NI centenary: King George V brought message of conciliation as he opened NI’s first parliament

Historian GORDON LUCY on the State Opening of Northern Ireland’s first parliament exactly 100 years ago

Monday, 21st June 2021, 8:00 am
King George V inspects a guard of honour during his short visit to Belfast on June 22 1921

At the first meeting of the Northern Ireland Parliament on June 7 1921, the lord lieutenant swore in the Cabinet, Hugh O’Neill was elected as speaker of the House of Commons, and MPs took the oath of allegiance. Nationalist and Sinn Fein MPs absented themselves.

The lord lieutenant also announced that King George V would conduct its official opening on June 22.

For the State Opening of Parliament, King George V and Queen Mary travelled to Belfast by the Royal yacht, arriving at Donegall Quay. They then progressed to the city hall in an open landau with a cavalry escort through cheering crowds and streets bedecked with flags and bunting, as Lady Craig noted in her diary. Robinson and Cleaver’s department store proclaimed: ‘Ulster welcomes her King and Queen.’

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A message of welcome to the Royal couple on the Robinson and Cleaver department store in Belfast city centre

In front of the city hall the king inspected a guard of honour drawn from the 1st Battalion of the Royal Ulster Rifles and was welcomed by Sir James Craig

The Senate met in the city hall. Prayers were offered by the archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, the Presbyterian moderator and a senior Methodist. Cardinal Logue, the Roman Catholic primate, declined his invitation, pleading a prior engagement. In line with Westminster ceremonial, Black Rod then summoned MPs to attend to the king in the Senate and the King addressed both houses of Parliament.

The king’s address was brief, well-crafted and conciliatory. He began on a personal note: ‘My memories of the Irish people date back to the time when I spent many happy days in Ireland as a midshipman. My affection for the Irish people has been deepened by the successive visits since that time, and I have watched with constant sympathy the course of their affairs’.

His Majesty urged those assembled before him ‘to make it an instrument of happiness and good government for all parts of the community which you represent’.

He continued: ‘Few things are more earnestly desired throughout the English speaking world than a satisfactory solution of the age long Irish problems, which for generations embarrassed our forefathers, as they now weigh heavily upon us.’

He appealed to ‘all Irishmen to pause, to stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation, to forgive and forget, and to join in making for the land they love a new era of peace, contentment and goodwill’.

The king concluded by observing: ‘May this historic gathering be the prelude of a day in which the Irish people, North and South, under one Parliament or two, as those Parliaments may themselves decide, shall work together in common love for Ireland upon the sure foundations of mutual justice and respect.’

In reply, Sir James assured the monarch: ‘No effort shall be lacking on the part of your ministers to bring Northern and Southern Ireland together in recognition of a common Irish responsibility, and I trust that from now onwards a new spirit of forbearance and accommodation may breathe upon the troubled waters of the Irish question. Your Majesty may rest assured of the deep gratitude of your peoples for this new act of Royal service to their ideals and interests.’

The king’s address contained significant input from Jan Smuts, the South African prime minister, and the Cabinet in London. Smuts may even have been responsible for persuading the king to come to Belfast.

Smuts (‘a hero to Irish nationalists, including Michael Collins, since the Boer War’ according to Peter Hart) was trying to use his influence with Eamon de Valera to reach to a settlement.

Having fought the British Empire, Smuts was – as an imperial statesman – now in the process of reinventing it and beginning the transition from Empire to Commonwealth. At Westminster on April 2 1917 he had said: ‘The British Empire is not founded on might or force, but on moral principles – on principles of freedom, equality and equity. It is these principles which we stand for today in this mighty struggle.’

The king’s speech was not only directed at his immediate audience but the population of Northern Ireland and but beyond that to the Sinn Fein leadership in Dublin and the people of Southern Ireland.

The fact that state opening, like the first meeting on June 7, had been boycotted by Sinn Fein and Nationalists MPs was not encouraging. Nor did the fact that within days the IRA responded by blowing up a military train, carrying men and horses of the 10th Hussars who had formed part of the king’s escort. The terrorist attack, in which six people and over 80 horses were killed, took place near Bessbrook. Although the incident did not bode well, within a month a truce was agreed between the government and Sinn Fein that came into effect on July 11.

Unfortunately the generosity and goodwill evident in the king’s speech (and indeed Sir James Craig’s response) made no impression on local nationalists and republicans who preferred to take comfort in an anticipated early collapse of the Northern Ireland experiment. Some unionists feared the same. Both pessimistic unionists and ‘optimistic’ nationalists and republicans seriously underestimated the determination, resolve and mettle of Craig to ensure the survival of the new institutions.

After lunch – which Craig hosted at his own expense – the king received, in the Ulster Hall, loyal addresses from various organisations and local authorities.

Although the Royal visit was brief (less than five hours), according to one English newspaper: ‘The king was deeply touched by the fervour of his triumphant welcome, and on one occasion the queen was seen to be smiling through happy tears.’

Lady Craig recorded in her diary: ‘The king said to J[ames] when he was saying goodbye in the yacht: “I cannot tell you how glad I am I came, but you know my entourage were very much against it”.’

As seven people had died in rioting in Belfast 10 days earlier, the king and queen both demonstrated an impressive degree of physical courage in overriding the cautious advice of their entourage and coming to Belfast.