No. 199 NAI DT S1801E

Memorandum by Kevin O'Shiel on the Boundary Question and London Conference

Dublin, 11 February 1924



The British Government, as I thought, made proposals to us on this matter on the conclusion of the recent London Conference. Their proposals are not very detailed, but general as they are it is quite clear that their acceptance by us as they stand is out of the question. In substance they are practically identical with the Council of Ireland provided for in the discarded 1920 Act. Indeed the powers of the body described in the proposals are exactly those of the Council of Ireland[,] the differences between the two bodies being entirely with respect to their compositions. The proposals set forth in effect that the British Government and the Saorstát Government will mutually relinquish control of what may be called Council of Ireland Services, viz:

  1. Certain Private Bill legislation (1920 Act sub-section 7).
  2. Any powers which the two Irish Parliaments may mutually delegate to the Central Body, (sub-section 10).
  3. Powers in connection with railways and fisheries and the administration of the Diseases of Animals Acts (excepting powers in connection with railways that are wholly situated in one or other of the two areas) (sub-section 10).
  4. Capacity of the Central Body to pass resolutions suggesting legislation to either or both Parliaments on matters of general importance to the entire country, but in respect of which the Central Body has no powers, (sub-section 10).

The Saorstát and British Governments having relinquished control the intention is that these meagre services will be made responsible to a legislative body composed of the Senate and Dáil of the Saorstát and the Senate and House of Commons of 'Northern' Ireland, sitting jointly in Dublin and Belfast alternately. Were it intended that legislation in this large body was to be put into effect by a clear majority vote of the entire body something might be gained, but this is not so. There must be majorities in both Parliaments even though sitting together jointly before any bill passed by them could become law within their respective areas; and, after that contingency, the administrators of such legislation are to be 'the proper Ministers in Northern Ireland and the Free State jointly'.

Apart from the 'unworkableness' of this arrangement it does not bring us nearer a feasible union scheme than we were a year ago. Indeed the ideas underlying the Collins-Craig Pacts would have been wider in their application had they matured. A further point in the proposals is the suggestion of granting certain protection to minorities within the 'Northern' Ireland area. This suggestion is too vague to be of any value at the moment. Much more specific undertakings in this respect in the second Collins-Craig Pact came to nothing.

Taking the British Proposals generally I fail to see in what respect they mark an advance on the 1920 Act plan. The meeting of the two Pacts has a certain sentimental value but no actual value. Even the Council of Ireland was much nearer to an all Ireland Pact than this body for it had, as a body, definite legislative powers which the proposed conjoint Parliaments, as a body, will not have. Supposing that we accept these terms what will be the result?

For the sake of unity we shall have consented to the delegation of certain powers to this central body. Great Britain will do likewise for the Northern area. The conjoint Parliaments meet together in either Dublin or Belfast, but, as a united body they have no power. Legislation must be passed by the two Parliaments separately to be effective. As we enjoy the greater status this involves a loss of prestige to us and (if anything) a gain to the North East. The North East is called upon to sacrifice nothing. Its members will still attend Westminster; it will still (presumably) receive all manner of doles from Westminster and its education, legislation, specials, police etc., remain intact. By this scheme none of the 'painters' binding it to England will be severed.

Is there not a great danger of such a plan tending in time to pull the whole of Ireland, through the North, more and more towards London? I know it is one of the main points that this scheme is to be given a trial, 'without prejudice to the Boundary Commission', for twelve months. But in spite of this statement[,] supposing that it were possible for us to accept the scheme[,] such a delay would, in fact, be very prejudicial to the Boundary Commission, and, to our case generally. It would take from our position a good deal of its present strong morale, for this arrangement, cumbersome as it is, is quite likely to work out alright for a year, at the expiration of which the onus of upsetting it, will be thrown upon us. Before the expiration of that year we will be gravely and repeatedly admonished by a unanimous British press not to do anything to disturb a plan which had brought Irish Peace over the whole land, and this press will demand a further period of trial for the plan. It will thus be much more difficult for us to retreat back on to the strong Treaty position and take our stand on the Boundary Commission. The delay will have given away a considerable degree of the strength of our position.

Again, whilst delay during the past eighteen months, owing to the circumstances that prevailed[,] was essential and necessary[,] we have I think arrived at a time when much further delay, without the definite prospect of a good union settlement that we could confidently recommend for acceptance to the Dáil[,] would be very dangerous to our position in every way. As long as the Boundary Question is unsolved one way or another it will be an element of instability and insecurity in the State from this on and the lesser of many evils will be some kind of a settlement of this question, either by the Boundary Commission operating or by some definite plan which all sides will mutually agree to accept. Certainty, even if it is unpleasant is better and healthier than living in continual uncertainty.


For the reasons already stated I am of opinion that the British Proposals should be definitely turned down, in a short time, say a week or ten days, as any longer delay would only create amongst the public of all the places concerned a false optimism by creating the impression that we considered the terms sufficiently good to warrant a fair period for their consideration.

We should reply to this effect sending also something in the nature of counter-proposals. There is no reason for our Counter-Proposals to be a degree more explicit than their proposals. In my opinion they should take the form of a general offer to the North-East through the British Government to accept Irish Union as the Saorstát has accepted the Commonwealth Union. Whilst I believe that this is the moment for stating our maximum claim for Union, we should so draft it that it should not appear that we were out for our whole 'Pound of Flesh'. That would be bad tactics as it would provide Craig with a slogan and the British Press a theme. It would be said that we were not dealing fairly with Craig, and that we were not genuinely anxious for Union, etc., etc.

In the most diplomatic language possible we could strike a claim now for complete Irish Union pointing out its GEOGRAPHICAL and ECONOMIC EXISTENCE and its absolute and admitted need in the best interests of all the People in Ireland.

We could then proceed that we are quite prepared to give the North-East all the reasonable guarantees with regard to any matters which they are timid about, e.g., education, administration, economics, religion, fiscal policy, etc.

These proposals would be more in the nature of a 'feeler' to see [to] what extent the North-East is prepared to go for an amicable adjustment of the difficulties.


We should express our willingness to sit in conference with the North-East to hammer out the details of any scheme of Union as long as it may be necessary, but we should also take care to mention that before we could do so it will be necessary for the Belfast Government to postpone the forthcoming Local Government elections for a twelve months. This is very important. County Council and Rural District Council elections are due to take place in the Six Counties in May next on the new register and for gerrymandered areas. The new register has operated disastrously against Nationalist electors. The old property qualifications have been restored, P.R. has been abolished, the electoral areas have been terribly gerrymandered and hundreds of Special Police from outside places have been put on the Tyrone and Fermanagh registers.

The result of these forthcoming elections will most certainly be that the County Councils of Tyrone and Fermanagh, now Nationalist, will go Unionist, as well as ALL the Poor Law Unions and Rural District Councils in both Counties. As showing the sweeping nature of these 'reforms', here are the results of the last P.R. elections for comparison:-


It must be remembered with regard to this country that since the establishment of Partition, 2 Nationalist R.[ural] D.[istrict] C.[ouncil]s. have been abolished and Amalgamated with strong Unionist ones.

It is also more than probable that Magherafelt R.D.C. and P.[oor] L.[aw] U.[nion] in County Derry will go Unionist, as well as the R.D.Cs. and P.L.Us. of Newry No.1, Downpatrick and Kilkeel (Co. Down) and Armagh and Newry No.2 (Co. Armagh).

It will be seen from above how disastrous it would be for us to permit these elections to take place either whilst the Conference is sitting or before any definite setting-up of the Boundary Commission takes place.

It is clear that no matter what we may say about gerrymandering and packing registers, AFTER these elections no argument of ours will prevail against the GREAT FACT that those districts, once in favour of a Dublin Parliament, have all gone in favour of a Belfast Parliament. It will give the Belfast Government's tenure of those lands infinitely greater security and will most gravely prejudice our case in the event of a Boundary Commission being set up. We will be in the position of persons who have handed away the most telling part of their case and guilty of breaking the equity maxim that 'Delay defeats Equity'.

In these circumstances the Government's strong home position would be much weakened and it would be accused of having been weak and having been 'fooled and tricked; kept talking until Craig was able to get this election through', etc.

We cannot, therefore, afford to postpone settlement one way or another of the Boundary matter beyond 1st March unless Craig agrees to a postponement of these elections.

Another reason that makes this still more imperative is that we are dealing with a British Government whose position is extremely insecure. It might be bowled out at any moment and our position would be once more one of uncertainty and doubt. Should a general election take place tomorrow, a not unlikely contingency, the Boundary matter would be once more 'put by' and Craig could go on with his election plans for converting formerly solid Nationalist areas into part of the new 'homogeneous Ulster'.


  1. Whilst the achievement of IRISH UNION is an objective greatly to be desired and whilst big sacrifices should certainly be made for it, we cannot dare to make sacrifices that would undermine the Government's authority and position in the country. Sacrifices, too, must be mutual, and if we give in any point we must see to it that we get something in return, that the North-East also gives.
  2. At the moment it is more important for the present Government to have the confidence of the people of the Saorstát and to continue in control at least until the Nation is 'out of the wood' than for any form of Union to be agreed to which would have the effect of jeopardising their position in the country.
  3. The Government should therefore neither accept nor agree to any terms which would imperil its position in the Saorstát and thereby engender once again a period of chaos and disorder. The Government should not be called upon from any external source, nor for any reason, to meet and deal with violent opposition and disturbance once more. It has kept faith well and truly with Great Britain in connection with its Treaty obligations. No person can deny this fact. The observance 'in the spirit as well as in the letter' of the signed bond of our responsible statesmen as endorsed by our legislature has cost Saorstát Éireann blood, money and treasure. It is therefore extremely reasonable for the Government to stipulate that it should not be called upon to accept any adjustment of the Treaty which would have the effect of endangering in any way the present peace and security of the Saorstát.
  4. If we find the 'Non-Possumus' attitude prevailing, and both the British Government and Craig expecting us to do all the compromising we should cut the matter short and fall back on the Boundary Commission before it becomes too late. There is no doubt at all that the easiest course for us now and all along would have been to have stood out rigidly for a Boundary Commission. By not doing so we have shown ourselves to be reasonable and anxious to secure Irish Union if at all possible. We have delayed long for this consummation, but we cannot at this stage afford further delays. So therefore, if Craig continues obdurate and obstinate we will have to slip back quickly into the rock of the Boundary Commission which after all has solemn Treaty sanction.
  5. Should we be compelled to adopt a rigid attitude there is no doubt that it will be extremely popular in the Saorstát. It may weld the people of the Saorstát firmly together and will certainly give the Government added prestige. Such an attitude will, as I have said, be most popular at home; nevertheless I do not think it should be adopted save as a last resource when it has become pretty clear that Craig will not budge an inch and that the British Government will do nothing definite to make him. At any rate we will have to make up our minds quickly as TIME from this on will be running against us and in favour of Sir James Craig.
  6. Should Craig be able to manoeuvre us past the elections he will then be able to snap his fingers at us and as he will have an excellent case to go before the Boundary Commission in which there is no definite method prescribed for ascertaining the wishes of the inhabitants he may agree to appoint his Commissioner.


    The Labour Government, I hear, is most anxious that this matter should not come to a Boundary Commission during their term of office. They are frankly frightened at its complications and feel that their own difficulties will only begin then.

    Craig has repeatedly declared that he will not recognise the Commission on the ground that the 1920 Statute secured him his present territory. What will happen then?

    We must make it clear that we cannot afford to fight any more Civil Wars. One was quite enough for any Government to be called upon to undertake in defence of the Nation's plighted word. Any new settlement that may involve further trouble will therefore be out of the question.

    As a 'last resource argument' we can urge that the Boundary Commission is part of the Treaty which we fought for. It must therefore operate. Let it be diplomatically made known that if there is to be no Boundary Commission by reason of the North-East's malfeasance and Great Britain's acquiescence in that malfeasance, there will be no further need for our maintaining the Treaty in its entirety. We can then let it be known that if all-Ireland Union is out of the question we can at least have complete union amongst all sections in the Saorstát. A general election would then take place on the question of revising the Constitution and repudiating the Clauses dealing with Finance, etc. in the Treaty that have not yet been executed. Let it be made known also that there will be no intention of any 'War against Ulster' at any time. Constitutionally the above can be achieved without any war.

    Our case and our position could hardly be stronger for this 'last resource' attitude. And if Labour sees that, after having exhausted every 'avenue' to Irish Union as far as we could possibly do so and displayed our undoubted anxiety for settlement, we are determined in letting events take their course according to the Treaty (we might also, at this stage, register the Treaty at the League of Nations) which after all is the easiest and popular course for us, it is not by any means impossible that at the last moment it might effect a big and sensational change of front.

    C. Ó S

1 Local Government Board.

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 ....