The Foundation of Northern Ireland in June 1921: Two Jurisdictions – One Church

One hundred years ago the Irish Border was created by the Government of Ireland Act, which came into law on 3rd May 1921. For the RCB Library’s second exhibition to mark this anniversary, Prof Brian M Walker – Professor Emeritus of Irish Studies, Queen’s University Belfast, and author of Irish history matters: politics, identities and commemoration (Irish History Press, 2019) – analyses the lead -up to and foundation of Northern Ireland in June 1921.

Drawing again on the Church of Ireland Gazette, he comments on the paper’s importance as a source for understanding historical events in Ireland, north and south. As with the previous Partition exhibition for May by Dr Ian d’Alton, the lens of the Gazette gives both southern and northern perspectives of how the political division of Ireland impacted the Church of Ireland, then as now an all-island institution, with dioceses, parishes and other structures spanning the Border.

Photograph of the royal party in High Street, Belfast, 22nd June 1921, on the occasion of the official opening of the Northern Ireland Parliament, by Alex Hogg. © Prof Brian M Walker

While based in Dublin, the paper always covered the affairs of the Church of Ireland countrywide, which, Prof Walker observes, tended to reflect a southern unionist perspective in its editorials. However, at the same time, every week, extensive ‘Notes from Belfast’ reported on northern matters. During 1920, editorials, ‘in common with all southern unionists’, had declared strong opposition to the idea of Partition as proposed in the new legislation for two parliaments in Ireland. By early 1921, however, after the Government of Ireland Act received royal assent, the paper declared that Partition was now a fact which had to be accepted, with the editorial published in the 14th January 1921 edition expressing the hope that there would be ‘ultimate unity through the Council of Ireland’.

Banner headline featuring the Belfast Notes, from Church of Ireland Gazette, 1921

On 10th June, there was a description of the first sitting of the Northern Ireland Parliament which led to the establishment of the Government of Northern Ireland. The Gazette also reported a special Sunday intercessory service in St Anne’s cathedral in Belfast for the new Parliament and Government.  Among those present were various politicians, including Sir James Craig, the prospective Prime Minister, and the four Church of Ireland bishops whose dioceses were in the new state, as well as leading Methodist and Presbyterian clergy. The preacher was Archbishop Charles D’Arcy – the then Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland – who urged that regard be given ‘to the welfare of all the people of this province, of every creed and class, of the minority as well as of the majority’.

The official opening of the Northern Ireland Parliament by King George V on 22nd June was recorded in the Gazette on 1st July. The large, enthusiastic crowds in attendance and the ‘solemn pageantry’ of the opening moments of the Parliament in the City Hall were described. The paper noted especially: ‘His majesty’s speech put a totally new aspect on the Irish situation’. His appeal for peace gave new hope for the future.  In its report of the 1st July 1921, the Gazette observed that the King’s speech had proved to be the signal for a series of important steps towards negotiations between Sinn Féin and the British Government. This led to the 11th July Truce which, the Gazette, on 15th July, declared, ‘every loyal Irishmen received with the deepest joy’.

Logo for new search engine: The Journals of the General Synod, 1912-1922

In conjunction with the June Archive exhibition, the RCB Library is pleased to release free access to another new historical resource in a digital format – the Journals of the General Synod. These record the annual business of the Church, including motions, bills, and key speeches. Copies of the journals, amounting to over 10,000 pages of text have all been digitized for the period 1912-22, complementing the resources available in the Gazette, and allowing further deeper analysis of the period through a similar search engine as the institutional Church began to conduct its business in two political jurisdictions. Going forward it is hoped to digitize and make searchable further decades of the Journals on an incremental basis, as funds will allow. To search the Journals, 1912-1922, see this link: