The Government of Ireland Act of 1920 partitioned Ireland, giving Ulster the six northeast counties. In the following year the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed, creating the Irish Free State. Article 12 of this treaty provided that if the Ulster Government availed itself of the right to remain outside the Irish Free State, a Commission of three should be set up, consisting of one representative of the British Government (who should act as Chairman), one of the Free State Government, and one of the Ulster Government, to determine the boundaries of the six-county Ulster area known officially as "Northern Ireland." The Ulster Government did not participate in framing this treaty and has refused to recognize it as binding, although such a course entails a denial of the authority of the Imperial Government, which in other matters Ulster recognizes.

At the moment the question is in suspense. The Free State has appointed its Commissioner. The British Government recognized its obligation to appoint a Chairman after the last Free State elections. The Northern Government continues to refuse to be represented on such a commission, although it has recently agreed to enter a preliminary conference to be held in London to discuss ways and means of solving the problem.

The map opposite shows that the situation in the northeastern part of Ireland is as complicated as anywhere in Eastern Europe. Large districts of the Six Counties are predominantly Roman Catholic and anti-partitionist; other large areas are strongly Protestant and partitionist; and in others it would be impossible to say which element predominates. A serious complication is the existence of partitionist and anti-partitionist enclaves, making it impossible, in many instances, to draw a line that would place under the jurisdiction of the Free State all the anti-partitionist districts. Even if such a line were drawn as fairly as possible the resulting customs frontiers would be destructive of the economic life of the regions in question.

It should be noted that Londonderry, the second largest city in Ulster, is Catholic in the majority, while the two important counties of Tyrone and Fermanagh have a Catholic majority, as indicated by the figures at the last General Election to the Imperial Parliament, when 53.89 per cent of the voters supported pro-Free State candidates and 46.11 voted for the partitionists.

It has been suggested that, if the Northern Government were unwilling to leave the matter to a plebiscite, the best way out of the dilemma would be by means of a friendly provisional agreement between the Premiers of the Northern and Free State Governments, whereby part of southern Armagh and Fermanagh should be conceded to the Free State, and in return the northern corner of Monaghan and the base of the Inishowen peninsula in Donegal, with the fertile Laggan region in the same county, should go to the Northern Government.

The Irish people as a whole seem to regard the obvious difficulties and complications of the Ulster boundary question as the best argument against partition. The Northern Government, however, raised the issue definitely when it took advantage of the privilege of remaining outside the Free State. The Free State, accordingly, has thrown the burden of a decision back on the Imperial Government, adopting the policy of waiting for the latter to proceed with the enforcement of the Treaty which it negotiated and ratified.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now