Volume 2 1922~1926

Doc No.

No. 367 NAI DT S4720A

Notes of a conference with the Irish Boundary Commission held in
Stanley Baldwin's Room, House of Commons
(Secret) (C.P.503(25))

LONDON, 5.15 pm, 3 December 1925

The Rt. Hon. Stanley Baldwin, M.P. British Prime Minister.    
The Right Hon. W.S. Churchill, C.H., M.P., Chancellor of the Exchequer.   Mr. Justice Feetham, Chairman, Irish Boundary Commission.
Mr. W.T. Cosgrave, T.D., President of the Executive Council, Irish Free State.   Mr. J.R. Fisher, Member, Irish Boundary Commission.
The Rt. Hon. Sir James Craig, Bart., Prime Minister of Northern Ireland.    
Mr. T. Jones, Deputy Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat.   Mr. F.B. Bourdillon, Secretary, Irish Boundary Commission.

THE PRIME MINISTER stated that he had just had a short conversation with Mr. Justice Feetham and Mr. Fisher, and had given to them a brief résumé of the happenings of the last few days. He had indicated to them that a settlement was about to be reached which was agreeable to the three Governments, and he had explained that if the Agreement were ratified, it would supersede the Commissioners' Report. A difficult situation had arisen, but he was sure that all would wish to help each other. He invited Mr. Justice Feetham to address the Conference.

MR. JUSTICE FEETHAM said that he wished to make the following points on behalf of Mr. Fisher and himself. The terms of the proposed Award had been agreed in October. The Commission had studied the matter carefully, had heard everybody, and while the Award would disappoint many, it would also meet the wishes of many on the Border, and remove difficulties which were severely felt. The present Border was an accident. The grievances found at particular places were serious.

MR. JUSTICE FEETHAM proceeded to quote the following examples of drawbacks attaching to the present line:-

(a) the difficulties of the farmers who lived in County Donegal for whom Derry was the market town;

(b) the difficulties caused by the present frontier at Pettigo;

(c) the complicated situation as regards the roads at Belleek;

(d) the position of Drummully and the Clones area. Continuing, he said that the new Boundary as proposed would produce great improvement on both sides. While the Governments had to decide their action on larger and broader grounds than the Commissioners, he hoped that their findings would not be entirely disregarded, and that a way would be kept open for the removal of the more acute anomalies revealed by the enquiry. In the second place, while the Commissioners recognised that the paramount interest was to secure peace and goodwill, and that it must overwhelm smaller issues, it was most important to remove from the public mind the idea that the Award was based on a betrayal of the interests of the Free State. In the circumstances which had developed, the Award had been debated with great vigour and condemned in the absence of accurate information as to its real character. The Report ought therefore to be published, so that the public should not be left permanently under a delusion. The good faith of the Tribunal was at stake. So was the method of arbitration which had been adopted. The Governments were charged with having influenced the Tribunal improperly, and it would be a bad service to the profession which he represented if he allowed it to be thought that he had betrayed his trust. He urged most strongly that the Governments should not attempt to muzzle the Commissioners, and that the Report should be brought before the public in the last resort. The Agreement about to be signed ought not to be based on the idea that the Commissioners had betrayed the interests entrusted to them.

MR. COSGRAVE said that it had been his deliberate opinion all through that there was bound to be dissensions whatever the verdict; that it would leave bitterness behind. The Award involved the transfer of a considerable number of people from one area to another. He had not seen the proposed Award, but he understood that x persons were to be removed from the Free State to Ulster, and y persons from Ulster to the Free State.

MR. JUSTICE FEETHAM: 'We sent you the particulars of our Report'.

MR. COSGRAVE said that he had not seen them. In the present conditions x persons would have a cause of complaint against himself, and y persons against Sir James, and no amount of explanation would satisfy them. He had made up his mind that if good relations with Ulster were to be secured, they had better come by voluntary growth, and that any cast-iron agreement would be thwarted by the supporters of Sir James and by his own. It was important to avoid providing a rallying ground for agitation. If the demobilisation of the Specials took place naturally, that would be avoided. Every Government has its opponents, and if thousands of the supporters of Sir James Craig objected to the new line, and similarly thousands of his own supporters objected, that would not lead to stable and peaceful relations.

MR. JUSTICE FEETHAM pointed out that at present everyone had his own misleading figures.

MR. COSGRAVE replied that they were problematical. He did not wish to speak disrespectfully, but he believed that it would be in the interests of Irish peace that the Report should be burned or buried, because another set of circumstances had arrived, and a bigger settlement had been reached beyond any that the Award of the Commission could achieve.

SIR JAMES CRAIG said that the matter divided itself in two. If the settlement succeeded it would be a great dis-service to Ireland, North and South, to have a map produced showing what would have been the position of the persons on the Border had the Award been made. If the settlement came off and nothing was published, no-one would know what would have been his fate. He himself had not seen the map of the proposed new Boundary. When he returned home he would be questioned on the subject and he preferred to be able to say that he did not know the terms of the proposed Award. He was certain that it would be better that no-one should ever know accurately what their position would have been.

In the second place he wished to say that he felt strongly for the Tribunal and regretted the charges which had been made against them; made no doubt in the heat of the moment. Would it not be possible to apologise? If the settlement were made in the right spirit it ought to be possible to satisfy Mr. Justice Feetham and Mr. Fisher that no foundation existed for the charges made. All of them had said hot things in their time. In the case of the Commission he had been rather an onlooker, but he hoped that Mr. Cosgrave out of the largeness of his heart would be able to say that the Commissioners had conducted their proceedings on the basis of strict justice.

MR. COSGRAVE replied that he would undertake to devote a paragraph of the speech he was about to make to this aspect of the subject. His statement would be conceived in the hope of giving satisfaction. He was of the same view as Sir James Craig in regard to examining the map, but on the general question he would be prepared to say that when an examination of this problem was made various judgments became possible and it did not follow that they were not honestly made.

MR. FISHER said that he was sure that Dr. MacNeill would admit that no word of bitterness had passed between them. They had worked closely together and he had never complained.

MR. COSGRAVE undertook to submit the paragraph of his speech to Dr. MacNeill so that he could see that he was dealing justly with the matter.

MR. FISHER said that he was sure there were a number of difficult points on the Border on which the findings of the Commission would be valuable to Sir James Craig and Mr Cosgrave if they could together consider them later.

MR. COSGRAVE welcomed the suggestion and addressing Sir James Craig added 'One of us no doubt will hear from the other?'

MR. JUSTICE FEETHAM said that the Report ought to be completed and presented to the British Government and some part of it ought to be published, especially the part dealing with questions of interpretation. Unless that were done it would be difficult for the public to understand why the interpretation adopted by the Commission could not possibly have the effect desired in the Free State.

THE PRIME MINISTER said that publication might have very different effects in Ireland and in this country. Sir James Craig and Mr. Cosgrave could speak for Ireland. It was the fortunes of Ireland which were at stake. He was most anxious to meet the wishes of the Commission if possible. At the moment the important thing was that the matter should be hung up until the Agreement became an accomplished fact. The situation might present a different aspect in a week or two after the discussions in Parliament.

MR. FEETHAM pointed out that the question of publication would undoubtedly arise in the course of the Debate in Parliament.

MR. CHURCHILL said that he had been mixed up with Irish negotiations since 1910. It was this very question of Tyrone and Fermanagh which had throughout been found most insoluble. Even when we were on the verge of Civil War and confronted with a situation which had no parallel for generations, the Buckingham Palace Conference broke down. Then came the Great War in the course of which Empires disappeared, and after the War a controversy about these same parishes emerged again and nothing would induce the two Governments to agree. The Bill of 1920 was nearly wrecked on this issue and it had so nearly wrecked the settlement reached in the Treaty that the question was left uncleared, one side understanding one thing and the other side another. It was inherent in the circumstances of the case and inevitable that it should be left in a certain vagueness. Then came the labours of the Boundary Commission, and now suddenly the two Parties have settled the matter out of Court. The issue is finished, and so is the work of the Commission. The work of the Commission had led to this settlement. Neither he nor the Prime Minister had met Mr. Justice Feetham before that day. The only question that could possibly be in the minds of right thinking people was the peace of Ireland. It was a great sacrifice that this admirable report should not be published. Over the whole area of the Empire it will be felt that something has happened which has brought peace, and it will be recognised that these secret labours of the Commission have profoundly helped that peace. The withholding of publication was therefore a sacrifice that in the circumstances the Commissioners might properly make. Not the slightest slur on their integrity would rest on them.

THE PRIME MINISTER said he was satisfied that a solution would never have been reached without the Commission.

MR. CHURCHILL, continuing, said he would beg the Commission to leave their reputation in the hands of the three Governments. Let them make their report to the British Government and leave it to their discretion. As a historical document it might some day appear. At present it was absolutely in the public interest to merge it in the happier prospect, although it had been the vehicle and agency by which the miracle of peace had come about.

MR. JUSTICE FEETHAM said that he wished to put no obstacle in the way of the Government. On the other hand, he did not wish the public to be deluded. The position was not as described by Mr. Churchill. The view which prevailed among the public was that the Commission had prepared a report which was thoroughly discreditable to them, and therefore it had better not be published.

That impression had to be removed.

Testimonials from Sir James Craig or Mr. Cosgrave could not be of much value as they had not seen the report. The Commission were being judged on the basis of forecasts. He could not deceive himself into believing that an Agreement if reached would redound to the credit of the Commission. It would be said that the Commission had made a mess of their business. He did not read the newspapers, but he understood it was suggested that they had acted under improper influences. The Report ought to be presented and received by the British Government.

THE PRIME MINISTER said that he agreed that the Report ought to be received by his Government, and he had some sympathy with the suggestion that the principles which had guided the Commission in dealing with Article 12 should be broadly stated and published.

MR. JUSTICE FEETHAM said the Commissioners could indicate the portions of the Report suitable for publication, without any reference to areas.

MR. CHURCHILL suggested that the Report could be presented and that it might be accompanied by a letter addressed to the Prime Minister, and this letter might be published. The letter might run:-

'We are informed that the three Governments have come to an Agreement, and in these circumstances we do not propose to publish our Award, but we wish to place on record the principles which have guided us in the discharge of our task. The Report itself will be presented to the British Government and will be available should it be deemed desirable to make it public at some future date.'

MR. JUSTICE FEETHAM agreed that the Report should be completed and presented. It would state principles and go into the full details underlying the Award. After that had been done the Commissioners could discuss with the Prime Minister what portions would be suitable for publication.

THE PRIME MINISTER agreed, and said it might be possible to meet later to examine the form of any communication to be made to the public.

MR. COSGRAVE said that he and Sir James Craig were bound to be careful to avoid mistakes in handling their own people. If any portions of the actual Report were published, they would not be discussed on their merits. The critics would not be a judicial tribunal. The Commissioners based themselves on law and evidence, but if the public were given extracts, enquiries and controversy would be set in motion, fruitful of harm.

SIR JAMES CRAIG thought the demand of Mr. Justice Feetham was reasonable, and he was willing to leave it to the Prime Minister and Mr. Justice Feetham to agree on what should be published.

THE PRIME MINISTER asked whether the Commissioners had any idea of the date at which publication should take place, if it were decided to publish anything.

MR. JUSTICE FEETHAM replied that it should be without undue delay but that they did not wish a moment chosen which would embarrass the Government.

MR. CHURCHILL repeated that he thought the proper course would be for the Commissioners to complete and present their Report, and to arrange for a covering letter embodying the reasons which vindicate the principles which had guided the Commissioners.

MR. JUSTICE FEETHAM said he could not undertake not to use in such letter some of the language used in the Report.

SIR JAMES CRAIG asked whether it would be any use associating the Commission in some way with the Agreement, but this suggestion did not find favour.

MR. JUSTICE FEETHAM said he understood the Commission would be formally asked not to issue their Award at all. That would be a good reason for holding their hand. They wanted to help in any way.

THE PRIME MINISTER asked Mr. Justice Feetham to let him have a proof of what he would like published at some later date.

MR. JUSTICE FEETHAM said that expectations had been aroused in connection with the Treaty which were bound to be disappointed.

THE PRIME MINISTER said that no one could draw a boundary on which all would agree.

MR. COSGRAVE said that no possible boundary could have been drawn which would not give rise to discontent, and he would say that when he next spoke on the subject.

MR. JUSTICE FEETHAM said that the Commissioners would state that Article 12 could not have the effect which the people of the Free State had been led to expect. The instrument in which the Free State trusted had broken in their hands. Article 12 had not been expressed so as to bear the interpretation put on it by the Free State. The Free State would be put in the position that the Court had decided against them for very good reasons. The Free State was the only Government which had come before the Commission and it had naturally tried to put its case in the strongest possible manner. The Commissioners, desirous of reaching the right conclusion, had rejected the main contention of the Free State.

THE PRIME MINISTER said that he recognised the independent position in which the Commissioners stood, and he fully appreciated the anxiety of Mr. Justice Feetham to justify himself in the eyes of the judicial fraternity, and to show that the motives which had guided him were worthy of the high traditions of his profession.

MR. JUSTICE FEETHAM said he was also anxious that arbitration as a method of procedure should not be damaged in the eyes of the public.

MR. CHURCHILL said he was convinced that the best way would be for the Commissioners to embody in a separate communication the judicial principles on which they had acted, bringing in a reference to the Articles of Agreement and stating their decision not to publish the report. The letter might be published some weeks hence at a time when it would cause no trouble.

MR. COSGRAVE said the moment chosen would be an important factor.

THE PRIME MINISTER said he would be glad to fall in with the course suggested, and when he came to speak on the subject in the House of Commons he would take the line that the British Government and the Free State Government had hoped to reach a settlement by arbitration; the facts had been too strong for them; no settlement of that kind could give satisfaction; this they have now recognised for the first time and they have agreed to stand on the present Boundary.

MR. CHURCHILL suggested that the Prime Minister when speaking on the Bill should vindicate the Tribunal.

THE PRIME MINISTER said he would go at length into that and would trace its effect in Ireland. The Irish menaced with an imminent judgment had come together. The Governments owed an immense debt of gratitude to the Commission. They were an independent body and could issue their report tomorrow if they so desired, but after over a year of intense work, smarting, as all who were not politicians must smart, under unfair attacks; seeing the gravity of the situation they had welcomed the larger solution. It was very fine of them.

MR. COSGRAVE said he would like to add his appreciation of the way in which the Commission had met them. It would be at least of some satisfaction to them that it was through their agency that he and Sir James Craig had come together and made peace.

SIR JAMES CRAIG endorsed what Mr. Cosgrave had said. The Commission had done splendidly.

MR. JUSTICE FEETHAM said that he and his colleagues recognised that peace was the better way and all they desired was to avert any danger which might arise from the covering up of the report. He asked how soon it was hoped to conclude the Agreement.

MR. CHURCHILL said he hoped it would be signed that evening and would be announced in the newspapers on the following day.

MR. JUSTICE FEETHAM then read a press announcement,1 which the Commissioners had prepared with a view to removing the wrong impressions under which the public were labouring, impressions which had received a quasi confirmation from speeches in Ireland. He recognised, however, that a new situation had arisen and that publication at this moment would be undesirable.

1 Not printed.