For the British population in the first two decades of the twentieth century, there were few issues as important as the question of Ireland and Irish governance. Over the previous centuries, Irish nationalism had continued to grow and since 1870 the Home Rule movement had gained increasing legitimacy and support, in both Ireland and Britain. By the outbreak of World War One, the reduction of British power in Ireland was inevitable.
The concepts associated with Home Rule will be all too familiar to us living in the increasingly federal UK of today. The proponents of Home Rule, which included William Gladstone, argued that Ireland should have its own parliament with some power over governing the Irish counties, while much power would still be retained by Westminster.
While this may seem a reasonable request to us today, Home Rule did not come without its challengers. Despite 85 of 103 Irish seats being held by the Parliamentary Party (alongside one from Liverpool) and Gladstone attempting twice to introduce Home Rule bills, Westminster politics remained obstinately anti-Home Rule.
This changed in 1914, thanks largely to political engineering. In 1911 the Liberals ended the unlimited veto of the House of Lords, meaning that any Home Rule bill passed by the commons would come into effect within two years.
However, despite this positive movement towards independence, it was during this period that the ‘Ulster question’ first became a prominent issue. In the first explicit display of internal divisions in Ireland, Ulster unionists formed the Ulster Volunteers and threatened physical action should Home Rule be enacted. In response, the Irish nationalists formed the Irish Volunteers and both sides began sourcing weapons. It was only the outbreak of World War One that prevented civil war. An amendment was proposed for the bill, which would keep the 6 Ulster counties in the UK temporarily.
World War One also resulted in the indefinite freeze of the Government of Ireland Act 194, despite the fact it had already received royal assent. It is possible that little would have changed over the years of war had it not been for the Easter Rising of 1916. This insurrection led by Irish Nationalists was the first major rebellion by the Irish for centuries. Key locations in Dublin were seized for six days and an Irish Republic was declared.
The British devastatingly crushed the Rising, executing almost all of its leaders. But the Easter Rising is key to events in Ireland as the point at which physical force republicanism came to the fore of Irish politics again. The Rising is also cited as the cause of an increasingly republican population, fervent in their political participation.
It was another controversial political decision by Westminster that provided the catalyst for Irish independence. In 1918, in the midst of the recruitment crisis that had plagued the First World War, British politicians proposed conscription for Ireland. This was met by avid backlash in Ireland, particularly since conscription had previously been controversially linked to Home Rule. While the British response to this backlash was disastrous, the leadership of Sinn Féin in Ireland was guaranteed, with them achieving a landslide in the 1918 election.
Sinn Féin was a markedly republican party. On the 21st January 1919 they formed the First Dáil (Irish Parliament), adopting a Declaration of Independence. It was in the shadow of this government formation that the Irish Volunteers declared their decision to treat the British Army as an invading force, justifying their decision to fight back. This was the instigation of the Irish War of Independence, known at the times as the Anglo-Irish War.
The Dáil Éireann employed a variety of tactics to achieve their goal. We are familiar with the guerrilla warfare they engaged in, with the IRA being formed in 1919 and the British reprimanding the republicans violently. However, the Dáil also appealed to diplomatic measures, writing to the Paris Peace Conference to deny the British representatives of Ireland and gaining the support of the United States Senate to send their own delegation. Following the British outlawing of the Dáil, they began publishing the Irish Bulletin to market the Irish side of the events. While these peaceful measures were effective, it was the work of the “squad”, Michael Collins’ group of political assassins that had the most ongoing impact.
Throughout the war of independence the British continued to support the idea of an Ireland governed by two councils, one in the North East and one for the rest of Ireland. As a direct result of this, in May 1921 Northern Ireland was established. The war concluded in the December of that year with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the establishment of the Irish Free State – the first independent Irish state.