One hundred years ago this week, on 22 June 1921, the official opening of a new parliament within the the United Kingdom took place.
After elections on 24 May across the newly created entity of “Northern Ireland” (made up of the six north-eastern counties of Ireland), the successful candidates of the majority party, the Ulster Unionist Party, met in the Council Chamber of Belfast City Hall and appointed their leader James Craig first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland.
He was chosen unopposed, for the other parties that had contested the election refused to take up their seats. These other MPs were all Irish nationalists and fundamentally opposed to the creation in Ireland of two separate “Home Rule” (today we would say “devolved”) administrations. This was the plan put into law by “An Act to provide for the better government of Ireland” passed the previous year by the British government, led by David Lloyd George. The Act provided the basis for a regional government each in “Northern” and “Southern Ireland” to control domestic policy, while London retained responsibility for external matters such as defence and diplomacy.
This novel constitutional arrangement was the British government’s attempt to deal with the violence and civil disobedience that had broken out across Ireland since the end of the First World War.
The MPs of the radical Irish nationalist party Sinn Féin, which had won 73 of the 105 parliamentary constituencies in Ireland in the post-war general election, had refused to take their seats in Westminster. Instead, they met in Dublin and proclaimed themselves the parliament of an independent Ireland. Likewise, Sinn Féin boycotted the new regional parliaments after the elections of 1921. While this meant that the institutions of “Southern Ireland” were stillborn, the Ulster Unionists of the northern part of the Ireland, who had been the principle proponents of the partition plan, embraced the opportunity it gave them to reassert and reinforce their connections to the UK and the British Empire.
It was quite a turn-around, for only a decade earlier the Unionists had vehemently opposed the Home Rule plans of the then Liberal government. But now the relief was palpable:
Denounce the habit of peering into the future as we may, the fact remains that if Ulster in her hours of bitter grief, and amid an outlook about as hopeless as possible, could have had a vision of Belfast on June 22, 1921, her fears would have vanished, her grief turned to joy. As it was, however, the future was menacing, to say the least of it, and most discouraging. The Home Rule Bill was passed, in spite of promises that nothing would be done in the matter during the war. Ulster could only wait and work and pray, and try to believe that good would overcome the evil, and that civil and religious liberty would be ours. What a stimulant a glimpse of yesterday’s proceedings would have been […]
wrote the (staunchly Unionist) Belfast News Letter, Thursday 23rd, page 9, on the day after what it called “a great historical event” and “a day of rejoicing and pageantry”.
The difference was that while the mostly protestant unionists were a minority in Ireland as a whole, in the new Northern Ireland they had a large majority (roughly two thirds) both in the parliament and population. “Carsonia” the nationalist Freeman’s Journal dubbed the statelet, referring to the former head of the Ulster Unionist Party, the redoubtable lawyer Sir Edward Carson. Nationalist papers were equally disparaging about what they called the “Parliament of the North-East” or “the Orange Parliament” (implying government by the Orange Order, the Ireland-based society whose purpose was to defend protestant civil and religious liberties in memory of William of Orange’s victory over James II as part of Britain’s Glorious Revolution).
For the new Unionist government, the main point of the day’s ceremony was to reaffirm their loyalty to the British Empire and to the Crown.
Although they had at first been worried that the opening would be carried out by the Monarch’s representative, Viscount FitzAlan of Derwent, the Irish Lord Lieutenant, in the end they were informed that King George V would come to Belfast personally, and not alone but in the company of Queen Mary. Preparations could begin in earnest.
The City Council (also dominated by Unionists) made sure the city was ready to received the King and Queen. The streets and public buildings were cleaned up, and then decorated with flags and bunting, and temporary stands were provided to give viewing opportunities. One headline in the Freeman’s Journal referred sourly to the “Gaily-Decorated Streets of the Drab City” (p. 3) The nationalist newspapers also indulged in the pathetic fallacy, noting an early morning shower of rain that left behind a lowering bank of cloud with barely a ray of sun for the rest of the day: a portent of the north’s future, as they saw it.
Whatever the weather, every vantage point was occupied long before the royal procession began its way from the docks to the City Hall. Businesses and schools closed (at least, unionist ones did), giving the occasion a bank holiday feeling for many. Other eager spectators had flocked to the shores of Belfast Lough and the hills overlooking it to see the royal yacht sailing up to the docks, escorted by ships of the Royal Navy.
As the royal couple came onshore there was a 21-gun salute from the ships. They were met by the members of the Harbour Board. And made their way from Donegall Quay to the City Hall. All along the way “the streets were lined with an unbroken chain of spectators, and the cheering was deafening” (Belfast News-Letter).
In the council chamber, two thrones had been set up at the end where the lord mayor’s chair usually stood. The King made a speech in which he expressed his happiness to be in Ireland and his hopes for a better future:
Members of the Senate and of the House of Commons
For all who love Ireland, as I do with all my heart, this is a profoundly moving occasion in Irish history. My memories of the Irish people date back to the time when I spent many happy days in Ireland as a midshipman. My affection for the Irish people has been deepened by the successive visits since that time, and I have watched with constant sympathy the course of their affairs.
I could not have allowed myself to give Ireland by deputy alone my earnest prayers and good wishes in the new era which opens with this ceremony, and I have therefore come in person, as the Head of the Empire, to inaugurate this Parliament on Irish soil.
I inaugurate it with deep-felt hope, and I feel assured that you will do your utmost to make it an instrument of happiness and good government for all parts of the community which you represent.
This is a great and critical occasion in the history of the Six Counties, but not for the Six Counties alone, for everything which interests them touches Ireland, and everything which touches Ireland finds an echo in the remotest parts of the Empire.
Few things are more earnestly desired throughout the English speaking world than a satisfactory solution of the age long Irish problems, which for generations embarrassed our forefathers, as they now weigh heavily upon us.
Most certainly there is no wish nearer my own heart than that every man of Irish birth, whatever be his creed and wherever be his home, should work in loyal co-operation with the free communities on which the British Empire is based.
I am confident that the important matters entrusted to the control and guidance of the Northern Parliament will be managed with wisdom and with moderation, with fairness and due regard to every faith and interest, and with no abatement of that patriotic devotion to the Empire which you proved so gallantly in the Great War.
Full partnership in the United Kingdom and religious freedom Ireland has long enjoyed. She now has conferred upon her the duty of dealing with all the essential tasks of domestic legislation and government; and I feel no misgiving as to the spirit in which you who stand here to-day will carry out the all important functions entrusted to your care.
My hope is broader still. The eyes of the whole Empire are on Ireland to-day, that Empire in which so many nations and races have come together in spite of ancient feuds, and in which new nations have come to birth within the lifetime of the youngest in this Hall.
I am emboldened by that thought to look beyond the sorrow and the anxiety which have clouded of late my vision of Irish affairs. I speak from a full heart when I pray that my coming to Ireland to-day may prove to be the first step towards an end of strife amongst her people, whatever their race or creed. In that hope, I appeal to all Irishmen to pause, to stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation, to forgive and to forget, and to join in making for the land which they love a new era of peace, contentment, and goodwill.
It is my earnest desire that in Southern Ireland, too, there may ere long take place a parallel to what is now passing in this Hall; that there a similar occasion may present itself and a similar ceremony be performed.
For this the Parliament of the United Kingdom has in the fullest measure provided the powers; for this the Parliament of Ulster is pointing the way. The future lies in the hands of my Irish people themselves.
May this historic gathering be the prelude of a day in which the Irish people, North and South, under one Parliament or two, as those Parliaments may themselves decide, shall work together in common love for Ireland upon the sure foundations of mutual justice and respect.
The King’s speech, with its plea for reconciliation, had been drafted by the South African statesman Jan Smuts. Smuts was a Boer who had fought against the British army in the Boer War (1899-1902) and helped negotiate the peace settlement that ended it, and thus was in a good position to understand the mindset of Irish nationalists. (A little more than twenty years earlier, a number of Irishmen had also seen the parallel between their situation and that of the Boers, and had gone to Africa to fight in that conflict.)
After the City Hall, the royal couple moved around the corner to the Ulster Hall, where organisations as varied as “the Churches, County and Urban District Councils, Harbour Authorities and Water Commissioners, Chambers of Commerce, and educational institutions” all wished to be heard. The enthusiasm of the attendees was so great that at one point they burst into a spontaneous rendition of National Anthem. Once all “42 addresses expressive of the loyalty of Ulster to the Throne and Constitution of the Empire” (News-Letter) had been got through and honours had been presented to prominent Unionists, the King and Queen returned to the royal yacht to return to England. They had spent “under five hours” in the city, the Freeman’s Journal sniffed.
In all likelihood, the organisers were probably relieved the visit had not been any longer, for there had been many worries about security. Other headlines from the same newspapers quoted here give an idea of the fraught situation in Ireland at the time:
“Police kill rebel”, “Magistrates kidnapped; Further Cork Outrages”, “Roscommon Skirmish: Two rebels killed and two captured” (News-Letter); “Dublin Ambush”; “Shots in Belfast: Police fired at during curfew”, “Attack on Train: RIC passengers return fire”. (Dublin Evening Telegraph)
And even if the event itself had passed off without violence, on the following day a train was derailed by a bomb laid on the tracks between Newry and Dundalk. It was the third of three trains carrying troops who had been present for the opening of the Parliament back southwards. Four soldiers and eighty horses were killed.
Yet despite this unambiguous counterblow by the IRA to the events in Belfast, the King’s words may have had an effect, as both sides approached the idea of a truce and negotiations, which led to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December of that year.
For some years the Northern Ireland parliament met in the nearby Assembly’s [sic] College belonging to the Presbyterian Church in Ireland before they finally moved to the newly constructed parliament building in Stormont, east Belfast in 1932. These days, it houses the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Belfast News-Letter 23 June 1921
Dublin Evening Telegraph 22 June 1921
Dublin Evening Telegraph 23 June 1921
Freeman’s Journal 23 June 1921
Bardon, Jonathan. A History of Ulster. 2nd Revised edition, Blackstaff Press Ltd, 2001.
Maguire, William A. Belfast: A History. Carnegie Publishing Ltd, 2009.
Parkinson, Alan. A Difficult Birth: The Early Years of Northern Ireland, 1920-25. Eastwood Books, 2020.