No. 272 NAI DT S4084

Kevin O'Higgins to each member of the Executive Council, enclosing a memorandum on the Boundary Question
(C.1987/24) (Confidential)

Dublin, 25 September 1924

To each member of the Executive Council,

I send you herewith a memorandum on the boundary situation which has lately been given to me by a member of the North Eastern Bureau staff1 acting in a more or less unofficial and free-lance way, and at my request.

The memorandum is closely reasoned and is in my opinion deserving of careful consideration.

Personally, I am impressed by all the arguments leading up to the point at which the writer commences to deal with the kind of offer which in his opinion should be made.

My own state of mind at the moment is this. I agree with the writer that an offer should be made. I am inclined to think that he has named the right time for making it - after the Bill has become law and the Commission stands ready to function.

With regard to the possible offers sketched by the writer, I would agree with him in rejecting the Council of Ireland and also a return to Article 14. As to his plan marked 'B' on the third last page of the memorandum, I am of opinion that if we were to put it forward at all it should be with a statement that in our opinion it does not represent the best solution.

If this matter is discussed by the Executive Council I would like to outline an alternative scheme which might be considered worth putting forward if only for the sake of having it on record that such an offer was made.

[signed] Caoimhghin Ó hUigín
Aire Dlí agus Cirt



  1. It seems plain that the nearer we get to the Commission the more doubtful the country is becoming as to the advantages to be gained from it. Signs of this are various articles in the 'Irish Statesman' and other papers, Devoy's and McCabe's letters, and the general feeling of apprehension which is noticeable. The way is thus being prepared for a different line of approach. The mistake made by most people is that they propose to drop the Boundary Commission as a preliminary, which is like throwing away your trumps before you play your hand. To come out with fresh proposals at the present moment would probably be disastrous. It would be put down to dread of the fate of the Bill in the British Parliament, and as a sign of weakness. It would probably be utilised as a reason for postponement of that measure, and leave everything in a state of uncertainty. (I put this view strongly to people in England.)
  2. The psychological moment for a new offer seems to be immediately after the Bill is passed, or else immediately after the third Commissioner is appointed. We will then be in a position of strength. The way will be open for the Commission. We could then take the line that, while our right to the Commission is now absolutely acknowledged and its power to function plain, we want to make one more attempt to reach an agreed settlement. Such an offer at that particular moment would probably receive immense support both here and in Great Britain, and if it appeared reasonable great pressure from that side would be brought upon the North to secure acceptance.

    It seems probable that in any case some new proposal of settlement will be made at that stage, by England if not by us. It seems altogether desirable that it should be made by us. We can take the line that this is a matter to be settled among Irishmen. We can get the discussion focussed on our proposals, and put on the other parties the responsibility for rejection or criticism. In the event of rejection we will have immensely strengthened our position in the eyes of the world, through having made an attempt to settle, while if a proposal put forward by England is not altogether acceptable we may seem just as responsible as the North for rejecting it. If eventually we must have recourse to the Commission, we will be able to go ahead with much greater confidence if we can always point back to an offer made by us and rejected by the other party, especially if the offer had won support in England.

  3. Before the offer is made, however, it might be advantageous that there should be a better understanding among our own people of the disadvantages of the Commission solution and advantages of the other course, such as:
  4. (a) we are entirely in the dark as to how the Commission will result, and its finding may prove much less favourable than most of us imagine. My own view of its likely result is that we should gain part of South Down (not including Belfast waterworks); a considerable part of South Armagh; most of that part of Fermanagh which lies South and West of the Lakes, but not including Enniskillen or the part lying just south of it; minor rectifications in the Belleek and Pettigo area; the Castlederg salient; while they are likely to gain some districts in the part of Donegal adjacent to Derry. I do not believe that the Commission will touch the large Nationalist population of central Tyrone, since this can be regarded as practically an island cut off by the preponderatingly Unionist populations of North Fermanagh and West Tyrone. This is of course a mere attempt to prophesy, but such a finding is likely enough, and would undoubtedly cause great disappointment. Also, it is probable that we could gain almost the same result by negotiations as by the Commission. While it could probably not be accepted in negotiations dealing with the Boundary alone, it might be taken as a sensible and moderate boundary alteration forming part of a general settlement.

    (b) Any result of the Commission will leave a large number of Nationalists, probably the majority of those in the six Counties, still under the Northern Government.

    (c) We will have lost our opportunity to alleviate their condition, by removing gerrymandering and other disabilities.

    (d) There is an obvious and terrible risk of bloodshed during the course of the Commission and the carrying out of its findings. During all that time propaganda will be at work, passions will be rising, rumours will be flying about that this or that area is to be transferred. Even if both Governments were determined to maintain order, some hotheads on one side or other would probably start to shoot, and once that began it would spread. It would be a miracle if that did not happen.

    (e) When the Commission has finished we may find union further off than ever. It is most improbable that it will so reduce the Northern area as to compel union. If not, it will have reduced the number of those who desire union, so that a larger turnover of present Unionist votes will be necessary to bring it about in future. A reduced Northern area may attach itself still more closely to England. Also if there is bitterness and bloodshed during the Commission's work this may immensely hamper union in the future. It is a very different thing to draw a Boundary in Upper Silesia between Germany and Poland which are to remain separate states, and to draw it between the two parts of a country which we hope will eventually be one. The way the present business is conducted may mean the difference between union in five years or in a hundred.

    These things might be pointed out to the country, more explicitly than has yet been done, not of course by the Government, in order to prepare for the offer. Or else they could be said, in a modified form, along with the offer. Probably inspired articles could be written on these lines.

  5. Any offer would have to take into consideration both Boundary alteration, and also general questions of the relations of North and South. I believe it to be impossible to get a settlement by negotiations on the former taken alone (since the opposition of interests of the two parties is plain), but possible when the Boundary is but one of a number of questions on many of which the interest of the two parties are akin (e.g. removal of Customs difficulties).
  6. It is essential that the offer should be one which the North will be compelled at least to discuss, and if possible one which English opinion will back.

    The difficulty of the proposal of a single Parliament, even when combined with financial and other advantages, seems to be that it can be at once depicted in the light of a demand upon the North to give up all they have stood for and to enter the Dublin Parliament which they dread. I fear we would have people not merely in the North but in England saying our only offer, apart from the Commission, was complete absorption, plus a suggestion to plunder the British taxpayer by eliminating Art. V. of the Treaty. Of course the Northerns are perfectly willing to plunder the British taxpayer, and do it habitually; but on this occasion it would suit them to take a high moral attitude and point to the wickedness of the proceeding. The suggestion of a single Parliament could, I think, come openly only from the Northerns themselves. Perhaps we could suggest it to them secretly, but as an open offer it would at once be turned down.

    An offer on the following lines might be acceptable, and would be bound to get consideration.

    (1) minor alterations of the Boundary by consent, to be ratified by the Commission in order to fulfil the Treaty.

    Our definite suggestions, when it came to negotiations might be on the lines suggested above, or even less if we got fuller centralisation.

    (2) Restoration of Proportional Representation, a reversal of gerrymandering in the Six Counties, disbandment of the Specials, release of prisoners and arrangement for return of expelled persons.

    (3) Nationalists to enter the Northern Parliament, and to co-operate in local administration.

    This they will do in any case when Boundary question is settled.

    (4) Article V. to be waived (This would need to be tactfully put).

    (5) A Customs arrangement, obviating some or all of the present difficulties.

    (6) Some system of joint Government, giving an opportunity of advance to fuller Union later.

    This is put last, though it is the most important, because it needs fuller consideration, and there are several possibilities.

    (a) The least satisfactory is the revival of the Council of Ireland. Against this there are strong political objections, that is if the Council should consist of equal numbers from each area as formerly proposed, and should be so restricted in scope. Personally I would be for acceptance of it if nothing better was to be had, from a belief that if once we get even the smallest beginning of union we would find natural forces driving us further in that direction. I believe that a settlement which gained that, with the four other points above, would be immensely preferable to anything we can get from the Commission. But perhaps it could not be carried in the country, and it is not really a good settlement. In any case it would not be wise to start our offer with the Council, even if we were ready, as a last resort, to fall back on it.

    (b) A better plan would be to have joint meetings of the Oireachtas and the Northern Parliament for matters of common concern. A scheme on these lines was worked out some months ago by the Boundary Bureau. There are many difficulties in detail but I believe it to be workable.

    In general outline the plan would be to transfer to the joint body the reserved services which in respect of Northern Ireland are still retained by Great Britain, and the corresponding services in the Free State, together with such other services as the two parties agree to bring under central control. This would involve the centralisation of the main powers of taxation and finance, tariffs and defence, and very probably of various other matters which are now separate. The actual matters would be a subject for negotiation. In order to conciliate the North some special arrangements might be proposed, such as

    (1) The joint body to meet alternatively in Dublin and Belfast.

    (2) The Governor-General to be nominated alternately by the Northern and Free State Governments.

    (3) Special Customs arrangements in the interests of Northern industries to be worked out as part of a general settlement.

    (4) Financial safeguards, if required, as suggested in Article 14 of the Treaty.

    (c) Reversal to plan of Article XIV of the Treaty. This I think is less satisfactory, as it leaves Northern Ireland in some respects in an unduly privileged position, with local parliament as well as representation in Oireachtas; and on the other hand leaves them subordinate, so that they could hardly expect ever to get representation in the National Executive Council. They could not long acquiesce in that position, as if they come in they will wish to have as full a right as anyone else to concern themselves with the larger national issues. (Probably the present relations of Northern Ireland with British Parliament are only tolerable because the Northern representation is such a very small part of the whole.)

    A more detailed scheme would have to be worked out on one or other of these lines if a definite offer were to be made. But it would be a mistake to make it too detailed. The purpose should be to put forward a reasonable plan in general outline, on which negotiation would be bound to take place. It might be said expressly that this was only a general offer, and that modifications were expected. The great thing would be secure real negotiations, in Ireland, on the basis of our offer. Once negotiations began, on a scheme of union, it would probably be found that it was in the interests of both parties to make the union more close than the North will even admit, unless they are brought down to actual details.

  7. Politically, the advantages of such an offer seem to be:

    (1) It would satisfy the general feeling of desire for unity, and for a peaceful settlement.

    (2) It should be distinctly preferable to those Northern Nationalists (the majority) who will not be brought out by the Commission.

    (3) It should appeal to business and commercial interests both in North and South.

    (4) It would, if carried, be an immense strength to the Free State as against the de Valera Party, since they could obviously carry nothing of the kind.

    (5) It would gain widespread support in England, which dreads the Commission.

    As against this it would be attacked

    (1) By border Nationalists, tho' in fact they will be the worst sufferers from a Commission if it leads to fighting.

    (2) By the enemies of the Free State who want to make trouble, and will consider it a surrender of Treaty rights. They would have to be ignored, and are just as likely to make trouble if the Boundary Commission does take place.

23rd September, 1924

1Probably Bolton C.Walker.

Purchase Volumes Online

Purchase Volumes Online



The Royal Irish Academy's Documents on Irish Foreign Policy series has published an eBook of confidential correspondence on the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations.

Free Download

International Counterparts

The international network of Editors of Diplomatic Documents was founded in 1988. Delegations from different parts of the world met for the first time in London in 1989.
Read more ....