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A 28 county state June 10, 2021

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

The IT had a piece the other day by Prof Colum Kenny of DCU which noted:

Far from agreeing the present Irish Border, Minister for Foreign Affairs Griffith and Minister for Finance Collins expected Tyrone and Fermanagh among other areas to pass South into the new State under a provision in the treaty for a boundary commission intended to respect local people’s wishes.

A border already existed when the team left Dublin. Northern Ireland had then its own working parliament under the UK Government of Ireland Act 1920. The creation of a 32-county republic was not on the table.

The Boundary Commission then came up as an idea. Interestingly:

The boundary commission proposal was first made on November 8th when British cabinet secretary Thomas Jones met Griffith and Collins. Griffith that day reported to de Valera that the British were proposing a boundary commission to delimit Ulster – which “would give us most of Tyrone, Fermanagh, and part of Armagh, Down, etc. We did not give any definite opinion on the matter. It is their look-out for the moment. Jones is to see us again tomorrow.”


Jones noted in his diary that Lloyd George said to him later that same day that the boundary commission would be for the nine counties of Ulster: “I told him that I certainly had not made that clear. That I had spoken of six counties.” It was a vital distinction. Collins and Griffith assumed throughout that a delimiting boundary commission would limit Northern Ireland to a smaller territory consistent with the wishes of people living there – but did not reckon with unionist districts in Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal opting into Northern Ireland, as Lloyd George envisaged.

It seems in a sense that talk of 

The point being that at one point there were some hopes of a 28 county Free State, but one has to wonder if these were fairly ephemeral. The Boundary Commission itself appears to have been all things to all who regarded it – albeit this well in advance of its actual proper establishment. But other quotes in the piece suggests the Irish delegation was sceptical of much of the rhetoric around the proposed entity.

Kenny certainly has a point when he writes:

The boundary commission was not a divisive issue in 1921-2. But the cabinet should have been more careful. It would have been better had all sides agreed clearer terms for it before the treaty was signed. On December 5th Griffith was still seeking Craig’s response.

In the end, the Civil War fatally delayed the establishment of the boundary commission. By the time it was set up Griffith and Collins were dead and circumstances had changed. The possibility that it might allow unionist communities in the Free State to join Northern Ireland alarmed Dublin. The Border has stayed as created in 1920.

But would the situation have been markedly different had Griffith and Collins survived the end of the Civil War? One has to suspect that the overall momentum – such as it was – for any radical revision of the border had long dissipated by the time it got to work. And the idea that years after the dispensation had come into effect Northern Ireland would have willingly accepted significant portions of territory, up to and including actual counties, or the best part of same, seems unlikely. One has to think that the only way any disputed territory might have changed hands, to any significant degree, would have been had there been a presence by both contending sides on it. And that clearly was not going to be the case given the broader circumstances. Perhaps in a counter factual the Free State could have parked its armoured cars in Newry and similar, but given it was the British Army which was the effective guarantor of Northern Ireland that was highly improbable. 

Indeed the reality was that six counties was optimal for NI, being – so to speak neither too small, nor too large but just right for the cohesion of a sub-state. And for the Free State simply managing to move on from the Civil War was a project that would occupy it for years to come.

As to what the outcome of a different Boundary Commission with a different ruling would have been. A more cohesive Northern Ireland or one that was more  contingent?  And what of the Free State and later the Republic?


1. NFB - June 10, 2021

I think the counter-factuals break down quick on the idea of Collins surviving past the 22nd August 1922. Maybe he would have ended the Civil War quicker, which could have allowed the Boundary Commission to be enacted quicker, which could have led to a different outcome. Or maybe he would have been too busy setting up a dictatorship to be too bothered, or maybe he would have directed more IRA attacks over the border to the point that the Commission would have become impossible.

The Boundary Commission was a curious blindspot for the Treaty negotiators and the pro-Treaty side afterwards. There seems to have been a genuine sentiment that it could only have been a benefit, and the idea that the south would lose territory rarely crossed minds.


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