Volume 1 1919~1922

Doc No.

No. 314 UCDA P24/70

Memorandum by Ernest Blythe on policy relating to Northern Ireland and covering letter

Dublin, 9 August 1922

I enclose copy of memorandum on policy in regard to the North East. It was hastily written and I find on reading it over that it requires condensation and re-arrangement. I submit it, however, as presenting the arguments by which I think we should be guided in this matter.

Ernest Blythe (Acting Minister for Home Affairs)

Sent to-day to
Post Master General1
D. FitzGerald Minister of Education2
Minister of Agriculture3

Policy In Regard To The North-East


The results of the General Election and the still more important results of the offensive against Irregulars put the Government for the first time in a position to decide freely upon its policy in regard to the North-East. If, however, no change is now made and we drift along on the old lines of hostility we shall again find our hands tied.


There is no prospect of bringing about the unification of Ireland within any reasonable period of time by attacking the North East, its forces or Government. Military operations on regular lines are out of the question because the certainty of active British support ensures that the Six County Government will be able to repulse any attack we can make. Guerrilla operations within the Six Counties can have none of the success which attended our operations against the British. The fact that the Protestant population (in most places the majority) will everywhere be actively against our men makes that impossible. The continuance of guerrilla warfare on any considerable scale can only mean within a couple of years the total extirpation of the Catholic population of the North East. The events of the past few months make that evident. We cannot even hope that a condition of turmoil in the Six Counties will bring about or hasten a financial crisis which will make their Government ready to throw up the sponge. As long as we, or people supposed to act with our approval, assail the authority of the Northern Government so long will the British Government continue to lend them financial support. As soon as possible all military operations on the part of our supporters in or against the North East should be brought to end.

Economic pressure against the North East, gives no greater promise of satisfactory results than military action. The prosperity of the North East depends mainly on (1) Agriculture (2) Shipbuilding (3) Linen. The wholesale distributing trade is quite a minor factor. Nothing that we can do by way of boycott - the economic weapon heretofore in use - will bring the Orange party to reason. A boycott cannot hit the agriculturists who in the Six Counties as in the Twenty Six, represent the most important economic interest. Their market is not in our territory. No boycott that we can impose can hit the Belfast shipbuilding industry. We control no orders for ships. We cannot even act by putting pressure on shipowners; for the Belfast yards are now absorbed in big Cross-channel combines which in turn are federated with great shipping companies. Our boycott would threaten the Northern ship-building industry no more than a summer shower would threaten Cave Hill. Almost the same may be said of the linen industry. Our consumption represents only an infinitesimal part of the Belfast production. We cannot appreciably diminish the British demand. In America we shall be able to create a considerable amount of public discussion but the practical effect will be negligible. Whatever real enthusiasm might have been got up for a boycott engineered on behalf of an Irish Republic there will be no enthusiasm when it is engineered on behalf of the Irish Free State. In the future any Belfast Boycott which we might try to organise in America would be like a sieve. If we were to try to put it on a sectarian rather than a political basis many Catholic Americans would disapprove and be unwilling to participate while Protestants would be roused to an active endeavour to defeat the boycott.

The one substantial result that could be achieved by a boycott would be at home where it could curtail the Belfast distributing trade. But no one can now believe that a curtailment of the distributing trade can within the next few months produce a change of heart in Belfast political circles. After a few months a home boycott will be inadmissible since the Government could not tolerate an irregular and disorderly method of doing a thing which it would have power to do in a regular way through its Customs Officers. The boycott idea may, therefore, be ruled out as futile for the immediate future and as impermissible under more normal conditions.

It is frequently argued that if the North Eastern Counties opt out, it will be easy to bring them in by use of regular and legal economic pressure. This is certainly not correct. If we cause a state of turmoil to be continued the British, as stated above will certainly lend the Northern Government such substantial support as will enable it to carry on. A state of turmoil may cause great direct loss to the people in addition to the burden of high taxation. The direct loss, however, will be brought about by acts which will so stimulate political and sectarian passion that the people will suffer the injury gladly in the hope of defeating its object. A state of turmoil moreover will mean the continuous expulsion of Catholics and will mean that certain Protestants will compensate themselves for any losses they may sustain through turmoil by looting and later on by grabbing houses and lands. In such a state of things legal economic pressure on the part of our Government and people could not be exerted or take effect. In order to apply the sort of pressure which would have a chance of bringing the North in we must have peaceful and orderly conditions. The pressure must be absolutely normal and mechanical. The use and threat of arms must be ruled out of the dispute, because there is no form of economic pressure open to us which would be of any avail against a war-fever.

The hope of getting the Six Counties back if they opt out depends therefore on the abandonment of all thought of force on our part and on the cessation of any relations with, or any encouragement of any section in the North who refuse to acknowledge the right and authority of the Northern Government. If our economic pressure is obviously directed against the authority of the Northern Government or can be associated with the efforts of avowedly disaffected elements in the Six Counties it is doomed to failure. It must in fact be made to operate through a natural and apparently undesigned development of our fiscal policy. Our economic pressure on the North East can in practice be neither more nor less than the cost and inconvenience of a customs barrier between the two territories and all its concomitants of armed frontier guards smuggling shooting and border lawlessness and transport difficulties.

If the relations between the two Governments were perfectly amicable, if we did not reveal any desire to use coercive measures and if we did not attempt to undermine the authority of the Northern Government in its own territory, then it is certain that in the course of time National unification would come to be regarded as a wise and economical thing, by the majority in the Six Counties. In this connection it remains only to be said [that] the idea that we can get unification without effort, because the Northern territory will prove too small to support a Government is utterly fallacious. The Northern Government will be left to stand on its own legs only when peaceful conditions have been established. Under peaceful conditions there is no reason why the Six County Government should not swallow its pride, economise, and live within its means. There are many Governments controlling less territory and ruling fewer people.


The prospect of unification if the North East goes out next December or January will depend on our showing a perfectly friendly and pacific disposition towards the Northern Government and people while letting them come up against the full economic logic of partition. This being the case it would seem to be no more than bare sanity to assume the pacific and friendly disposition immediately so that their voting out may not be made an absolute certainty. The line to be taken now and the one logical and defensible line is a full acceptance of the Treaty. This undoubtedly means recognition of the Northern Government and implies that we shall influence all those within the Six Counties who look to us for guidance, to acknowledge its authority and refrain from any attempt to prevent it working. Pending the Boundary Arbitration the Northern Government is entitled to claim obedience in the whole of the Six Counties and we are bound by the Treaty to encourage obedience to it. On the other hand the Treaty gives us a clear claim to at least two and a half counties of the Six and we must make it clear that just as we shall give all it binds us to give so we shall use every means to secure the last tittle of what the Treaty entitles us to. Fears have been expressed that the Belfast people may in the interval before the Boundary Arbitration dig themselves in what may be called the disputed area. The truth is that they can only dig themselves in if we help them by producing a state of turmoil and disorder. The events of the past few months have done much towards fixing the border where we cannot consent to its being fixed. It is full time to mend our hand. We shall in no way strengthen the Northern claim to hold all they have by taking our stand definitely on the Treaty. On the contrary we shall put ourselves right in the eyes of an impartial arbitrator. Moreover, it is only when conditions are peaceful that the Northern people will be collected enough to realise that the loss of a big stretch of territory is certain if they opt out. And it is only when conditions are peaceful that they will realise how much it will cost them if we are driven to pursue a fiscal and railway policy that takes little account of the economic interests common to them and to us. A fuller acceptance of the terms of the Treaty than we have yet agreed to is the only way of bringing about a better British attitude in regard to the Catholics of the North. We must do our bit if we expect them to do theirs.

In order to prepare the way for a state of feeling which may lead to the unity of Ireland it is necessary that we should immediately change our policy in regard to various minor matters.

(a) Payment of [Catholic] teachers in the Six Counties should immediately be stopped. From the point of view of finance, educational efficiency, and public morality it is indefensible. In the case of the primary schools, we should take the step of approaching Lord Londonderry4 through a suitable intermediary and arranging that the teachers who remained with us shall not be penalised.

(b) We should stop all relations with [nationalist] local bodies in the Six Counties and should try to arrange that those which have been suppressed should be restored on condition of recognising the Northern Government.

(c) Catholic members of the Northern Parliament who have no personal objection to the oath of allegiance should be urged to take their seats.

(d) Ample precautions should be taken to prevent border incidents from our side. And any offenders caught by us should be definitely handed over to the Northern authorities, a condition precedent being of course that flogging should be dropped.

(e) As it is quite evident that the Catholics of the Six Counties cannot by use of arms protect themselves we should on receiving satisfactory assurances from the British, urge them to disarm.

(f) Prisoners in the North should be requested to give bail and to recognise the courts.

(g) The 'Outrage' propaganda should be dropped in the Twenty Six Counties. It can have no effect but to make certain of our people see red which will never do us any good. If it could be got into the English papers it would be useful; but it certainly should not be forced into the Irish papers. Much of it, particularly in regard to prisons is, like all prison propaganda, false.

(h) All kinds of minor nagging should cease.


There has been within the last few weeks a revival of pro-unity feeling amongst the reasonable sections of Northern Protestants. We shall aid that revival and at the same time prevent our change of policy being thought weak if we announce without further delay that our policy for the North as for the South is to give the Treaty a chance. Heretofore our Northern policy has been really, though not ostensibly, dictated by the Irregulars. In scrapping their North-Eastern policy we shall be taking the wise course of attacking them all along the line.


When we adopt a new policy towards the North we shall be accused of letting down the Northern Catholics and shall be asked if the Pogromists are to be allowed to have their own way unhindered. The answer is obvious. The belligerent policy has been shown to be useless for protecting the Catholics or stopping the pogroms. There is of course the risk that the peaceful policy will not succeed. But it has a chance whether the other has no chance. The unity of Ireland is of sufficient importance for us to take a chance in the hope of gaining it. The first move lies with us. There is no urgent desire for unity in the North-East and it would be stupid obstinacy for us to wait till the Belfast attitude improved.

1 J.J. Walsh.

2 Eoin MacNeill.

3 Patrick Hogan.

4 The Northern Irish Minister for Education.