The border, politics, and the Commonwealth in interwar Ireland


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).[1]

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.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4]

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’.[5]

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.[6]

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.[7] 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.

A republic

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).[8]

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:,_1933.jpg

[1] 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).

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

[5] Irish Independent, 18 Aug. 1923.

[6] Heads of Policy, minutes of meeting of the General Purposes Committee of Fine Gael, 9 Nov. 1933: UCDA, Fine Gael papers, P39/MIN 2.

[7] Seanad Debates, vol. 22, cols 923-995, 7 Feb 1939.

[8] O’Malley, Ireland, India and empire, pp 158-9.

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Undead Letters: Ireland’s Blasphemy Referendum


On 26 October Ireland will go to the polls not only to elect a President, but to vote in a long-awaited referendum on whether or not to remove the offence of blasphemy from the Irish constitution. The importance of cutting out Article 40.6.1, which reads ‘the publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with the law’, is difficult to overstate.

Although the blasphemy law was finally repealed in the UK as recently as 2008, we tend to think of it as a quaint legal anachronism. The same might be thought in Ireland, where no one has been prosecuted under the law since 1855. So the question must be asked, why even bother with a referendum? As Senator Rónán Mullen has pointed out, the constitutional reference is largely symbolic and a referendum would be, he argues, of no public benefit and yet would cost over €3 million.

UK humanist organisations have rightly noted that the Irish law is frequently cited by other countries to justify keeping their own blasphemy laws, but the heart of the matter is that even long-dormant laws are always at risk of rearing their heads again, especially when it comes to blasphemy. The case of such laws in England during the 20th century illustrates this well.

As long ago as the late nineteenth century, English blasphemy law looked outdated. A public meeting was even been held at St. James’ Hall in May 1884 to demand the removal of blasphemy laws for being ‘obsolete enactments’ [1]. With the year 1921 seeing the last prison sentence for blasphemy, by 1949 the distinguished judge Lord Alfred Denning could declare the offence a ‘dead letter’ whilst Lord Goddard in 1951 was able to refer in passing to the ‘somewhat obsolete offence of blasphemy’ [2].

In 1957, C.E Ratcliffe observed in an article that, despite their redundancy, ‘the blasphemy laws, relics of the Bad Old Days, are still on the Statute Books’ [3]. In fact the statute law of blasphemy was repealed in the late 1960s but the common law offence of blasphemous libel (the instrument which was actually used to prosecute blasphemers in England) remained in place, despite it being recommended for abolition by a committee. Blasphemous libel, then, continued to exist in theory but was obsolete in practice – symbolic, more than anything.

Quite suddenly however, in 1976, blasphemy was revived. When Danish filmmaker Jens Jørgen Thorsen attempted to make a film in Britain about the supposed sex life of Jesus, Mary Whitehouse and her National Viewers and Listeners Association whipped up a press campaign and sought advice on how to initiate a prosecution, finding recourse in the dusty old law of blasphemous libel.

In the event Thorsen was refused entry to the country, but the episode had drawn attention to the fact that blasphemous material was being produced and that there were in fact courses of action available to prevent this in the seemingly archaic blasphemy laws. This became relevant the following year when Whitehouse did initiate a private prosecution for blasphemous libel against the magazine Gay News and its Editor Dennis Lemon for publishing a poem by James Kirkup entitled ‘The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name’, along with an illustration, that graphically described a Roman Centurion having sex with Jesus after his crucifixion.

After a dramatic and controversial trial at the Old Bailey in July 1977, the first blasphemy trial for 56 years, a jury found both the journal and Lemon guilty. The judge declared the poem ‘blasphemous upon its face’ and handed Lemon a nine month suspended sentence and a £500 fine. The verdict was upheld by the Court of Appeal and the Law Lords, though the prison sentence was later quashed.

A letter from the Home Office to the Department of Public Prosecutions (DPP) in August 1977 summarised the situation well – ‘as to blasphemy and other religious offences, they are no longer, as we thought here in 1971, obsolete curiosities but a live issue’ [4].

Blasphemy had made a comeback and accusations of it subsequently increased. Hundreds of complaints were made about the blasphemy of Monty Python’s Life of Brian in 1979 and the DPP did actually consider bringing charges [5]. The Last Temptation of Christ was similarly declared blasphemous by numerous commentators with widespread calls for a prosecution.

Though no action was brought against these films, as a result of the controversy the short 1989 film Visions of Ecstasy, about the sexualised visions of Saint Teresa of Avila with the body of Jesus, was effectively banned by the British Board of Film Classification who refused to issue the video with a certificate because it was the Board’s view that a jury would find the production blasphemous. This was the first time the Board had censored a film for blasphemy.

Not only did this mean an official body in the UK had censored a film for adults on the grounds of blasphemy, but it also strengthened the case of those who were calling for a prosecution to be brought against Salman Rushdie for his novel The Satanic Verses in that same year. The end result of all this was that freedom of expression in Britain was left severely bruised.

What the English example shows, then, is even when it is thought an offence has been consigned to a legal wasteland, its very existence still represents the possibility of a revival. The only way to ensure blasphemy is banished to the history books for good is complete abolition of all laws, including ‘dead letter’ ones, wherever they are found, as the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief has called for.

Historian David Nash’s claim in 2007 that blasphemy ‘is at the forefront of legal and philosophical dilemmas facing contemporary western governments’ still rings true [6]. Whilst the law in England was abolished in 2008 under the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act, the concept of blasphemy has continued to have resonance in the context of ongoing discussions about freedom of expression, religious freedom and multiculturalism, especially after the Charlie Hebdo attacks of 2015.

Malta, Norway, Iceland and Denmark have all recently repealed their blasphemy laws. A Bill to do the same is currently making its way through the legislature of Canada. At the same time, Imran Khan, the new Prime Minister of Pakistan, is pledging to export his country’s blasphemy laws to the rest of the world. In the face of this, Ireland may wish to bear history in mind when considering the views of Senator Mullen and others. Blasphemy remains, as it always has been, more than merely symbolic.

Hallam Roffey is in the first year of his WRoCAH-funded PhD in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. His research concerns freedom of expression, censorship and offensive / obscene material in modern Britain.

[1] Justice, 10 May 1884, p.1.
[2] N. Walter, Blasphemy Ancient & Modern, p.61.
[3] The Word, November 1957, p.10.
[4] National Archives: D.P.P, 2/6231, Thørsen, Jens Jorgen, 1976-1977.
[5] National Archives: HO, 300/193, ‘Monty Python’s Life of Brian’, 1979-1980.
[6] D. Nash, Blasphemy in the Christian World: A History (oxford, 2007), p.1.


Image CreditThe Art Society Køge Bay: The director Jens Jørgen Thorsen debates the movie ‘Stille dager i Clichy’ in Munkebio, May 1, 1980. 


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