The Birth of Northern Ireland, 1921

Ireland’s unique colony-plus status was established in 1801 as a response to the 1798 rebellion. Conflicts during the 19th and early 20th century led to the successful Irish War of Independence, which culminated in the 1921 peace treaty. Northern Ireland exists because Lloyd George botched that peace treaty. Northern Ireland is a remnant of Ireland’s colonial period with a legislature which has the appearance of being temporary.*

The 1798 Irish rebellion was nipped in the bud by uniting Ireland with mainland Britain. William Pitt transformed Ireland’s status with the Act of Union, 1801. He created the Union through a classic 18th century mixture of bribery with coercion. Ireland entered the British political mainstream with 100 MPs and 28 Irish peers and four bishops in the house of Lords. Roman Catholics remained disenfranchised but otherwise it was a master stroke.

Keeping Catholics disenfranchised was a cause celebre. Eighty percent of Ireland’s population was denied the vote. Credible threats of civil unrest led to emancipation being granted in 1829. Ireland’s colonial status was unique, as it was integrated into metropolitan Britain. It used its parliamentary presence to considerable effect in the later 19th century with the Home Rule issue. Other, less favoured colonies, also pressed for self-government. The movement towards political independence was accelerated by the First World War.

By the end of World War I, ….. the linkage between the word “Dominion” and the concept of self-governing status [was linked]. The phrase “self-governing Dominions” began to give way to the single word “Dominions,” “with the ‘self-governing’ understood.” A resolution of the Imperial War Conference in 1917 referred to “full recognition of the Dominions as autonomous nations of an Imperial Commonwealth.” **

Lloyd George couldn’t disengage from British imperialism, which, counter-intuitively, expanded after the First World War. He gave the Irish Dominion status, and critically important, partitioned Protestant and Catholic areas based on fantasy sectarian maps. The post-Versailles geo-political world was ‘shaped’ by Woodrow Wilson’s self-determination principles, “At the centre of Wilson’s liberal world view lies the idea of self-determination of peoples.”***

Lloyd George should have used his superlative political talents to be as decisive as Pitt had been in 1800. Ireland needed a bold political statement recognising its tortured history. Instead, Lloyd George partitioned Ireland in an attempt to placate the minority Protestant Unionist faction. Unfortunately, Lloyd George regarded Woodrow Wilson’s principles with contempt because of their naivety. Wilson believed there were ethnically pure areas, which could be mapped and used to create new countries. Wilson’s self-determination principles have been characterised as possessing, “moralistic inflexibility and [a] messianic sense of mission.”****

Lloyd George’s animus clouded his judgement and he privileged the possibility of a Unionist rebellion as opposed to the certainty of a Catholic one. The Six Counties resolution was shoddy as it denied Wilson’s flawed but useful principles. Those principles had been exhaustively used in the tortuous Versailles treaty by Lloyd George but he refused to accept their validity in Ireland.

…the Northern Ireland boundary would be determined by a boundary commission thereby giving a false hope that large tracts of Tyrone, Fermanagh Down, and Armagh along with Derry City would be given to the Free State as they had Catholic majorities.”

Lloyd George utterly failed the ultimate test of statesmanship with the Irish peace treaty. Phoney sectarian frontiers fail and the Six Counties partition failed. Political resolution of the recurring northern Ireland crises can only be achieved with unification.


* Compare the separate Brexit-Irish negotiations and outcomes as a recent, 2019, example.


*** Lynch, Allen. “Woodrow Wilson and the Principle of ‘National Self Determination’: A Reconsideration.” Review of International Studies, vol. 28, no. 2, 2002, p421

**** ibid p427


For the timeline of the vicious civil war, 1919-22, see

This is a very significant and accessible article

For a summary of the Act of Union see

For Catholic Emancipation see

For an 1892 debate and petty anti-Catholic provisions see

For Irish Home Rule see

For the partition of Northern Ireland see

For Woodrow Wilson’s principle of self- determination see Lynch, Allen. “Woodrow Wilson and the Principle of ‘National Self-Determination’: A Reconsideration.” Review of International Studies, vol. 28, no. 2, 2002, pp. 419–436. JSTOR, Accessed 7 May 2020.

This entry was posted in History, Politics, War and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Birth of Northern Ireland, 1921

  1. Thanks for sharing this article and links. Very interesting and valuable information for studying the history of Ireland. Thanks for your work.

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