A hundred years ago today (Tuesday 6 December), most of Ireland became independent from the United Kingdom.

This Insight looks at the background to Irish independence and its impact on what became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Campaign for Home Rule

A campaign of Home Rule for Ireland, essentially devolution within the United Kingdom, grew during the 19th century and won Liberal government support in 1886. Attempts to legislate for a devolved parliament that year and again in 1893, however, failed.

The idea of treating parts of Ireland differently arose when Parliament considered a Third Home Rule Bill in 1912. This reflected the strength of feeling in the Ulster Unionist Party, which emerged in opposition to the First Home Rule Bill of 1886.

A fourth Bill was introduced to Parliament during the Irish War of Independence (1919-21), a guerrilla conflict fought between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and British Crown forces. The resulting Government of Ireland Act 1920 devolved power to two legislatures, the Parliament of Southern Ireland (covering 26 counties) and the Parliament of Northern Ireland (covering the remaining six). All of Ireland remained part of the UK.

Both parliaments were elected in May 1921, but only the Parliament of Northern Ireland functioned as intended. Public opinion in the rest of Ireland now rejected devolution and favoured full independence from the UK.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty

A truce in the War of Independence was agreed in July 1921 and the UK Government and representatives of Sinn Féin began negotiations which led to the Anglo-Irish Treaty. This was agreed on 6 December 1921 and created a new Dominion within the British Empire called the Irish Free State.

Under the terms of the Treaty, the Ulster Unionist-dominated Parliament of Northern Ireland was also given a month (known as the “Ulster month”) to decide if it wanted to join the Free State or remain a devolved part of the UK.

Although certain powers were transferred to a provisional government in Dublin in early 1922, the Treaty did not take full effect until 6 December 1922. In the interim, the Provisional Irish Government prepared a constitution for the Free State while the UK Parliament considered two pieces of legislation which would ratify the Treaty.

The Irish Free State (Agreement) Act 1922 received Royal Assent on 31 March 1922 and ratified most Articles of the Treaty except Article 11, which would have initiated the Ulster month.

Article 11 was later ratified in the Irish Free State Constitution Act 1922, which also gave effect to the Free State’s constitution.

Finally, the UK Parliament passed the Irish Free State (Consequential Provisions) Act 1922, which amended the Government of Ireland Act so that it applied only to Northern Ireland. This and the Irish Free State Constitution Act received Royal Assent on 5 December 1922.

At a Privy Council meeting the next day, King George V proclaimed the adoption of the Free State constitution, which brought the Irish Free State into existence. Its government was no longer “provisional” and Tim Healy, a former MP, was appointed Governor-General of the Irish Free State. The last British troops withdrew, and the Irish tricolour (flag) was raised.

Reconstituting the United Kingdom

With the Ulster month having now begun, the devolved Parliament of Northern Ireland met on 7 December 1922 to consider an “Address” to the King. This was necessary to express its desire not to become part of the Free State at the end of that month.

The Commons and Senate of Northern Ireland took less than half an hour to agree the Address, which was then transported to London by the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Sir James Craig. The King received it at Sandringham on 8 December and made his reply. Legally, this meant Northern Ireland was to remain a devolved part of the United Kingdom.

That meant the “United Kingdom” had now lost more than a fifth of its territory, while its full name – “of Great Britain and Ireland” – had become inaccurate. It took another five years of discussions and negotiations before the Monarch’s official name and the name of the UK Parliament were altered.

Under the Royal and Parliamentary Titles Act 1927, the Monarch became King of “Great Britain, Ireland and of the British Dominions beyond the Seas” (“United Kingdom” was omitted) while the UK Parliament became “Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”.

Other changes had already occurred. At the general election on 15 November 1922, no writs had been moved for constituencies in “Southern Ireland”, which reduced the size of the House of Commons from 707 to 615 MPs. But as neither the Anglo-Irish Treaty nor ratifying legislation had explicitly mentioned the House of Lords, Ireland’s 28 “representative peers” (elected under the 1800 Acts of Union) continued to attend Parliament, although no further elections took place.

The relationship between the reconstituted United Kingdom and the Irish Free State continued to evolve over the next three decades. In 1937 the Free State became known as Éire and adopted a new constitution.

In 1949 Ireland left the Commonwealth and became a republic, something recognised by the Ireland Act 1949. Finally, the UK Royal Titles Act 1953 replaced “Ireland” with “Northern Ireland” in the Queen’s official name while restoring the expression “the United Kingdom”.

Further reading

For a fuller explanation of the events described above, see The Anglo-Irish Treaty, 1921 – House of Commons Library

Parliament and Northern Ireland, 1921-2021 – House of Commons Library

About the author: Dr David Torrance is the Northern Ireland specialist at the House of Commons Library.

Image: Ireland on the map of the world, by sharafmaksumov, Adobe Stock #317475792, Extended license (Editorial use only)

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