What was the system of government in Ireland in 1920?

From 1801 Ireland formed a constituent part of the UK. At the Westminster Parliament, it had 100 seats in the House of Commons and 28 seats for Irish representative peers in the House of Lords. The day-to-day running of Ireland rested with the Lord Lieutenant; the crown’s representative nominated by the UK Government.

Calls for home rule for Ireland strengthened during the 19th century and had won Liberal party support by the 1880s. The Liberal party introduced its first home rule bill to Parliament in 1886. It presented a further two bills in 1893 and 1912. All three bills provided for a single home rule parliament in Dublin.

The home rule bill introduced by the Liberal Prime Minister H H Asquith in April 1912 proposed the creation of a bicameral parliament. The bill offered limited self-government and asserted the supreme authority of the UK Parliament “over all persons, matters, and things in Ireland”. It was debated in Parliament over two years and was eventually passed under the Parliament Act 1911. It was placed on the statute book as the Government of Ireland Act 1914.

The bill received royal assent on 18 September 1914. However, on the same day, a suspensory act was also passed, which suspended the enactment of the Government of Ireland Act. This was done because of the outbreak of war in 1914. As a result, home rule was suspended during the First World War.

What was Irish home rule?

In 1800, The Acts for the Union of Great Britain and Ireland were passed. The acts came into force on 1 January 1801. They abolished the Irish parliament and established the number of Irish representatives in both Houses at the Westminster Parliament. Irish home rule was a term used to describe proposals for the return of self-government in Ireland and the restoration of an Irish parliament.

Dáil Éireann: Why did rival administrations emerge in 1919?

The political landscape in Ireland changed during the war, with widespread demand for an Irish republic rather than home rule growing after the Easter Rising in 1916. On the nationalist side, the Irish Parliamentary Party, which had agreed to home rule in 1914, saw its dominance diminish during the war. They were overtaken by the Sinn Fein party. According to Lord Lexden, at the December 1918 general election Sinn Fein’s aim to “sever all links between it and Great Britain” superseded moderate Irish nationalism and its goal of home rule. Sinn Fein won 73 seats against the Irish Parliamentary Party’s six seats.

According to the historian R F Foster, Sinn Fein’s programme “stressed withdrawal from Westminster [and] resistance to British power by ‘any and every means’”. The party pledged not to sit in Westminster but to create an independent, nationalist, assembly.

Soon after the election, Sinn Fein invited all elected Irish representatives to attend a parliamentary assembly in Dublin. On 21 January 1919, the first session of the assembly, the Dáil Éireann, took place. It was attended by 27 Sinn Fein members. Unionist and Irish Parliamentary Party MPs declined to attend and were listed as “absent” in the official report. Many Sinn Fein members who could not attend were listed as “banished by foreigners” or “imprisoned by foreigners”. At the meeting, the Dáil members adopted a constitution and read out a declaration of independence. It declared it was establishing a new Irish government that would be answerable to the Dáil.

The first meeting of the Dáil in 1919 coincided with the start of guerrilla attacks against British security forces and marked the start of the war of independence, which lasted until 1921.

Government of Ireland Act 1920: What system did it establish?

Prior to the end of the First World War and the establishment of the Dáil in Ireland, the British Government had again turned to the question of how Ireland should be governed. On 4 November 1918, Secretary of State for the Colonies Walter Long, a former chief secretary for Ireland, was appointed to chair the cabinet committee on Ireland.

The Long report proposed that all nine counties in Ulster be included in a northern Irish state. However, the British cabinet agreed in September 1920 that the northern Irish state should consist of six of the nine Ulster counties. The remaining three counties were to form part of a southern Irish state, which was to be made up of 26 counties in total.

The final system proposed by the Government was incorporated into what became the Government of Ireland Act 1920. The act provided for:

  • the establishment of two parliaments;
  • the Council of Ireland;
  • legislative powers;
  • financial provisions;
  • a legal system; and
  • Irish representation in the House of Commons.

It became law on 23 December 1920.

Two devolved parliaments

The act provided for two devolved parliaments in Ireland; one for Northern Ireland, to be seated in Belfast, and one for Southern Ireland, to sit in Dublin. Both parliaments were bicameral.

The act set out a general grant of power to the northern and southern parliaments, followed by lists of specific “excepted” and “reserved” matters. All other matters not listed were considered to be “transferred”. Excepted matters included:

  •  the crown and succession;
  • foreign affairs;
  • the armed forces;
  • treason; and
  •  external trade

Many of the reserved matters were intended to be transferred at a later date. For example, postal services and supreme courts were to be reserved matters until the creation of a single Irish parliament; and areas such as policing and elections were to be reserved for a specified number of years. In terms of taxation, some taxes, such as road tax, was transferred to the two Irish parliaments. However, Westminster was to retain control of taxes such as custom and excise duties and income tax during devolution. Most of these taxes were not intended to be transferred later to an all-Ireland parliament.

Executive power continued to be vested in the crown. The Lord Lieutenant had the power to withhold the assent of the crown to legislation passed by either parliament.

Council of Ireland

The two parliaments were linked by the Council of Ireland. Representatives from both parliaments were to be sent to the Council to discuss issues of mutual interest. However, the British Government intended its key function to be its work towards establishing a single parliament for the whole of Ireland.

Legal system

The act established two separate Supreme Courts of Judicature in both Northern and Southern Ireland. Each supreme court was given two divisions, the High Court of Justice and the Court of Appeal. In addition, the act created a High Court of Appeal for Ireland. The court could consider appeals from the High Court of Appeal in Southern or Northern Ireland. There was provision for further appeal, in certain circumstances, to the House of Lords.

How long did the system last?

The Government of Ireland Act 1920 commenced on 3 May 1921.

Under its provisions, an election was called by the Lord Lieutenant. This was held on 24 May 1921. In Northern Ireland, the Unionists won a large majority. Foster argues the result “inaugurated what was effectively a one-party state” in Northern Ireland. In the south, the Dáil held elections, but declared they should be used to elect members to the Dáil Éireann. Sinn Fein won 124 out of the 128 available seats in the new southern Irish House of Commons.

However, in the south, the Government of Ireland Act machinery was mostly ignored. In June 1921, the parliament in Southern Ireland met, but only the four non-Sinn Fein members attended. The parliament was adjourned in July 1921 and was dissolved in 1922.

In July 1921, a truce was called in the war of independence, and in December 1921 the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed. The treaty provided for an Irish Free State, a self-governing dominion within the British Empire. The terms of the treaty applied to the entire island but contained the option for Northern Ireland to opt out.

On 7 December 1922, the parliament of Northern Ireland asked to be excluded from the jurisdiction of the Free State. The Irish Free State (Consequential Provisions) Act 1922 provided that the Government of Ireland Act 1920 ceased to apply to any part of Ireland apart from Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland operated under the amended terms of the act between 1921 and 1972.

The final provisions of the act were repealed in Northern Ireland under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, following the conclusion of the Good Friday Agreement 1998.

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Cover image by Jeff Schmaltz—NASA Earth Observatory on Wikimedia.