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While the secession of (much of) Ireland in the early 1920s has received substantial historical attention, few have considered the issue of nomenclature before and after 6 December 1922, the point at which the Irish Free State came into existence. Analysis of archival documents and public discourse reveals a lot about how the shrunken United Kingdom sought to identify itself.
Reconstituting the United Kingdom
The Conservative government completed the reconstitution of the United Kingdom on 5 December 1922 when Royal Assent was granted to the Irish Free State Constitution Act 1922 and the Irish Free State (Consequential Provisions) Act 1922. Section 6 of the latter provided that the King could, by Order in Council, ‘make such adaptations of any enactments … as may appear to him necessary or proper as a consequence of the establishment of the Irish Free State’. Although this order dealt with the meaning of ‘the United Kingdom’ in existing statutes, it said nothing of those to be passed in future and opened space for debate over the meaning of the expression ‘United Kingdom’ and titles related to it.
The King’s Title and the Free State
The 1924 Liquor Treaty brought these matters to a head. Although treaties could be agreed under the royal prerogative, the Free State required that they be ratified in the Dáil. Given the preamble gave prominence to the King’s title, every ratification vote saw complaints about George V’s claim to be King of the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland’. In April 1924 the Dáil only agreed to recommend approval of the Liquor Treaty: ‘Provided that such approval shall not be deemed to be an approval or acceptance of the inclusion of Ireland in the description of the United Kingdom among the Royal Titles of the Crown as one of the parties to the said Treaty.’ This led the UK Foreign Office to conclude that unless a change could be made which would satisfy Dublin, then the ‘conduct of foreign affairs will become increasingly difficult, if not impossible’. The newly shrunken United Kingdom would then need to consider at least the King’s title if it was to maintain relations with Dublin.
A ‘slight’ change
After further discussion with Desmond FitzGerald, the Free State Minister of External Affairs, Whitehall initiated two conferences, the second of which took place on 3 June 1926 and considered two suggestions from the Colonial Secretary, Leo Amery. The first suggestion, ‘Of the United Kingdom, the Irish Free State and of the Dominions beyond the Seas, King, etc.’ proved popular with the UK Cabinet, prompting them to consider two further variants. A. ‘King of Great Britain and Ireland and of the British Dominions beyond the Seas etc….’ and B. ‘King of Great Britain, of Ireland, and of the British Dominions beyond the Seas etc….’A variation of option B. was adopted on 19 November. It recommended that the King’s title should henceforward read: ‘George V, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the Seas King, Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India.’
This formulation simply replaced the ‘and’ linking ‘Great Britain and Ireland’ with a punctuation mark, which became known as ‘O’Higgins’s comma’, as it had been suggested by the
Free State’s Minister for Justice, Kevin O’Higgins. This was, however, to generate a backlash in Northern Ireland.
Expanding the titular debate
Following the adoption of ‘O’Higgins’s comma’, Belfast reported ‘considerable uneasiness’ owing to the reference ‘to Ireland as though it were a single political entity’. The replacement of ‘and’ with a comma in the King’s title reawakened Ulster Unionist fears of British betrayal and the six counties’ absorption into an all-Ireland parliament and provoked the expansion of the King’s title debate to include that of the United Kingdom Parliament. This debate persuaded the Home Secretary to admit that the status quo—the ‘Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland’—had ‘become unreal’.
Further discussion between Belfast and Whitehall reinforced the need for change and, on 15 December 1926, the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, told MPs that his government intended to propose that the title should in future be: ‘The Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.’ This maintained the expression ‘United Kingdom’ in the parliamentary, if not the King’s, title. Pressure from Belfast had both broadened the debate and led to a change in Parliament’s title.
The outcome of these debates
These discussions finally culminated in the Royal and Parliamentary Titles Act 1927. The bill proposed to ‘bring the title of the Sovereign and Parliament into consonance with the present constitutional position’, while repeating that the use of the word ‘Ireland’ in the King’s title was geographical rather than political, and therefore neither a proxy for Northern Ireland nor the Irish Free State. The Act received Royal Assent on 12 April 1927 and as of that date Parliament became known by its new name.
This was followed by changes to the Great Seal of the Realm. The Crown Office Rules (No. 2) Order 1927 dealt with any documents to be authenticated under the Great Seal by substituting ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ for ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland’ and ‘Great Seal of the (or Our) Realm’ for ‘Great Seal of the (or Our) United Kingdom’. The ‘United Kingdom’ no longer existed in the style, titles and Great Seal of the sovereign, but lived on in the title of the Imperial Parliament at Westminster.
These differing outcomes were a direct result of the complex debates which took place within and between the shrunken United Kingdom and the Irish Free State in the period between 1922 to 1927.
This ‘keep calm and carry on’ approach to the United Kingdom’s territorial contraction arguably prevailed in the late 1990s when the centre’s response to devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland was of the minimalist variety deployed three-quarters of a century earlier. Only the prospect of Scottish independence—a matter considered by the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom a century after Irish independence—would provoke a fresh Royal and Parliamentary Titles Act. The civil service files from 1922–27 might then come in useful.