Boundary Commission

Memorandum to each member of the Executive Council by Kevin O’Shiel,

with covering letter by O’Shiel
 (Strictly Confidential)

DUBLIN, 30 May 1923

A Chara,

I send you herewith a rather lengthy Memorandum on North-Eastern policy and the Boundary Commission.

2. Although it is unusually long it is important and contains carefully considered views and most carefully thought out plans in connection with the Boundary Question.

3. I trust you will have time to read it carefully as I intend to apply shortly for a special Meeting of the Executive Council to consider the Alpha and Omega of the whole North-Eastern position, and the information in this Memo. will assist you at such a Meeting.

Mise, le meas,
Assistant Legal Adviser


Strictly Confidential

29th May, 1923


(N.B. Ministers are requested to read this Memo. in close conjunction with my Memo. on ‘The Boundary Issue and North-Eastern Policy’ circulated on the 22nd April.)1

1. With the complete collapse of the Irregulars the time seems opportune for starting the ball rolling in this tremendously important issue of the North- Eastern Boundaries.

2. Since I have been entrusted with this very important matter I have endeavoured to steer a course as near to the policy of the late General Michael Collins as was humanly possible under the circumstances.

The late General never made any secret of his distrust in the Boundary Commission as a means of settlement per se. He used frequently to remark that ‘the Boundary Commission will settle nothing’. He realised that even after the Boundary Commission had sat and made its decisions, and even if those decisions conceded to us our ultimate claim there would still be an ‘Hibernia Irredenta’ to disturb the peace of future generations. Not only that but there would be an increased feeling of intense hatred amongst the Northern secessionist populations against the rest of Ireland. Though the territory of Saorstát might be broadened, the gulf between Saorstát and these populations would also be broadened. So fully aware of all this was the late General that on a number of occasions he went out of his way to establish contact with the Belfast Authorities in the hope that such contact would lead to a better and more enduring settlement between Irishmen.

3. Being convinced of the truth of General Collins’ policy and at the same time bearing in mind that the Government is under solemn pledges to carry out the entire Treaty – Article XII no less than the other Articles – I have endeavoured to plan out a line of policy in the matter which seeks to reconcile these two somewhat disparate positions, which whilst enabling the Government to hold strongly to its pledges, yet allows ample room for the operations of statesmanship.

4. I have outlined the plan in many previous Memoranda. It is roughly to look upon our ultimate objective as not the securing of more territory, but as the securing of National Union. Everything else should be subordinate to this great object, and should be used or left according as circumstances show whether it would further or retard National Union. Hence the Boundary Commission must be regarded as a weapon, probably the most important weapon in this diplomatic war for National Union; and our aim should be to extract from it and its ‘bye-products’ every ounce of value, and only in the last resource, when all else fails and in the event of the North-East determining to continue obdurate to the bitter end, let it take its course to the ultimate.

5. It is, of course, clear to Ministers that once the ball has commenced to roll in this game we shall be to a greater or lesser extent victims of circumstances. I mean by this that the position will be that of a ball rolling down a hill which may be frequently side tracked and frequently compelled to slow, but which, once started, can never be absolutely stopped until it reaches the foot of the hill, unless it is side tracked into a hollow.

(The hollow in this case would represent National Union! It is a poor metaphor, but, I think, helps to make the position clear.)

6. The recent preliminary letter2 which it was intended to despatch some weeks ago to Mr. Bonar Law will require some alterations in view of the accession of Mr. Baldwin to the Premiership of Great Britain. It should be despatched as soon as these alterations have been made.

Mr. Stanley Baldwin, the new British Premier, is, as far as I can learn, a person having strong Die-Hard sympathies. It will be recalled that he was the mover of the motion in the Tory Revolt at the Meeting of the Conservative Party, which was the direct cause of clearing out the Lloyd George Government and discrediting Chamberlain and Birkenhead.

I have no doubt that he has strong pro-North-East sympathies and may have committed himself to those people by pledges in former days. But the great outstanding fact remains that as Bonar Law’s successor in title he is committed as steadfastly to the Treaty as the two former Premiers.

Many people are under the impression that we could get most from the Boundary Clause by delaying until a Liberal or a Labour Government comes into power in Great Britain. But I take the view that our best chance is to deal with this question whilst a Conservative Government is in power. Apart from the fact that Conservatism is traditionally much straighter and honester in its dealings than the other parties, there remains the most important point that by forcing a Conservative Government to deal with Article XII, we eliminate from the British Parliament the largest possible measure of opposition. By this I mean that it would be utterly impossible for the Conservatives to adopt a strong ‘pro- Ulster’ and anti-Irish attitude, as their party is in power and has pledged itself to carry out the Treaty in good faith.

The Liberal and Labour Parties in the Commons will be strongly in our favour (if for no other reason than that they largely depend upon the huge Irish vote), and thus the situation will be considered in a Parliament in which the one potentially hostile Party to us will be largely gagged because of the fact that it is the Government in power responsible for carrying out the Treaty.

Now, with a former Die-Hard in complete control I have no doubt that the vehement ‘pro-Ulster’ enthusiasm of the Die-Hard Tories will be largely held in check. The position is a delightful one for our purposes – almost Gilbertian.


The success of the entire Boundary negotiations – whether on the one hand they result in National Union, or on the other hand they result in a transfer of extensive territories under our flag – will depend enormously on the quality and persistence of our Propaganda. To my mind the Propaganda that will accompany the various stages of the proceedings is almost as important an element as the Boundary Commission itself.

This Propaganda will fall naturally under two main headings, viz., (a) Home and (b) Foreign.

(A) Home – With regard to Home Propaganda the work will be more negative than positive, and will be directed more towards controlling and checking as diplomatically as possible any foolish and unreasonable eruptions in our own Press which at a critical moment might conceivably deal us a nasty blow. Our Weekly Bulletin will, of course, keep going in its present quasi-official capacity. It may be necessary too to get our Press to work up certain aspects now and again. In this connection I have got into friendly alliance with the ‘Freeman’ people who are, as usual, willing and anxious to assist us in every way; and also the North-Western Publishing Company. This Company has its Headquarters in Omagh, and produces weekly the following papers, circulating in the following districts:

(1) ‘The Ulster Herald’ – Mid, South and East Tyrone.

(2) ‘The Strabane Chronicle’ – North Tyrone & East Tirconnaill.

(3) ‘The Derry People’ – Derry City, part of Co. Derry and Innishowen Peninsular, Co. Tirconnaill.

(4) ‘The Fermanagh Herald’ – Co. Fermanagh, South Tirconnaill, North Leitrim and parts of Co. Sligo and West Cavan.

(5) ‘The Frontier Sentinel’ – Newry Borough, South & East Down, South Armagh and North Louth.

It will be seen that this combine affords a perfect chain of opinion round the entire debatable area. These papers are naturally inclined to be a bit ‘Irredentist’, but we can rely always on their help so long as we are determined on the Boundary Commission.

We can also rely on the ‘Derry Journal’ in this connection, I think.

(B) Foreign – Once the Boundary Commission negotiations get well under sail this will be far and away the most important field for our active propaganda.

This section falls naturally into three heads, viz., (a) British (b) Commonwealth & U.S.A. (c) Continental.

At the present moment the major part of the material for our ‘Handbook on the Ulster Question’ is at Press and we hope in a short time to have the book launched. It will be a concise synopsis of all that it is prudent to release of our Case Stated. It will be divided into the following sections, viz.,

Historical – Dr. MacNeill and Mr. J.W. Good

Statistical – Mr. Stephens and Mr. G.A. Ruth

Economic – Mr. Joseph Johnston

European Boundary Commissions – Mr. Waller

How Union was effected in Other Countries – Mr. Waller

The Question of Minorities and Analogous Continental Cases thereon

– Mr. Murphy

It will be provided with 9 or 10 maps and diagrams (many of them the original work of the Bureau) and an excellent index, so that information can be readily obtained.

It is intended to distribute this work free to all Statesmen, Public Representatives, Political Bodies and Newspapers, etc. in Great Britain, U.S.A. and the Dominions, as well as to Foreign Embassies, Consulates, etc., the League of Nations, etc.

Apart from this the Handbook will also be on sale in all these countries.

British – When I was in London before Xmas I obtained a good deal of information with regard to the best methods of placing propaganda in Great Britain. My investigations led me to the conclusion that in that country articles to be generally read must be first signed by prominent and influential publicists, and secondly, printed in prominent, popular and influential papers. Whilst there I met several leading Journalists who expressed themselves willing to be of any assistance. Many of them were, however, not very well informed (It was the extraordinary ignorance on the situation displayed by our friends there that made me think of preparing the ‘Handbook’). For these our Publicity Department are preparing a series of skeleton articles with copious references from the strong British standpoint. When the series is complete and when the time is ripe I will go to London again and ‘place’ them.

These skeleton articles will deal with such topics as

(a) Danger to the Commonwealth of Failure to carry out Clause XII of the Treaty – Dealing with the terrible power the Irish Race are all over the World and especially in the Nations of the Commonwealth; their numbers and instances of their influence overseas (e.g. number of Dominion Statesmen of Irish blood, etc.); how fiercely they resent Partition and how ardently they are depending on Article XII to reduce the Partitioned area to a minimum.

Then there is the other point that failure to carry out this Clause would simply play into the hands of the Irregulars and give them a renewed lease of life, etc. etc.

(b) Sir James Craig should assist the supporters of the Commonwealth in Ireland – Sir James Craig and Carson by their unwise and foolish pronouncements and illegal actions in 1912-14 were the main causes of modern physical force movement in Ireland and contributed more than any other persons to the destruction of the Union in Ireland (under ‘Home Rule’ the United Kingdom would be preserved; now it is gone). Here copious quotations from past utterances of Ulster Unionists.

The men who have done most to maintain the integrity of the Commonwealth [are the] present Irish Government, which carried out to a successful conclusion a war against Irregulars, Craig cannot now say these men [are] not in earnest about [the] Treaty. Debt of £20,000,000 put on Ireland by these necessities and many of the best men in Ireland [are] dead, e.g. Pres. Griffith, General Collins.

(N.B. it is to be remembered that these articles will be written by Englishmen purely from the British point of view. The point about this particular article is to counteract Craig and the Die-Hards should they attempt to repeat their 1912-14 tactics – a most probable contingency – by reminding the British public of the pickle these tactics led them into at the time of the European War.)

In general these articles are planned a) to impress British Commonwealth and American opinion with the excellence of our case b) with the manifold dangers in the Boundary Situation and the general danger of turning the Irish Race against them – especially now when they can appeal to World opinion with a case at least as excellent as that which compelled the Treaty.

The Dominions – Our particular wooing of the Dominions is of course due to the fact that it must have a big effect at the Imperial Conference. It should not be too difficult to get Dominion opinion overwhelmingly behind us on this matter, as they will be directly concerned both because of analogous problems of a similar nature (e.g. Rhodesia, Newfoundland) and because of the power of the Irish in these countries. We should also ‘give the tip’ to Irish papers in the Dominions to begin to wax enthusiastic about the Boundary Commission, so that pressure can be brought to bear in time on the Dominion statesmen who will go to the Imperial Conference.

Continental – We must also try to enlighten Continental opinion in view of the League of Nations – a possible Court of Appeal in the last result. For this purpose we could not do better than print some thousands of copies of Mr. Y.M. Goblet’s ‘La Frontiere de l’Ulster’, also sundry articles on the topic from ‘La Revue des Deus Mondes’.

Other Propaganda Methods – We should also make use of other methods which were very much in vogue at the time of the Home Rule agitation in 1912, viz., invite distinguished Foreign and British Journalists to visit the disputed regions, and write up their experiences.


These will be, first of all, the despatch to Mr. Baldwin of the informal preliminary letter, notifying him of our intention to acquaint him formally of our purpose with regard to the Boundary Commission.

When a reply has been received from Mr. Baldwin the President should thereupon make his statement on Northern policy somewhat along the lines outlined in my Memo. of the 22nd April.3 It is essential to wait for Mr. Baldwin’s reply to see what exact line he takes before the President makes his Dáil statement. I agree that whilst this statement should not contain as many direct and friendly references to the North-Easterners as the statement of the 6th December, it would not be polite not to make some reference to the Government’s friendly intentions towards the Belfast Government. It would at least maintain the continuity of the consistently friendly policy of the Government to the Belfast Government.

‘FESTINA LENTE’ – With these two steps the issue will be very definitely and very decidedly joined. We may expect ominous rumblings from Belfast and much solemn pledging of what they will or will not do in the event of certain circumstances. We must, at this period, keep resolutely the level and calm attitude that we have adopted since the advent of this Administration. Nothing is more baffling, nothing more cooling for the excitable Belfast temperament than this calm, objective, temperate and somewhat aloof attitude. As I have said before our motto must be ‘festina lente!’, giving plenty of time for the significance of every step in the game to sink deeply in. Time is now on our side. Three months ago it was on the side of Sir James Craig. It is for us now to use this valuable weapon of time to our best advantage.

After the President’s statement the next important step – unless before that time a London Conference is suggested – will be the nomination of our Boundary Commissioner.

About this I have already said something in my last Memo. and will say nothing further here. The game we are playing, or will be playing, in connection with this matter of the Boundaries, is very definitely, decidedly and undisguisedly a political game, and as such we should not hesitate to use politics to help us. The most ideal way to go about the task would be to work steadily along, step by step, and then, after giving latitude for much discussion on possible Commissioners, appoint, on the eve of the Election, our Commissioner, and after this dynamic stroke go to the country. There is no doubt that such a stroke at such a time would enormously benefit the Government at the hustings; and, as I have said before, it is essential to have this Government returned if this North-East Question is to be dealt with in a sane and statesmanlike fashion.

However, it is problematical at this moment whether we will be able to hold back the functioning of the Commission until after the Elections, if the Elections will not take place until September or October.

Personally, I would not like to see the Commission actually sitting when the Government was making its appeal to the country. Much valuable negotiation time would thereby be lost, as it is not likely that the British Government would make proposals of a considerable nature to a Government which was not in existence and which, as far as it knew, may not be in existence. Then again, were the Commission operating whilst the Government was at the country it is impossible to say what trick or decision might be played or made.

If possible, our Commissioner should be appointed, but the Commission should not sit until the return of the Government, and in the meantime one of the strong planks at the Election should be the Boundary Commission, or the complete implementing of the Treaty.

Returned on this issue (amongst others) our position would be enormously strengthened, and we could confidently look forward to seeing something definite and enduring accomplished.


Ministers may not be aware that there are no less than four definite and distinct opinions in Ireland on the Boundary Commission, its usages and disadvantages, etc.

(a) There is the view-point – which is the Government’s view-point – that the next great milestone to be reached in the progress of this Nation is the achievement of complete National Union. The advocates of this viewpoint consider everything in connection with Northern policy subordinate to this achievement.

Whether they are psychological Republicans or not – hoping to see Ireland termed ‘Poblacht’ at some future time – they consider the chief advantage of the Treaty position is to enable them to halt a little on the way in order to get their separated countrymen united to them before they march forward to the ultimate goal.

(b) There is the point of view of people who consider that the next milestone must be, not National Union, but the ejection from the Constitution of that nefarious conglomeration of words called the ‘Oath of Allegiance’, and also sundry other demoniacal but utterly powerless phrases referring to a person called the King and expressing the right of Citizens of the Saorstát to appeal to the British Council – all precedental deadletters.

These people who are in mental affinity with Irregular philosophy are hoping against hope that there will be a crash of the first magnitude with regard to the Boundary Commission, e.g., that Craig will refuse to nominate his Commissioner or that the Commission will not deal fairly with us. In these events their view is that it should go forth to the World that we have been let down and betrayed on the Treaty, and that we should thereupon repudiate the entire Treaty and set to work ourselves to eject4 the objectionable features from the Constitution. Persons of this school with whom I have had conversations are avowedly more anxious for this consummation out of the Boundary Commission than for the consummation of National Union. The idea behind their reasoning is, ‘far better to get us all united in Saorstát first before we consider the North-Eastern position’.

This opinion has many adherents amongst the official opposition. Ministers can see that there are possibilities in this course should the dice be weighted against us in the ultimate.

(c) There is the point of view of the North-Eastern Irredentists, who cannot see farther than the sheer carrying out of the Boundary Commission as soon as possible, and who are mainly concerned with the inclusion within the Free State of their own Parish.

Their reasoning is that Partition is odious, and a crime and that if it is to exist they have a right to get out of the partitioned area as soon as possible. When confronted with the argument ‘What of those who will be left behind?’,they reply, ‘It is to their advantage that “Northern Ireland” should be cut down to a minimum, as it cannot hold out without a hinterland and is bound to come in’. They regard themselves as the real advocates of National Unity.

(d) There is the point of view of the East Ulster Nationalists who are avowedly in favour of scrapping the Boundary Commission and accepting a compromise co-operation settlement with Craig. Their reasons for this are chiefly the opposite reasons to the people in (c). In other words, they realise that no possible Boundary Commission could possibly get them out, and that therefore their best interests are served by having as big a hinterland of people of their own way of thinking as possible.

These people have also a less altruistic but none the less potent reason for this point of view. It is this. They know full well that it is only within a North- Eastern area that their discredited politico-sectarian A.O.H. will get a chance to recuperate and support ‘leaders’ of the type of Mr. John D. Nugent in place and in power.

In their heart of hearts many of these people, in spite of their utterances, are really not anxious for the advent of National Union at all.

These are the four schools of thought on this Boundary issue amongst the people for whom the Government can speak.


As I have said we are angling for and hoping for the maturing of a position when the British Government, either because it realises the dangers itself, or because it will have become aware of them owing to pressure exerted through our propaganda, will invite both Free State and Belfast to London to a Conference to see what better plan than the Boundary Commission can be arranged. Should this Conference come off it will be second only in importance to the Treaty of London. It will in itself partake of something in the nature of a second Peace Conference and may probably sit for weeks and even months before it hammers out an enduring settlement.

But given the Fact of the Conference and the existence of the present Government, I have no doubt whatever that if we manoeuvre the ‘Problem of Ulster’ at this stage to a Round Table Conference in London the representatives of the various interests and countries will not rise from that table without having worked out a new Treaty of Settlement – this time amongst Irishmen with England possibly as a Guaranteeing Power in order to soothe North-Eastern susceptibilities, and I cannot see any reason why that settlement should not be based on National Union.

We should be prepared to meet that time – prepared to have a number of well-drafted proposals ready to set before that Conference, our minimum terms to be exposed first and then so on to our maximum – unless (which is not likely) they accept some one or other of the intermediaries.

(N.B. At the present moment we are drafting a number of proposals in the Bureau to meet this contingency.)


It is my belief that unless something very wonderful occurs National Union must first take a Federal form. We cannot expect Belfast to relinquish altogether its Government (of which it is so proud) and become merged in us. Besides, there are sufficient differences to justify an autonomous Parliament in that corner of Ireland. There will have to be mutual concessions on the Minorities point, and probably, if it is urged, on [the] Educational point. And it is quite possible that such a change in our present order will compel us to alter our Constitution somewhat.


National Union, and not the Boundary Commission, nor the removal of objectionable portions of the Free State Constitution is, therefore, our next great objective. The Government that reaches this goal will live in history as the Government that performed the greatest piece of initial statesmanship in Ireland and laid the most solid and enduring foundations of peace.

It is my belief that this immortal achievement is within the grasp of the present Government. This indeed would be a splendid Crown to its successes.

 Assistant Legal Adviser/div>

1Above No. 71.

2Not printed.

3Above No. 71. This memo is dated 21 April.

4The word originally was ‘reject’, but the ‘r’ has been crossed out.