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Irish governments largely ignored nationalist discrimination in the North for more than 50 years

Final deal to end economic war with the UK held favourable terms for the Republic but took no action on tackling discrimination in the North

Éamon de Valera in 1925. In 1932, the new de Valera government stopped paying land annuities to London, leading to punitive economic measures on both sides. Photograph: Getty

In the Dáil debates on the 1921 Treaty, little attention was given to partition. After independence, the new Irish Free State largely ignored Northern Ireland. While reunification was the official aim, the problems and issues affecting those south of the Border took priority for the first 50 years after independence.

Although the minority nationalist community in the North experienced significant discrimination at the hands of unionist administrations, little official attention was paid to this by the South. Only a small minority of TDs such as Ernest Blythe or Seán MacEntee were from the North, and there was only limited knowledge of, or interest in, the plight of northern nationalists.

There were some key points over the long period from 1922 to the mid-1960s at which successive southern governments could have raised the issue of discrimination with their British counterparts. However, they failed to press the issue with the British, who had ultimate responsibility for what was happening in the North.

At independence, it had been expected that the Boundary Commission would reallocate significant territory from North to South, but in November 1925 it became clear that this would not happen. Alarmed at what the Boundary Commission report was recommending, Free State leader WT Cosgrave and his deputy, Kevin O’Higgins, went to London to negotiate with the UK prime minister Stanley Baldwin.


Over days of meetings, the Irish government first sought a more acceptable redrawing of the Border, but this was refused. Then O’Higgins sought measures to tackle the discrimination experienced by the North’s nationalist population. Lord Salisbury, for the British, acknowledged the unequal treatment of northern Catholics. The British side suggested there would be no problem getting rid of the special constabulary there.

To deflect such discussions, Northern Ireland prime minister James Craig suggested the Irish would like a deal on the sizeable debt (80 per cent of Irish national income) owed to the UK. This proved the decisive intervention – under the final deal, the UK agreed to write off almost all this debt, any reform in Northern Ireland was dropped, and the Boundary Commission report was shelved.

In 1932, the new de Valera government stopped paying land annuities to London, and tit-for-tat retaliation saw punitive economic measures imposed by both sides. In 1938, negotiations to end this economic war took place between the Irish and UK governments. MacEntee, Ireland’s minister for finance, raised the issue of discrimination in the North, and said the UK government was “in the position of a trustee for the minority of Northern Ireland.” Prime minister Neville Chamberlain responded that it would be possible to remedy any discrimination against the minority in Northern Ireland without ending partition, but that de Valera’s real objective was ending partition.

In the end the final deal to halt the economic war was reached on very favourable terms for Ireland but, once again, no action on tackling discrimination in the North was included.

In the postwar era, successive UK governments showed little interest in Ireland or the problems of Northern Ireland. Irish governments continued to pay lip service to the importance of Irish unity, with no prospect of anything happening on this issue.

It was only after the Troubles began that the plight of northern nationalists, and governance at Stormont, became central to Irish-British intergovernmental discussions

The talks between taoiseach Seán Lemass and Northern Ireland prime minister Terence O’Neill in early 1965 were the first official meetings between the leaders of the southern and northern governments in 40 years, and concentrated on practical economic co-operation. The major Ireland-UK talks that same year, which led to the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement, likewise were purely economic. The issue of discrimination in the North was not raised in those negotiations. As Mary Daly describes in her book Sixties Ireland, Lemass “folded Northern Ireland into a wider programme of economic liberalisation”.

Repression of the growing civil-rights movement in the North resulted in the explosion of the Troubles in the summer of 1969. There was real fear of a spillover into the South of this unrest. It was only after the Troubles began that the plight of northern nationalists, and governance at Stormont, became central to Irish-British intergovernmental discussions.

Major negotiations between Ireland and the UK at Sunningdale in 1973, Hillsborough in 1985, the 1993 Downing Street declaration and the Belfast Agreement in 1998 culminated in international agreements, legislation and institutions, based on the principle of parity of esteem between the communities in the North.

Of course the ultimate responsibility for persistent institutionalised discrimination against the nationalist community lay with the British and Northern Ireland governments. But for over half a century from 1922, southern governments had ignored those concerns in their inter-governmental negotiations with Britain, and had focused on gaining economic and financial advantage for the South.