In the still recent past of the pre-Covid era, news cycles in Britain and Ireland were dominated by Brexit, and in particular by the question of the Irish border. However, while Irish politicians have spent much of the last few years stressing its significance to British audiences in this context, the border has animated the rhetoric of Irish politics since its establishment almost one hundred years ago.
The European Union is of course not the first international framework in which the border has been understood — as demonstrated by important recent discussions on ‘the imperial and colonial legacies of Irish history’. However, while some Irish nationalists had framed resistance to British rule as part of a critique of empire, after independence, there were still others who promoted Commonwealth membership. As examination of the interwar period demonstrates, the Irish Free State’s pursuit of sovereignty shaped many debates on partition — underlining the delicate relationship between constitutional change and its effect on the status of the border.
Debates on sovereignty and partition
As has been noted, the chief focus of debates on the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, which granted the 26-county Free State dominion status, was on sovereignty rather than partition (Northern Ireland having already been established with a devolved government under 1920 legislation).
Allegiance to the crown was anathema to republicans who opposed the Treaty and Éamon de Valera was among a number of Irish nationalists renowned among anti-colonial movements around the world. Yet, while de Valera would hold fast to his concept of accepting only ‘external association’ with empire, the pro-Treaty Cumann na nGaedheal administration participated fully in imperial conferences in the 1920s, seeking diplomatic routes to extend sovereignty —and achieve unity.
When the Boundary Commission established under the Treaty to adjudicate on the border yielded no progress, Free State minister Kevin O’Higgins even used the 1926 imperial conference to consider reviving the old Sinn Féin idea of Ireland becoming part of a dual-monarchy — with the implication that a fuller embrace of the crown could appeal to British and unionist leaders and smooth the path to unity. However, while Jason Knirck has argued that Treatyites were committed to using the Commonwealth as an ‘anti-imperial instrument’, O’Higgins was not the only voice who saw greater engagement with the crown or Commonwealth as a prerequisite to ending partition.
Those actively promoting the benefits of Commonwealth membership included former members of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), which before its electoral collapse in 1918, had campaigned for ‘home rule’ (a measure of devolution similar to that enjoyed by Scotland today). Individuals like William A. Redmond, James Dillon and Frank MacDermot looked to the Commonwealth as a stage to enhance Irish sovereignty, trade, and economic growth — but also unity. As early as 1923, Redmond, for example, had claimed not to be ‘in ecstasies’ about the Treaty, expressed little faith in the Boundary Commission, and instead pointed to dominions like South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand as what he called the ‘the freest democracies in the world’.
Ireland in the 1930s
By the time MacDermot and Dillon entered politics in the 1930s, de Valera and Fianna Fáil were in government, beginning a more robust campaign of ‘dismantling’ the Treaty and a shift away from participation in the Commonwealth. Both men were convinced, however, that strident nationalism would (to borrow Brexit-era vernacular) only ‘harden’ the border. Their twin priorities of unity and Commonwealth membership won their way into the heads of policy when they joined with Cumann na nGaedheal to form Fine Gael (the United Ireland Party) in 1933.
While MacDermot’s time in Fine Gael was brief, his priorities remained unchanged. As an independent, he put down over a hundred amendments to de Valera’s 1937 constitution, reiterating the benefits of the Commonwealth, and initiated a senate debate in 1939 where de Valera admitted he would not be prepared to sacrifice the tricolour and other symbols of nationalism as a concession to British identity. In contrast to others from IPP backgrounds, Dillon and MacDermot were prominent opponents of the state’s wartime neutrality, and Dillon remained one of few Irish politicians to participate in the Empire Parliamentary Association.
Yet, de Valera himself combined republican ideals with a recognition that leaving the Commonwealth reduced the chances of unity. It was thus a coalition led by Fine Gael rather than Fianna Fáil which unexpectedly declared a republic in 1948, leaving the Commonwealth in the process (in contrast to India in 1950).
While Dillon as Minister for Agriculture offered his support, he was absent from the Dublin parliament as the Republic of Ireland Bill passed. The legislation introduced at Westminster in response, reaffirming the authority of the Belfast parliament in deciding the future of Northern Ireland, would surely have served as proof to the younger Dillon that separation from the Commonwealth was detrimental to Irish unity.
His government colleague and former IPP MP Alfie Byrne still attended the September 1949 Commonwealth Relations Conference and reminisced on the possibility of unity in the home rule era. By that point, hopes of ending partition via this avenue had clearly passed into history.
Yet, the idea of the Commonwealth membership as an incentive to unionists to join a united Ireland has never been quite extinguished from political debate — even amid the frayed Anglo-Irish relations of the Brexit crisis. On the other hand, Irish engagement with the European project since 1973 has been deep and sustained — a marked contrast with the state’s drawn-out disentanglement from the Commonwealth.
As doubts remain over a deal between British government and the EU, however, the Irish border occupies a similar position to one it held in the early twentieth century — a subject of speeches and newspaper columns where debates on the nature of sovereignty again interact uncomfortably with relations north and south, and across the Irish Sea.
Dr Martin O’Donoghue is Teaching Associate in Modern British and Irish History at the University of Sheffield. He is the author of The Legacy of the Irish Parliamentary Party in Independent Ireland, 1922-1949, published by Liverpool University Press last year.
Cover image: Irish politician James Dillon of Fine Gael, circa 1930s (left), and Irish Politician Frank MacDermot in September of 1933. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:James_Dillon_circa_1930s.jpg
 Liam Weeks and Mícheál Ó Fathartaigh (eds), The Treaty: debating and establishing the Irish state (Dublin, 2018); Alvin Jackson, Home rule: an Irish history, 1800-2000 (London, 2003).
 On admiration for de Valera in India for example, see Kate O’Malley, Ireland, India and empire: Indo-Irish radical connections, 1919-64(Manchester, 2008), pp 1, 40, 94-5.
 Deirdre McMahon, ‘The 1926 imperial conference and Kevin O’Higgins’s proposals for a dual monarchy’, Analecta Hibernica, No. 44 (2013), pp. 99, 101-120.
 Jason Knirck, ‘The dominion of Ireland: the Anglo-Irish Treaty in an imperial context’, Éire-Ireland, vol. 42, no. 1 (2007), p. 250; Hugh Hanley, ‘Monarchism, international relations, and the continuing Irish revolution, 1926-29’, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History (2020) DOI: 10.1080/03086534.2020.1783116.
 Irish Independent, 18 Aug. 1923.
 Heads of Policy, minutes of meeting of the General Purposes Committee of Fine Gael, 9 Nov. 1933: UCDA, Fine Gael papers, P39/MIN 2.
 Seanad Debates, vol. 22, cols 923-995, 7 Feb 1939.
 O’Malley, Ireland, India and empire, pp 158-9.