The Senate of Southern Ireland, 1921

Under the Government of Ireland Act, 1920, both Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland were to get bicameral legislatures as part of Home Rule. The Senate and House of Commons of Northern Ireland were elected in 1921 and continued until 1972. Their history is well known.

The institutions of "Southern Ireland" faded rapidly into the historical fog, and are not worthy of much attention. However this note, based on research a few years ago in the Irish National Archives, fills in a gap in the historical picture which may be of interest to some. If you find it so, please let me know.

Southern Ireland consisted of the 26 counties not included in Northern Ireland. Its House of Commons consisted of 128 members elected from 28 constituencies of between three and eight seats. (The list can be found in many sources including Brian Walker's Parliamentary Election Reults in Ireland, 1918-92.) All elections were unopposed; Sinn Féin won the 124 territorially elected seats and the four from the National University, while three academics and a senior lawyer were elected by Trinity College. The Sinn Féin members constituted themselves as the Second Dáil, which also included Sean O'Mahoney, who alone of the six SF candidates elected in the first Northern Ireland House of Commons elections was not also elected in a Southern Ireland constituency.

The Senate of Southern Ireland was to consist of the Lord Chancellor of Ireland as its chairman; fifteen peers of the realm, resident in Southern Ireland, elected by their peers; eight Privy Councillors, elected by Privy Councillors; two representatives of the Church of Ireland; two representatives of the Catholic Church (which declined to nominate); sixteen individuals nominated by the Lord Lieutenant, including two who were to be nominated after consultation with the Labour movement, which however declined to be involved; and seventeen elected by the members of the county councils in different territorial constituencies - but by this point local government was completely under the control of Sinn Féin and no nominations were received for the seventeen places. The thirty-nine senators (excluding the Lord Chancellor) who were elected/appointed to the Southern Ireland Senate are listed below.

It is worth reflecting on why this rather bizarre system was chosen. The Home Rule Act passed eventually in 1914 would have provided a forty-member Senate, initially appointed by the Lord Lieutenant but later to be elected by the provinces of Ireland in proportion to population. This would probably have given Protestants a disproportionate voice in the new Senate's first term, later to be ironed out by popular elections, as indeed actually happened with the first Irish Free State Senate (see my page on the 1925 election). The Irish Convention, an earnest but dull attempt to get an agreed settlement between Unionists and Nationalists in 1917 (much praised by Asquith), proposed a sixty-four member Senate, which would have included seven ecclesiastics, three Lord Mayors (Dublin, Cork and Belfast), fifteen peers, eleven direct nominees of the Lord Lieutenant, fifteen representatives of commerce and industry, and from each of the four provinces one representative of Labour and two from the county councils. The initial proposal of the Government of Ireland Act was to have a single Irish Senate for both Southern Ireland and Northern Ireland; this was clearly unimplementable and Lord Oranmore and Browne sucessfully moved an amendment in the House of Lords debate to give the two parts of Ireland different Senates - the Southern Ireland has been described in the previous paragraph, and the Northern Ireland Senate (clearly an afterthought) was to have twenty-four members elected by the Northern Ireland House of Commons, and the Lord Mayor of Belfast and the Mayor of Londonderry to make up the numbers.

The Southern Ireland Senate could have been an interesting forum for accommodating Southern Unionists to the new Home Rule order. But by the time of the elections it was already clear that the Home Rule institutions of "Southern Ireland" would never function as designed, because Sinn Féin had declared that they would not work them; as a former Prime Minister put it, the policy was one of "giving to Ulster a Parliament which it did not want, and to the remaining three-quarters of Ireland a Parliament which it would not have". A trial balloon was floated during a low point in the British-Irish negotiations of the early summer as to the possibility of the Southern Ireland Senate taking on the role of a parliamentary assembly, but a number of the Senators themselves publicly rejected this idea. The Government of Ireland Act stipulated that if fewer than half the members of the House of Commons came to its first meeting on June 28, the institutions would lapse and Southern Ireland would be ruled as a Crown Colony. The four members for Trinity College did turn up (the meeting was held in the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction) and elected Gerald FitzGibbon as their Speaker. Fifteen Senators came to the initial meeting of the Senate (The Lord Chancellor of Ireland, Sir John Ross, did not attend due to ill health.). Two more meetings were held of the Senate over the next couple of weeks, with dwindling interest at each one. And that was that. (Dorothy McArdle, in a much cited passage of The Irish Republic, says that the Senate met only once, and that the fifteen who attended the first meeting were those nominated by the Lord Lieutenant. This is inaccurate on both counts.)

The House of Commons of Southern Ireland had a curious resurrection a few months later, when as part of the process of ratification of the December 1921 Ango-Irish Treaty its members were called together to approve it and appoint the Provisional Government of the Irish Free State on 14 January 1922. (There were interesting theological debates between Collins and the British government as to who had the right to summon this meeting, and on what authority.) This was the first occasion when the Trinity College representatives sat in an assembly with the Sinn Feiners. Of course by this point the Second Dáil had itself narrowly approved the Treaty, and the anti-Treaty members of the Dáil simply boycotted the meeting. The Third Dáil, elected in June 1922, replaced what remained of the Southern Ireland institutions.

Members of the Senate of Southern Ireland, 1921

The Lord Chancellor of Ireland

Peers resident in Southern Ireland

Privy Councillors

Representatives of the Church of Ireland

Appointed by the Lord Lieutenant

* these eight became members of the first Irish Free State Senate in 1922 - all nominated by W.T. Cosgrave, except Sir John Purser Griffith who was elected by members of the Dáil.

The fifteen who actually attended the Senate's inaugural meeting were: Lord Cloncurry, Lord Rathdonnell, the Marquess of Sligo, Sir Bryan Mahon, Archbishop Gregg, Andrew Jameson, Sir Andrew Beattie, E.H. Andrews, Henry S. Guinness, H.P. Glynn, J.W.R. Campbell, F.F. Denning, C.G. Gamble, Sir William Taylor, and Sir Nugent Everard.

See also: Westminster elections 1885-1910 | The 1918 election | Dáil elections since 1918 | Westminster elections since 1920 | Senate of Southern Ireland 1921 | Irish Senate elections in 1925 | Northern Ireland House of Commons | Northern Ireland Senate

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Nicholas Whyte, 23 April 2000; last modified 17 February 2002

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