In 1912, Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith introduced a “Government of Ireland Bill” that attempted to establish an Irish parliament with a popularly elected lower house and an appointed senate. A small delegation of Irish was to remain at Westminster to represent Ireland’s interest in the Empire. Although the bill was temporarily blocked by the House of Lords, alarmed Orangemen organized, with Sir Edward Carson, a wealthy lawyer, becoming their leading spokesman. The Irish-born playwright George Bernard Shaw summed up the feelings of those in Ulster:
Political opinion in Ulster is not a matter of talk and bluff as it is in England. No English Home Ruler has the faintest intention … of throwing actual paving stones at any English Unionist. The Ulsterman is not like that. He is inured to violence. He has thrown stones and been hit by them. He has battered his political opponent with fist and stick and been battered himself in the same manner.
Carson created an Ulster provisional government that would go into operation should home rule be instituted. He became the first to sign an Ulster Solemn League and Covenant by which signatories pledged
to stand by one another in defending for ourselves and our children, our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom, and in using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland.
Well over half of Ulster’s Protestant population signed the Covenant, some using their own blood. In England, two million people signed a British Solemn League and Covenant in support of Ulster Protestants. Threatening revolt if home rule was imposed, Ulster raised a body of 80,000 volunteers. Nationalists in the South created their own army.
The British feared civil war in Ireland, and so banned the importation of arms. But when Ulster Volunteers defied this ban, there were no penalties. When the South also imported arms, British troops intervened — or they attempted to do so. The unsuccessful British soldiers marched back from the seacoast to Dublin, where they were pelted with stones in the street. Opening fire, the soldiers killed 3 and injured more than 30. A cry for open rebellion gripped the South.
By 1914, Asquith and a majority of his cabinet wanted a solution through a formal partition of Ireland. In the North, Carson said he would accept partition if all nine Ulster counties remained under the jurisdiction of Westminster; five of the counties, however, had Catholic majorities. In the South, partition was rejected.
Ireland and World War I
The issue of partition was soon overshadowed by World War I. On August 3, 1914, Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary, informed the House of Commons that Britain would enter the war. John Redmond — a spokesman for Southern Ireland — rose to declare that the South would join with Ulster to defend a common homeland: Britain. The House of Commons cheered and placed home rule on the statute books. But, to please the Ulstermen, a suspensory bill was added to postpone home rule for the duration of the war.
Irishmen in the South did not all cheer Redmond; they split on the issue of war. Arthur Griffith wrote,
Ireland is not at war with Germany. England is at war with Germany. We are Irish nationalists and the only duty we can have is to stand for Ireland’s interests…. If Irishmen are to defend Ireland they must defend it for Ireland, under Ireland’s flag, and under Irish officers. Otherwise they will only help to perpetuate the enslavement of their country.
Some saw the war as an opportunity. Padraig Pearse developed a view of revolution as redemption through which the Irish soul could be cleansed by blood. His fellow revolutionary, the Scottish-born socialist James Connolly, believed that an uprising in Dublin would spark the whole of Ireland. At the same time, nationalists tried to dissuade Irishmen from enlisting in the British army. The British ignored the revolutionary rhetoric but they jailed or deported leaders of the anti-recruiting campaign. British jails and internment camps became schoolrooms of radical Irish politics.
Meanwhile, the high death toll from war made the British public wonder why conscription was applied to Britain and not to Ireland. The new prime minister, David Lloyd George, answered,
What would be the result? Scenes in the House of Commons, possible rupture with America, which is hanging in the balance, and serious disaffection in Canada, Australia and South Africa. They would say, you are fighting for the freedom of nationalities. What right have you to take this nation by the ear and drag it into the war against its will?
Rebellion and revolution
Even without conscription, revolution in Ireland was inevitable. In 1915, the body of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa — a prominent nationalist who died in exile in America — was brought home for burial. Pearse delivered a grave-side oration:
They think that they have pacified Ireland. They think that they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half. They think that they have foreseen everything, think that they have provided against everything; but the fools, the fools, the fools! They have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.
Easter Sunday 1916 became the date for revolution. The Germans agreed to provide arms to the anti-British rebels. But when a German ship arrived offshore, the Irish failed to meet it. On the eve of the Easter rebellion, confusion split the IRB. At the last minute, the order for mobilization was countermanded; nevertheless, on Easter Monday, more than 1,500 rebels marched through Dublin and seized the General Post Office. The battle raged for six days, with an estimated 508 dead and 2,520 injured. The rebels surrendered on April 29.
As they were led off to jail, Dubliners cursed the rebels for causing violence, calling them “German dupes.” But the behavior of British troops turned public opinion. The British indiscriminately assaulted Dubliners and killed a prominent pacifist who had no connection to the uprising. Over a ten-day period, 15 rebel leaders were executed, including Connolly and Pearse. More than 2,000 nationalists were transported to British prisons, often without trial.
As the Irish claimed the rebels as martyrs, an Irish conscription bill passed the British House of Commons. The Irish MPs walked out of Parliament in protest; an anti-conscription pledge circulated throughout Ireland, backed by the Catholic Church, which collected protest signatures after mass. A general strike paralyzed Ireland, with the exception of Protestant Belfast. Conscription could not be enforced.
In the Irish general election of 1918 (which was part of the United Kingdom’s general election), Sinn Féin won 73 of 105 seats; 36 of the elected were in jail at the time. This was a defining moment in modern Ireland’s history. For one thing, America had been assured that the Sinn Féiners were a small group of radicals. Now, with a popular Sinn Féin victory, Irish-Americans deluged Democratic President Wilson with demands for justice in Ireland. But Wilson was negotiating a postwar settlement with the British and did not wish to complicate the delicate bartering. The Democrats lost most of their Irish-American support.
The newly elected Sinn Féiners formed the Dáil Éireann — the Irish Assembly — and held their first parliament on January 21, 1919 in Dublin. The Dáil, with its own courts and using its own funds, was declared to be Ireland’s rightful government, deriving its authority from the Easter Rebellion. The British raided the Dáil and arrested its democratically elected leadership. One leader, Éamon de Valera, was deported to England and prison but he returned to Ireland. In the following election, de Valera was declared president. The Irish election of 1920 was a public vote of confidence for the suppressed Irish government, with Belfast being virtually the only dissenting voice. Officials swore allegiance to the Dáil and, in turn, were often arrested. During January 1920 alone, more than 1,000 raids by the British forces were reported by the Daily Press.
In Ulster, there was an anti-Catholic drive and a predictable backlash. When the Catholic lord mayor of Cork was shot dead in his own bedroom, the coroner’s jury — handpicked by the police — returned a remarkable verdict of willful murder against the British prime minister, David Lloyd George. In August, the new mayor of Cork was arrested and went on a hunger strike. Seventy-four days later, he died. Irish prisoners throughout the penal system also went on hunger strikes to protest their arrest and demand treatment as political prisoners.
The Irish Republican Army
Meanwhile, Michael Collins emerged as a strong leader of the IRB. The Irish Republican Brotherhood had split from the Dáil and soon became known as the Irish Republican Army, or IRA. Committed to direct violence, the IRA began a campaign of terror, to which the Northern Protestants responded by attacking Catholics. The British met IRA terror with terror. The newly recruited forces for Ireland wore dark caps and khaki pants, earning them the name “Black and Tans.” It became commonplace for IRA prisoners to be tortured and sometimes killed, but the Black and Tans did not confine their attacks to the IRA. For example, in retaliation for the killing of 17 of their own, they burned down the center of the city of Cork. Afterward, the Black and Tans carried a half-burnt cork dangling from the ring of their revolvers: this made a silent statement — “We burned down Cork, we could burn this city as well.”
But world opinion gave Britain pause. Ireland was seen as a gallant little nation standing up to a big bully. Eager to please America in particular, Britain passed a Better Government of Ireland Bill which created a home-rule parliament for six Ulster counties and another parliament for the remaining 26 Southern counties; both governments would send MPs to Westminster. Ireland was to be officially partitioned. Ulster accepted; the South rejected the proposal. Southern elections returned 124 Sinn Féin candidates and when the British-sanctioned parliament opened on June 28, only four elected representatives and the Crown-nominated senators showed up; the sanctioned parliament sat for 15 minutes, then adjourned.
The next day, the suppressed Dáil met and authorized Irish Republican courts. The British responded harshly in the hope of imposing swift order; after all, British troops were needed in India, which was also in rebellion. In August 1920, the Restoration of Order in Ireland Act was passed, relieving British forces in Ireland of almost all legal restraint. They tortured prisoners, sabotaged industries, killed family members of rebels, and shot civilians, including children. In the late summer and autumn of 1920, no part of Ireland escaped the violence of what was called the Anglo-Irish War, or the Irish War of Independence. Again, world opinion forced the British to seek resolution.
Britain concluded a truce as a preliminary move toward treaty negotiations to be held in London. Returning from the negotiations, the Irish envoys presented the British offer to the Dáil. There were two stumbling blocks: official partition and an oath of allegiance to the Crown. The envoys brought a counterproposal back to Lloyd George, who bluntly replied,
I have here two answers, one enclosing the treaty, the other declaring a rupture, and, if it be a rupture, you shall have immediate war.
Exhausted, the envoys signed the treaty on December 6, 1921, without consulting President de Valera. In theory, all of Ireland was to be a united dominion — the Irish Free State or Saorstát Éireann — with the same status as other members of the British Empire, such as Canada. But Northern Ireland had the option to remain part of the United Kingdom, which it exercised. Ireland was now partitioned. Twenty-six counties became the Irish Free State — a dominion, not a republic — with a governor-general, a bicameral parliament, and a prime minister. The six northern counties of Ulster retained ties with Britain, with separate self-determination. In two of the six counties, Catholics formed a slight majority.
De Valera resigned as president and was replaced by Arthur Griffith. The Dáil ratified the treaty by a vote of 64 to 57, with opponents leaving in protest. Among the defectors were delegates from the IRA, which split into two factions: those who rejected the treaty and those who reluctantly accepted it as granting “the freedom to achieve freedom.” The British began to depart from their oldest colony, which they had occupied for almost 800 years.
This article was originally published in the July 2004 edition of Freedom Daily.