Volume 2 1922~1926

Doc No.

No. 190 NAI DT S1801D

Memorandum relating to the situation in Northern Ireland by Kevin O'Shiel

Dublin, 28 January 1924


With regard to the President's notes of 17th January in this matter and Mr. Stephens letter of the 18th January in reply,1 the following points occur to me.

  1. GENERAL SITUATION: There is no doubt that the atmosphere has greatly altered in our favour during the past few weeks. A considerable obstacle to our chances of success either at a Conference or a Boundary Commission was the presence in power of a Government which had by tradition and natural affinity strong bonds with the ruling caste in the Six Counties. And since the accomplishment of the Treaty the three Governments which held sway in Great Britain - Mr. Lloyd George's, Mr. Bonar Law's and Mr. Baldwin's - apart altogether from the more enlightened outlook of individual leaders[,] depended mainly for their existence on the strong Tory Die-hard influence. This influence was a continual menace to the full satisfaction of our rights under the Treaty for the Tory Die-hards were not only in complete sympathy with the aims and objects of Northern ascendancy but were in many instances directly connected by blood with the great aristocratic, commercial and landlord families in the Six Counties. The Duke of Abercorn, Lord Londonderry, the Marquis of Dufferin and Ava etc. could pull enormous influence in British Tory circles. All of these noblemen have residences in England and most of them entertain widely so that their social influence is immense. It is noteworthy that the recent Baldwin Government did everything it could to strengthen the Northern Government. It got very large grants of money for all sorts of things from Police to the building of Parliament Houses and Governor's residence and even such things as 'compensation' for their share in the College of Science!

  2. NORTHERN GOVERNMENT AND THE GENERAL ELECTION: The Northern Government committed a big blunder during the recent British general election in putting all its cards on the Conservative Party and in particular identifying itself with the extreme Die-hard element in that Party. Large numbers of well paid but not very discreet Orange enthusiasts were despatched to British constituencies during the election with the benediction of the Northern Government to propagand in the Die-hard cause. These persons mainly devoted themselves to vitriolic onslaughts on Labour and Socialism. The General Election resulted in what was virtually the downfall of the Unionist Party and a victory for the Radical and Socialist elements that Sir James Craig and his friends were so overanxious to keep out.

    On the other hand, we were careful to regard the contest as a purely British affair and no persons spoke during the election in our name.

  3. SURVEY OF THE POSITION: It has and is being continually urged by its critics that the Government has been extremely negligent and tardy in connection with enforcing the Nation's rights under Article 12 of the Treaty. The Government has been accused of an almost criminal delay in putting the Boundary clauses into operation. A little retrospection will show the value of the delay and the satisfactory nature of its results.

    The Government has no cause to regret that it deliberately delayed the discussion of the Boundary clause until the chaotic conditions that existed in the country were removed. A year ago an appalling condition of affairs obtained in the Saorstát. The country was in a chronic state of commotion and disorder. Murders, assassinations, ambushes and the wholesale ruthless destruction of property were the order of the day. Pessimism was in the ascendant and in London most of our friends had made up their minds that what they termed 'the experiment of the Free State' was a calamitous failure. The 'prophecies' that had been so lavishly made by our enemies - that we were a 'bankrupt State' and 'an unstable people' ruled by 'inculpable and unprincipled' rulers were being gradually accepted by the bulk of British people as accurate, and in even friendly quarters we were being admonished to 'take a leaf out of 'Ulster's' book' and to make ourselves worthy of 'Ulster', etc., etc.

    It is enough here to say that everything that was thought and said about us and our Government has been completely falsified, and, mainly due to the enormous efforts of the Government, our national position - political and financial - was never so strong as it is today. Tory Diehardism, a very vital and powerful influence, has been largely swept out of British politics and with it the significance and domination of Northern Orange ascendancy. The old order can be said to have vanished and we have now got to face a new order of things.

  4. THE NEW BRITISH GOVERNMENT: It is too early yet to form a comprehensive and just opinion of the attitude of the new Labour Government in Great Britain towards us, especially as for a long time their Party have been more or less inarticulate about Irish affairs (save for occasional outspoken references made by their more extreme adherents).

    Taking the worst view first, it is possible to conclude from the responsible statements of their leaders during the past four or five important years that they are not likely to turn out very much better than the other British Parties. It must be remembered that during the pre-Truce days British Labour defined its attitude towards us and declared its policy to be a grant of Dominion Home Rule which is identical with the policy of the Liberals and the progressive Conservatives. They were never called upon to elaborate the details of such a policy and hence we have no official record of how the Party intended to deal with the North-Eastern Question. The new Colonial Secretary (the Cabinet Minister who will have most to do with us) Mr. J.H. Thomas, has never shown himself conspicuously friendly to us. If my memory is correct, he came across to Ireland at the time of the Railway strike, organised against the transport of British military and munitions of war, and did his best to wreck it. At any rate no funds during that episode were forthcoming from his Union (the N.U.R.) for Railwaymen in Ireland who had suffered because of their action. During the debates in the House of Commons on the Treaty, he supported the Treaty but I have a recollection that he expressed himself particularly pleased with regard to the special treatment of 'Ulster'.

    Thomas has always been regarded in England as a moderate Labour man. He is a 'trades-unionist' as distinct from a 'socialist and his actions and his speeches have frequently brought forth praise from his ultra Die-hard organs. He is not an idol of the rank and file of British labour and they have frequently accused him of pandering too much to the 'bosses'.

    He has the reputation of being very clever and shrewd with a good deal of the wiliness of his distinguished countryman Lloyd George.

    The new Premier, Ramsay MacDonald has the reputation of being an honest politician but as far as we are concerned he is a dark horse. He should be well acquainted with Orangeism as it is by no means insignificant in his part of Scotland. If we are to judge from his statement issued since he has become Prime Minister, on India, he cannot be considered very advanced as in that statement he deprecated the activities of Indian nationalists and told them pretty plainly in words that might have been used by a member of the late Government that if Indian Nationalists did not renounce unconstitutional methods, whether active or passive, they would find they would be met.

    On the whole, however, I think we can assume that the new British Government as a body will be inclined to deal fairly with us in this matter of the Boundaries if for no other reason than that its main support in many parts of Britain are Irish people, as are many of its best and ablest organisers.

    As against this the one thing we may expect to be up against from this on is a strong and united Tory opposition to any scheme that would seem to 'let Ulster down'. Whether this will have the same effect on the Labour Government as the Tory opposition had on the Liberal Government in 1912 remains to be seen.

  5. THE POINT OF TIME: During the forthcoming Conference and any further conference or meeting that may take place we should bear in mind two things which should govern the question of duration:

    (a) that the present British Government has not a very secure footing and is liable to be thrown out of office at any moment, and

    (b) that we should see to it that the Local Government Board elections in the Six Counties that are due to take place in May, should not take place before this question is definitely decided. Owing to the gerrymandering that has been going on we can take it that great changes in favour of the Partitionists will result from these elections which will be fought on the new register.

    Another thing to remember is that whatever happens to British Governments the civil servants remain intact and will certainly endeavour to carry on the old tradition.

  6. THE CONFERENCE: I come now more directly to the points raised by the President in his Notes.2 I agree largely with his first point that the Conference will probably suggest the absorption of all-Ireland into one economic unit in consideration for which we may probably be offered considerable financial accommodation on the Treaty clauses.

    The danger lies in what precise form this economic union will take. Few things have caused greater uneasiness to the British than our determination to exercise our fiscal independence and the resultant necessity of a Customs barrier. It has frequently been suggested that we should, in view of the North's acceptance of some form of union, agree to 'bring all Ireland within the United Kingdom fiscal unit'. I think the cause of this uneasiness is more at the prospect of possible developments of independent fiscal policy rather than at any immediate fears. We are, however, almost certain to be faced with this suggestion at some stage or another, which of course would be utterly impossible from our standpoint.

  7. THE TWO CABINETS: I take it that this point in the President's notes means that such a body will deal first mainly with the 'reserved services' as the 'Council of Ireland' in the 1920 Act. Legislation would be necessary to give such a body definite Parliamentary shape - as its functions in this respect would be mainly legislative - and also to provide for the number of representatives from North and South. The danger I see in this is its tendency to treat the Six or Four Counties, or whatever it may be, as the equal of the Free State, thereby providing precedents that it may be difficult for us to confute at a later date.

  8. NORTHERN M.Ps. IN WESTMINSTER: I agree with the President that the presence of Northern M.Ps. at Westminster is a big loss of prestige to us and that it is highly important for us to cut them out of Westminster. If we achieved nothing else but the cutting of all financial and political bonds that bound the North-East to London and thereby caused them to look in to Ireland rather than out of Ireland, it would be a very big step on the road to National union. Should the North-East agree to accept something of this nature we might consent to withdraw opposition to the handing over to them of some at least of the reserved services on condition, say, that they accepted the general principle of an Irish Federation; otherwise they might progress towards full Dominion status, which would be dangerous. Also, if they decide to come closer to us in this respect I see no objection to the suggestion to meet them with regard to Constabulary and a Local Militia, accompanied, of course, by satisfactory guarantees from them as to the position of minority members in those forces.

  9. A POSSIBLE BASIS OF AGREEMENT: The six or seven points outlined in the last page of the President's notes provide, I think, a possible basis of agreement. At any rate they represent the minimum that we could accept without much danger to our own position and provide a ground for possible future development towards a closer union.

    To such a plan I would make one addition, namely, the acceptance of all-Ireland as a distinct economic unit, power being given to the 'Council of Ireland' or whatever central body is set up to regulate the details involved. Of course I do not mean by this suggestion that we should do anything to limit our own sovereign fiscal powers, which are amongst the most valuable powers we possess and which we should be very careful to preserve intact.

    In conclusion, I would like to submit a few points on our attitude at the forthcoming London Conference.
    (1) We should bear in mind that we are not responsible for this Conference; that it has been called by the British Government, and that all we have agreed to do is to accept their invitation without prejudice to our rights.
    (2) The onus is on the British Government to explain in greater detail why they have called this Conference and to submit for our consideration any plans for settlement.
    (3) We should not let the Conference develop into a discussion on the Boundary question. No good could come of such a discussion. I have reason to believe that the North-East is very anxious for this.
    (4) We should not commit ourselves to anything until we see what the British Government have to say. When we are in possession of their scheme we can ask for a little time in which to consider it. Of course should it be a plan that we could not possibly accept we can say so at once.
    (5) If pressed to put some plan before the Conference we can excuse ourselves on the ground that we have no plans for the solution of the difficulty other than the Treaty which we readily admit is not perfect but under the circumstances and in view of the rigid attitude of the North-Eastern Government we cannot conceive a better.

We can point out that we have endeavoured to meet the North-East but it has quite plainly on several occasions ruled out all prospect of affiliation with us. The plan in the Treaty, had they not opted out, met them, we thought very generously.

It is no harm at all if we appear at first a little 'difficult' as there is a danger of our being taken for granted across the water as being 'very accommodating', creating thereby the preconception in the minds of British arbitrators that whatever compromise is made for settlement purposes must be made by us, the North-East on the other hand being taken for granted as being constitutionally static and unbending.

We can blame public opinion in the Saorstát for our attitude. We can point out that the Government and people of the Saorstát fought a trying civil war in which hundreds of excellent lives (including General Collins) were lost, and put a debt of many millions on the country in order to maintain the Treaty.

The result is that the people of the Saorstát, having suffered for the Treaty position, are now keener than ever on seeing that the Treaty is honoured to the letter. What they would consider as a 'letting down' on the part of the Government over Article 12 would certainly not consolidate the existing state of peace in the country and might lead to further commotion with the Irregulars coming out on top and proceeding to 'purge' the Constitution.

The Government has to satisfy the Oireachtas on any scheme that may be forthcoming from the Conference and it will take a very good scheme to satisfy the legislature that the Boundary Commission could be waived, etc.


The forthcoming Conference will probably only be a preliminary affair to lead up to a more serious meeting. That being so it would be a fitting occasion for us to urge the matter of the treatment of the minority in the Six Counties, e.g., the 'Argenta'3 and the incarceration of Cahir Healy which Sir John Simon has declared to be an affront to the House of Commons. We should ask for the release of the 'Argenta' prisoners as a way of creating a more favourable conference attitude (incidentally the release of those men on our initiative would have an excellent home effect).


We should protest very strongly against these interferences with minority rights. The restitution of 'property qualifications' should have a telling effect on Labour mentality. There is the notorious fact too of the establishment of a Special policeman's Orange Lodge to be called the 'Peel Loyal Orange Lodge'.

The Bureau, I understand has prepared a dossier on the treatment of Minorities by the Belfast Government.

In conclusion, it is my belief that we should be able to hold out, under the prevailing conditions, for a good hard bargain.

1See above Nos 188 and 189.

2Above No. 188.

3The Argenta was a prison ship moored in Belfast Lough.