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The Council of Ireland (Irish: Comhairle na hÉireann) may refer to one of two councils, one established in the 1920s, the other in the 1970s.
The Council of Ireland was a statutory body established under the Government of Ireland Act 1920. The Council was established as an all-Ireland law-making authority. It was to have 41 members: 13 members of the Houses of Commons of Southern Ireland and Northern Ireland respectively; 7 members of the Senates of Southern Ireland and Northern Ireland respectively; and a President chosen by the Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland.
Under Section 2 of the 1920 Act, the Council was established with the following purpose:
With a view to the eventual establishment of a Parliament for the whole of Ireland, and to bringing about harmonious action between the parliaments and governments of Southern Ireland and Northern Ireland, and to the promotion of mutual intercourse and uniformity in relation to matters affecting the whole of Ireland, and to providing for the administration of services which the two parliaments mutually agree should be administered uniformly throughout the whole of Ireland, or which by virtue of this Act are to be so administered, there shall be constituted, as soon as may be after the appointed day, a Council to be called the Council of Ireland.
Under Section 7 of the 1920 Act, the Council could make orders concerning matters which were within the remit of the respective Parliaments of Southern and Northern Ireland. The Council’s Orders required royal assent in the same way Bills of either of the Parliaments also required such assent.
The Council was duly established on the “Appointed Day”, 3 May 1921. On 23 June 1921, the House of Commons of Northern Ireland duly elected its 13 chosen members to the Council: Sir R. N. Anderson, Rt. Hon. John M. Andrews, Mr. J. Milne Barbour, Rt. Hon. Sir R. Dawson Bates, Mr. William Coote, Rt. Hon. Sir James Craig, Bart.; Captain Herbert Dixon, Mr. William Grant, Dr. Robert. J. Johnstone, Sir Crawford McCullagh, Mr. Samuel McGuffin, Mr. Robert J. McKeown, and Major David G. Shillington. The House of Commons of Southern Ireland was a body which although established, never functioned and never elected members to the Council. In fact, the Council of Ireland never met.
The Anglo-Irish Treaty made provision for the continuation of the Council of Ireland after the Irish Free State was established. Under the Treaty, if Northern Ireland chose to opt out of the Irish Free State (as in fact it subsequently did), the Council was to continue but the Council’s powers could then only be applied to Northern Ireland and not to the Irish Free State. While its functions only applied to Northern Ireland, its membership continued to be 40: 20 selected by each of the Parliaments of the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland respectively and one by the King’s representative. Therefore, after the Treaty, it was no longer the all-Ireland body originally envisaged as its powers applied only to Northern Ireland. Instead, it was a body in which the Irish Free State might influence the affairs of Northern Ireland and consequently was increasingly distrusted by the Government of Northern Ireland. The Council never met.
On 23 January 1922 Michael Collins, then head of the Provisional Government in Dublin, met Sir James Craig, then Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, in London, and they agreed amongst other matters that: "The two Governments [are] to endeavour to devise a more suitable system than the Council of Ireland for dealing with problems affecting all Ireland."
Under an Agreement between the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland and Irish Free State governments of 3 December 1925 amending the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the Council of Ireland was essentially abolished, as it was transferred to the care of the Northern Ireland government that did not intend to work towards a united Ireland in the foreseeable future. Under Article 5 of that Agreement it was declared that:
“The powers in relation to Northern Ireland which by the Government of Ireland Act, 1920, are made powers of the Council of Ireland shall be and are hereby transferred to and shall become powers of the Parliament and the Government of Northern Ireland”
The Council of Ireland was established during 1973 to coordinate the governments of the UK, Northern Ireland, and Ireland for common concerns. The Sunningdale Agreement specified the details of the council, as had been worked out through negotiations between the parties of Northern Ireland and the British and Irish governments. The Council collapsed the next year with the withdrawal of the unionists.