No peace ‘overtures’ in original King George V speech that led to end War of Independence

Documents from Public Records Office show how 1921 speech to NI parliament changed

King George V’s speech which helped to end the War of Independence originally made no peace overtures, according to newly released documents.

At the opening of the Northern Ireland parliament on June 22nd, 1921, the monarch made a speech that was interpreted as a peace feeler from the British government at the time. The Truce, which ended the War of Independence, occurred three weeks later.

“I speak from a full heart when I pray that my coming to Ireland today may prove to be the first step towards an end of strife amongst her people, whatever their race or creed,” the king said at the opening of the parliament.

“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.”


The newly released documentation from the Northern Ireland Public Records Office (NIPRO) shows early drafts of the speech barely mentioned the War of Independence.

Queens University Belfast historian Dr Marie Coleman said the original speech, which was most likely written by the Northern government was a "a noticeably insular document concerned largely with the workings of the northern parliament and making only one reference to the wider imperial context".


The king had also discounted an earlier version of the speech which came from the Northern government. He was reported to be "greatly distressed" by the sense that he was being shoehorned into "being made the mouthpiece of Ulster rather than that of the Empire". It would reduce the monarch to "a provincial partisan".

Dr Coleman was speaking at an event organised by the British embassy entitled 'Glencairn Conversations: Centenary Historical Lecture: Between the King's Speech and the Truce', which covered the period between the speech on June 22nd and July 11th, 1921.

The event was hosted by British ambassador to Ireland Paul Johnston and included contributions from historians Lord Bew, Prof Mary Daly and Dr Maurice Manning.

Dr Coleman said the South African premier Jan Smuts, who was in London for the conference of the Dominion prime ministers, had a significant role in drafting the speech.

As a former rebel guerrilla leader of the Boers against the British in the Second Boer War, Smuts was well placed to understand the military and political dynamics of the conflict in the south of Ireland.

‘Unmeasured calamity’

He described the situation as an “unmeasured calamity” for Britain and essentially unwinnable. The Irish conflict had poisoned relations within the Empire, Smuts believed.

Dr Coleman said Mr Smuts identified the unique opportunity offered by the king's planned visit to Belfast to send a signal to the Sinn Féin leaders in the South that would indicate the British government's willingness to work towards a peaceful settlement.

The nature of that declaration, Mr Smuts urged, should be to offer Southern Ireland the status of a commonwealth dominion, putting it on a par with his own nation – South Africa, as well as Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

The most significant line in the text about “ forbearance and conciliation” was most likely written by the king himself, Dr Coleman suggests as he referenced visiting Ireland as a young man.

According to his biographer Harold Nicolson, the then Duke of York was so impressed with his reception in Ireland in 1897 that he tried to unsuccessfully to convince his grandmother, Queen Victoria, to establish a royal residence near Dublin.

Dr Coleman suggested that the king was convinced as a result of his visit that “in spite of the politicians, there existed a sentimental bond of affection between the Irish people and the Crown”.

Mr Johnston said he was “struck by the depth, longevity and complexity of the historical relationship between and amongst these islands. It goes without saying that many historical events retain great resonance to this day.”

He described 1921 as a “turning point in our history. There are, legitimately, many different and deeply-held perspectives about events of that year”.

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times