Irish Nationalism 1912-22, and British Politics


Reading Alfie Gallagher’s interesting riposte, here, to Ruth Dudley Edwards views on the history of 1916 and all that, here, I was struck by one piece of commonplace Irish nationalist and perhaps most of all Republican political terminology. I’ll quote Alfie Gallagher:

the period 1912 to 1922 proved that the British government was in fact more likely to be swayed by force than by constitutional means.

There are two elements I would like to question here, including the central one that force was necessarily more effective than constitutional politics. However, I would like to start with the term: the British government.

It was a government, and it was predominantly British. However, a true understanding of it requires rather more nuance. Formally, even pedantically, it was His Majesty’s Government; it was also the government of the whole United Kingdom, including Ireland. Of course, the government of Ireland was in fact in the hands of Dublin Castle in what was a curious hybrid of a quasi-colonial administration and something akin to the pre-devolution Scottish office. That government did, for some of this time, contain one Irishman, though from a nationalist perspective one of the wrong political stripe: the Unionist Sir Edward Carson joined the wartime coalition in 1915 and when not resigning, as he did twice, served until 1918. The leader of the nationalist Parliamentary Party, John Redmond, was invited to join the wartime coalition, but his party were opposed to entering government in Westminster on principle.

That the government was, in reality, British, was clear. It was hardly monolithic. The Conservatives were led by Andrew Bonar Law, of Ulster-Scots heritage, whose unionism was a genuinely held belief. Arguably, the divide within British politics on the eve of the First World War was as wide and bitter as it had been in living memory. The constitutional crisis of 1909-11 was followed by the even more serious Home Rule Crisis of 1912-14. British politics divided over the issue of Home Rule with a rhetorical violence, allied to a threat of actual violence, which was unprecedented.

War did see some kind of reconciliation, but the Home Rule issue remained a potential danger to that unity. It is also true to note that the two prime ministers, Asquith and Lloyd George, were publicly committed to Home Rule. The idea that constitutional change would have to be forced from a British government is to ignore the nuanced reality of the make up of those British governments.

Two great reforms aimed at satisfying Irish nationalist aspirations were passed in the period between the death of Queen Victoria and the kaiser’s excursion into Belgium, and neither was a response to the threat of nationalist force. The 1903 Land Purchase (Ireland) Act saw comprehensive land reform and was the creation of the Tory Chief secretary for Ireland, George Wyndham, and the Irish land campaigner William O’Brien. It was, in part, designed to persuade Irish opinion that Home Rule was unnecessary: the Union would deliver reform and ‘kill Home Rule by kindness’. That is, it was a response to the political threat of Irish constitutional politics, not violence.

The Liberal Home Rule Bill of 1912 was, largely, borne out of political necessity: as covered here, the Parliamentary Party held the balance of power in a hung parliament. Even if we accept that for most Liberals in 1912 Home Rule was embraced for that reason and without enthusiasm, it was still pursued doggedly and not in response to the threat of Irish violence, but to the political clout held in the Commons by John Redmond et al.

By 1914 the government were faced with the possibility of armed rebellion by Ulster Unionists. It is also true that the government sought a solution based around some kind of exclusion for the unionist-dominated counties of the north. It is also undeniable that the threat of the UVF and its arms had a part in that. However, the greatest threat the government faced was in fact British: the support given to Ulster Unionism by the Conservative Party and elements of the British army led Britain to the brink of the most dangerous constitutional and political crisis in its modern history. Had Ulster Unionism been friendless and alone the government may have sought to stand up to Carson and Craig. Violence mattered, but in this case a British constitutional crisis mattered more.

This is not attempt to claim that the Easter Rising was not transformative, still less to claim that the armed conflict of 1919-21 had no part to play in the creation of the Irish Free State. For example, once the government realised the extent of the mistake they had made in the aftermath of the rising there was a rather desperate attempt to broker a solution that would see Home Rule implemented. However, to see the state that was created in 1922 as something that could not have come to pass in some similar form without that violence is also misleading. The war did much to heal the rupture that Home Rule had threatened to cause in the body politic of Westminster. As part of the understanding that saw the continuation after the war of the Lloyd George national government created in 1916, an agreement was made to implement Home Rule in Ireland with the exclusion of the northern counties. That deal was, in essence, realised in the 1920 Government of Ireland Act.

That is not to say that the Free State didn’t go further, and that the violence of 1919-22 did not have a role in that change. However, the Free State, being short of the Republic, was not what the men of 1916 or 1919-21 had fought for. Instead, the Free State was dominion status. Ireland might not have got dominion status in 1920 as it did by 1922, and to that extent the violence of 1919-21 made some difference.

But how much? In the years after the creation of the Free State, de Valera used constitutional politics to transform dominion status into independence, a process acquiesced to by Conservative led governments between the wars. For the Conservatives, with Northern Ireland guaranteeing the place of Ulster Unionists in the United Kingdom, Ireland could be safely ignored (as could Ulster Unionists, let alone nationalists, of course). British governments in the period were, in fact, complex and diverse, and governed Ireland: they were not immovable colonial masters, Just as it was constitutional politics that put Home Rule on the statute book, it seems pretty obvious that the constitutional politics of a Home Rule Ireland could have achieved the same as de Valera.

Ruth Dudley Edwards can be watched talking on 1916.

2 thoughts on “Irish Nationalism 1912-22, and British Politics

  1. Thanks for this perceptive engagement with my article.

    If I may, I would just like to briefly respond to the last point you made — namely, that “it seems pretty obvious that the constitutional politics of a Home Rule Ireland could have achieved the same as de Valera.”

    In my view, it is not at all certain that Home Rule could have been transformed into full legislative independence. Home Rule was, to quote F. S. L. Lyons’s terse summation, “little more, indeed, than glorified local government”. The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 effectively granted fiscal independence, but arguably more importantly, it secured the withdrawal of British troops from the Free State and the creation of an Irish armed forces and police force. As Brian Hanley argues, this withdrawal had huge political implications:

    “Until 1922 every Irish town of a decent size had a permanent British military garrison. There weren’t 30,000 British troops in Ireland in 1914 for nothing: the bottom line in Anglo-Irish constitutional relations was British military force. As long as Britain was prepared to apply that force then it decided the political outcome for Ireland. In short, without some form of armed confrontation political independence would not have occurred.”


    1. Thanks for the comment, and I take part of a point. I hope, in turn, you don’t mind some further thoughts. Britain had always relied on a military presence in Ireland. However, in the aftermath of the war the Lloyd George government found itself in the teeth of a financial crisis. The resulting Geddes Axe and the Ten Year Rule saw the dismemberment of the British Army. Britain’s ability to commit forces to the whole empire and Ireland on the scale previously envisaged was wholly compromised. Britain also granted full self-government, independence in all but name, to the white dominions and it was government policy to grant self-government to India. By the 1930s, Labour were committed to full Indian independence. Finally, when Dev and the Chamberlain came to terms in the aftermath of the trade war, Britain gave up its treaty ports, which would have been immensely valuable in the war, without much of a care at all.

      I do agree that Dublin Castle had always rested in part upon force, though that was in part itself reactive to the threat of nationalist force or, more after, land agitation. I would also point out that when cornered that force could be brutal, though it most often fell between the stools of bouts of repression followed by conciliation: Lloyd George got murder by the throat and then invited it to number ten. If the likes of Bloody Sunday was bad enough, full blown imperial administrations could be far worse: think of Amritsar or, far worse, Mau Mau. Of course, the Free State government and, later, de Valera were hardly shy of using force against republicans themselves.

      Looked at in the round, however, the default reaction of Westminster governments to nationalism was jaw jaw. Usually, war war was in (over) reaction to violence, it was in those circumstances that local administrations got it badly and sometimes shamefully wrong.

      The First World War marks a caesuras in many aspects of British history. One is with Ireland. By 1918 most Conservatives were willing to grant something like Home Rule max, as it were, to Ireland; most Liberals were happy to go further and the new Labour Party much further. In short, before the war Ireland mattered, in part because of the failure to resolve the Ulster Question. With that question answered to the satisfaction of most Unionists by partition, at Westminster Ireland ceased to matter much. As the not at all benign neglect of Home Rule Northern Ireland showed, by then Britain no longer cared overmuch. Having kind of answered the Irish question, Westminster promptly forgot about it, and cared less.


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