Northern Ireland news

Centenary of king's speech which may have prevented 'all-out war' between republicans and the British in Ireland

On June 22 1921, King George V visited Belfast and urged Irish men and women “to pause, to stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation, to forgive and to forget”. Claire Simpson speaks to Dr Éamon Phoenix about a speech which may have prevented “all-out war”.

King George V and Queen Mary passed through the streets of Belfast when they opened the new northern parliament at the city hall in June 1921. Picture from Press Association

Several weeks after the first post-partition elections on May 24 1921, British royal King George V officially opened both houses of the new Northern Ireland parliament at Belfast City Hall.

The visit - the king’s first to Ireland in a decade - would become one of the most significant addresses by a British monarch in the 20th century.

But, set against what Dr Éamon Phoenix described as a “seething mass of violence and bloodshed” across Ireland, it nearly did not happen at all.

The previous two years had seen the start of the War of Independence in January 1919; Bloody Sunday in Dublin and the burning of Cork by the Black and Tans in 1920, hunger strikes and executions.

“Right down to that day (of the king’s speech) violence was continuing on a massive scale all over the island, in Belfast as much as in Cork," Dr Phoenix said.

The king and queen parade through central Belfast after George V officially opened the Northern Ireland Parliament in June 1921. Picture from The London Illustrated News

The king - the grandfather of Queen Elizabeth - had long held an interest in Ireland.

Seven years earlier, in 1914, he called a conference at Buckingham Palace in London - where unionist leader Edward Carson met nationalist leader John Redmond - to try and stop a civil war between the UVF and the Irish Volunteers.

Although the talks broke down, a war was averted.

The king's advisers told him not to visit Belfast in 1921.

However, the South African Prime Minister Jan Smuts, who had rebelled against the British crown during the Boer War but had also been part of the Imperial War Cabinet during the First World War, is thought to have suggested it.

Smuts, who was a friend of executed republican Roger Casement’s brother Tom, had met the Sinn Féin leadership, including Éamon de Valera, in Dublin.

“He (Smuts) seems to have suggested to the king, weeks before the Northern Ireland Parliament opened, that he (the king) might go to Belfast and say something telling," Dr Phoenix said.

Chairs used by King George V and Queen Mary at opening of first Northern Ireland Parliament at Belfast City Hall have been refurbished

During the visit, King George was determined not to be a mouthpiece for Northern Ireland Prime Minister James Craig, whose Ulster Unionist Party had won a landslide of 40 of 52 Parliamentary seats in the May elections.

Several drafts of the speech were written, including interventions by Smuts, the king himself, Prime Minister David Lloyd George and Craig.

However, the king's private secretary, Lord Stamfordham recorded that the monarch was "very distressed" by the draft speech from Craig, saying the unionist was "trying to make me the mouthpiece of Ulster rather than the voice of Empire".

The visit itself sparked a major security operation.

Huge numbers of troops massed in Belfast, detectives arrived from London, and pubs were closed until half five that day.

Massive crowds, almost exclusively Protestant and unionist, greeted the king and his wife, Queen Mary as they made their way through the city.

When the king spoke, his address was “transformative”, Dr Phoenix said.

How The Irish News reported George V's speech on June 22 1921

The king said he prayed that his visit might be a first step towards peace in Ireland.

“In that hope, I appeal to all Irishmen to pause, to stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation, to forgive and to forget, and to join in making for the land which they love a new era of peace, contentment, and goodwill,” he said.

He added: “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.”

Although the speech was made in Belfast, Dr Phoenix said it was “directed at the Republican leadership in Dublin” which had been at war with the British Crown for two-and-a-half-years.

“Without the king’s determination to make a difference, things could have gone very, very differently," Dr Phoenix said.

He said that by June 1921, the British government could either have chosen negotiations with Sinn Féin or “all-out war”.

Ulster Unionist leader James Craig, centre, and members of his cabinet in London in November 1921 during the Treaty negotiations

Dr Phoenix said all-out war, which Lloyd George called the Boer War tactics, would have involved 200,000 troops, a policy of military aggression and concentration camps for women and children in the south.

“If the king’s speech didn’t work, that was the alternative the south was facing,” he said.

Within days, Éamon de Valera was in negotiations with the British army in Ireland.

A truce became operative on July 11 1921 and by July 14, de Valera was in London for negotiations with the British government.

Later that year, the Anglo-Irish Treaty which established the Irish Free State was signed.

Eamon de Valera on the steps of No. 10 Downing Street, London. Picture from Press Association

“Without the king’s speech to soften the tone of British involvement in Ireland, to offer an olive branch to Sinn Féin and the IRA, to offer cover to Lloyd George to seek a settlement, there wouldn’t have been an end to the conflict in the summer of 1921 and there wouldn’t have been the compromise, flawed though it was, in the Treaty in December of that year,” Dr Phoenix said.

Yet despite the success of the speech, violence continued.

Two days after the king’s visit, a train carrying his honour guard was blown up by the IRA at Adavoyle between Newry and Dundalk, killing three soldiers, a railway guard, and 80 horses.

Violence did not end in the north until September 1922, following 450 deaths, the burning of hundreds of mainly Catholic homes and the displacement of thousands of nationalists.

And in the south, the fall-out from the Treaty sparked a bitter civil war which would run between June 1922 and May 1923.

:: Dr Éamon Phoenix is a political historian and broadcaster and an Irish News columnist. He is giving an online talk on the king's speech tomorrow night. For more information visit

Historian and Irish News columnist Dr Éamon Phoenix. Picture by Hugh Russell

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