Government of Ireland Act 1920

Home Rule Act
Name and origin
Official name of legislation Government of Ireland Act, 1920
Location Ireland into two autonomous regions Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland
Year 1920
Government introduced Lloyd George (Liberal-Conservative coalition)
Parliamentary passage
House of Commons passed? Yes
House of Lords Passed? Yes
Royal Assent? Yes
Which House -
Which stage -
Final vote -
Date -
Details of legislation
Legislature type 2 bicameral parliaments
Unicameral subdivision none
Name(s) upper: Senate; lower: House of Commons of Southern Ireland/Northern Ireland
Size(s) Senate: NI 26; SI 61
Commons: NI 52; SI 128
MPs in Westminster 46 MPs
Executive head Lord Lieutenant (later replaced by the Governor of Northern Ireland)
Executive body Executive Committee of the Privy Council of Ireland, Privy Council of Northern Ireland
Prime Minister in text none – but one evolved in Northern Ireland
Responsible executive no – but de facto responsibility to House of Commons of Northern Ireland
Act implemented Limited implementation in Southern Ireland, full in Northern Ireland
Succeeded by Northern Ireland Act 1998
Northern and Southern Ireland

The Government of Ireland Act 1920 (10 & 11 Geo. 5 c. 67) was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. The Act's long title was "An Act to provide for the better government of Ireland"; it is also known as the Fourth Home Rule Bill or (less accurately) as the Fourth Home Rule Act.

The Act was intended to establish separate Home Rule institutions within two new subdivisions of Ireland: the six north-eastern counties were to form "Northern Ireland", while the larger part of the country was to form "Southern Ireland". Both areas of Ireland were to continue as a part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and provision was made for their future reunification under common Home Rule institutions.

Home Rule never took effect in Southern Ireland, due to the Irish War of Independence, which resulted instead in the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the establishment in 1922 of the Irish Free State. However, the institutions set up under this Act for Northern Ireland continued to function until they were suspended by the British parliament in 1972 as a consequence of the Troubles.

The remaining provisions of the Act still in force in Northern Ireland were repealed under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.


David Lloyd George, MP
The British Prime Minister was the author of the new Act.

Various attempts had been made to give Ireland limited regional self-government, known as Home rule, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The First Home Rule Bill of 1886 was defeated in the House of Commons because of a split in the Liberal Party over the principle of Home Rule, while the Second Home Rule Bill of 1893, having been passed by the Commons was vetoed by the House of Lords. The Third Home Rule Bill introduced in 1912 by the Irish Parliamentary Party could no longer be vetoed after the passing of the Parliament Act 1911 which removed the power of the Lords to veto bills. They could merely be delayed for two years.

Because of the continuing threat of civil war in Ireland, King George V called the Buckingham Palace Conference in July 1914 where Irish Nationalist and Unionist leaders failed to reach agreement. Controversy continued over the rival demands of Irish Nationalists, backed by the Liberals (for all-Ireland home rule), and Irish Unionists, backed by the Conservatives, for the exclusion of most or all of the province of Ulster. In an attempt at compromise, the British government put forward an amending bill, which would have allowed for Ulster to be temporarily excluded from the working of the Act; this failed to satisfy either side, and the stalemate continued until overtaken by the outbreak of World War I. A few weeks after the British entry into the war, the Act received Royal Assent, while the amending bill was abandoned. However, the Suspensory Act 1914 (which received Royal Assent on the same day) meant that implementation would be suspended for the duration of what was expected to be only a short European war.

Long's committee

Main article: Home Rule Crisis

A delay ensued because of the effective end of the First World War in November 1918, the Paris Peace Conference, 1919, and the Treaty of Versailles that was signed in June 1919. Starting in September 1919, with the British Government, now led by David Lloyd George, committed under all circumstances to implementing Home Rule, the British cabinet's Committee for Ireland, under the chairmanship of former Ulster Unionist Party leader Walter Long, pushed for a radical new solution. Long proposed the creation of two Irish home rule entities, Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland, each with unicameral parliaments. The House of Lords accordingly amended the old Bill to create a new Bill which provided for two bicameral parliaments, "consisting of His Majesty, the Senate of (Northern or Southern) Ireland, and the House of Commons of (Northern or Southern) Ireland."

The Bill's second reading debates in late March 1920 revealed that already a large number of Irish members of parliament present felt that the proposals were unworkable.[1][2]

After considerable delays in debating the financial aspects of the measure, the substantive third reading of the Bill was approved by a large majority on 11 November 1920. A considerable number of the Irish Members present voted against the Bill, including Southern Unionists such as Maurice Dockrell, and Nationalists like Joe Devlin.[3] (The large majority of Irish MPs did not vote, having transferred their allegiance elsewhere).

Developments in Ireland

During the Great War Irish politics moved decisively in a different direction. Several events, including the Easter Rising of 1916, the subsequent reaction of the British Government, and the Conscription Crisis of 1918, had utterly altered the state of Irish Politics, and made Sinn Féin the dominant voice of Irish nationalism. Sinn Féin, standing for 'an independent sovereign Ireland', won 73 of the 105 parliamentary seats on the island in the 1918 general election. Its elected members established their own parliament, Dáil Éireann, which declared the country's independence as the Irish Republic. Dáil Éireann, after a number of meetings, was declared illegal in September 1919 by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.

Also for a variety of reasons all the Ulster Unionist MPs at Westminster voted against the Act. They preferred that all or most of Ulster would remain fully within the United Kingdom, accepting the proposed northern Home Rule state only as the second best option.

Thus, when the Act became law on 23 December 1920 it was already out of touch with realities in Ireland. The long-standing demand for home rule had been replaced among Nationalists by a demand for complete independence. The Republic's army was waging the Irish War of Independence against British rule, which had reached a nadir in late 1920.

Two 'Home Rule' Irelands

The Act divided Ireland into two territories, Southern Ireland and Northern Ireland, each intended to be self-governing, except in areas specifically reserved to the Parliament of the United Kingdom: chief amongst these were matters relating to the Crown, to defence, foreign affairs, international trade, and currency.

"Southern Ireland" was to be all of Ireland except for "the parliamentary counties of Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone, and the parliamentary boroughs of Belfast and Londonderry" which were to constitute "Northern Ireland". Northern Ireland as defined by the Act, amounting to six of the nine counties of Ulster, was seen as the maximum area within which Unionists could be expected to have a safe majority. This was in spite of the fact that counties Fermanagh and Tyrone had Catholic Nationalist majorities.

Structures of the governmental system

At the apex of the governmental system was to be the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, who would be the Monarch's representative in both of the Irish home rule regions. The system was based on colonial constitutional theories. Executive authority was to be vested in the crown, and in theory not answerable to either parliament. The Lord Lieutenant would appoint a cabinet that did not need parliamentary support. No provision existed for a prime minister.

Such structures matched the theory in the British dominions, such as Canada and Australia, where in powers belonged to the governor-general and there was no normal responsibility to parliament. In reality, governments had long come to be chosen from parliament and to be answerable to it. Prime ministerial offices had come into de facto existence.[4] Such developments were also expected to happen in Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland, but technically were not required under the Act.

Potential for Irish unity

As well as sharing the same viceroy, a Council of Ireland was envisaged to co-ordinate matters of common concern to the two parliaments, with each parliament possessing the ability, in identical motions, to vote powers to the Council, which Britain intended should evolve into a single Irish parliament.[5][6] Both parts of Ireland would continue to send a number of MPs to the Westminster Parliament. Elections for both lower houses took place in May 1921.


Northern Ireland

The Parliament of Northern Ireland came into being in June 1921. At its inauguration, in Belfast City Hall, King George V made a famous appeal for Anglo-Irish and north–south reconciliation. The speech, drafted by the government of David Lloyd George on recommendations from Jan Smuts[7] Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa, with the enthusiastic backing of the King, opened the door for formal contact between the British Government and the Republican administration of Éamon de Valera.

Though it was superseded in large part, its repeal remained a matter of controversy until accomplished in the 1990s (under the provisions of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement).[8]

Southern Ireland

All 128 MPs elected to the House of Commons of Southern Ireland in the May 1921 elections were returned unopposed, and 124 of them, representing Sinn Féin, declared themselves TDs (Irish for Dáil Deputies) and assembled as the Second Dáil of the Irish Republic.

With only the four Unionist MPs (all representing graduates of the Irish Universities) and 15 appointed senators turning up for the state opening of the Parliament of Southern Ireland at the Royal College of Science in Dublin (now Government Buildings) in June 1921, the new legislature was suspended. Southern Ireland was ruled, for the time being, directly from London as it had been before the Government of Ireland Act.

The Provisional Government of the Irish Free State was constituted on 14 January 1922 “at a meeting of members of the Parliament elected for constituencies in Southern Ireland". That meeting was not convened as a meeting of the House of Commons of Southern Ireland nor as a meeting of the Dáil. Instead, it was convened by Arthur Griffith as “Chairman of the Irish Delegation of Plenipotentiaries" (who had signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty) under the terms of the Treaty.[9]

Elections in June 1922 were followed by the meeting of the Third Dáil, which worked as a Constituent Assembly to draft a constitution for the Irish Free State. For the purposes of British law the constitution was confirmed by the Irish Free State Constitution Act 1922; the new state then came into being on 6 December 1922.


The Treaty provided for the ability of Northern Ireland's Parliament, by formal address, to opt out of the new Irish Free State, which as expected, the Parliament of Northern Ireland brought into effect on 7 December 1922 (the day after the establishment of the Irish Free State). An Irish Boundary Commission was set up to redraw the border between the new Irish Free State and Northern Ireland, but it remained unchanged in return for financial concessions, and the British and Irish governments agreed to suppress its report. The Council of Ireland never functioned as hoped (as an embryonic all-Ireland parliament), as the new governments decided to find a better mechanism in January 1922.[10]

In consequence of the establishment of the Irish Free State, the British parliament passed the Irish Free State (Consequential Provisions) Act 1922, which made a number of adjustments to Northern Ireland's system of government as set up by the 1920 Act. Most notably, the office of Lord Lieutenant was abolished, being replaced by the new office of Governor of Northern Ireland.


The final provisions of the 1920 Act remaining in force were repealed under the terms of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, after the Good Friday Agreement. In the republic, the Statute Law Revision Act 2007 repealed the Act almost 85 years after Constitution of the Irish Free State replaced it as the basic constitutional law.[11]

See also

References and footnotes

  1. Hansard debate on the Bill, 29 Mar 1920
  2. Hansard debate 31 Mar 1920
  3. Hansard debate of 11 November 1920
  4. A prime minister of Canada had come into existence within a decade of colonial rule in Canada, while in Australia a prime minister appeared in the system of government from the moment the Federal Commonwealth of Australia came into being in 1901.
  5. Thompson, Joseph E. (2001). American Policy and Northern Ireland: A Saga of Peacebuilding. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 43. ISBN 0275965171. Retrieved 9 March 2016.
  6. Peled, Yoav (2013). The Challenge of Ethnic Democracy: The State and Minority Groups in Israel, Poland and Northern Ireland. Routledge. p. 16. ISBN 1134448937. Retrieved 9 March 2016.
  7. Jan Smuts was one of the best Boer commanders of the Second Boer War. His deep Commando raids into Cape Province caused considerable embarrassment and difficulties for the British Army. After the war he decided that his future and that of South Africa lay in reconciliation between Afrikaner and the British. In 1914 at the start of World War I the Boer "bitter enders" rose against the government in the Boer Revolt and allied themselves with their old supporter Germany. General Smuts played an important part in crushing the rebellion and defeating the Germans in Africa, before fighting on the Western Front. The South African establishment, of which Smuts was a part, in contrast to the British establishment in 1916, was lenient to the leaders of the revolt, who were fined and spent two years in prison. After this revolt and lenient treatment the "bitter enders" contented themselves with working within the system. It was his experience of the Boer–British rapprochement which he was able to bring to the attention of the British government as an alternative to confrontation.
  8. Alvin Jackson, Home Rule – An Irish History, Oxford University Press, 2004, pp368-370.
  9. This followed discussions between the Irish Treaty delegation and the British Government over who had authority to convene the "meeting".
  10. Text of the "Craig-Collins Pact, art 4., 23 Jan 1922
  11. Irish Times 10 January 2007, p4.

Further reading

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