Queen's Policy Engagement

The creation of Northern Ireland: Home rule for unionists

Current debates over the future of the union, which focus on the question of Scottish independence, and what format it might take, display a noticeable ignorance of the history of the last occasion upon which the union was sundered, says Dr Marie Coleman.

The creation of Northern Ireland: Home rule for unionists

The transfer of devolved powers to the newly created Northern Ireland 100 years ago, on 3 May 1921, represents one of the greatest ironies of modern Irish history. Ulster unionists, initially implacable opponents of home rule for Ireland, became the first political grouping on the island to be granted this form of self-government within the United Kingdom.

Ireland, Ulster and the United Kingdom were partitioned under legislation passed at Westminster in December 1920 and officially entitled, unduly optimistically as an ‘Act to Provide for the Better Government of Ireland’. This was the fourth effort by successive British governments to introduce home rule to Ireland. William Gladstone’s first home rule bill was defeated in the House of Commons in 1886 by the first serious manifestation of Irish political unionism, supported by Conservatives and a unionist faction within Gladstone’s own Liberal Party. His second effort passed the first hurdle of the Commons in 1893 to be defeated by what then seemed a permanent and unassailable pro-union majority in the House of Lords.

It was not until 1912, after the truncation of the Lords’ veto power under the 1910 Parliament Act, enacted in response to the upper house’s attempt to block the socially reforming aspects of David Lloyd George’s 1909 budget, that the question of Irish home rule returned to the political agenda at Westminster. The abolition of the Lords’ permanent veto, and the political arithmetic in the Commons, where HH Asquith’s Liberal government relied on the support of John Redmond’s Irish Parliamentary (i.e. home rule) Party, made the introduction of home rule in Ireland by 1914 a realistic prospect.

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Article originally appeared in agendaNI


The featured image has been used courtesy of a Creative Commons license. 

Professor Marie Coleman
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Professor Marie Coleman is Professor of Twentieth Century Irish History in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen's University Belfast. Marie's principal research interests are in twentieth-century Irish history, especially the Irish revolution. In 2021 she was a member of the Northern Ireland Office’s Centenary Historical Advisory Panel and is co-editor of a forthcoming series of essays, Northern Ireland, 1921-2021: Centenary Perspectives.

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