a new Irish constitution. Quietly, Carson and Craig dropped the idea of nine-county exclusion in favour of six-county exclusion. Northern Nationalists accepted six-county exclusion on ‘Black Friday’ at the St Mary’s Hall Conference on 23 June 1916; both sides conditioned six-county exclusion on being limited to the duration of the war, but it seemed increasingly like a lasting and acceptable solution to the Ulster Question. Prime Minister David Lloyd George asked the Convention to frame a new Irish constitution based on the Government of Ireland Act (1914) provisions with the six counties excluded; the United Kingdom cabinet reserved the right to veto any agreement.

Nationalists – soon replaced by Republicans as ‘spokesmen of Ireland’ after the wipeout December 1918 General Election – proposed Irish Dominion Home Rule on the Canadian and Australian models, but significantly deviating from the Government of Ireland Act (1914) provisions failed to gain any support. Sensing their eclipse, Nationalist negotiators needed to push beyond devolution to head off the impending electoral route and hoped Dominion status might quell calls for a republic. To Carson and Craig’s fury, Southern Unionists broke from their Ulster Unionist brethren – sensing they, like the Nationalists, were a waning force – accepted self-government and proposed two lower houses for Ulster and the twenty-seven counties and a single senate in an Irish Parliament; the ‘Irish Council’ principle recurs to this day.[5] They soon fell in line with the Ulster Unionists and presented a united front after that. The Convention then delegated its authority to the Sub-Committee of Nine made up of representatives from each party.

The Sub-Committee of Nine quickly found a compromise acceptable to all sides; all-Ireland Home Rule including an all-Ireland Parliament with forty per cent of the seats reserved for Unionists for ten years. Over the coming months, Nationalists accepted the scheme and proposed treasury and revenue autonomy with an Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement. Unionists also accepted the Sub-Committee of Nine scheme but rejected fiscal autonomy and, assuming Irish Home Rule to be the first step towards pan-United Kingdom federation, called for measures that prepared for a federal Great Britain & Ireland constitution; agreement broke down. William Brodrick, Earl of Midleton, the leader of the Irish Unionist Alliance (which since the Ulster Revolt retreated from the north and represented Southern Unionist interests), brokered a compromise where the Sub-Committee of Nine Scheme would operate within an Anglo-Irish customs union with the Irish administration having power over customs, but excise duty subject to ‘special treatment’. In January 1918, despite the Midleton Compromise gaining support on all sides, the Nationalists reasserted their demand for fiscal autonomy, and the measure fell. Hugh Barrie, leader of the Ulster Unionist delegation, proposed a final compromise; the Sub-Committee of Nine scheme with an Ulster Committee and Belfast Administration with limited administrative powers, the second time Ulster Unionists suggested self-government. Carson offered his support and then withdrew it. The Convention ended without success, but the principle of six-county exclusion (i.e. partition, whether temporary or permanent) gained ground.

No solution

Following the Government of Ireland Act (1914), the Buckingham Palace Conference and the Irish Convention, the United Kingdom government considered a more general federal constitution for Great Britain & Ireland and passed a fourth Home Rule Act that held in Ulster until the 1970s but never operated in the twenty-six counties for more than a few hours. The Anglo-Irish Treaty established the Irish Free State and effective dominion status for both states on the island.

The second decade of the twentieth century failed to give a permanent answer to the Irish and Ulster Questions, but partition offered a solution that paved the way for a settlement – albeit heavily contested – in the 1920s. With the second pillar of that settlement, majoritarian self-government ending in 1972, partition is its enduring legacy – along with the controversy accompanying it.

Constitutional alternatives to Government of Ireland Act (1914)[6]  
Arthur Griffith: The Resurrection of Hungary  1904Repeal of Act of Union (1800) and creation of Anglo-Irish dual monarchy on the Austria-Hungary model  
Ulster Provisional GovernmentSeptember 1911Nine-counties of Ulster. Contingency separatist measures focused on security administered by committees of the UUC  
Third Home Rule BillApril 1912Pan-island, devolved legislature with UK administration. Reduction in Westminster MPs  
Agar-Robartes Amendment  June 1912Third Home Rule Bill with four Ulster counties excluded (Antrim, Armagh, Down and Londonderry)  
Elibank Exclusions  July 1914Four-county exclusion except for south Antrim and south Armagh but including east Donegal and north Monaghan. County Tyrone unresolved
Buckingham Palace Conference: Asquith Temporary ExclusionsJuly 1914Temporary four-county exclusion with modified boundaries accounting for community make-up of Poor Law Unions or parliamentary constituencies  
Buckingham Palace Conference: Asquith Temporary Exclusions with Tyrone Plebiscite  July 1914Temporary four-county exclusion with modified boundaries accounting for community make-up of Poor Law Unions or parliamentary constituencies with a plebiscite in excluded County Tyrone after two years  
Buckingham Palace Conference: Carson ‘Plantation Counties’ Exclusion  July 1914Six-county exclusion of ‘Plantation Counties’ (Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone) with ‘Administrative Autonomy’ and majoritarian local government  
Craig General Election  July 1914UK General Election after passing of Home Rule Bill; significant overall Unionist majority repeal legislation; small Unionist majority exclude Ulster; Liberal majority reconsider Ulster  
Government of Ireland Act (1914) and Suspensory Act (1914)  September 1914Passing of the Third Home Rule Bill and simultaneous ‘suspending’ Act halting its implementation until the end of the First World War and on the assumption amending legislation excluded an undefined part of Ulster for an undefined period  
Irish Republican Brotherhood: King Joachim Hohenzollern of Ireland  1916The installing of Prince Joachim of Prussia as King of Ireland aligning Ireland to the Central Powers against the Triple Entente during the First World War—‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity’  
Irish Convention: Nationalist Dominion Home Rule  July 1917All-Ireland Home Rule enhanced from Government of Ireland Act (1914) to include Dominion powers similar to Canada and Australia  
Irish Convention: Southern Unionist ‘Two Commons, One Senate’  July 1917Home Rule with an Ulster chamber, a Three Province chamber and an all-Ireland Senate
Irish Convention: ‘Sub-Committee of Nine’  July 1917All-Ireland Home Rule with All-Ireland Parliament with 40 per cent of seats reserved for Unionists for ten years  
Irish Convention: Nationalist Free Trade Agreement  July 1917‘Sub-Committee of Nine’ proposal with Irish fiscal autonomy and free trade agreement with Great Britain  
Irish Convention: Unionist Federal Union  July 1917‘Sub-Committee of Nine’ proposal without fiscal autonomy and provisions for assumed federal United Kingdom  
Irish Convention: Midleton Compromise  July 1917‘Sub-Committee of Nine’ proposals with Ireland-Great Britain customs union with Irish administration keeping customs revenue and ‘special treatment’ for excise duties  
Irish Convention: Barrie Compromise, ‘Home Rule Within Home Rule’  July 1917‘Sub Committee of Nine’ with All-Ireland Parliament with Ulster Committee and limited administrative power for Belfast Administration  

Dr Seán Bernard Newman is a Research Fellow at The Constitution Society. He is currently researching a paper on ‘Vestigial Union’ exploring the history of the Act of Union (1800) and Northern Ireland’s continued place in it post the Government of Ireland Act (1920) with a focus on modern and contemporary political and constitutional pressures.     

The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.    

[1] Irish Republicanism with its call for complete Irish independence (although those calls were far from universal even within the republican movement) did not move from the political margins to the centre until 1916/17. Sinn Féin’s founder Arthur Griffith called for dual monarchy in 1904 and later leaders of the Easter Rising considered the imposition of the Hohenzollern Prince Joachim of Prussia as King of Ireland. The article follows the convention of using the capitalised ‘Nationalist’ when referring to the organised Irish Nationalist Party and the associated movement and the lower case ‘nationalist’ when referring to the largely Catholic community that supported it.

[2] Henry Patterson, ‘Independent Orangeism and Class Conflict in Edwardian Belfast: A Reinterpretation‘, Proceeding of the Royal Irish Academy: Archaeology, Culture, History, Literature, Vol.80C, (1980), 1-27, p.19.

[3] MC Rast, Shaping Ireland’s Independence: Nationalist, Unionist, and British Solutions to the Irish Question, 1909-1925, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), p.71.

[4] Rast, Shaping Ireland’s Independence, (p.147).

[5] Rast, Shaping Ireland’s Independence, (p.185).

[6] This is a comprehensive and extensively researched list, but does not claim to be exhaustive.