The King's Speech: Opening the N.I. Parliament, 22 June 1921

Last month I was extremely privileged to join with a panel of 6 esteemed historians in a meeting with HRH The Prince of Wales in Belfast City Hall. The location was significant because almost exactly 100 years previous, King George V (Charles’ great grandfather) visited Belfast to open Northern Ireland’s first parliament in the same building. Charles was acutely aware of his great grandfather’s contribution and invited historians to comment on the impact made by King George’s speech in the context of island-wide violence and tumultuous Irish politics. The event will be marked by Belfast City Council on Tuesday 22 June when a re-creation of the speech will be made for a live stream. There will also be an unveiling of two chairs, used on that day by King George V and Queen Mary which have since undergone some specialist conservation work. A talk on the matter will also be provided by the brilliant Dr Eamon Phoenix, and finally a performance of a specially commissioned play by Terra Nova productions which will explore the speech in more dramatic detail.

During the preliminary session of the new devolved parliament on 7 June 1921 which took place in Union Theological College, James Craig became Prime Minister, a Speaker was elected, and it was also agreed with the full support of the British Cabinet that King George V would visit Belfast and formally open its first session two weeks later. These early sittings took place without nationalist representatives who had refused to take their seats, and also in the context of renewed and vicious rioting in Belfast in which 7 people had died just 10 days before the visit. Indeed, Buckingham Palace had received many letters begging their majesties not to make the visit.

For the King, this would not be a straightforward engagement, yet it was one that he would have to get absolutely right, or risk enflaming an already volatile situation in Ireland. On one hand, he was being advised to extend an olive branch to Sinn Fein in the hope that it might have a positive impact on the IRA’s devastating campaign in the south. On the other hand, James Craig hoped that the King might use the opportunity to express solidarity with his loyal subjects in Ulster. Craig even went to the trouble of drafting a speech which is said to have caused the King ‘great distress’ and left him feeling that he was ‘being made the mouthpiece of Ulster’. The fact that the King had broken from precedent to make the visit in such trying circumstances is perhaps evidence enough of his acknowledgement of the loyal subjects in Ulster, however it would not have been desirable for any speech to reinforce this and risk the further alienation of the catholic/nationalist population. In the end, following input from a handful of contributors, including South African PM Jan Smuts – a friend of Ireland, an entirely new text was drafted by Edward Grigg (David Lloyd George’s Private Secretary) and the King gave his approval to its contents. The King’s speech was therefore a carefully constructed message from Downing Street to be delivered in person by the Sovereign; in this case a more reliable messenger than the duplicitous David Lloyd George.

For unionism, the Royal visit was an opportunity to demonstrate that, despite the devolution of power to the new parliaments in Belfast and Dublin, the link to the British Crown and Empire remained as strong as ever. It was an event that provided great comfort to the unionist people who had successfully achieved a form of self-determination despite the passage of home rule. In Belfast, unionists turned the day into a loyal celebration. Lady Craig observed how, even the little side streets of areas like the Shankill and Ballymacarrett were draped with bunting and flags, while pavements and lamp posts were painted red, white, and blue for the occasion. ‘Imagine’ she pondered, ‘Radicals in England thinking they would ever succeed in driving people like that out of the British Empire’.

For nationalists, though, the prospect of a Royal visit added insult to injury. The previous week had witnessed 150 catholic families flee from their Belfast homes during sectarian violence and now, with the city decorated in union flags and bunting to welcome the King, the Irish News commented that Belfast was now a ‘beflagged’ city as well as a ‘besmirched’ one. As such, Irish Parliamentary Party and Sinn Fein representatives maintained their pledge not to enter the Northern Ireland parliament for its official opening, while the Roman Catholic Cardinal Michael Logue also rejected an invitation to attend City Hall.

The Royal Yacht “Victoria and Albert” sailed into Belfast Lough on the morning of Wednesday 22 June accompanied by battleships, cruisers and flotilla; there were 14 vessels in total. This was in stark contrast to the British warships that had prowled the Irish Sea with intent to engage Ulster in 1914, or the HMS Helga which shelled the British city of Dublin in 1916. Nonetheless, King George and Queen Mary disembarked at Donegall Quay at 11.30am to the sound of the RIC band playing the National Anthem before a Royal Salute of 21 guns was fired by the Royal Field Artillery. From early morning the streets of Belfast were filled with people using every possible vantage point in the hope that they could catch a glimpse of the Royal procession. One business attempted to cash in on the situation by advertising the sale of trench periscopes from the First World War at a reasonable price. Some of those that couldn’t secure a suitable position in the city centre made their way to Bellevue in order to observe the Royal Yacht and its escort slipping into Belfast Lough. Large numbers, some carrying union jacks, gathered at vantage points along the Antrim Road such as Waterloo Road, Gray’s Lane and Serpentine Road where there was an unobstructed view of the lough. Buildings were decorated for the occasion, including Clifton Street Orange Hall which was festooned with union flags and bunting, as was the Soldiers Home on Clifton Street and the Water Offices on Royal Avenue. The colourful route was also protected by 1,200 B Specials, soldiers, policemen, and detectives who were drafted in (some of them from GB) for the event; the threat of violence was never far away.

Upon arriving at Belfast City Hall their majesties were met by James Craig. At around 12.30pm, the King and Queen were escorted to their thrones in the City Hall, before Black Rod (Sir Frederick Moneypenny) summoned the House of Commons. After prayers (which were conducted only by Protestant church leaders as Cardinal Logue was not in attendance), a copy of a speech was handed to the King which he stood to deliver.

He began:

“Members of the Senate and of the House of Commons – For all who love Ireland, as I do with all my heart, this is a profoundly moving occasion in Irish history”.

The theme of Ireland in the context of the British Empire is one which ran through the speech from beginning to end. “I have come in person” said the King, “as Head of the Empire to inaugurate this parliament on Irish soil… This is a great and critical occasion in the history of the six counties, but not for the six counties alone; for everything which interests them touches Ireland, and everything which touches Ireland finds an echo in the remotest parts of the Empire”.

The King spoke of his hope that this would go some way towards resolving the age-old Irish question and his confidence that the Northern Parliament would conduct itself with the same patriotic devotion which the people of Ulster had demonstrated during the First World War. “My hope is broader still… I pray that my coming to Ireland today might prove to be the first step towards the end of strife amongst her people, whatever their race or creed. In that hope I appeal 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 finished by reminding those present that Ireland’s future was in their own hands: “May this historic gathering be the prelude of the 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 foundation of mutual justice and respect”.

At the conclusion of the reading of the speech a Royal Salute of 21 guns was fired by His Majesty’s Ships forming the Royal Escort and by the Royal Field Artillery.

George V had delivered a statesman-like speech, one of goodwill despite the clear lack of goodwill in Ireland at that time. It might also be described as a peace-processing speech in which he issued a plea for reconciliation in Ireland, the first of many such speeches which have been made during the 100 years of the state’s existence.

That the Royal visit passed off without any major incident was a huge relief to those who were involved in its logistics. At the docks, and just before boarding the Royal Yacht, the King had a final few words for James Craig: ‘I can’t tell you how glad I am I came, but you know my entourage were very much against it’, to which James Craig replied, ‘Sir, you are surrounded by pessimists; we are all optimists over here’. The King’s pessimism was, it would seem, somewhat well-placed, when two days later the IRA blew up a train carrying 113 men, over 100 horses and 4 officers of the King’s mounted escort; the 10th Royal Hussars. With the excitement of the King’s visit still fresh in their minds, the escort had boarded a train in Belfast for Dublin on 24 June. However, an IRA unit, under Frank Aiken, lay in ambush near Adavoyle Station, south of Newry. According to one account, Aiken’s unit placed a mine which exploded under the guard’s van rather than beneath the passenger carriages as intended. In the derailment that followed, at about 10:30, the luggage van and approximately a dozen cattle wagons ‘crashed down the embankment which was about 18 feet high’. A railway guard and three soldiers died, along with fifty horses. The incident became known as the Adavoyle ambush. Charles Dowson from Leeds, who had been manning a Hotchkiss gun, was killed along with Trooper Carl Harper. The body of Frank Gallagher, the railway guard from Colin Park Street in Belfast, was found pinned under one of the trucks. Private William Henry Telford from Middlesbrough died on his way to hospital. Immediately after the derailment, a patrol of Hussars was organised on both sides of the railway line. Patrick McAteer, a local farm labourer, was challenged about half a mile from the ambush site. He apparently failed to halt and was shot. He died in hospital at 23:00.

The Adavoyle ambush is a reminder that that the Royal visit did not lead immediately to a truce between the IRA and the British, there was still over two weeks of violence to endure before the truce was agreed. Ultimately though, the Royal visit, and the King’s speech in particular, did have a positive effect. These were among the first meaningful steps towards the truce on 9 July, followed by Sinn Fein attending Downing Street for talks that would eventually lead to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on 6 December 1921.

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