Ireland’s Wars: The Boundary Commission

It may not fall under the category of a “war” persay, but it would be churlish to claim that the issue of the Boundary Commission did not have any inter-relation with the strategic position of both the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland, and the possibility of future military action by either side, or other non-state agents. Agreed almost as an afterthought as part of the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations, the Commission had become a background element of the Civil War crisis, with the provisional government and then the Irish Free State quietly preparing its evidence and arguments for why the border should be changed to their advantage. It was not until 1924 that the Commission actually started its work, the beginning of a road to a spectacular failure.

The problems had begun right at the start when David Lloyd George had proposed the idea, largely as a “kick-the-can” resolution to break a deadlock on the north. The Irish delegation in London had gone along with the suggestion, largely on the basis that they assumed such a commission would grant large swaths of the six countries to the south, and in so doing leave Northern Ireland so small as to be nonviable. They based this assumption on the idea that the commission would make its decisions purely on electoral results on a local level: with nationalist majorities in Fermanagh, Tyrone and large parts of Derry and Armagh, they naturally thought it was obvious that the Free State would expand into them. However the final definition of the Commission as written into the Treaty included provisions that “economic and geographic” factors would also have to be taken into consideration. This was critical, as it allowed for the viability of Northern Ireland as a state to be a prerequisite for anything the commission would decide.

Now, everyone was approaching the idea with differing expectations for what would be decided. Irish nationalists thought the commission could only work to their benefit, and would grant them lots of new territory that would leave Northern Ireland as a pointless rump state: the minimum expectation was all of Fermanagh, over half of Tyrone, a quarter of Derry (including Derry City), over a third of Armagh and a section of Down. The maximum expectation was all of Fermanagh, Tyrone, three quarters of Derry, two thirds of Armagh and maybe a third of Down, which would have left Northern Ireland with Antrim and parts of neighbouring counties. Unionists followed Lloyd George’s private assurances to them that the commission would recommend only the most minor changes, and that both sides would be compelled to give up territory. And the British were happy enough that the issue had not stalled the larger negotiations, and were confident that the commission could be worked to the point that Belfast’s government would be satisfied and the south could be compelled to go along with only limited alterations. This difference in expectations would prove another reason why the commission was doomed to failure.

There had always been the chance that the commission would never get the chance to come into being. Michael Collins attempted to circumvent it in agreeing the Craig-Collins Pact in March 1922, part of which outlined the possibility of a joint initiative to come to a final resolution on the border without the need to involve anyone from the British government. It was a grandiose aim which probably had little chance of coming to an accord: when the Pact broke down owing to the multitude of other reasons it failed to work out, this aspect of it was similarly dropped. Craig had been appalled when Collins produced a map which showed huge amounts of Northern Ireland’s territory being granted to the Free State, claiming it was what had been promised, so it’s not credible to think he would have really been willing to work with Collins on this basis. Collins death in the Civil War meant that any efforts to find an alternative solution to the border question were going nowhere.

As part of the Treaty then, the Commission came into being practically in 1924, but was operating at a disadvantage to its legitimacy right from the start, with the Northern Ireland government choosing to refuse to appoint a representative, deciding that engagement with the Treaty terms at this moment was detrimental to their interests. The Irish and British governments were forced to come to an arrangement whereby Westminster appointed someone to represent Northern Ireland, and they fell on unionist newspaper editor Joseph R. Fisher. He joined South African judge Richard Feetham for Britain, and Eoin MacNeill for the Irish Free State.

The Commission deliberated in secret, and met a wide range of people, organisations and various public bodies as part of their work. They also toured the border areas, their work persisting from November 1924 on into the early summer of 1925. After an extensive consultation process, they moved to London to work on a final report. Throughout the process, nationalist aspirations for a widescale transfer of territory were frustrated: Feetham, the chairman, insisted that deliberations be focused on only small areas on either side of the border, and that the Commission proceed on the basis that the border be retained unless adequate evidence be produced as to why it should be changed. With he and Fisher outnumbering MacNeill (who lacked a legal background and perhaps struggled with the task), the writing was on the wall. Feetham specifically insisted that Northern Ireland had to have enough territory to remain a viable entity, directly contradicting the long-term hopes of the Free State. The idea of local plebiscites was rejected, and the Commission ended up basing much of its decisions on data from the 1912 census, which of course was well over a decade old by that point.

The final recommendations of the Commission were small-scale to an extreme. Roughly 730 square kms were to be transferred from Northern Ireland to the Free State, comprising small chunks of land in South Tyrone, South Fermanagh and South Armagh. In contrast, just over 200 kms of land were to be granted in the other direction, mostly two significant slices of North-East and South-East Donegal along with part of North Monaghan. For everything else, the Commission determined that it be best that nothing change. It was a recommendation that was almost guaranteed to infuriate the Free State, and even Belfast would probably have struggled to embrace any loss of territory.

In the end it didn’t matter as the Commission recommendations would never be properly published, let alone accepted and enforced. On the 7th November the British newspaper The Morning Post published notes from the Committee’s work, along with what was described as a draft map of the proposed boundary changes (which, in the course of time, was shown to be mostly accurate). The source of the leak has never been definitively discovered, but has long been presumed to be Fisher, who was certainly discussing the work of the Commission with various unionist figures.

The story caused more than just acute embarrassment for W.T. Cosgrave and his government, it was deemed to be a threat: Cumann na Gaedheal had to act fast to prevent a loss of supply in the Dail, such was the level of outrage that emerged at the prospect of losing parts of Donegal to the North, in exchange for what were perceived as negligible gains elsewhere. Fears were rife that Sinn Fein could take advantage of the outrage, and the idea that the Commission suggestions regards the enlargement of Northern Ireland would pass off without some form of violent response seemed fantastical. MacNeill resigned from the Commission less than two weeks after the Morning Post story, and was out of Cosgrave’s cabinet a few days after that.

The Commission continued its work with just two members, but was already dead in the water. Talks between Dublin, Belfast and London soon came to a different agreement, and in somewhat of a hurry: if the Commission’s report was formally published it would take legal effect, though it is hard to imagine the territory transfers actually occurring in that eventuality. Cosgrave managed to see something of an opportunity in the debacle: a way to remove another portion of the Treaty terms, namely the agreement that the Free State would pay a proportion of the British national debt, and would make arrears for “malicious damage” during the War of Independence. This amount was somewhere between seven and 19 million pounds annually according to Cosgrave. With the Free State’s annual budget at the time amounting to little more then 25 million pounds, the debt had not been paid by 1925, with the Free State in no position to do so following the Civil War. The British agreed to write-off this debt, and that the Commission would not publish its report. In exchange, Dublin agreed to keep the border as it was. The agreement was finalised in early December.

It had to be ratified by the three legislatures of course, and while this was straightforward in London and Belfast, it was more divisive in Dublin. It was, in many ways, almost a re-run of the Treaty debates of four years previously, with Cosgrave and O’Higgins now the main proponents of agreement with Britain, and a smattering of more republican-minded deputies to oppose. Cosgrave argued that the financial aspects of the deal were vital to the future of the state, as it reduced Irish debt by an enormous degree; O’Higgins would argue that huge concessions of territory to the Free State would make future Irish unity less likely, as the rump remainder of Northern Ireland would be unionist to its core, and never likely to agree willingly to reunification. Opponents argued that the agreement was a de-facto recognition of partition as a long-term reality, and an abandonment of nationalist and Catholics on the northern side of the border. Deputations of Northern nationalists were turned away from the Dail, and the agreement was ratified on 10th December, 71 votes to 20. The Commission’s work ended and its report was buried, only released for public consumption in 1969.

The Boundary Commission can only be considered an enormous failure, especially from the position of the Irish Free State. From a starting point where every party involved in its creation was coming at it with different expectations, through to its make-up that an inherent unionist bias, down to the manner in which its recommendations were leaked ahead of publication, the Commission’s activities sometimes bordered on the farcical, and its limited suggestions of territory exchange were never likely to be accepted. Moreover, it became an extremely dangerous entity in some respects, whose approach to the dividing out of border territory zones could easily have sparked some manner of violent response if they had ever come close to implementation. As it was the border that first came into being in 1920 was now permanent, and dreams of adjusting it, or doing away with it entirely, became decidedly long-term. So long-term in fact, we are still talking about it nearly a hundred years later. The border was to become a key part of paramilitary operations carried out in Ireland in the following decades, and remains one of the most divisive aspects of political life on the island to this day.

For now, we move on. From the theoretical to the actual, it is time for us to give some space to the Irish Republican Army in this period. It was a time of re-organisation, contemplation of future tactics and to an extent discussion on ideological issues for the IRA, as they adjusted to a post-revolutionary world, and all that came with it.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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3 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Boundary Commission

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The IRA After The Civil War | Never Felt Better

  3. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Economic War | Never Felt Better

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