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Ireland at the turn of the 20th century was poised for change. Most of Irelands inhabitants wanted to alter in some respect the nature of their relationship with Great Britain, which had been interfering in Irish affairs for more than 700 years. In 1801 the British government had even declared Ireland to be, constitutionally, a province of the United Kingdom, ruling the island directly from London. This sat well with the pro-British minority in the north.
By the end of the 19th century, however, the majority of the Irish, the Catholics, were no longer willing to be passive political minions of the British Empire. This had been demonstrated on no fewer than four occasions through attempts at organized rebellion over a period of less than 70 years. These were the United Irishmans uprising in 1798, Robert Emmets rebellion in 1803, the 1848 rebellion of the Young Irelanders, and the Fenian Uprising of 1867.
All four insurrections failed in their intended goal the political separation of Ireland from Great Britain but they demonstrated a persistent willingness on the part of the Irish to resort to violence for political purposes, and, just as important, they were proof that the status quo would never be allowed to stand for long before further blood was shed over the question of who would control the political fate of the Irish people.
Since the 1880s, Liberal governments had been introducing home rule legislation in the House of Commons in hopes of placating separatist sentiments in Ireland. In fact, the only measurable effect of their efforts was to further polarize relations between Irelands Catholic majority, which wanted some degree of self-government but disagreed widely on the form, and the unionists, the pro-British Protestant minority concentrated mostly in the urban centers of Ulster. This polarization was largely unnecessary. Home rule, as foreseen by both the Liberals and the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), the only significant nationalist party, would have created nothing more than a glorified local government to run Ireland at the behest of the British crown.
Still, it was more than the unionists were prepared to accept, and the question of home rule soon became a political non-issue. The Liberal Party was wary of going head to head with empire-minded voters in England or radical Protestants in northeast Ireland.
Much as the Liberals may have wanted, the issue would nonetheless not go away. This was particularly clear after a pair of general elections in 1910 left the Liberals with a mere plurality of seats at Westminster, requiring that a coalition government be formed with the IPPs 80 or so MPs to fashion a working majority in the House of Commons. The IPP was not going to enter a coalition without a promise of home rule. Caving in to more immediate political realities, the Liberal government finally set home rule to commence in 1914.
The effect of passing the Home Rule Act was to push Ireland to the brink of civil war. In January 1913 the Ulster Unionist Council set up the Ulster Volunteer Force, a private militia, to resist any attempts to make Ireland more Irish (or less British). In response, the Irish National Volunteers were formed in November to defend home rule. Brian Feeney, in his recent book Sinn Fein: A Hundred Turbulent Years, writes, By summer 1914 both sets of Volunteers, north and south, had acquired weapons. The British government was now in the uncomfortable position of having to mend fences between armed camps.
The trouble was that by 1914 the Protestant and Catholic peoples of Ireland were so completely at odds with one another that there was virtually no possibility of peacefully satisfying their common aspirations.
The question of governing Ireland had become a zero-sum game. Catholics were looking for any gesture from the British that signaled respect for their goal of greater autonomy from London. Protestants, on the other hand, were miles away from tolerating even the slightest compromise on Irelands political future. No matter that home rule was an innocuous measure, at worst; the unionists were not going to accept it, in any form, without violence.
Objections to home rule
What was it about home rule, a minimalist concession to the wishes of the overwhelming majority of Irelands population, that drove Protestants to defy their government and contemplate plunging their country into internecine warfare to stop it?
Quite simply, home rule was viewed as the thin end of the wedge, a slippery slope that unionists feared could lead only to an Irish government. If home rule was nothing more than a token symbolic act to satisfy Catholics, it equally symbolized for the Protestant a step down the road towards Dublin rule.
Explanation of such obstinacy typically is presented in terms of Protestants fear of losing a centuries-old dominant position in Irish society, blind political loyalty to the British crown, and deeply felt religious bigotry. These factors admittedly should not be lightly discounted in understanding the conflict in Ireland.
Overlooked in such discussions, equally if not more important to understanding the motivations of the unionist culture, is the fact that the face of Irish separatism in 1914 was one of protectionism, socialism, theocratic decree, and cultural dominance. Those who comment on the history of Irelands civil unrest underrate the impact that face must have had on Protestant thinking.
Under a Dublin government, Protestants feared, free commerce would be stifled in a sea of authoritarian controls, government education policy would support Irish over British culture and the development and promotion of the Irish over the English language, and Catholicism over Protestantism strong incentives for every class of Ulsterman to oppose even the slightest concession to nationalist desires.
Looking beyond the veneer of separatist views on the union, Protestants would have known that nationalist leaders ultimately wanted to create an Irish government powerful enough to control just about every major facet of public life, none of which would have worked out to the Protestants benefit.
Protestants may have been overly worried about the possibility of total Irish independence, but they were under no illusions about the outcome if such ever came to pass. Evidence of their considerable fear is seen in a commentary written by Ulster MP James Craig, in the Morning Post newspaper, in January 1911:
Neither Mr. Redmond [leader of the IPP] nor the English people has any conception of the deep- rooted determination of the sturdy men and women of Ulster [to resist] the encroachment on their civil and religious liberties that would naturally follow the establishment of a parliament in Dublin. [Emphasis added.]
A year earlier, unionist Walter Long gave a speech before the Ulster Unionist Council proclaiming that home rule for Ireland would mean the loss of individual liberty, the absolute insecurity of property, and the negation of everything [unionists] cared for affecting the welfare of the country. [Emphasis added.]
Nationalism and laissez faire
The timing of these developments should be evaluated in full context. In 1914, Britain, like the United States and other industrialized countries, was experiencing the tremendous material benefits of a century of laissez-faire economic policies. In Ireland, the most visible advantages of 19th-century capitalism could be seen in Ulster, where industries thrived and living standards soared, relative to the rest of the country. The Protestant businessmen of Ulster knew, from a century of evidence, that free trade and limited government were the keys to wealth and prosperity. Such men would have been strongly suspicious of government interference.
By contrast, the economic objectives of the nationalists were interventionist on the one end and totally socialist on the other. There was no room for the free market in the nationalist philosophy. If Protestants found the IPPs hopes for an assembly with what Feeney calls paltry powers a worrisome prospect, then the fully articulated economic policies of prominent nationalist spokesmen must have been absolutely horrifying.
For example, Arthur Griffith, who founded an organization called Sinn Fein (ourselves alone) in 1905, wanted economic independence from Britain, preferably under a system of dual monarchy, and adopted the strongly nationalistic and protectionist views of German economist Friedrich List (17891846) accordingly. At Sinn Feins inaugural meeting, Griffith praised List for brushing aside the fallacies of Adam Smith and his tribe, [and pointing] out that between the individual and humanity stands, and must continue to stand, a great fact the nation.
Griffith wanted an isolationist Ireland that would maintain self-existence and independence by its own power and resources alone. In his view, Irish industries would develop and thrive only if free trade was curtailed. He paid lip service to capitalism, stating that ;Capital and Labour are essential and complementary to each other rather than antagonistic, but with the proviso that it is the duty of the organized nation to protect Labour, and to secure for it the profits of production, not a mere competitive wage. Flowery tributes to the partnership of Capital and Labour aside, the redistributionist intention here is obvious.
Sounding the rallying cry for collectivism, Griffith called on the Irish people to place our duty to our country before our personal interests, and live not each for himself but each for all. Griffith longed for an Irish government that would boycott English goods, raise protective tariffs, subsidize agriculture, embark on massive public-works projects, raise an Irish merchant fleet, and institute a Buy Irish campaign. His Sinn Fein philosophy was very popular in intellectual circles.
At the other end of this economic spectrum was James Connolly, a popular and very radical nationalist and labor agitator who actually preferred another armed insurrection over politics to mold a new, socialist Ireland. (He would be executed for his part in the 1916 Easter Uprising.) Connolly formed the Irish Socialist Republican Party in 1896 and later, in 1910, worked for the Socialist Party of Ireland. He was the Belfast organizer, later acting secretary general, of the General Workers Union (which would paralyze Dublin in a general strike in 1913), and, in 1914, commandant of the Irish Citizen Army, another private militia.
In Socialism and Nationalism (1897), published in the Irish magazine Shan Van Vocht, Connolly declared that if the national movement of our day is not merely to re- enact the old sad tragedies of our past history, it must show itself capable of rising to the exigencies of the moment.
If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain. England would still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions she has planted in this country. England would still rule you to your ruin, even while your lips offered hypocritical homage at the shrine of that Freedom whose cause you had betrayed. Nationalism without Socialism without a reorganisation of society on the basis of a broader and more developed form of common property. is only national recreancy. It would be tantamount to a public declaration that our oppressors had so far succeeded in inoculating us with their perverted conceptions of justice and morality that we had finally decided to accept those conceptions as our own, and no longer needed an alien army to force them upon us. [Emphasis added.]
As Feeney points out, Belfast [was] the biggest shipyard in the world at the turn of the 20th century.
The city also had the biggest ropeworks in the world. A thousand ancillary metal workshops and foundries banged and clanged away night and day across the city. Engineering firms clattered non-stop to build and export machinery for factories all over the British Empire.
Against this backdrop, the socialistic and protectionist language of nationalist economists must have appeared as pure insanity to northern unionists.
Economic issues cannot be discounted for their importance in understanding unionist opposition to an Irish government. At the same time, other issues driving Protestant fears would prove even more divisive.
Under Sinn Feins proposal for dual monarchy, Britain and Ireland would remain wed in a United Kingdom under the British monarch, but governed by separate parliaments, effectively placing government of the island in the hands of its Irish Catholic majority. Catholicism, not Protestantism, would be the state religion. Protestants foresaw in this an end to Protestantism in Ireland. Adding fuel to this fire was the Ne Temere decree in 1908 which required that the children of mixed marriages be brought up as Catholics, a proposal the Vatican wanted enforced through pre-nuptial agreements. This helps explain the anti -Irish slogan of the time, Home Rule is Rome Rule!
Another area of grave concern to unionists was their Britishness. Culture in British -controlled Ireland was essentially anglicized. The Irish language and other vestiges of Gaelic ethnicity were virtually nonexistent under British rule. To counter this, the separatist movement emphasized rejuvenation of Irish culture. Irish nationalists wanted to create an Irish Volksgeist, a wave of popular opinion which would embrace Irishness in all its forms. Feeney writes,
By the end of the nineteenth century, [Irish separatists] demanded not only political independence, they sought to emphasise and develop Irelands distinctiveness or separateness from England in all respects in sport, language, literature, culture and history. Advanced nationalists wanted Ireland to be unapologetically, recognizably, even aggressively Irish, and to this end set about purging English influences from the country. [Emphasis added.]
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