IRELAND and ENGLAND
Part 4 – the early 20th Century.
We are now in the crisis period, when politics gets complicated and “a terrible beauty was born”. That period is sufficiently recent that an old person of the present day can have spoken to people who were directly involved in those events. Where we left off, Gladstone had opted for Home Rule. The Irish, having been cheated out of Parnell's leadership, had gravitated towards basing tribal allegiance on religious identity. The Liberal Party split, and the Liberal Unionists joined the Conservatives to form the Conservative and Unionist Party. After the Liberal electoral landslide of December 1905, the Conservatives were happy to accept the slogan “Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right”. So the opposition party was advocating armed resistance to the Crown, while the government party was faced with trying to impose devolution on its most loyal citizens by force. The situation, bad as it was, was exacerbated at the 1910 election, when the Liberals lost seats and needed the support of the Irish.
Home Rule could not be forced through Parliament until the power of the House of Lords to block legislation was curtailed. However, even bigger troubles were brewing elsewhere. Once the War broke out, Home Rule was suspended. Britain and Germany tried to destroy each others' empires by clandestine means. To set the scene, we can note the following:
Britain organised, through Lawrence of Arabia, a rebellion of the Arabs against the Turks.
Germany tried to recruit Moslem leaders to raise a jihad against British authority in Egypt and India. (John Buchan's Greenmantle gives a fictionalised account of this.)
Germany smuggled arms into Ireland: Sir Roger Casement was caught doing it and was executed.
And, as time went on:
The British “Passport Officer” or rezident in St Petersburg shot Rasputin, a leader of the Peace Party, and dumped the corpse in the River Neva after Prince Yusupov (an Oxford graduate) bungled his murder.
The Germans smuggled Lenin from Zürich to St Petersburg. They also smuggled Trotsky through Canada and across the Atlantic.
The British promised The Jews (meaning those of Germany and Austro-Hungary) a homeland in Palestine. This was “The Balfour Declaration”.
The Germans tried to incite the Mexican government to invade the United States, but were caught doing it. This was “The Zimmermann Telegram” that brought the US into the War.
The Germans tried to incite émigré Irishmen to support armed insurrection against the Crown.
The British supported rebel movements in Bohemia and Hungary, including the attempted establishment of the Hungarian Soviet Socialist Republic under Béla Kun.
That landmark event in Ireland, the Post Office Rising of Easter 1916, has to be seen in that context. The conspirators were of course terrorists, by which I mean that their objective was to force the Government to take reprisals that would alienate the civil population and incline them to support the insurrectionists. That is what in fact happened. They were a group of literary idealists, apart from James Connolly, who was, in the words of a great-nephew of his to your author:
“He wasn't even a bleeding Irishman. He was a bleeding Scotsman. He wanted to make trouble and he went looking for it.”
The Post Office rebels, nowadays national heroes, did not immediately gain the sympathy of the Irish people, who disapproved of gun battles in Dublin's fair city. It was the British Government's reaction that made history. They executed the ringleaders, and when sporadic violence broke out in protest, they imposed martial law. This is the point where the Westminster Government lost its authority in Ireland: they had alienated just that class of respectable, pious, hard-working family men and women who formed the backbone of society.
It could be argued that the Government were in the right. After all, armed rebellion against the legitimate authority in a time of war is usually considered to be a capital offence. All the same, we are justified in expecting our politicians to think politically. Could not the perpetrators have been locked up pending the report of a Royal Commission into “the recent disturbances in Dublin”? It would have taken time for a Government committee to appoint a Royal Commission, whose members would have been chosen from the most respected, the most dilatory, and the most doddery of His Majesty's Judiciary. It would have taken them ages to interview all the witnesses and to research the background. At length they would have been expected to find that the insurgents were patriotic, idealistic young Irishmen who had been suborned by vicious and insidious German propaganda. By then the War would have been over, the incident would have become folk memory, and the young men could have been quietly released at a time when the newspapers were busy with some more immediate scandal or emergency.
Did nobody advise Herbert Henry Asquith to take this line? Actually, yes. That was the obvious Civil Service solution. But Asquith was drinking heavily and pursuing an obsessive and unrequited love-affair with Venetia Stanley to the frustration of the Cabinet. One lapse of judgement was all it took. It must be remembered that the Government was already treading on eggshells in its dealings with Ireland. Conscription was never introduced there, though plenty of Irishmen volunteered to fight in His Majesty's armed services.
From then on events unfolded at an accelerating pace. The ordinary decent Irish citizens stopped paying rates and taxes, so ordinary decent citizens were arrested, and ordinary decent citizens were released from custody by violent mobs. The Government, faced with a desperate situation on the Western Front, did not have the resources to enforce the law. Lloyd George, with Conservative backing, staged a coup d'état so as to pursue the War more effectively.
The War To End Wars supposedly ended in November 1918. But it didn't. Fighting contined in: Greece, Turkey, Arabia, Russia, the Caucasus, Mongolia, the streets of Germany, Poland, Hungary, and of course Ireland. Lloyd George raised a force of ex-soldiers in support of the civil authorities in Ireland: these were called the Black and Tans after the colour of their uniform. Irish boys in my home town could repeat tales of outrages committed by these auxiliary troops; and songs of defeats inflicted on them were still being sung in public houses. For Ireland (like most of Europe) was full of men with guns who knew how to use them and had years of military experience. The Ulster Protestants, under the banners of “Home Rule is Rome Rule” and “No Surrender” fought their own corner.
There was only one solution: give everybody what they wanted. That meant Partition. It was not a new idea; it was an old one dusted off to bring about an end to the fighting. So, by one of those ironies that readers of history so enjoy, and that participants in history so resent, the Ulster Protestants, who had fought not to have Home Rule, got it, while the twenty-six counties, who had struggled to achieve Home Rule, got independence instead. Once Lloyd George had sorted out the Irish Problem and could be blamed for the outcome, his Conservative and Unionist partners ditched him.
But of course Ireland was not sorted out. The War To End Wars carried on in the guise of the Irish Civil War, between those who accepted Partition (which Lloyd George had supposed would be a temporary expedient) and those who wished to continue fighting until a United Ireland was achieved. The main political parties of the Republic, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, are descended from the opposing factions in the Civil War. The situation was complicated, though perhaps ultimately simplified, by the formation of the Irish Republican Army as the notional army of the Republic that had been proclaimed by the Post Office insurgents in 1916. Lenin called this IRA the first Red Army. An attempt by the Connolly Association to convert County Kerry into a Soviet-style collective farm united the warring factions against the socialist revolutionaries, so open warfare mutated into party politics in the newly established Dáil. (I once worked with a Connolly Association member in London. He considered himself to be a political refugee.)
The British Government were extremely relieved that they could wash their hands of Irish affairs. Legal authority was handed over to the already functioning Dáil on 1st January 1922. The Royal Mint produced a new set of coins marked “Saorstát Éireann” (Irish Free State), and a new set of postage stamps, inscribed in the Irish language, was printed on behalf of the new government. The twenty-six counties were deemed to be an independent state within the Empire, though nominally subject to His Majesty King George V. Irish citizens in the United Kingdom were allowed full civil rights, including the vote (but not passports), which they have to this day notwithstanding occasional protests by British politicians that this is an indefensible anomaly. The British Government retained the use of naval facilities in some Irish ports (the “Treaty” Ports) because of the German submarine threat during the War. Finally, the Irish Rugby Union decided that the political division of Ireland was nothing to do with them.
So to this day international players from the Province are proud to wear the green, and stand respectfully during the playing of the Republic's anthems.
It all sounds too good to be true.