The swift formation of Northern Ireland was made possible by an English civil servant

Ernest Clark played a key role in NI’s launch in 1921 writes GORDON LUCY:

Tuesday, 4th May 2021, 5:23 am
Updated Tuesday, 4th May 2021, 5:35 am
Sir Ernest Clark: 'His great social charm was to greatly assist him in negotiating the severance of financial relations between Dublin and Belfast so amicably'

Although the Government of Ireland Bill became law on December 23 1920, the terms of the Act were implemented in stages by a series of ‘appointed days’.

On March 24 1921 the Privy Council decreed that May 3 was to be the date on which the Act’s provisions would be brought into operation generally. 

History tends to credit success to politicians and frequently overlooks the crucial contribution of civil servants but according to the historian Bryan A. Follis, ‘One man more than any other made possible the swift and highly efficient formation of Northern Ireland - Sir Ernest Clark.’

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An English civil servant with no prior connection with Ireland,

Clark entered the service in 1881 at the age of 17, taking fourth place in a competitive examination of about 600 candidates.

‘A meticulous, hard-working and hard-driving individual’, he regarded tackling a difficult job and doing a hard day’s work as one of life’s greatest joys.

He believed that ‘really hard work, even to the point of exhaustion’, was ‘not an evil but a benefit to a vigorous constitution.’

In laying the foundations of the Northern Ireland state he drove his small staff (never more than 20) hard but he pushed himself even harder, working 16 hours a day, every day.

His ‘great social charm’ was to greatly assist him in negotiating the severance of financial relations between Dublin and Belfast so amicably.

His excellent rapport with, the third Duke of Abercorn, with the Governor of Northern Ireland, was to help ease relations between the new government and Downing Street.

Prior to being appointed as an additional Assistant Under-Secretary in Ireland in 1920-21, he had acquired extensive experience in both the UK and South Africa, building up a formidable expertise in matters relating to taxation.

During the Great War he was a Treasury liaison officer with the War Office and Ministry of Munitions.

In 1918 he was awarded a CBE in 1918 and appointed assistant secretary of the Board of Inland Revenue and deputy chief inspector of taxes next year. He was secretary of the 1919-20 Royal Commission on income tax and knighted in the latter year.

Clark’s appointment in September 1920 as an additional Assistant Under-Secretary of Ireland based in Belfast with administrative responsibility for the area which was to form Northern Ireland was very much at the insistence of Ulster Unionist MPs, especially James Craig.

They viewed the Assistant Under-Secretary’s role as preparing for devolution.

Nationalists regarded his role as laying the foundations of partition.

Initially Ulster Unionists were not overly happy with the appointment because of Clark’s perceived lack of autonomy from Dublin Castle (on account of its perceived nationalist bias).

Nevertheless senior unionists went to great lengths to be of assistance and as a result developed a good working relationship with him.

One of his first tasks was the creation of the Ulster Special Constabulary. He recognised the urgent necessity of creating an armed force of special constables to deal with the rapidly deteriorating situation and to restore law and order.

Using powers available to him under the Special Constables Act (1832) he set about his task.  Within five weeks of his appointment he published details of the USC and oversaw its recruitment.

Between the disbandment of the RIC (May 31 1922) and the RUC becoming operationally effective, the USC was the Northern Ireland state’s main counter-insurgency force.

The failure of the IRA’s terrorist campaign to strangle the new state at birth was attributable of the USC.

By February 7 1921 Clark forwarded Craig a detailed scheme for the organization of ministries, with an accompanying staff chart for the proposed government and administration. He originally proposed five departments: Finance, Education, Agriculture & Public Works, Health & Local Government, Commerce & Labour.

The final (and slightly different) configuration was only agreed on 25 May 1921.

Preparations for the holding of the first elections to the Northern Ireland Parliament, the first parliamentary election in the UK to use the Single Transferable Vote system of Proportional Representation, also claimed his attention.

He drew heavily on the experience of the Irish local government elections of 1920 which used the same system.

As Bryan Follis has observed: ‘Quite simply, without his efforts the election to the first Parliament of Northern Ireland could not have been held when it was, nor could the Government of Northern Ireland been formed or assume office when it did.’

As a result of Clark’s efforts Northern Ireland enjoyed ‘a basic continuity in the administration of its services’ which ensured there was no breakdown in the machinery of government.

It is surely virtually impossible to exaggerate the importance of this.

Follis also credits Clark with grafting ‘the principles of political impartiality and administrative professionalism’ on to the new Civil Service and regards this as ‘perhaps his greatest achievement’.

Patrick Buckland offers a riposte to the oft-repeated allegations of anti-Roman Catholic discrimination.

It was certainly not ‘[the Unionist] government’s original intention to have an overwhelmingly Protestant governmental service. When planning the structure of the civil service … Clark had raised with Craig the question of reserving a proportion of posts for Catholics, but there is no record of a quota being decided upon. There was, however a hope that all creeds would join the government service.’

In November 1921, with the formal transfer of services, Clark became permanent secretary of the Ministry of Finance and head of the Civil Service of Northern Ireland, a position he retained until 1925.

Clark visited Australia in 1928-29 as a member of the British economic mission invited by the Australian government to examine the dominion’s economy.

As an author of the subsequent report he made a favourable impression on the premier of Tasmania,

In 1933 Clark was offered and accepted the governorship of Tasmania, He proved an efficient and hard-working governor whose term was extended three times,

On his retirement in 1945 Clark returned to England.

When he died on 26 August 1951 at his home in Devon, his ashes were sent to Hobart for interment in Tasmania.

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