Politics: 1800 to 1921—Challenges to the Union

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Politics: 1800 to 1921—Challenges to the Union

The Act of Union of 1800 was not a wholly new beginning for Ireland. The political manifestations of the late eighteenth century—Protestant nationalism, Catholic political advances, Presbyterian radicalism, Irish republicanism, and the sharpening of sectarian tension—all were carried forward into the new United Kingdom. Protestant enthusiasm, initially limited, soon blossomed as the union was seen as a bulwark against Catholic power. Catholic belief that the union would provide justice was weakened by the British failure to carry Catholic Emancipation in 1800. The British government hoped that the new system would provide stable political arrangements and bring prosperity to Ireland. But Ireland in the 1820s and 1830s saw a renewal of agrarian violence and a revival of the agitation for Catholic Emancipation that boded ill for the British connection.

Daniel O'Connell's Old Ireland

The Catholic Emancipation campaign shaped challenges to the union for decades to come. Its leader, Daniel O'Connell, denounced what most European states would have regarded as a reasonable settlement of the issue, the right of the British government to exercise a veto on episcopal appointments. He gathered the support of the Catholic Church for his stand and used its considerable influence in his victory in the County Clare by-election in 1828 against a liberal Protestant, William Vesey Fitzgerald. Yet O'Connell was also a political pragmatist who saw the advantage of working with British political parties if they could deliver reforms to assuage Catholic grievances regarding the payment of tithes to the Church of Ireland; municipal corporations in need of restructuring; and unjust Protestant and Orange influence at Dublin Castle. This might make Irishmen (by which he meant Catholics) "West Britons" again; but it would definitely shift some power in Ireland from Protestants to Catholics. O'Connell's tactics did not divert him from the greater goal of repeal of the union, which he believed was compatible with loyalty to the Crown, but which would hasten the process by which Protestants would (to use his own word) "melt" into the nation.

This prospect occasioned another challenge to the union, though one mounted to reserve a safe place for Ireland's Protestant minority (as it was fast becoming in political terms). The Young Ireland movement was deeply influenced by European (especially German) Romanticism, with its emphasis on language and culture as defining the nation. Thomas Davis, its most influential figure, hoped to stop English domination of Ireland, but he also believed that the Irish Protestants (of whom he was one) could provide cultural leadership and stave off a Catholic ascendancy. He and his colleagues clashed with O'Connell's "Old Ireland" and came off worse. Most Protestants feared that repeal of the union would mean their destruction anyway. But this struggle set the scene for future conflicts between Protestants and Catholics, with the British government, of whatever political complexion, calculating how each conflict could best be managed in the interest of the British state.

Effects of the Great Famine

O'Connell's cause was soon lost in the Great Famine that struck Ireland between 1845 and 1851, which had a lasting impact on the character and aims of Irish nationalism. It closed the chapter that had begun as far back as the 1760s, when the Catholic middle class started to challenge its total exclusion from political power. It revealed the need for a political party and movement to be founded on a more secure electoral base. It also inspired a hopeless (but by later generations, revered) rebellion by the Young Irelanders in 1848. And it provoked some nationalists to criticize the British for their alleged callous indifference to the suffering of the people: Despite the reality of a limited but by no means un-important official response to the famine, the British belief that it was the visitation of God that would shove Ireland into modernization was a brutal response to a human tragedy. There is no reason to assume that Ireland was destined for a revival of nationalism after the famine; on the contrary, the 1850s saw a Conservative revival (among Protestant landlords), and the attempt by the Tenant League, which had been founded in 1850, to unite Catholic and Protestant farmers in a common cause.

But the famine had two significant influences on the recovery of Irish nationalism. The Fenian Brotherhood, which aimed at establishing an Irish republic by force of arms, was founded in 1858. Its failure to organize and to maintain secrecy, and the opposition of the Catholic hierarchy, all contributed to its failure. The suppression of sporadic violence in Great Britain and a failed uprising in Ireland in 1867 suggested that there was little future in this kind of attack upon the union. But Fenianism provided an inspiration for later would-be revolutionaries, and it produced a group of activists whose dedication surpassed their numbers. A silent revolution was of more immediate importance. The Great Famine resulted in major changes in the pattern of landholding in Ireland, with the consolidation of land in fewer hands and the rise of an important tenant-farming class—or rather classes, for the tenant farmers were not a uniform entity. There were large farmers in some areas, small farmers in others. But social change gave rural Ireland a chance to assert itself, and nationalist leaders had to take account of their fears and hopes. Rural Ireland was soon to demonstrate its power in the 1870s, as the Irish land question became at times the Irish Question, and it was always on the political agenda until the beginning of the twentieth century.

This was shown by the placing of land ownership on the agenda by even such a moderate challenger to the union as Isaac Butt, founder of the Home Government Association in 1870. Butt was a Protestant Conservative who had bitterly opposed Daniel O'Connell in the 1840s, but who had become disillusioned with the British government's response to the Great Famine. He was also looking for a new direction to his political career, but he had defended Fenian prisoners in the 1860s and there is no reason to doubt his sincere desire to reform the government of Ireland. He did not seek an independent Ireland, and his federal scheme for the United Kingdom envisaged an Irish parliament based on the existing restricted franchise, with an upper house to represent Irish property. His leadership has been contrasted unfavorably with that of his famous successor, Charles Stewart Parnell, but Butt was leading a party in the British parliament eulogized by Walter Bagehot, with its loose and shifting party ties. He did overestimate the power of rational argument in that parliament, but he was aware of the kind of issue that might help to broaden the popular base of his party. The land question was one such issue, and Butt referred to it frequently. Tenant right was now moving into the political debate, and William Ewart Gladstone's Land Act of 1870 showed a recognition that some reform of the relations between landlord and tenant was necessary.

The Land League, Parnell, and Home Rule

The land question burst dramatically upon the British and Irish political scene in the late 1870s and retained its centrality for decades. In 1878 agrarian life in Ireland was threatened with recession, and even, some thought, with a recurrence of famine. The worldwide agrarian depression that began in 1878 had a particular impact upon the west of Ireland, and it was here that local agitators and organizers went to work to create one of the most remarkable resistance movements not only in Irish but in European history. The Land League, founded in 1879, was a genuine locally inspired movement, well organized, popular, and able to impose its will on large parts of the countryside. It called for lower rents and other concessions while the crisis lasted, but the agitation tapped into one of the core beliefs that motivated challenges to the union—that of dispossession. It was easy to turn a demand for reform into an attack upon the alien landlord class. This was not merely the result of the admittedly skillful Land League propaganda; it derived its strength from the genuine belief that the older, Catholic landlords had the real title to the land. But the Land League had no intention of seeking out and transferring the land to these lost leaders. The cry, "the land for the people," meant the tenant farmers. The result was a struggle between the Land League and the British government that was taken advantage of by the rising star of the Home Rule Party, the Protestant landlord Charles Stewart Parnell.

Parnell took the risky step of allying himself with the Land League and its aims. Although he was a landlord, he was prepared to defy the unionist politics of the vast majority of his class. Yet he was anxious to include them in a self-governing Ireland, which could be done all the better by removing the land problem that stood between them and their tenants like a sword. Parnell was prepared to place himself in direct confrontation not only with the British government, but with most of his own party members, who feared where his extremism was leading him—and them. Parnell was prepared to take that risk, and he had already caught the eye of Fenians through his obstructive behavior in the British House of Commons and his willingness to give public approval to the Fenian martyrs who had been hanged for the murder of a policeman in Manchester. In 1879 he gained the support of Fenian leaders in the New Departure, which he may not have formally accepted but which united Fenianism and the constitutional movement behind a "national parliament," peasant proprietorship, and Home Rule MPs forming an absolutely independent party. His support of the Land League brought the agrarian agitation under his leadership as well. Yet there was a real risk that the Land League agitation would spin out of control, and especially that it would alienate the important bulwark that Daniel O'Connell had fashioned, the support of the Catholic hierarchy.

Parnell was skillful enough to keep this potentially fragile alliance together, at least for a time. He used the land agitation to help his bid for the leadership of the Home Rule Party, which he gained in May 1880. He then used the party to subsume the Land League into the broader nationalist movement, and thus reinforced, he presented the British government with a dilemma: It could use coercive legislation to keep Parnell in check, but British liberal sentiment was unlikely to regard coercion as a long-term solution to the Irish problem. Gladstone, for his part, saw no reason to let anarchy prevail, but he came to believe that there must be an alternative to coercion, and he hoped that that would be to support the Conservative Party (which had dallied with the idea of a reconciliation with nationalist Ireland) in bringing in a Home Rule measure for Ireland. His hand was forced through the premature disclosure of his intentions, and in 1886 Gladstone introduced his Irish Home Rule bill in the House of Commons.

In 1869, when he disestablished the Church of Ireland, Gladstone had claimed that he based his policy on the government of Ireland by Irish ideas. He did not easily arrive at his Home Rule policy, however, and he hoped that it would end the challenge to the union by giving Ireland a settled constitution in which the Irish Protestant gentry would play their rightful part. Parnell responded by talking about a union of hearts—a final settlement of the Irish Question. It is hard to establish how likely this outcome might have been. Irish Catholics who would have received the benefits of Gladstone's Home Rule bill might not have been prepared to draw a line under a modest measure of self-government. But there was in any event the resistance of Irish Protestants to be taken into account. Gladstone had a great affection for the Irish gentry, who might be won back to public life under Home Rule, but he rejected any claims by Ulster unionists that they should be given special treatment under his Home Rule scheme, claiming that they were no more different from the Irish nation than Scottish Highlanders were from the rest of the Scottish nation. The problem was compounded by the democratization of Irish politics in the 1880s, which gave public voice and electoral power to the deeply divided people of Ulster. Sectarian divisions were becoming more deeply rooted in the north, not only in politics but in many walks of life, including the great industrial factories and shipbuilding works of Belfast. The urban working classes were most divided of all. Thus the challenge to the union represented by Parnell and his party was met by a formidable counterchallenge. The inevitable clash was postponed by Parnell's fall from grace in 1889 to 1891 because of his association with Mrs. Katharine O'Shea, his mistress and the wife of a member of his own party. Gladstone's second Home Rule bill of 1893 was defeated in the House of Lords, and the danger subsided. But Home Rule was still part of the political agenda of British Liberals, however much of an encumbrance it might be. And even while Home Rulers themselves split and split again, nationalist Ireland was tightening its grip on local government (reformed on a wholly elected basis in 1898), and on the land, through a series of land acts in the 1880s and 1890s. Nationalists found it hard to sustain the former enthusiasm for Home Rule. But they did not use the lacuna after 1893 to ponder what the Irish nation was; instead, they contented themselves with regarding unionist opposition as a kind of false consciousness, or as the artificial product of British Conservative resistance to Irish self-government.

The Gaelic Revival and Sinn FÉin

Challenges to the union were not confined to the political sphere. In 1884 the Gaelic Athletic Association was founded to recover and popularize Ireland's national games and pastimes, thus encouraging the youth of Ireland to eschew foreign games likes soccer, rugby, and above all, cricket. Its exclusion of policemen and soldiers from its ranks and its ban on members watching foreign games provided a remarkable form of social control in rural areas, where native sports were most popular. In 1893 the Gaelic League was established to revive the Irish language and to save Ireland from anglicization and the swamping of its culture by cheap and nasty English newspapers, magazines and books, with their emphasis on sex, crime, and sensationalism. In a strict sense—but in that sense only—these were nonpolitical organizations, but they provided a clarion call for a new kind of nationalism that would not go begging to the "Saxon" Parliament, and would not equate the nation with a mere parliament, but that would regenerate Ireland from within and prevent its degeneration from without. The new nationalism of the 1890s and early l900s sought to persuade the younger generation that Old Ireland had failed it and would fail it again unless the Irish people took their destiny into their own hands. The political aspect of this mood was the Sinn Féin movement, which aimed at saving Ireland by its own exertions. The Sinn Féin leader Arthur Griffith exhorted the Irish to look to themselves for salvation, and he appealed to Protestants to follow the example of their illustrious forebears Jonathan Swift, Theobald Wolfe Tone, and Robert Emmet, and join hands with their Catholic fellow-countrymen in the national cause. This movement, these ideas, amounted to very little at the time, but they signified new points of resistance to what were now regarded as the all-too-enveloping grasp of the union and the destruction of all that made Ireland a nation.

But for the moment the Home Rule Party, reunited under John Redmond's leadership in 1900, could claim that it had won many battles, and would one day win the last battle—for self-government for Ireland. It could even be said that Home Rulers were no longer challenging the union but seeking to give it a new lease on life. The Liberal alliance might yet deliver Home Rule, so Redmond strove to convince the British public that he could be a loyal imperial statesman in the mode of the Canadian, Australian, and New Zealander prime ministers. The nationalist political elite was ready to complete a century of concessions to Ireland by taking control of an Irish executive and parliament, and by 1911 that promised land seemed well within its grasp. The Home Rule Party supported H. H. Asquith's government in its attack upon the Conservative-dominated House of Lords, thus demonstrating that it was no longer challenging the union, but using its power in the British Parliament to exploit the union in order to get Home Rule.

The Ulster Volunteer Force and the Irish Volunteers

But for Irish unionists the challenge was still real. They declared that the Home Rulers, whatever the professed moderation of their aims, were separatists at heart, and that they would use their powers to establish a priest-ridden, England- (and Protestant-) hating ascendancy. The 1911 Parliament Act, by destroying the Lords' veto, would open the way to this dire consequence. Now came a different kind of challenge to the union, one which the British government was awkwardly positioned to oppose. The Ulster unionists formed the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) to deny Home Rule to Ireland (they claimed that they were doing so to defend the union and their loyalty to the Crown). They did not deny the legitimacy of the United Kingdom, but they refused to accept the authority of the Liberal government. Nationalists held that the United Kingdom itself was, as far as Ireland was concerned, not a legitimate entity; it had, after all, been carried by bribery and corruption in 1799 and 1800. Now they argued, as Parnell had argued from 1886 to 1889, that a "union of hearts" would found the government of Ireland on a true constitutional base.

The result was a paradox: The union now faced two challenges from two groups, both of whom claimed that they were acting in its defense, for the UVF was followed in 1913 by the Irish Volunteers, founded by nationalists to defend the Home Rule settlement. It was a measure of the mistrust of the British government by both sides in Ireland that matters had come to this head. The danger of civil war was revealed when a gunrunning enterprise by the UVF in April 1914 was emulated by the Irish Volunteers in July, only this time nationalist blood was spilt in a clash with British troops.

The outbreak of the Great War in August 1914 seemed to offer a way out of the crisis, for both Ulster and Irish Volunteers, after some initial hesitation, were placed at the disposal of the British army. The minority that split from the Irish Volunteers seemed isolated, but it was this minority, together with James Connolly's Citizen Army, that formed the nucleus of the Easter Rising of April 1916. The three leading figures in the Rising—Tom Clarke, James Connolly, and Patrick Pearse—all had different motives for seeking to break the union. Clarke was from Fenian stock, dedicated to securing the Irish republic; Connolly wanted to use republicanism to create a socialist state in Ireland; Pearse wanted an Ireland not merely free but Gaelic as well. This curious amalgam of eighteenth-century French Enlightenment, twentieth-century revolutionary socialism, and nineteenth-century romantic nationalism proved to be a more dynamic force than might have been supposed. It set the scene for Irish republicanism after the Rising, and although it failed to ignite the country in 1916, its brave sacrifice, followed by the British government's failure to intervene to stop the military executions of the leaders of the Rising, gave republicanism a promising start. The clumsy attempt to impose conscription on Ireland in 1918 gave the reconstituted Sinn Féin party the chance to exploit the predicament and win a victory in the general election of December 1918.

The Ira, the "Troubles," and the End of Union

The last phase of the union was marked by serious violence and disorder. The Irish Volunteers, now calling themselves the Irish Republican Army (IRA), were under no political control, and they gave their allegiance to a state that was not yet established, and almost certainly could not be established—a united Irish republic. Their character was no doubt influenced by the numbers of young men (many, ex-soldiers) with little to do but fall into troublesome ways, but the vast majority thought that they were fighting to free Ireland after centuries of repression—nationalist rhetoric had done its job only too well. The British response was two-fold: to pass a Government of Ireland Act establishing two new states, Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland, each with a Home Rule Parliament; and to wage war against the IRA. But the war was self-defeating: Nothing could be more condemnatory of the union than the British expedient of raising a force of ex-soldiers and letting them use whatever means might be thought necessary to defeat the guerrilla and terrorist campaign. Equally, it would be hard to find a more futile role for republicans than seeking to coerce Ulster unionists into a united Ireland. The result was the "Troubles," a euphemistic, but in its own way accurate, term to describe this mixture of state violence and civil war.

The British government eventually acknowledged that it had to negotiate with Sinn Féin, and between October and December 1921 Lloyd George and his team engaged in hard bargaining with Arthur Griffith, Michael Collins, and other Sinn Féin representatives. But by now the debate on the union had moved to a wider plane, for statesmen from the British empire, such as General Smuts of South Africa, urged the British to follow the instinct and the constitutional practice that had led to the dominions of the empire becoming equal partners with the mother country. This imperialization of the union question led the British to offer, under threat, dominion status to Ireland. On 6 December the Irish plenipotentiaries accepted what they had known all along—that the British offer could not be rejected without renewal of war, and that it was final; yet not so final, for dominion status on the Canadian model gave Ireland the "freedom to achieve freedom." It was on this still evolving stage that the last great Irish nationalist challenge to the union ended.

The end of the union can be seen in two ways: as the result of contingency, of the British lack of "feel" for Ireland, exemplified in the events of 1914 to 1921; or in a more deterministic way, as the outcome of an Irish nationalist quest for freedom that would change, but never go away. The truth lies somewhere in between. The most useful test is to consider the way in which Irish Catholics switched their political allegiance from Liberalism (which, after Gladstone's disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1869, seemed likely to hold both Catholic and Presbyterian loyalties) to the Home Rule movement, which Catholics believed would best serve their interests, and which Presbyterians firmly held would not serve theirs. A self-conscious political community, told from O'Connell's time that it was the rightful master of Ireland and the majority that must and would have its way, was likely to challenge a constitution that excluded it or otherwise used it badly. The form of challenge varied, and no one could have foreseen the 1921 end of the affair. Paradoxically, it was Protestant attempts to divert or control the march of the Catholic nation that helped to create cultural nationalism, and indeed before that, Irish republicanism, the two greatest, and in the end triumphant, challenges to the union.

SEE ALSO Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921; Catholic Emancipation Campaign; Electoral Politics from 1800 to 1921; Fenian Movement and the Irish Republican Brotherhood; Gaelic Revivalism: The Gaelic Athletic Association; Gaelic Revivalism: The Gaelic League; Home Rule Movement and the Irish Parliamentary Party: 1870 to 1891; Home Rule Movement and the Irish Parliamentary Party: 1891 to 1918; Independent Irish Party; Irish Republican Army (IRA); O'Connell, Daniel; Parnell, Charles Stewart; Protestant Ascendancy: Decline, 1800 to 1930; Repeal Movement; Sinn Féin Movement and Party to 1922; Struggle for Independence from 1916 to 1921; Unionism from 1885 to 1922; Veto Controversy; Young Ireland and the Irish Confederation; Primary Documents: Speech from the Dock (19 September 1803); Origin of the "Catholic Rent" (18 February 1824); The Catholic Relief Act (1829); Letter Advocating Federalism as an Alternative to Repeal (November 1844); Two Fenian Oaths (1858, 1859); "God Save Ireland" (1867); Resolutions Adopted at the Home Rule Conference (18–21 November 1873); On Home Rule and the Land Question at Cork (21 January 1885); On Home Rule at Wicklow (5 October 1885); On the Home Rule Bill of 1886 (8 April 1886); Address at the First Annual Convention of the National Council of Sinn Féin (28 November 1905); Resolutions Adopted at the Public Meeting Following the First Annual Convention of the National Council of Sinn Féin (28 November 1905); Declaration against Home Rule (10 October 1911); "Solemn League and Covenant" Signed at the "Ulster Day" Ceremony in Belfast (28 September 1912); Address on the Ulster Question in the House of Commons (11 February 1914); O'Donovan Rossa Graveside Panegyric (1 August 1915); "What Is Our Programme?" (22 January 1916); The Proclamation of the Irish Republic (24 April 1916); Declaration of Irish Independence (21 January 1919); The "Democratic Programme" of the Dáil Éireann (21 January 1919); Government of Ireland Act (23 December 1920); "Time Will Tell" (19 December 1921); Speech in Favor of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921 (7 January 1922); Proclamation Issued by IRA Leaders at the Beginning of the Civil War (29 June 1922)


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Politics: 1800 to 1921—Challenges to the Union

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Politics: 1800 to 1921—Challenges to the Union