No. 35 NAI DT S2027

Secret and Confidential memorandum on the Boundary Question to every member of the Executive Council, with covering letter by Kevin O’Shiel

Dublin, 10 February 1923

A Chara,

Herewith further Memo. on Boundary Question.

As many more are to follow, and as all will be of the utmost importance, please put into special File for swift and convenient reference.

Mise, le meas,
Assistant Legal Advisor


Having given a good deal of attention and study lately to the question as to when the Boundary Commission should proceed to function I have come to the conclusion that it would be nothing short of folly on our part to raise the issue now or at any time until there is a decided change in general conditions.

There is a foolish notion abroad that delay will tend to defeat, or at least to weaken our case in the Boundary Commission. In another Memo. I have analysed the reasons behind this notion and found, as I suspected, that there was not the slightest foundation to support it.

Far from defeating or weakening our Boundaries case, delay will have just the opposite effect. It will tend to strengthen and consolidate it.

The following are the reasons upon which this opinion is based:

  • (1)The prevailing bad condition of the country bears directly and insistently on the whole civil and constructive fabric of the Government. At the moment we can only prepare and perfect plans to put into force as soon as the reign of terror is overthrown and the reign of law re-established.

    This is particularly true of our greatest internal problem - the matter of our future boundaries.

    Our case on the Boundaries is overwhelmingly strong and has been rendered even more so by our recent researches on European Precedents.

    (2) Whether therefore as a weapon to force Craig to come to suitable terms with us, or, in the last resource, to push to the ultimate our advantage at the Boundary Commission our case, politically, economically, geographically, historically and according to the Treaty Article itself (as further emphasised by Versailles Precedents) would appear to be absolutely unanswerable.

    (3) Our case stated and the Commission itself provide us with extremely valuable diplomatic weapons which we can, and, in my opinion, should use for all we are worth in order to effect an enduring and lasting settlement on a basis not in conflict with the ideal of National Union. (This point I am developing more fully in another Memo.)

    To use these valuable weapons to their fullest advantage peace all over the jurisdiction of the Free State is an essential condition precedent.

    (4) Before we embark on the settlement of this great problem it is imperative that we should be in the strongest possible condition, backed up by the united strength of a peaceful and law-abiding Nation.

    We must be in a position to maintain public order and to guarantee the protection of the lives and property of possibly future citizens.

    Clearly then, it would be folly for us to join issue on this grave matter before we are robust enough to face the strain.

    What a ridiculous figure we would cut - both nationally and universally - were we to argue our claim at the Commission for population and territory when at our backs, in our own jurisdiction is the perpetual racket of war, the flames of our burning railway stations, and the never failing daily lists of our murdered citizens!

    We would have then to meet the retort, 'What do you want with more territory and more population when you cannot maintain order in the territory you have or protect the lives and property of the population who declare their allegiance to you.'

    (5) Suppose the Boundary Commission proceeded to function now and an arrangement was suggested in lieu of it which would meet our views and the ideas of Northern Nationalists, how would we undertake to guarantee anything to possible contracting parties?

    No matter what we might say, no matter what documents we might sign to this effect, it would be all negatived by the daily and nightly turmoil going on behind us. The Irregulars would see to it that our undertakings would soon be broken.

    (6) Here is another aspect. The Boundary Commission is bound to awaken great international attention. Once proceedings are opened many journalists, publicists, experts, etc. will be attracted to our shores, and a searchlight of most unenviable publicity would thus be thrown on the state of affairs in Saorstát.

    We can depend upon it that the supporters of a separate 'Northern Ireland', having a very bad case on the merits, would work up this end of it for all they were worth. It is quite possible, too, that under existing circumstances they would get the support of many of those gentlemen, even those who would, under more favourable conditions, be prepared to stand up for us.

    It is significant in this respect that the 'Daily News' has lately taken up such an attitude in commenting on the Glenavy episode.1

  • (1) Another reason why delay is essential is the present condition of opinion in Great Britain. And in this connection we must remember first of all that a strong Tory Government is at present in power in Great Britain. The traditional policy of the Tory Party has always been one of hostility to Irish aspirations and of friendship to the Orange Cause. This Government is now carrying out the Treaty because it has to, because the Treaty is more than a mere statute, because it is in fact an international contract. The declared opinion of the strong Die-Hard element and the secret opinion of the remainder of the Party is that the Treaty was really an act of betrayal; that the loyal population was betrayed in order to conciliate irreconcilable 'Celts', who could never be reconciled.

    The actions of the Irregulars in the Free State have made it possible for Tories to say 'We told you so. Once Home Rule is granted to the Irish they will fight amongst themselves. They do not belong to that type of population which is ripe for self-government, etc. etc.'

    They are able too to point to the peaceful conditions of 'Loyal Ulster' and contrast that with conditions in the Free State.

    2) I have it on excellent authority - from good friends of ours in Great Britain - that it would be most unwise for the Irish Government to raise this issue at the present juncture. It is the opinion of these people that if it were brought up at present the Northern Ireland Members and their supporters in the House of Commons would immediately protest against any handing over of territory from 'the peaceful North to the disorderly Free State', and that under present conditions such a protest would carry great weight in the House and in the Country.

    If we forced the Boundary Commission now on the ground that it was an essential part of the Treaty we may be pretty certain that, driven to such a strait, the British Government would insist on the Craig interpretation.

    The opinion of these British friends of ours is that Ireland has lost and is losing much valuable support in Great Britain. The English public and newspapers take a very gloomy view of conditions in the Free State.

    The unsettled conditions here have badly hit big English enterprises which formerly dealt largely with us. London too is full of émigrés who have no reason to love us and who take every opportunity to speak bitterly of us.

    I am informed further that in the Clubs intervention at an early period is freely spoken of. This being the case feeling against a Boundary Commission, and certainly our interpretation of Article XII., would be very easily stirred up.

    I may mention here that I have found that the special propaganda I arranged for Great Britain has fallen flat owing to the many sensational and tragic news items which come from Ireland every day, and which completely overshadows my stuff. I have called off the publication of some of our best points until more favourable conditions. At the present time they would fall deadly flat and thus lose much, if not all, of their far reaching effects. The British people are at the moment not at all in a mood to listen to what they would call the ventilation of more 'Irish Grievances'.

  • A further and very important reason for delay arises if we have made up our minds to join the League of Nations.

    In view of our international status not only under the Treaty but by the very fact of the Treaty itself, it is most important for us to pay the greatest attention to all our initial actions as they may probably result in the establishment of fundamental precedents with far reaching effects on our future development.

    Most important of these is the international significance of the Boundary Commission under Article XII. That Commission by international law (which the Treaty of London, 6th December, 1921, entitled us to receive the benefit of) is a Commission composed of two representatives of the Government of Great Britain and one representative of the Government of the Irish Free State to decide the future Land Frontier between these two States. The fact that the two States are members of the same Commonwealth or alliance does not alter the international aspect of the matter. Neither does the fact that one of the States has an autonomous province called 'Northern Ireland' within its sovereignty alter this aspect or reduce it to the dimensions of a mere domestic arbitration.

    It is clear then that we should neglect no means of strengthening our international position before we embark on any such delicate affair as the Boundaries issue. For this reason we should certainly take steps to join the League of Nations.

    I hope in another Memo., which will follow soon, to elaborate in considerable detail the case for and against our joining the League of Nations. Here I will content myself with merely indicating roughly some of the very great advantages:

    (1) The League is naturally more ready to intervene on the behalf of a member than of a non-member.
    (2) If we are a member of the League of Nations at the time the Boundary Commission becomes rife we will be able to press the international significance of the Commission with greater and more telling force.
    (3) The League has interfered on behalf of a number of countries in connection with Boundary disputes.
    (4) Whatever the League's decision may be on the matter of our possible appeal the Assembly of the League cannot refuse to hear the case of a member- State, and this will at least secure a measure of world-wide publicity which we could not get otherwise.
    (5) Membership of the League gives an additional recognition of the new relationship towards England attained by Ireland under the Treaty and thereby strengthens and enhances the Treaty itself as a solemn contract between two countries which are both recognised internationally. It is obvious that this increased recognition strengthens the whole Treaty position and makes our case for interpreting our relationship with Great Britain, by the international code of law, practice and procedure, all the firmer in every direction.
    (6) Membership of the League marks very definitely before the world the immeasurable distance in status between Saorstát and Northern Ireland. The latter cannot, under any present circumstance be a member of the League and the admission of Saorstát would make all the more evident that it is a Boundary dispute between a State internationally recognised and a province subordinate to another State.


In conclusion let me sum up very briefly the whole case against forcing on this issue at present.

If we join issue now on this grave matter we shall do so under the worst possible circumstances, and with only a few of our big cards in hands when we want them all.

The issue, if decided now, will only have the effect of an arbitration.

To begin with, in our present weak and exhausted state the British Government, at the clamourings of the Die-Hards, on whom it mainly relies, may insist on the Commission acting on special terms of reference which may in effect only direct a mere alignment of the Boundary line.

The 'Morning Post' which at the moment, owing to the Conservative Party being in power, enjoys an enhanced influence and some official inspiration, declares that whether Craig appoints a Commissioner to the Boundary Commission or not will depend largely on the terms of reference.

Our case is, of course, that the terms of reference are contained in Article XII. according to international precedents. It is obvious then that against such dangerous possibilities as these we should consolidate all our international advantages, and, in so far as we enjoy freedom of action, refrain at least from raising this matter until such consolidation has been effected.

It is impossible at the moment to give a date when the Boundaries Question should be raised by us, but I am convinced that we should not at any rate go out of our way to seek it until

1) The time is opportune
2) Our case is fully completed
3) We have made full use of all the privileges and advantages given us by our new position, particularly those of membership of

a) the League of Nations
b) the Imperial Conference
4) The unnatural folly of Partition has been demonstrated by the operations of a Customs chain along the present utterly untenable frontier
and finally until
5) Every effort towards accomplishing an agreement with the North- Eastern Government along lines in conformity with the ideal of
National Union has been fully and patiently exhausted.

Assistant Legal Adviser

1A private letter from Lord Glenavy, a former southern Unionist leader and the newly elected Chairman of the Senate, to Sir James Craig urging Northern Ireland to join the Free State with its regional autonomy and territory intact, had been leaked at the end of January and provoked fierce criticism in the Irish News.


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