Game of Anglo-Irish illusion: Fine words from London and Dublin will solve nothing, Geoffrey Wheatcroft argues

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WHY 1920? The British government denied yesterday that it was contemplating an end to its formal sovereignty over Northern Ireland, following a press leak which suggested that the 1920 Government of Ireland Act might be amended. But the Act remains a central concern of Irish nationalists.

Dr Joe Hendron, the SDLP MP for West Belfast, said yesterday that the Act must remain on the negotiating table, something the Irish Prime Minister, Albert Reynolds, has also said. This is mysterious enough to most people; what makes it more obscure is that, not for the first time, the Irish and the British are speaking different languages.

The 1920 Act could be called the Fourth Home Rule Bill. Previous Bills had been introduced at Westminster: in 1886, when it failed in the Commons, and in 1893, when it passed in the Commons but failed in the Lords. A third Bill had to wait until the Parliament Act had ended the Lords' veto. It was introduced in 1912 and enacted in 1914 after a threatened mutiny by the Army, and something near civil war in Ulster.

Like the previous Bills, it was meant to create an Irish parliament, self-governing but under the Crown and the ultimate sovereignty of Westminster. Like them, also, it made no special provision for Ulster, although this was the immovable object in the way of the irresistible force of Irish nationalism. With this difficulty unresolved, the 1914 Act was suspended for the duration of the war.

The European cataclysm ended, but, in Churchill's famous phrase, 'the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone' re- emerged. By 1918 the story had drastically changed. The Easter Rising and its suppression, Asquith's failure to find a settlement in the summer of 1916, the insane attempt to impose conscription on Ireland, and the informal understanding reached between Eamon De Valera and the Roman Catholic Church, had all led to the discrediting and political destruction of the old Irish Parliamentary Party, and with it any realistic hope of Home Rule. At the 1918 election, the revolutionary nationalists of Sinn Fein swept Ireland outside Ulster. Sinn Fein's armed wing, the original IRA, began a violent insurrection.

By then, David Lloyd George was prime minister. The 1920 Act was to be his supreme feat of political conjuring. Its essential purpose was to give something to everyone: Home Rule in both parts of Ireland, with parliaments for the 26 counties and for the six of Northern Ireland; a partitioned Ireland, but reunification provided for, through a Council of Ireland; and continued supreme authority at Westminster.

But conjurors are not really magicians, they are illusionists; and the 1920 Act was illusion. The Troubles (or 'War of Independence') continued. The 'Parliament of southern Ireland' was never constituted as such, but simply declared itself the Dail of an independent Irish state. No MPs from the 26 counties went to Westminster, as they were supposed to. The Council of Ireland was stillborn, and quietly buried in 1925. A year after the Act was passed, the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed, ending the Troubles and creating a near-autonomous Free State.

The only part of the 1920 Act that survived was the separate Northern Ireland with its devolved parliament, Stormont, which survived until 1972.

The deepest trouble of all was that by 1920 the two sides simply were not speaking the same language. The British still thought in terms of ''the Crown' and a constitutional link between Ireland - all of it - and Westminster, while the Irish intended an independent state.

Lloyd George did not grasp that Irish republican nationalism meant what it said. Nor did his successors. In 1949, in response to the formal declaration of a republic in Dublin and its departure from the Commonwealth, the Attlee government passed the Ireland Act, which recognised the republic but added that 'the Republic of Ireland is not a foreign country'. For their part, De Valera and his colleagues, and successors down to Mr Reynolds, failed to recognise something else. A united Ireland had been unlikely under Home Rule; with an independent Irish Republic, it became impossible.

With hindsight, it was not the 1920 Act that was the root of the problem so much as the failure to recognise that the Act had never worked. If partition had been accepted as the best solution and if Northern Ireland had reverted to pre-1914 status, governed from Westminster as the rest of the country had been, the two communities in the province would have been guaranteed what they deserved rather than what they wanted: the Protestants a continued link with the Crown (rather than the freedom to oppress Catholics), the Catholics, equal rights under the law as enjoyed by their co-religionists in England and Scotland.

The two sides are still engaged in a game of illusion or chasing shadows. Changing the 1920 Act will not appease the republicans or 'marginalise the men of violence'. Nor will it realise the Government's other, contradictory aim of bringing Sinn Fein to the conference table - though it is sure to enrage the Unionists, who will not be mollified by a change of words in the Irish constitution.

Neither London nor Dublin seems capable of grasping, in 1994 as in 1920, that this conflict turns not on constitutional documents or forms of words, but the existence of, on the one hand, an independent Irish state and, on the other, a million Protestants who do not wish to live under that state.

Lloyd George and De Valera were both politicians of genius. They could not spirit the 'Ulster question' away. Will John Major and Albert Reynolds - neither of whom could be called a genius - really succeed where they failed?

(Photograph omitted)