King’s speech appealed to ‘all Irishmen... to forgive and forget’

The royal visit for the opening of the Northern Ireland parliament in 1921 was of great significance to Ulster unionists, though the target audience may have been Sinn Féin

In a recent message issued on May 3rd, to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland, Queen Elizabeth II emphasised the significance of the peace process, praising those who "put reconciliation before division", while cautioning that "reconciliation, equality and mutual understanding cannot be taken for granted, and will require sustained fortitude and commitment".

This phraseology bears similarity with the words spoken by her grandfather, King George V, at the ceremonial opening of the Northern Ireland parliament at City Hall in Belfast on June 22nd, 1921, when he appealed 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 which they love a new era of peace contentment, and goodwill".

The presence of the monarch at the opening of a regional parliament was unprecedented, though as Duke of York in 1901 he had opened the first Australian parliament after federation. The violence in Ireland in mid-1921 renders the decision of the monarch to travel to Belfast even more unusual. Fifty years later when the idea of a royal visit was mooted to coincide with the Ulster ‘71 festivities which marked Northern Ireland’s half-century, the worsening security situation in the early years of the Troubles made this idea, first suggested prior to the outbreak of communal violence in 1969, an impossibility.

The pomp and circumstance of the royal visit is clear in contemporary newsreel footage, and the occasion was of great significance and comfort to Ulster unionists who finally felt in control of their own destinies. Yet, an examination of the text of the king’s speech would indicate that Ulster unionists were not his principal audience on that day. While he spoke of the significance of the occasion for “the six counties” this was not just for “the six counties alone” and the rest of his speech was concerned more with the entire island of Ireland and its relationship to the empire. Expressing the hope that his visit “to Ireland to-day may prove to be the first step towards an end of strife amongst her people”, this indicated a much wider context to the speech. Arguably, his target audience was Sinn Féin, and the speech has been interpreted as an invitation to engage in a process that led soon to the truce.


One of the principal architects of the strategy to deploy the king as the messenger to Sinn Féin was the South African prime minister, Jan Christian Smuts. On June 14th, 1921, just over a week before the opening of the northern parliament, Smuts advised the prime minster, David Lloyd George, that the king's impending visit to Belfast could "be made use of to give a most important lead, which might help you out of a situation which is well nigh desperate".

Were the king to suggest the prospect of dominion status, both the message and the messenger might be more attractive to a southern Irish audience. Advising Lloyd George that “the Irish might accept it as coming from the King”, implied that the prime minister would be a much less reliable conduit. This is hardly surprising in light of Lloyd George’s dubious record of misleading the Irish over home rule in 1916, conscription in 1918 and the Clune peace mission during the winter of 1920 and 1921.

Smuts had a unique opportunity to influence events at close hand due to his presence in London for the 1921 imperial conference, which was attended by all of the dominion prime ministers. His own political and military experience equipped him well to understand the position of the Irish revolutionaries, having waged a similar guerrilla campaign against the British in South Africa during the Boer Wars. Behind the scenes the Dáil government had been quietly lobbying Smuts to argue for a favourable hearing of their case, using intermediaries such as Roger Casement's brother, Tom, described as "a very intimate friend of Smuts". Smuts's willingness to intercede on Ireland's behalf also owed much to the efforts of the Dáil's representative in South Africa, Colonel Maurice Moore.

Recognising that Smuts was constrained by his domestic political dependence on unionist sympathisers, Moore nevertheless felt that the South African prime minister was sympathetic towards Ireland because of Irish help for the Boers, his “idealistic views of freedom for small nations”, and a belief that solving the Irish question was beneficial to the empire in the long run. Moore subsequently felt that Smuts’s intervention in the summer of 1921 had been crucial, writing to him in August 1921 to express gratitude for his [Smut’s] intervention in favour of Ireland” which he believed had helped to facilitate the truce.

A second figure who had a substantial input into the king's speech was Arthur Balfour, the lord president of the council and the British cabinet member with the longest record of experience in Ireland going back to his appointment as chief secretary in 1887. The tone of Smuts's draft for the king's speech was toned down significantly by Balfour to eliminate excessive "innuendo of oppression" and the final version reflects much of Balfour's suggested language.

It is important to remember that the king's speech did not lead seamlessly to the truce which would come into effect 19 days later. The recent compendium on the dead of the Irish revolution records 160 violent deaths in Ireland between the June 22nd and July 11th inclusive. These included three soldiers from the 10th Royal Hussars and a railway guard killed when the IRA derailed a troop train in Killeavy, Co Armagh on June 24th. The train was transporting soldiers and horses (50 of which also perished) back to Dublin having taken part in the military escort for the royal visit.

In her Northern Ireland centenary message the queen also “looked back with fondness” to her visit to the Republic of Ireland in 2011, which was followed a year later by her historic encounter with then northern deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness in Belfast. These gestures rank alongside her grandfather’s speech as being among the few but notable occasions on which the modern British monarchy has made significant interventions in Irish affairs.

Dr Marie Coleman is a Reader in modern Irish history at Queen’s University Belfast and sits on the Northern Ireland Office historic centenary advisory panel.

The king’s speech at the opening of the Northern Ireland Parliament on June 22nd, 1922

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.

My memories of the Irish people date back to the time when I spent many happy days in Ireland as a midshipman. My affection for the Irish people has been deepened by successive visits since that time, and I have watched with constant sympathy the course of their affairs.

I could not have allowed myself to give Ireland, by deputy alone, my earnest prayers and good wishes in the new era which opens with this ceremony, and I have, therefore, come in person, as Head of the Empire, to inaugurate this parliament on Irish soil. I inaugurate it with deep-felt hope, and I feel assured that you will do your utmost to make it an instrument of happiness and good government for all parts of the community which you represent.

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.

Few things are more earnestly desired throughout the English-speaking world than a satisfactory solution of the age-long Irish problems, which for generations embarrassed our forefathers, as they now weigh heavily upon us. Most certainly there is no wish nearer my own heart than that every man of Irish birth, whatever be his creeds and wherever be his home, should work in co-operation with the free communities on which the British Empire is based. I am confident that the important matters entrusted to the control and guidance of the Northern Parliament will be managed with wisdom and moderation; with fairness and due regard to every faith and interest, and with no abatement of that patriotic devotion to the Empire which you proved so gallantly in the Great War.

Full partnership in the United Kingdom and religious freedom Ireland has long enjoyed. She now has conferred upon her the duty of dealing with all the essential tasks of domestic legislation and government, and I feel no misgiving as to the spirit in which you who stand here to-day will carry out the all-important functions entrusted to your care. My hope is broader still. The eyes of the whole Empire are on Ireland to-day – that Empire in which so many nations and races have come together in spite of the ancient feuds, and in which new nations have come to birth within the life-time of the youngest in this hall. I am emboldened by that thought to look beyond the sorrow and anxiety which have clouded of late my vision of Irish affairs. I speak from a full heart when I pray that my coming to Ireland to-day may 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. It is my earnest desire that in Southern Ireland, too, there may, ere long, take place a parallel to what is now passing in this hall; that there a similar occasion may present itself, and a similar ceremony be performed.

For this the Parliament of the United Kingdom has in the fullest measure provided the powers. For this the Parliament of Ulster is pointing the way. The future lies in the hands of my Irish people themselves. 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.