March 31, 2024

Winston Churchill and the Irish Boundary Commission

Finest Hour 197, Third Quarter 2022

Page 24

By Cormac Moore

Dr. Cormac Moore is an historian with Dublin City Council. His books include Birth of the Border: The Impact of Partition in Ireland (2019).

The Whole Map of Europe has been changed. The position of countries has been violently altered. The mode and thought of men, the whole outlook on affairs, the grouping of parties, all have encountered violent and tremendous changes in the deluge of the world, but as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again. The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that has been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world.1

This oft-cited quotation was delivered in a speech given by Winston Churchill in the House of Commons on 16 February 1922, a speech in which he defended the AngloIrish Treaty that had been signed two months previously and of which he was one of the British signatories. While Churchill and the other British signatories may have wished for the “dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone” to subside with the signing of the treaty, the inclusion of a potential boundary commission in the treaty to determine the border between the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland ensured that counties Fermanagh and Tyrone would remain in full view of Churchill and British governments for at least four more years.

Much changed on the island of Ireland from the time of the signing of the treaty in December 1921 to the signing of the tripartite agreement between the British, Irish Free State, and Northern Ireland governments in December 1925 that shelved the boundary commission report and retained the border as it was in 1921, as it is to the present day. There was much change in Churchill’s political career in that period too. He went from being a key Liberal member of David Lloyd George’s government, which negotiated the Treaty in 1921, to being, within a year, “without an office, without a seat, without a party, and without an appendix,”2 and then to returning from exile to re-join the Conservative Party and becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1924, placing him in a key position as the Irish boundary issue was being decided upon in late 1925. According to Kevin Matthews, the “decisions he took on Irish policy were bound to be affected by this journey and by this isolated position in British politics.”3

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For much of that four-year period, to quote Lord Birkenhead, within Article 12 with its boundary commission “there lurked the elements of dynamite” not only to cause widespread discord in Ireland but also to wreak “havoc in British affairs,” something Churchill was acutely aware of and at pains to prevent.4 Churchill’s views on the boundary commission, as was the case with most British signatories, changed too from the time he signed the treaty in 1921 to the tripartite agreement in 1925. This change was primarily driven by domestic political concerns within the Conservative Party.

Origins of a Commission

During the treaty negotiations between plenipotentiaries from Sinn Féin and the British government, according to Paul Bew, Churchill was reconciled to an all-Ireland parliament if “no physical force…be used against Ulster from any quarter.”5 Once the Northern Ireland prime minister James Craig rejected all British attempts for Northern Ireland to be subservient to a Dublin parliament, Lloyd George introduced the concept of a boundary commission to determine the contours of the border in Ireland to the Sinn Féin delegation.

Boundary commissions were much in vogue in post-First World War Europe. Bew also claims that Churchill on 29 November “tempted Tim Healy, a link to [Michael] Collins, with talk of a Boundary Commission so constituted that it would reduce Northern Ireland to three counties in size.”6 Éamon de Valera, leader of Sinn Féin during the treaty negotiations, claimed in 1925 that Lloyd George and Churchill led Arthur Griffith (the lead Sinn Féin plenipotentiary at the negotiations) to believe that the boundary commission would so reduce the area of the northern jurisdiction as to make it economically unviable, thus ending partition. This was, according to de Valera, Griffith’s principal reason for signing the Treaty.7

Much of the debate afterwards, particularly in British political circles, revolved around the intentions of the British negotiators in relation to the boundary commission: did they intend, or at least give that impression to the Sinn Féin delegation, just to rectify the border or to change it fundamentally and reduce it to an unviable size? While post-Treaty, the British signatories claimed it was always their intention to recommend a slight rectification, this is certainly not the impression they gave to the Sinn Féin negotiators. As Lord Birkenhead, another British signatory, admitted, neither Arthur Griffiths nor Michael Collins would have signed the treaty without the boundary commission, and without it potentially reducing the size of Northern Ireland territory substantially.8

The British signatories were able to show flexibility on their interpretation of the boundary commission due to its extremely ambiguous language. Article 12 of the treaty stipulated that if Northern Ireland, which had been in existence since the summer of 1921, opted not to join the Irish Free State, as was its right under the treaty, a Boundary Commission would determine the border “in accordance with the wishes of the inhabitants, so far as may be compatible with economic and geographic conditions.”9 No timetable was mentioned, or method outlined to ascertain the wishes of inhabitants, “how exactly economic and geographic conditions would relate to popular opinion, and which would prove most important.”10 The areas and sizes of the units (small areas like district electoral divisions or entire counties) to be considered for transfer were not decided upon. Could Free State territory be transferred as well as Northern territory? No plebiscite was asked for. Essentially, the clause was open to many different interpretations, something the British signatories were able to and did exploit in subsequent years.

As Secretary of State for the Colonies, Churchill was the British cabinet minister responsible for Irish affairs and had to spend much of 1922 dealing with the fractious relationship between both Irish governments (Northern Irish and the provisional government of the Irish Free State) in post-Treaty Ireland. A lot of his energy was focused on dealing with the fallout from the treaty and the potential ramifications of the boundary commission. While Collins, as chairman of the Free State provisional government, appeared to be lukewarm towards both the treaty and the boundary commission, Craig, the Northern Ireland prime minister, was vehemently opposed to the boundary commission.

Irish Treaty Delegation including Arthur Griffith (seated far left) and Michael Collins (seated center), 1921

In the first of the two 1922 pacts arranged by Churchill between Craig and Collins, both Irishmen met alone in January 1922 and agreed “that the Boundary should not be dealt with by the Commission proposed by the Treaty, but should be a matter for mutual agreement between the North and South.”11 Although some in British government circles claimed it was unlikely that the government would make changes to the boundary commission clause, as suggested by Craig and Collins, due to the inability of the treaty to be altered in any way, Churchill believed the best way for difficulties over the treaty to be resolved was “for the Irish Governments to meet and settle these matters. If an agreement was reached, there would be no difficulty in embodying it in the final legislation.”12 Craig and Collins’ plan for the boundary commission came to nought as the January pact was over within days, as was their other pact brokered by Churchill in March.


When the diehards in the Conservative Party tried to use the treaty and the boundary commission clause to destabilise and ultimately bring down Lloyd George’s government, Churchill had to walk a fine line between supporting all the treaty articles and reassuring diehards and Ulster unionists that there was nothing to fear from the boundary commission. He went from admitting in early 1922 that the boundary commission “may conceivably affect” the northern government “prejudicially”13 to later dismissing the “absurd supposition” that Northern Ireland would be reduced “to its preponderatingly Orange area.”14 At this juncture, he was also wrestling with his own political future, moving away from the Liberals and looking to reconcile with the Conservatives, where many members still harboured deep distrust of him for leaving the party in 1904. According to Liberal colleague Edwin Montagu, depending on the issues, “Winston jumps from the diehard to the Liberal camp as he works from Egypt or India to Ireland.”15

While his duplicity over the Treaty helped Churchill in some ways steer the Irish Free State bill through the House of Commons, it did not help in gaining trust from the main Irish protagonists. Churchill also insisted on “fair play” between both Irish governments but added, “though we are impartial we cannot be indifferent. Naturally, our hearts warm towards those in the North who are helping, and have helped so long, to keep the old flag flying.”16 Churchill became more open in his support for the northern government throughout the spring of 1922, insisting that the boundary commission would only rectify the border and not make wholescale changes. Also, according to Matthews, “Under his guardianship, the Boundary Commission was postponed and the financial restrictions that were meant to serve as an inducement to unity made far less onerous. Consequently, the prospects for reuniting the island were not what they had been before he took charge of Irish affairs.”17 Much to Collins’ disgust, Churchill also allowed Craig to abolish the Proportional Representation (PR) system of voting for local elections in July 1922, with Collins claiming that the abolition of PR was intended to accomplish one end, “to paint the Counties of Tyrone and Fermanagh with a deep Orange tint in anticipation of the…Boundary Commission.” According to Collins, this was “an attempt to defeat the obligations of His Majesty’s Government contained in the Treaty.”18

Churchill’s financial backing of the Northern government did lead to an angry exchange with Craig in May 1922. When Craig made an uncompromising statement, declaring he would have nothing to do with the boundary commission, Churchill responded: 

I do not consider your declaration made without any reference to the Government that in no circumstances would you accept any rectification of the frontier or any Boundary Commission as provided for in the Treaty is compatible with requests for enormous financial aid and heavy issues of arms. While I was actually engaged in procuring the assent of my colleagues to your requests, you were making a declaration which was in effect in one passage little short of a defiance of the Imperial Government whose aid you seek.19

He concluded by stating, “it is not within your rights to state that you will not submit to the Treaty which the British Government has signed in any circumstances, and at the same time to ask the British Government to bear the overwhelming burden of the whole of your defensive expenses.”20

Morning Post headline, 1925

Responding to Churchill, Craig claimed the boundary commission was “the root of all evil” and that the recent electoral pact between Collins and the anti-Treatyites, through de Valera, showed the Irish were in essence seeking a republic at the nearest opportunity. He asked:

would it be possible for me or any other man to demand of the Loyalists on the Borderland to assent, through a Commission, to give up territory from under the British Flag to be placed not within territory still nominally, at all events, in a Free State within the ambit of the Empire but in a Free State, which the new combination declares, is ready at a psychological moment, to declare a Republic? That would be tantamount to thrusting them under a foreign flag.21

This appeared to have the effect of curbing the anger of Churchill, who remained vigorously opposed to the treaty being used as a stepping stone to a republic, something Collins frequently declared. In responding to Craig in July, shortly after the civil war in Dublin had begun, Churchill said:

I see all your difficulties over the Boundary Commission, and as you know we have on two occasions got Collins to agree to alternative methods of procedure. It may well be that after he has won his fight in the South he will be in a position to make you a much broader offer which will render the intervention of the Boundary Commission unnecessary, and which will secure the effective co-operation in your Government of all the best of the Catholic elements in Ulster. Meanwhile I trust you will not have to make any references to the subject of the Boundary Commission which might suggest the possibility of a conflict between you and H.M. Government. We really have got to work these things out together, and I feel increasingly hopeful that we shall succeed.22

Collins did not live to see the fight won in the south. Nor did the other leading Sinn Féin Treaty signatory, Arthur Griffith. Both men died in August 1922, Griffith by heart failure on 12 August, Collins shot in an ambush ten days later. Churchill himself was no longer in government by the end of 1922, also losing his Westminster seat. In the 1922 general election campaign, his shift towards the diehard and Ulster unionist position was made public “when Churchill announced that he would ‘oppose all attempts to coerce Ulster’ into joining the Irish Free State. He would oppose efforts to bring economic pressure to bear on Craig’s government, and he was now committed to resisting any Boundary Commission award which might endanger Northern Ireland’s separate existence.”23

Meanwhile, the convening of the Boundary Commission was delayed by almost two years from the moment Northern Ireland opted out of the Irish Free State in December 1922. The Irish Civil War was a contributory factor in the delay, as were the noncooperation of the Northern government and several changes of government in Britain. Even though Churchill was no longer in government nor parliament after the 1922 general election, he still showed an interest in the progress of the boundary commission behind the scenes. The colonial office advisor Lionel Curtis kept him informed of developments, telling Churchill that the man ultimately chosen as boundary commission chairman, Justice Richard Feetham, a British-born South African-based judge “was a man of ‘conservative temperament’ who could be counted on to reject the sort of ‘preposterous and extravagant claims’ being made by the Free State.” “Feetham,” he assured Churchill, “is a chairman exactly of the kind you contemplated.”24

A New Settlement

As time progressed and Churchill sought his re-entry into the Conservative fold, he became more strident in insisting that a boundary rectification was only ever envisaged by the British government when the Treaty was signed in 1921. Churchill’s plan to re-join the Conservative Party was threatened by the boundary commission in 1924, when the Northern Ireland government refused to nominate its boundary commissioner and the British government, by then the first Labour government led by Ramsay MacDonald, had to bring forward legislation to nominate a commissioner on behalf of the Northern Ireland government.

Justice Richard Feetham

Churchill was keen to avoid “potentially embarrassing issues such as the border question in Ireland” surfacing again, particularly for it to become a domestic British political issue, as it would “raise the question of the meaning to be attached to Article 12,” something that could be very embarrassing for Churchill. Local Conservatives would not consider Churchill as a candidate for them in the West Toxteth by-election that spring “because of his past attitude to Ulster.”25 The Liverpool constituency had a large Irish population. Conservatives in Epping would recommend Churchill’s candidature in the constituency only if he pledged to “back no change of the Irish boundary that did not have Northern Ireland’s approval,” something that Churchill was willing to do.26 At a speech in Epping in October 1924, he stated that it was perfectly clear it “was not intended that Ulster should be mutilated and destroyed” by the boundary commission.27 He also stated at the time that

clause 12 was forced on the British signatories to the treaty, who felt that Southern Ireland was unwise in her own interests to press for a Boundary Commission which by its very constitution could only give the minor readjustments which might cause friction with Ulster and would commit them to recognition of partition. Nothing could be more inimical to the hopes of Ireland than that frontier posts should be driven across her territory which might be fortified in certain dread contingencies.28

To support his stance, Churchill also arranged for a letter to be published in the press in 1924 from Lord Birkenhead to Arthur Balfour in 1922, which appeared to support mere rectification of the boundary in Ireland. As Birkenhead claimed to another British treaty signatory, Austen Chamberlain, however, the published letter was doctored from the original 1922 one, as it omitted Michael Collins’s “honest if hot-headed” belief that the boundary commission would substantially reduce Northern Ireland’s territory.29

When a decision finally was made on the boundary line in Ireland in late 1925, Churchill, who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer, played a pivotal role in the negotiations that led to the tripartite agreement between the British, Irish Free State, and Northern Ireland governments. Once the Morning Post newspaper published leaked findings (broadly accurate) of the border changes proposed by the boundary commission in November 1925, a furore was caused in the Irish Free State when it was realised that the anticipated transfer of large parts of Northern Ireland would not materialise and in fact, parts of the Free State would be transferred to Northern Ireland. Fearing the danger the crisis posed to his government, President of the executive council of the Irish Free State W. T. Cosgrave dashed over to London to have the boundary commission report shelved. A plan was hatched that Article 12 of the Treaty could be abandoned if concessions were received under Article 5, which committed the Free State to a share of the United Kingdom public debt.30 After negotiating with Cosgrave and Craig in the Treasury, Churchill, who held out for some time, eventually agreed to waive Article 5, thus paving the way for the tripartite agreement on 3 December. Churchill declared,

We have to recognise that there is for the first time complete agreement—a triple agreement— on all points, and this boundary question, which has always hung over us, which prevented the Buckingham Palace agreement of 1914, which nearly wrecked the Irish Treaty four years ago, and threatened to involve the whole of Great Britain in strife and confusion, only 18 months ago, is finally settled with the complete assent of all parties.31

The boundary question in Ireland was settled, at least for some time, particularly within British domestic politics, much to the relief of Churchill and the other Conservative treaty signatories. Churchill, who was in a quandary over the boundary commission for four years, was ultimately able to steer a positive course for himself politically, mainly due to the ambiguities that permeated Article 12 of the Treaty.


1. House of Commons Debate, 16 February 1922, vol. 150 col. 1271, available from http://hansard.; accessed on 24 June 2022.

2. Roy Jenkins, Churchill (London: Macmillan, 2001), p. 376.

3. Charles Kevin Matthews, “The Irish Boundary Crisis and the Reshaping of British Politics: 1920–1925,” Ph.D. thesis (London School of Economics and Political Science, 2000), p. 112.

4. Kevin Matthews, Fatal Influence: The Impact of Ireland on British Politics, 1920–1925 (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2004), p. 240.

5. Paul Bew, Churchill & Ireland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), p. 108.

6. Ibid., p. 108.

7. Irish Times, 28 November 1925, p. 9.

8. Matthews, “Irish Boundary Crisis,” p. 302.

9. Cormac Moore, Birth of the Border: The Impact of Partition in Ireland (Dublin: Merrion Press, 2019), p. 63.

10. Robert Lynch, “The Boundary Commission,” in John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil and Mike Murphy (eds.), Atlas of the Irish Revolution (Cork: Cork University Press, 2017), p. 828.

11. PRONI, CAB 4/30, 26 January 1922.

12. Irish Times, 4 March 1922, p. 8.

13. House of Commons Debate, 16 February 1922, vol. 150 col. 1272, available from http://; accessed on 29 June 2022.

14. Matthews, Fatal Influence, p. 71.

15. Matthews, “Irish Boundary Crisis,” p. 132.

16. Ibid., p. 133.

17. Matthews, Fatal Influence, p. 89.

18. Matthews, “Irish Boundary Crisis,” p. 146.

19. Winston Churchill, The World Crisis, vol. IV, The Aftermath (London, 2013 electronic version), p. 253.

20. Ibid., p. 254.

21. PRONI, CAB 4/45, 26 May 1922.

22. Churchill, pp. 266–67.

23. Matthews, Fatal Influence, p. 90.

24. Ibid., p. 91.

25. Matthews, “Irish Boundary Crisis,” p. 281.

26. Ibid., pp. 300–01.

27. Irish Times, 23 October 1924, p. 7.

28. Manchester Guardian, 26 September 1924, p. 9.

29. Matthews, “Irish Boundary Crisis,” p. 302.

30. Bew, Churchill & Ireland, p. 134.

31. Irish Times, 4 December 1925, p. 7.

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