Peter Robinson: Northern Ireland “was not initially meant to be a permanent state”

Posted By: January 16, 2021

   Claire Simpson. Irish News. Belfast. Saturday, January 16, 2021.


President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State W.T Cosgrave, British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, and Prime Minister of Northern Ireland Sir James Craig at Chequers in 1924. Picture from Press Association

Former first minister Peter Robinson has said that Northern Ireland was not initially intended to be a permanent state.


The former DUP leader, widely regarded as one of unionism’s most strategic thinkers, suggested that initial structures set up in the early 1920s showed partition was meant to be “short-term”.


Writing ahead of planned commemorations to mark the establishment of Northern Ireland later this year, he said: “It is clear from the structures that were fashioned at the birth of Northern Ireland that our forefathers did not envisage creating a permanent state.”


“The apparatus of the Council of Ireland suggests our separateness from the South was to be short-term and transitory,” he wrote in his News Letter column.


“When (then Northern Ireland Prime Minister Brian) Faulkner and others attempted to re-establish a diluted version of the Council of Ireland in the 1970s unionist opposition brought it down principally because of that element which they described as “a slippery slope into a United Ireland.”


“Nothing I have suggested diminishes (unionist leaders) Craig and Carson. They were doing the very best that seemed possible and attainable at that time.”


However, Mr. Robinson’s interpretation has been rejected by Irish News columnist and historian Dr. Éamon Phoenix who said the unionists involved in the establishment of Northern Ireland “wanted nothing to do” with an Irish state and saw the north as a permanent entity.


Dr. Phoenix said Mr. Robinson was “wrong in his history”.


“He’s wrong about what the Ulster Unionists wanted in 1920-22 as the state was being set up,” he said. “The 1920 Government of Ireland Act… was set up by a Tory-dominated coalition government whose leaders were friends of Craig and Carson.”


However, he said Liberals on the committee which drew up the detail of the establishment of Northern Ireland did not want permanent partition.


“The Liberals certainly believed that partition should be temporary and a Council of Ireland should be introduced as a ‘bond of the union’ of the two parts of Ireland which would be left separate and that it should have minor powers which could evolve into an all-Ireland parliament by consent,” he said.


Dr. Phoenix said leading Conservatives including Lord Balfour and Lord Birkenhead saw Northern Ireland as permanent.


And he said future Northern Ireland Prime Minister Sir James Craig was “very much opposed to the Council of Ireland” – a cross-border body with very limited powers – and worked to get it abolished in 1925.


“It was only introduced as a sop to dominion opinion – Irish-Australians, Irish-Canadians and of course Irish-Americans – because of course from a British point of view partition was the most embarrassing part of their Irish policy, that there was almost to be a sectarian division on the island,” he said.


He said during debates on the 1920 act unionists did everything to “minimize all-Ireland aspects of the bill and safeguards for the northern nationalists”.


However, he said that Sir James Craig later envisaged a united Ireland, telling a senior civil servant in 1938: “Ireland is too small to remain divided forever. A united Ireland is inevitable.”