The Wee Province

Is Northern Ireland a province?

England and Scotland are Kingdoms, Wales is a Principality, and Northern Ireland is, um.. well… hang on a second…

The Northern Ireland Constitution Act (1973) states that Northern Ireland is ‘part of Her Majesty’s dominions and of the United Kingdom.’ Hardly informative.

Then there’s the Northern Ireland Temporary Provisions Act (1972), which calls the six counties ‘part of the United Kingdom.’ No help there. Same in the Northern Ireland Act (1974). And indeed, the same thing applies in the Northern Ireland Act (1982). And the Northern Ireland Act (1998).

The last of course, gave legislative effect to the Good Friday Agreement. The Agreement, in case you’re wondering, spends a lot of time talking about how a majority of the people of Northern Ireland can determine the future status of the place, but when it comes to what that status is at present, goes no further than to say that Northern Ireland is ‘part of the United Kingdom’,

Under the Anglo-Irish Treaty, signed on 6 December 1921 and later incorporated into both Irish and British law, Ireland had ‘the same constitutional status in the Community of Nations known as the British Empire as the Dominion of Canada, the Commonwealth of Australia, the Dominion of New Zealand, and the Union of South Africa.’ The South later went on to become a Republic, but what of the North? Well, they were given one month from the ratification of the treaty to opt out of the newly-created Free State, but their exact nature was undefined.

Perhaps we should go back to the source. The Government of Ireland Act of 1920 first established partition in British law. According to the Act, which incidentally was repealed as part of the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland ‘shall consist of the parliamentary counties of Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone, and the parliamentary boroughs of Belfast and Londonderry.’ The six counties, in other words. There’s no mention of the word ‘province’ in the Act, only of the ‘portion of Ireland within their jurisdiction’.

It’s not exactly glamorous. Kingdoms now, there’s posh. Republics have a certain resonance. Even Principalities sound impressive. Provinces at least are historically respectable. But being reduced to a Portion and a Part? No wonder the preference for a Province persists in everyday language. Even two thirds of a truncated province is better than a bit-part.