The road not taken

I’ve been in Ireland through the Scottish referendum and I think the attitude over here is, why do the Scot need to even have a debate? Ireland doesn’t even have Scotland’s natural resources and we’ve got by fine, what’s the big deal? Naturally many were disappointed that Scotland failed to take the plunge.

However there also has been some soul searching in Ireland about how Scotland managed to get to the stage of an independence referendum while avoiding the bloody violence of the Ireland’s war of independence. In short, could Ireland have broken away from the UK peacefully?

A series of unfortunate events
Almost as soon as the ink was dry on the Act of Union there were calls within Ireland for it to be repealed. Demands for so called “home rule” (what we’d now call devolved government) grew pace under Daniel O’Connell, then Parnell and finally John Redmond. The call for home rule was opposed by the aristocracy, in particular wealthy Irish landowners and their allies in the House of Lords. Hence numerous home rule acts were defeated.

The Parliament Act however, changed this. In 1911 the Third home rule act passed, thanks to Redmond and his allies in the British Liberals, although it would be 1914 before it achieved Royal ascent. The delay was caused by events up in Ulster, where Protestant’s feared majority Catholic rule, “home rule is Rome rule” they argued. There were violent clashes between pro-Unionist mobs and Republicans, with both groups forming their own militia.

Finally Redmond hammered out a compromise that would see the Ulster counties get an opt out from Home Rule (fun fact, if Redmond’s offer had gone through this would have likely led to a 28 county Ireland, not 26 counties as Ireland gained Tyrone & Fermanagh). However by now World War I had broken out and Westminster decided to postpone home rule until after the war. Redmond not only agreed to this, but encouraged Irish to go and fight in order to end the war more quickly.

Of course Redmond was assuming, like many at the time, that World War I would be short. He was not anticipating a 4 year global conflict nor the horrors of the Somme and Ypres. His opponents within the Irish nationalists, who never wanted Home Rule anyway but full independence, were quick to point to the conflict, and the constant stream of bodies coming home to families in Ireland, as proof that home rule wasn’t going to work. Ireland would still be dragged into conflicts half a world away because of imperialists playing their little chess game of empire. Up until now Redmond had managed to outmanoeuvre the nationalists, but as the war dragged support for home rule began to wane.

Not least because the UK Parliament then, as now, had its fair share of “head bangers” and “swivel eyed loons”. The unionists and imperialists within Parliament were quite happy to sound off to the Daily Express how they never agreed with Home Rule and intended to get it repealed as soon as the war was over. While this may have made for cheerful reading for UK conservatives, as you can imagine it played right into the hands of the nationalists, who pointed to this as proof that Westminster politicians can’t be trusted and that the home rule bill ain’t worth the paper it’s printed on.

And to make matters worse there were all sorts of rumours floating around Ireland, ranging from a planned crack down on Republican groups and fears of conscription into the British army. Conscription had been introduced in 1916. But the Irish had been exempted, as I suspect the British thought it better to have willing Irish at the front, rather than un-willing republicans, putting them in close proximity to British military officers…then handing them a gun! Again the “head bangers” were happy to suggest that Paddy wasn’t pulling his weight for the empire and the Irish should be conscripted and put right at the front.

All of this pent up frustration within republican groups eventually exploded in the Easter Rising of 1916. One of the fact’s often overlooked about the Rising is that it was not popularly supported. Many of the units available to the republicans failed to show up that Easter Monday, in many cases because they had been specifically ordered not to take part by their commanders. The infamous Proclamation was likely given to a bemused crowd of commuters.

How to lose friends and alienate people
Now had the British reacted proportionally to this threat, e.g. call in a priest or some suitable intermediary and try and negotiate a peaceful resolution, the course of Irish history could have been very different.

Unfortunately, the British went all Jack Bauer on the rebels…or perhaps I should say they went all Reginald Dyer. They brought up artillery and a gunboat and started shelling the rebel held positions (probably causing more damage than the rebels!). Orders were issued to shoot anyone seen to be helping the rebels, even unarmed civilians. After the rising, military courts were set up and many of the leadership executed, most notably James Connolly, too weak with Gangrene to stand he was executed while sitting in his chair.

Suspicious that there might still be some Irish loyal to the Crown, the British Army, egged on by the right wing press back home (and a certain amount of anti-Irish bigotry), then embarked on a campaign in which they arrested anyone who the slightest nationalist sympathies. Even those playing Gaelic games or carrying hurley’s were liable for arrest! These actions completely altered the public mood away from home rule towards independence, as it suggested that the British government could not be trusted.

Even so, a war could have been avoided. When the British appeared slow to implement home rule (they waited till 1920!), the republicans beat them to the post by setting up “Dail Eireann” a new Irish Parliament comprising of the Irish MP’s elected in the 1918 general election.

Unfortunately the same day as it first met, a group of RIC members were ambushed in Tipperary. While the Dail had nothing to do with this, the British government decided to connect the dots. They were also no doubt fearful of the fact that some (but not all) of the Irish deputies had communist sympathies. So they had the organisation banned, and later its leaders arrested. In effect this handed the initiative to the IRA (or “die hards” as they were often called at the time) as only thing holding them back had been the Dail. As they say the rest is history.

Learning the lessons of history
So there are two ways of looking at this. Firstly one could argue that the Irish war of independence was just a consequence of a series of unfortunate coincidences. Had Ireland been granted home rule, this would have become a stepping stone towards independence eventually (much as Australia and Canada). Although it would have more than likely come much later, it would have been peaceful.

Others would argue that the war of independence was the enviable consequence of Irish nationalism clashing with British Imperialism. And thus that even if home rule had been granted, things would have kicked off eventually. In much the same way that, even if Archduke Ferdinand hadn’t taken that wrong turn down a street in Sarajevo, war would have broken out eventually as the primary cause of the first world war was rivalry between competing empires.

My two cents would be to point out how many hasty decisions, made on the basis of short term factors had longer far reaching consequences.

The decision by Carson and Craig to oppose home rule, as well as the foolish posturing and points scoring of conservative peer’s in Westminster destroyed the case for home rule and played directly into the hands of Sinn Fein…something the NI first minster needs to consider next time he’s looking across the table at his ex-IRA deputy!

John Redmond decision to back British involvement in WW1 has to go down as one of the most epic acts of political suicide in history. It made the labour party’s 1983 manifesto seems perfectly sensible in comparison. Indeed the Irish government only recently thought it would be a good idea to put up a memorial to Redmond…seemingly “forgetting” about one of the country’s greatest leaders for a century, all because of one speech!

And the British overreaction to the Easter Rising, largely a consequence of them pandering to the right wing media mob, effectively cost them not just Ireland, but large chucks of the empire.

So there are lessons to be learnt from the history of Ireland’s breakaway that are relevant today. Lack of trust in Westminster was one of the key factors in the Irish rejecting home wanting full independence. So equally if Devo Max is delayed or reneged on I suspect Scotland’s day’s in the UK are numbered.

And politicians reacting to scary, but often inaccurate reports in the press (e.g. such as media claims regarding immigration or people on benefits), can result in them taking hasty decisions that have long term consequences. Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city, for example voted to leave the UK largely I suspect because people there are sick of the Tory cuts and the government’s Daily Mail-esque antics.

And similarly promising an “in or out” referendum on the EU, just to deal with an internal dispute within the Tory party could have significant consequences on the entire country. Indeed it could spark a break-up of the UK.

As the saying goes those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.

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4 thoughts on “The road not taken

  1. it would be curious if the labour(red tory )vote in Scotland fell dramatically and the Tories won in 2015 and subsequently the euro vote went No….Cameron could still go down in history as the man who lost the Union!

    I think the times were differnet when Ireland fought for independence – i think they had no choice.. and remember 1314 – Scotland had fought for independence in the past too.
    Personally i could happily take a claymore to the Westmonster trio.

    Like

  2. Pingback: Bigoted Britain | daryanblog

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