No. 218 NAI DT S1801P

Statement by William T. Cosgrave relating to the Boundary Question

Undated, probably 24 May 1924


I have read recently in the columns of the Press reports of several pronouncements made by Sir James Craig on the Boundary question. Whilst some of his statements appear to be contradictory I must frankly say, as one who has from the very beginning striven with all my might for the establishment of concord and harmony all over Ireland that I welcome with genuine pleasure the references to his willingness to make compromises for the sake of Irish peace.

If he has been reported correctly, he appears to be now prepared to alter his 'non possumus' attitude (which hitherto has made conference between us so difficult and fruitless) and meet us on the broad and general principle of 'the wishes of the inhabitants'. If I am interpreting his remarks aright I gather that he is not desirous of holding under his rule those portions of territory in the Northern area which are inhabited by majorities that are not in sympathy with his Government and are anxious for political reunion with the Free State.

On the [blank] May he is reported to have said:-

'If the South would only recognise how greatly a settlement by agreement between the two parties chiefly concerned would ultimately benefit Ireland as a whole and accept the Collins Pact which was freely entered into by the then leader of 'Southern Ireland' and myself, they would find a generosity and accommodation on my part that would ensure an agreeable solution which would leave no sting behind'.

A little further on he defines expressly what he means by such a settlement:-

'A settlement by agreement means that those desirous of remaining in Ulster... and those who desire to associate themselves with the Free State will be accommodated as far as it is possible to draw a line consistent with that realisation and the economic problems that accompanies it.

This is, on the part of Sir James Craig a handsome statement and is in my opinion the most hopeful thing I have read for a long while on the Boundary dispute.

I do not wish at this promising moment to harp back on the past but I think it right to remind the public that this has been all along and is still the attitude of my Government on the matter, bound as we are by the statutory force of Article XII[,] of which the words just quoted are an excellent paraphrase.

By Article XII of the Solemn Treaty Agreement Great Britain and ourselves are mutually pledged to see to it that a Boundary Commission 'shall determine in accordance with the wishes of the inhabitants so far as may be compatible with economic and geographic consideration the boundaries between Northern Ireland and the rest of Ireland, etc'.

It is clear from these terms of reference that economic considerations will play a part in determining the new boundary, second only in importance to 'the wishes of the inhabitants' which of course are paramount.

Whilst I welcome these recent responses of goodwill on the part of Sir James Craig I cannot too often repeat what our position on the Boundary matter is in view of the great deal of misunderstanding that still exists in that part of Ireland with regard to it.

Believe me, our objective is not that the North Eastern Province should be economically and politically brought to nought, but that a boundary in accordance with the wishes of the inhabitants should replace the present arbitrarily drawn line which gives satisfaction to no party or person, and which, as we all know, was passed through the House of Commons without the support of a single Irish member, North or South - a distinction unique in history!

Some have lately tried to claim for the Act that made this achievement that it is a contract, but, the fact is, that after its enactment the leaders of Sir James Craig's party again and again publicly repudiated all responsibility for the measure. It could hardly be a contract with a Government that did not exist, and it could not be a contract with the inhabitants as they were not consulted.

On the other hand there is no doubt as to the contractual nature of the Treaty. Not only is it a contract, but it is a contract of the most solemn character imposing on the signatories and their successors obligations which they can neither set aside nor alter and which they are legally bound to see carried through in every respect and particular.

Sir James Craig I am sure must realise that even if we so wished neither the British Government nor ourselves have the power to consent to any proceeding which either expressly or by implication would tend to defeat the provisions of Article XII, containing as it does the doubly binding force of a statute of the Parliament of Great Britain and of an Act of the Oireachtas of Saorstát Eireann.

In this matter we are not free agents to pick and choose at will. Governments, like individuals, are subject to the law and must perform their legal duties whether they wish to or not.

May I say here how much I have regretted that the Northern Government have hitherto thought proper to place difficulties in the way of the British Government carrying out its part of the Treaty. I must not be taken as criticising; no doubt they had their own reasons for such a course, but it has appeared to me [all] along to be very regrettable.

With those difficulties we are happily not directly concerned, but indirectly they have naturally not a good effect on the lawless elements in our midst. They are, however, small in comparison with the difficulties which we in the course of our duty have been obliged to meet and overcome. I have no doubt whatever that the British Government will also meet them and I am now completely confident that wiser counsels will prevail and that they will be cleared away by constitutional methods alone.

I come now to the most important parts of those pronouncements of Sir James Craig - those dealing with his offer to me to meet him as Irishman to Irishman and to draw a new boundary line which will be agreeable to all parties and which will leave no sting behind.

This I believe to be a sincere offer prompted by the highest motives, and in that spirit I have given it the most profound and earnest consideration.

I cannot, however, forget that since the tragic death of General Michael Collins in defence of our Bond with Great Britain, not yet two years ago, when I became head of the Saorstát Government, Sir James Craig and myself have met on no less than four occasions and discussed this matter earnestly and at length, but parted on every one of these occasions, not indeed with any personal bitterness, but without having found a way out of the deadlock.

Time after time since my accession to office I have stated, as General Collins stated before me, that if there must be a political frontier in this small country of ours it would be infinitely better to have that frontier drawn by consent than as the result of an international tribunal. So eager was I not to force the issue in the hope that a more friendly feeling would develop that, with great difficulty I got the people of the Saorstát, who feel very keenly on this matter, to agree to many lengthy postponements and this at the imminent risk of creating serious differences in our ranks. And I may say here in explanation that the discriminating legislation passed through the Northern Parliament during that time, inflicting unjust disabilities on Ulster Catholics, destroying popular control, suppressing County Councils and gerrymandering the Local Government areas in the Catholic districts, enormously increased the difficulties of my position by strengthening the desire of the people of those districts to rejoin the Saorstát.

However, since Sir James Craig has now met me in a generous spirit he will not find me less generous. As he has made concessions I also, for the sake of peace and in order to bring to a conclusion this troublesome matter, am prepared to make concessions. In spite of the great annoyance which further delay about setting up the Boundary Commission must cause amongst our people I am prepared to accept Sir James Craig's offer to draw a new boundary line in such a way, to use his own words, that 'those desirous to remain in Ulster and those who desire to associate themselves with the Free State will be accommodated as far as it is possible to draw a line consistent with that realisation and the economic problems that accompany it.' In other words we agree that the line will be drawn in accordance with the wishes of the inhabitants so far as it may be compatible with economic, and also I take it, geographic considerations.

On the important question as to what the unit of territory for ascertaining the wishes of the inhabitants is to be I am willing to make a sacrifice and meet Sir James Craig in as handsome a manner as he has met me. On this question he can make his own choice of any local government unit that was in existence prior to recent legislative alterations by the Northern Government. I do not care whether he decides on the County, the Rural District, the Poor Law Union, the County electoral Division or the Rural District electoral division (which is the smallest local government unit). I go further and say that he is at liberty to select even the non administrative parish or the townland if he so wishes.

I undertake in so far as my Government and myself are concerned to abide by this promise no matter how far into the Free State the selected Unit may go and no matter what the political risks may be personally to ourselves.

I make only one condition to this acceptance. It is this, that, should it unfortunately happen that this Conference will go the way of the rest and result in a fruitless deadlock, the Boundary Commission will be immediately set up and that everything possible will be done by the Northern Government to facilitate this in order to compensate us as far as possible for the delay caused by the Conference.

There is surely no great hardship in this condition as in the event of our agreeing at the Conference, we would eventually have to consent to an agreed Boundary Commission in order to comply with the statutory provisions of Article XII.

On hearing of Sir James Craig's acceptance I can arrange to meet him in either Belfast or Dublin at a suitable date, and I sincerely trust that as Irishman to Irishman, in our own land, we will be able to bring this cause of contention to a happy and successful conclusion that will leave no sting behind.

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