The office of Governor as the Crown’s representative, symbolising `the permanence both of the authority of the Northern Ireland Government and the union with Great Britain’, 1921-1973

Ahead of next Tuesday’s Virtual IHR Parliaments, Politics and People seminar, we hear from Dr Donal Lowry of the University of Oxford. On 22 March 2022, between 5.15 p.m. and 6.30 p.m., Donal will be responding to your questions about his paper on the office of Governor of Northern Ireland between 1921 and 1973. Details of how to join the discussion are available here, or by contacting

Devolved assemblies in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast have become familiar elements in UK political and constitutional life, especially in an age of Brexit and Covid-19. It is often forgotten that between 1921 and 1973, Northern Ireland possessed, not an `Assembly’ or `First Minister’, but an elaborate bicameral Parliament, consisting of a red-benched `Senate’ and a green-benched `House of Commons’, to which a `Prime Minister’ and `Cabinet’ – all members of the Privy Council of Northern Ireland – were responsible.

The Parliament of Northern Ireland met in the Assembly’s College between 1921 and 1932, ILN, 1 Oct. 1921

At the apex of this administration was the Governor of the Province representing the Crown. State Openings of Parliament featured Black Rod, accompanied by the Serjeant-at-Arms, summoning Senators and Members to the foot of the Imperial Staircase to hear the Governor – resplendent in braided court dress, white swan-feather-plumed cocked hat and sword – read the King’s or Queen’s Speech, setting out forthcoming legislative programmes.

These Speeches were approved in advance by the Northern Ireland Cabinet, rather than by Westminster. Ulster’s Governors, drawing on the precedents of the self-governing overseas dominions (rather than directly-governed dependent colonies where governors ruled, rather than reigned), invariably acted on local – not metropolitan – constitutional advice, an approach which was upheld by British ministers as well as eminent legal experts.

From 1932 the Parliament of Northern Ireland met at Parliament Buildings, Stormont CC

Several miles away from Stormont, a Viceregal Court resided at Government House – Hillsborough Castle, which became a social, cultural and political hub, almost exclusively for unionists, underlining David Cannadine’s astute observation that `the rituals of rulers, the “symbolics of power”, are not mere incidental phenomena, but are central to the structure and working of any society’.

The foundational decades of the Governorship (1922-45) were dominated by the 3rd Duke of Abercorn, scion of an aristocratic family long settled in Ulster, who was in a unique position to mould the character of the office. He was followed, in turn, by the 4th Earl Granville (1945-52), brother-in-law of Queen Elizabeth, who had been Lieutenant-Governor of the Isle of Man, and the 2nd Baron Wakehurst (1952-64), a former Governor of New South Wales.

The official residence of the Governor of Northern Ireland from 1925, Government House, Hillsborough Castle, ILN, 31 July 1937

Wakehurst was succeeded by Lord Erskine, a banker and, unusually, a Scottish Presbyterian, reflecting the majority Protestant denomination in the Province, the end of whose term was accelerated by the eruption of civil unrest. In 1968, he was followed by Sir Ralph Grey as Baron Grey of Naunton, a New Zealander who had been Deputy-Governor General of Nigeria, and Governor, in turn, of British Guiana (during a state of emergency), and of the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Grey brought unparalleled gubernatorial experience as the Province descended into chaos, adjusting to a non-executive role and dealing with a succession of ousted Prime Ministers, as well as with the British Government whose members suddenly realised to their surprise that such a viceregal office had existed for decades within the United Kingdom. This was a symptom of the internal affairs of the Province having been regarded for fifty years as none of Westminster’s business.

With the recent precedent of Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI), for which action there was a growing sympathy among unionists, British governments suddenly became aware of the existence of the office of Governor and mindful of its symbolic importance in maintaining the allegiance of recalcitrant loyalists and local security forces.

Lord Grey became a subtle activist in promoting a measure of provincial stability during these years, thus transcending the essentially ceremonial character of the role. However, the abolition of the office following the suspension of Stormont and the imposition of direct rule in 1972 brought widespread protests from unionists and a petition with some 130,000 signatures.

Ralph Francis Alnwick Grey, Baron Grey of Naunton, Governor of Northern Ireland 1968–73 CC NPG

For all the symbols of autonomy, the Governors, like the mini-state over which they reigned, had to operate within certain constraints. Westminster proved to be primarily vigilant about the Province’s fiscal probity, given its dependence on financial subsidies from Westminster. In the early years of self-government, Westminster did not feel confident enough to rely on local political intelligence, appointing instead a civil servant to oversee the Province’s financial dealings.

Westminster’s financial vigilance was in marked contrast to its negligence regarding  draconian security legislation, such as the Special Powers Act (1922), that was unprecedented in peacetime elsewhere in the United Kingdom. The fact that Northern Ireland was dealt with by London in the same constitutional category as the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, which were outside the UK, revealed the semi-detached way the Province was viewed. The governorship thus, like the Irish viceroyalty that preceded it seemed to suggest Northern Ireland’s incomplete integration in the Union.

Despite theoretically extensive powers, Governors almost never intervened to question controversial legislation. When, in 1922, on instructions from Whitehall, the proposed abolition of proportional representation in local council elections was referred for legal opinion, Colonial Secretary, Winston Churchill, cited the convention regarding the self-governing dominions of non-interference, as well as the impact any such intervention might have on relations with the dominions. An exceptional degree of autonomy extended to the exercise of the Royal Prerogative of mercy by the Governor in cases of capital murder, on the direct advice of his Prime Minister, rather than on the advice of the British ministers at Westminster.

Governors were, in essence, the local constitutional head of state, and were expected, in addition to their symbolic and ceremonial roles delegated by the Sovereign – to exercise, in confidence – Bagehot’s three key rights: to be consulted, to warn, and to encourage. In early decades, Abercorn and his Prime Minister, Lord Craigavon, were of near-identical political outlook. Lord Brookeborough’s 20-year rule proved to be equally uncontroversial under Granville and Wakehurst.

Under Erskine and Grey, however, against a background of political upheaval, the Governor’s discretionary role became more apparent in the appointment of Prime Ministers Terence O’Neill and James Chichester-Clark. Lord Grey, the ablest and most experienced of the Governors, proved to be more interventionist and effective and was respected by Westminster. Nonetheless, as in the early years, British ministers felt that the Governorship was an inadequate source of local political intelligence and appointed an experienced agent to provide more direct liaison with Stormont.

The appointment of what was, in effect, a diplomatic representative to another part of the United Kingdom illustrated the continuing anomaly of the office. The last Prime Minister, Brian Faulkner, unlike his landed predecessors, was a hard-headed middle-class industrialist, who had little time for the office. While respecting Grey personally, he barely concealed his contempt for this `colonial’ constitutional `hangover’, the existence of which, he thought, prevented the full integration of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom. This anomaly was not resolved, however, by the imposition of direct rule and the appointment of a Secretary of State who inherited all the functions of the Governor and of the Northern Ireland Parliament.


To find out more, Donal’s full-length paper ‘The office of Governor as the Crown’s representative, symbolising `the permanence both of the authority of the Northern Ireland Government and the union with Great Britain’, 1921-1973’ is available here. Donal will be taking questions about his research between 5.15 p.m. and 6.30 p.m. on Tuesday 22 March 2022.

To register for this virtual seminar, please follow this link and click on ‘Book now’. If you cannot attend this session but wish to submit a question to Donal, please send it to

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