The establishment of a parliament for Northern Ireland through the 1920 Government of Ireland Act was indeed a remarkable event, giving substantial powers to a devolved administration for six northern counties in Belfast, and separately to a parliament for 26 counties in Dublin (Queen and Boris Johnson lead tributes to Northern Ireland on centenary, 3 May).
What was more significant in the history of the union, however, was that, in 1921, the Anglo Irish treaty was signed by Westminster and representatives of Sinn Féin. Under its provisions, the union of Ireland with Great Britain was dissolved and the Irish Free State was recognised the following year, 1922.
The occasion of the centenary might prompt us to recall that James VI united the Scottish and English crowns in 1603; a political union for all of Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) was enacted in 1707; this lasted until 1800, at which point it grew to include all of Ireland until 1922. At this point it contracted to its current dimensions of Great Britain and Northern Ireland only – the official title of the UK state shown on the cover of British passports today. As we talk about the possibility of Scottish secession from the union, we seem to forget that radical changes to the United Kingdom’s borders are not unprecedented. The major changes seem to happen roughly every 100 years. Just a thought.
It is interesting that both the Queen and Boris Johnson used the phrase “complex history” when marking the centenary of Northern Ireland. Having grown up in Belfast during the 1960s, I am unfortunately well aware of what this complexity led to. Setting aside whether the British government at the time had any right to impose partition, I think the Irish socialist James Connolly had more foresight when he wrote that partition would lead to a “carnival of reaction both north and south” in Ireland. Connolly was of course executed in 1916, so did not live to see his prediction come true.
A hundred years on, Ireland is a very different place, north and south of the border, and reunification is now a real possibility. I would hope that, as “close neighbours”, Britons would recognise this outcome would be in all our interests.
Oldham, Greater Manchester