Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Ireland in the early twentieth century

The partition of Ireland after 1920
I have been indebted for this post to Roy Foster's Modern Ireland 1600-1972 (Penguin, 1989). 

Foster writes that 
'The First World War should be seen as one of the most decisive events in modern Irish history.’ 

By April 1916 about 150,000 Irishmen were in active service in the war. The Unionist community was deeply committed to the war effort and John Redmond, the parliamentary leader of the constitutional nationalists also gave strong support to the war, trying to demonstrate that Home Rule was not incompatible with loyalty to the British state. However, the Irish radicals, represented by Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Brotherhood took the view that this was a British imperial war. The Irish Volunteers, previously united, were now split over the question of whether to support the war.

The 1916 Rising

By early 1916 the IRB were looking to the Germans for help. The Germans offered to send 20,000 arms and ten machine guns by Easter Sunday, but this was vague and bad planning meant that the arms never reached Ireland. On 21 April Roger Casement was arrested, having been put ashore in County Kerry.

On Monday 24 April a force of about 1,600 Irish insurgents seized key locations in Dublin and, from their headquarters in the General Post Office, proclaimed the Irish Republic. 

Easter Proclamation

The British authorities were taken by surprise. However, within a week the insurgents had been forced to surrender and the GPO was evacuated. 450 had been killed and 2,614 wounded. 116 soldiers and sixteen policemen were killed. For the very latest research on the casualties see here.

The draconian reaction to the rebellion was inevitable (this was 1916, the middle of the First World War!) but it had the effect of alienating much of moderate Irish opinion. For a famous illustration of this change of opinion, see W. B. Yeats's poem, 'Easter 1916'. Martial law was extended throughout Ireland. Civilian householders were shot dead. Fifteen rebels were court-martialled and executed by firing squad in May. Casement was hanged at Pentonville prison on 3 August.

Roger Casement 1864-1916

In the post-1916 politics, Sinn Féin swallowed up the other nationalist movements and became the voice of Irish republican separatism.  In April 1918, Lloyd George, who had been prime minister since December 1918, played into their hands when he produced a bill that would introduce conscription into Ireland, offering a renewed promise of Home Rule as a sweetener.  This led to a violent anti-conscription campaign spearheaded by the nationalists and the Catholic Church.

In November 1918 Lloyd George made another disastrous political mistake when he announced that Home Rule would be withheld ‘until the condition of Ireland makes it possible’.

The election of 1918

In December a general election was held, the first for eight years.  Sinn Féin won seventy-three out of the 104 Irish seats to the Irish Parliamentary Party’s six. They were elected on a programme of withdrawal from Westminster and resistance to British power ‘by any and every means’. Their numbers included Countess Markievicz, the first woman to be elected to the British Parliament.

Countess Markievicz, 1868-1927
born Constance Gore Booth.

On 21 January 1919, twenty-seven Sinn Féin MPs assembled in Dublin's Mansion House and proclaimed themselves the parliament of Ireland, the First Dáil Éireann, and independent of Britain. 

The Anglo-Irish War

This is also known as the Irish War of Independence.  On the same day that the Dáil Éireann was proclaimed,  two members of the Royal Irish Constabulary were shot dead in County Tipperary.  The Irish Volunteers—later renamed the Irish Republican Army (IRA)—targeted RIC and British Army barracks and ambushed their patrols, capturing arms and forcing the closure of barracks in isolated areas. The British government bolstered the RIC with recruits from Britain—the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries—who became notorious for ill-discipline and reprisal attacks on civilians. On 21 November 1920 the IRA killed eleven unarmed British officers in Dublin. Later that day the Black and Tans fired into a football ground at Croke Park causing twelve deaths in the ensuing stampede. In December 1920 they set fire to the city of Cork. Their actions did a great deal to alienate mainstream Irish opinion.

The Government of Ireland Act

In December 1920 Lloyd George’s government passed the Government of Ireland Act. It created two devolved parliaments for the two autonomous regions: the six northern counties and the twenty-six counties of the south. Both areas were to remain part of the United Kingdom.  Hoping that partition would be temporary, the government had tried for a nine-county Ulster, but the Unionist insistence on a six-county unit with a heavily weighted Protestant majority made it permanent. 

The Irish Free State

On 11 July 1921, after savage violence on both sides, a truce was agreed, and on 6 December representatives of the British government, headed by Lloyd George, and the Irish representatives
Michael Collins
including Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins signed the Anglo-Irish agreement. It provided for the establishment of the Irish Free State within a year as a self-governing dominion within the British Commonwealth of Nations. The treaty stipulated that the members of the new Irish parliament would take an oath of allegiance to George V.

On 6 December 1922 the Dáil ratified the treaty by 64 votes to 57, and the Irish Free State came into being. A general election confirmed majority support for the pro-treaty group. 

By the Royal and Parliamentary Titles Act of 1927 the UK became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The boundary settled

The Anglo-Irish Treaty had given Northern Ireland an option to opt out of the Irish Free State, which it exercised. This meant that the exact boundary between the two parts of Ireland would have to be settled. A boundary commission made minor changes to the existing de facto border, which was ratified in 1925.

In 1922, when introducing the Irish Free State Bill in his capacity as Secretary of State for the Colonies, Churchill had said: 
‘The whole map of Europe has been changed ... but as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again.’

The Irish Civil War

The Republican opposition, led by  Éamon de Valera, regarded the establishment of the Free State as a betrayal and refused to accept the oath to the king or the loss of the six counties. In the short but bitter civil war that followed Michael Collins was assassinated in a Republican ambush at Cork in August 1922, Republicans were executed by members of the Free State forces, and many historic homes were destroyed. The war ended with a ceasefire in May 1923.

The Republic of Ireland

Éamon de Valera
In 1937 de Valera’s government repealed the 1922 constitution. The state was named Ireland (Éire). In April 1949 the Republic of Ireland was proclaimed and the British government formally accepted the complete independence of Southern Ireland, which left the Commonwealth.  

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