Category Archives: Ireland

25 JULY, 1917: Green Shoots

Today marks the centenary of the first session of the Irish Convention, an attempt to resolve what the British persisted in calling the Irish Question that failed completely, reflected badly on its creators and participants, and helped polarise Irish politics through the decades of civil violence that followed.  Despite taking place slap in the middle of a crucial phase in the modern political development of a country hooked on history, you can see why the Convention has been largely ignored by posterity.

That doesn’t make it right, and forgetting about the Convention is a classic case of history being written by the winners.  While the subsequent successes of militant Irish republicanism have rendered glorious a failure like the Easter Rising, they have tended to obscure the failures of history’s losers, in this case those trying to negotiate for Irish autonomy within the British Empire.  You miss things that way.

I sketched a few paragraphs of Anglo-Irish history into my post about the Easter Rising (24 April, 1916: Heroes and Villains), so here I’ll just remind us all that autonomy within the British Empire, known as Home Rule, had been a raging political issue on both sides of the Irish Sea since the 1880s. Furiously opposed by the right wing of British politics (and the British Army occupying Ireland) and by the unswervingly pro-British Protestant population of Ireland’s industrially developed northeast, Home Rule was also despised as a half-measure by those Irish nationalists seeking full independence, whether or not they accepted violent struggle as an acceptable means to that end.

Home Rule was the aim of the moderate nationalists that made up the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) and the smaller All-For-Ireland League (AFIL), and it had the theoretical a support of the British Liberal Party.  The Liberals in government were never strong or brave enough to actually enact Home Rule until the second general election of 1910 left them as a minority government.  Dependent for survival on the support of 42 Labour MPs and 84 IPP/AFIL members, the Asquith government had no choice but to force Home Rule through a hostile House of Lords, but an attempt to introduce it in 1914 collapsed under the threat of rebellion in pro-British Ulster, and the War gave the Westminster government an opportunity to put the process on hold for the duration.

For most Irish people, as for most Europeans in 1914, political issues were trumped by war in all its emotive (and illusory) glory.  For almost two years the British were able to get away with yet another relapse into dithering inaction in Ireland, but the actions of relatively small cohorts of militant nationalists – gathered around organisations like the paramilitary Irish Volunteers and the more politically focused Sinn Fein – had already shaken British confidence by the spring of 1916, when the Easter Rising convinced Asquith’s coalition to throw the Irish a bone.

A month after the Rising, Asquith announced that he was sending war minister Lloyd George to Ireland to discuss the implementation of Home Rule with IPP leaders John Redmond and John Dillon. Given that Home Rule for a united Ireland was still fundamental to IPP aims and still anathema to Ulster Unionists, the talks stood no chance of success, but they did boost popular hopes of peaceful change at an important time.

Lloyd George – who held simultaneous but separate discussions with Unionists – made enough hopeful noises to both sides to keep the discussions dragging on until late July, when they finally collapsed, leaving the IPP leadership with nothing to show for its trouble except a very public humiliation.

The sense of crisis that pervaded Britain during and after the Somme Offensive extended to Ireland, and it wasn’t until 1917 that the extent of damage to the moderate cause became clear.  On becoming prime minister in December 1916, Lloyd George had responded to IPP requests for action on Home Rule with another piece of gesture politics, granting a Christmas amnesty to Irish internees in Britain.  The gesture merely released committed republicans back into Irish politics, which did the IPP no good at all, and in an atmosphere of rising popular support for an immediate ‘Irish Settlement’ Sinn Fein won its first two by-election victories in April and May 1917.  Well aware of the need to appease the strongly pro-Irish sentiment of Britain’s newest and most important ally, the USA, Lloyd George tried again.

Joseph McGuinness won Sinn Fein’s second ever seat in parliament, at South Longford in May 1917. He was in prison at the time, and didn’t take up his seat when he got out.

On 16 May Lloyd George made the Irish parliamentarians an offer of home rule for the 26 counties of southern Ireland, excluding the six counties of Ulster.  If this was unacceptable, he offered to call a conference of all parties in Ireland for the purpose of hammering out a system of self-government.  Faithful to their long, public commitment to all-Irish autonomy, the moderates chose the latter option, and in the process lost their last vestiges of political credibility in Ireland.

Sinn Fein refused to attend the Convention, as did the small AFIL delegation, both preferring to focus their efforts on winning electoral support, but 95 delegates representing a fairly broad cross-section of Irish life and political opinion were present for the opening session on 25 July.  That was as good as it got, because it quickly became clear that, no matter what the British had led them to believe, neither side had any intention of budging an inch.

The majority, led by IPP delegates, remained committed to autonomy within the Empire for all Ireland, while the northern unionist minority refused to include Ulster in any devolution process.  The small group of southern unionist delegates did put forward a compromise proposal, known as the Midleton Scheme, for an all-Irish parliament hedged by guarantees of Ulster’s separate identity.  It prompted weeks of highly detailed debate, and gave increasingly desperate moderates an opportunity to express a lot of unwarranted optimism, but had changed nothing by the time the Convention spluttered to a halt in late March 1918.  Its final report in early April amounted to little more than separate statements of both sides’ unchanged aims.

Members of the Irish Convention outside Trinity college, Dublin, in 1917 – a cross-section of moderate, middle-aged, white Irish men.

The Convention’s prolonged and much-derided failures did permanent damage to the IPP, to the cause of moderate Irish reformers in general and to the popular credibility of Home Rule in Ireland.  Lloyd George wasted no time finishing them off.

Although the Convention’s majority report in no way amounted to the ‘substantial agreement’ stipulated by the British government as a condition for implementing Home Rule, Lloyd George agreed to begin the process of implementation on the IPP’s terms, but only in return for the extension of conscription to Ireland.  Deemed necessary in the light of a sudden manpower crisis created by the German spring offensive on the Western Front, this bundling of Home Rule and the spectre of compulsory service effectively guaranteed the former’s popular rejection in Ireland.

The tortuous death of Home Rule pushed the Irish political agenda firmly and irretrievably towards republicanism, and the most obvious political consequence of the Convention was the irresistible rise of its most trenchant critics.  Sinn Fein had made a breakthrough in 1917 by winning its first four by-elections, and went on to win two more in 1918 before adding another 67 at that December’s general election.  The same election saw the IPP’s vote collapse, leaving it with only six parliamentary seats, and signalled the ‘War of Independence’ that finally secured southern Ireland’s freedom from the British Empire – but that’s another story.

The Convention was hardly Irish nationalism’s finest or most important hour, but looked at dispassionately it seems worth remembering for a few reasons.  In itself, it was the long, loud anticlimax that exposed the futility of seeking Home Rule within the Empire for all of Ireland, and conclusively confirmed the refusal of Ulster’s unionists to countenance any degree of separation from Great Britain.  Meanwhile the well-meaning, all-absorbing and circuitous efforts of the IPP,  some northern unionists and a small group of southern unionists to achieve an unlikely agreement left moderates in the south politically paralysed, stuck in wait-and-see mode while republicans galvanised popular opinion with demands for immediate change.

From a British perspective – the one I’m stuck with – everything about the Convention and its outcomes is a reminder of something our heritage view of the First World War tends to bypass altogether. By the time war broke out, it was probably impossible for Ulster and the rest of Ireland to develop as one nation, but the British routinely peddled false hope to both sides as a means of neutralising any distraction from the war effort, and casually shattered that hope when the same war effort had more need of Irish soldiers than Irish approval.

In 1917 Great Britain was fighting for its life or, if you prefer to take a social-historical view, British ruling elites were fighting for their fiefdoms.  Either way, the struggle entailed the ruthless exploitation of allied and occupied countries in ways that often left them poor, unstable, vulnerable to conquest or all three.  Germany tends to attract most of the opprobrium for that kind of behaviour during the Great War, and it’s not hard to see why, but if we forget what the British got up to we might end up with a warped worldview based on the idea that the rest of the world thinks we’re the good guys. Where that might lead, Gove only knows…

24 APRIL, 1916: Heroes and Villains

A hundred years ago today, in Dublin, Irish nationalists occupied the main post office and proclaimed a provisional independent government of Ireland. This was the first action of what is now called the Easter Rising against British colonial rule, and anyone with a TV in Britain can tell you it copped for the heritage treatment a few weeks back.  Odd decision, that, and for all that I’m impressed with the resurrection myth’s tenacity I prefer to commemorate the Rising on the day it actually began.

The British heritage industry’s editorial stance was equally odd, though less surprising, in that while dwelling on the rebellion’s brief narrative (and of course every crumb of human interest) they seem to have largely ignored the question of why the rebellion took place.  That may be a matter of embarrassment, because when it comes to Ireland the British have been on the wrong side of history for a very long time – so, with apologies to any Irish reader for being brief and occasionally facile, here’s some background.

The Normans got conquest of Ireland underway, establishing control of an eastern tranche of the country (known as The Pale), and by the later Middle Ages English influence dominated the whole island.  For the next few hundred years Ireland suffered straightforward, often brutal, few-benefits-attached exploitation and oppression, bolstered by colonial seeding of English lords and labour.  Subject to complete union with the UK since 1801, its population of less than five million remained predominantly rural and Catholic in the early 20th century, and industrial development was concentrated in the northern province of Ulster.

In Ireland as elsewhere (if more slowly than in England), the nineteenth century brought literacy and political awareness into mass culture, and with them came a surge of popular nationalism. By the 1880s a movement for autonomy (or Home Rule) had won support from the British Liberal government, but the carrot of Home Rule was destined to dangle for some time, suspended by furious opposition from British conservatives and from the Protestant, pro-British, ‘Unionist’ majority in Ulster.

Home Rule bills were defeated by Parliament in 1886 and 1893, and though the Asquith government – along with southern Ireland’s 84 Westminster MPs – eventually managed to pass one in May 1914, it caused nothing but trouble.  Ulster promptly descended into something close to civil war, and British party politics went into crisis mode when it appeared that British soldiers in Ulster would refuse to fire on Unionists if called upon to enforce Home Rule. Known as the Curragh Mutiny, this sparked the resignations of regional commander General Gough, all his officers, Army chief of staff Sir John French (yes, him) and war minister Seeley – and made the British Army establishment’s opposition to Home Rule, let alone independence, abundantly clear.

The crisis was still in progress, and no new war minister had been appointed, when the assassination of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand brought down Europe’s diplomatic dominoes and Home Rule was shelved for the duration.  Ulster quieted down, and Irishmen from every province enlisted in droves to fight for the Empire.  Most Irish nationalists were caught up in the war fever that infected most of Europe, and their politicians gave official support to the British war effort, but some of their more militant fellow travellers reacted with anger and understandable frustration.

Nationalists had no reason to suppose that the good intentions of a few Liberal politicians represented the views of the British ruling class., and every reason to suspect that war meant the days of reforming governments at Westminster were over for the foreseeable future.  Under the circumstances, it was hardly surprising that some nationalist elements sought to exploit the War – as nationalists had exploited the Napoleonic Wars – by seeking German aid for their cause.  More surprisingly, there weren’t many of them and they didn’t get far, though German agents in the USA did recruit a small number of ex-patriot Irish nationalists to carry out sabotage operations.

The same German agents made contact in New York with one relatively eminent nationalist who was out to make a difference – retired Anglo-Irish diplomat Sir Roger Casement.  Casement travelled to Germany in the autumn of 1914, arranged with German authorities to have Irish PoWs placed in a separate camp, and set about trying to recruit them for a nationalist army.  Few detailed records of the enterprise survive, and those that do are more shaky than wiki-world would have you believe, but it’s generally accepted that no more than a few dozen of the 2,000 prisoners involved signed up for his Irish Legion.

Casement is still a controversial figure – lionised in Ireland, but dismissed as a traitor and subject to character smears by many British commentators – but there’s no doubting his optimism, given that all the men he was trying to recruit had volunteered to fight for Britain.  To be fair, he was also let down by the German authorities, who treated him with benevolent neglect.  They never came close to keeping promises of weapons and training for the Legion, ignored his strategic advice about Irish affairs and generally payed more attention to their sources inside Ireland, in particular the militant Military Committee of the Irish Volunteers.

I’m not getting into the minutiae and individual lives of Irish republican politics here – you haven’t got the time and I might get the nuance wrong – but broadly speaking the movement was represented by three significant organisations.  Sinn Fein was nationalism’s relatively new political wing, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB, and known as the Fenian Brotherhood in the US) was its long-established agitprop organisation, and the Irish Volunteers was its militant, activist cell.  The Volunteers alone refused to officially support the British war effort in August 1914, and the Military Committee, a splinter group within it, had begun planning a wartime uprising by early September.  That said, it’s worth pointing out that these organisations overlapped all over the place, and that many of the principal figures involved in the Easter Rising belonged to all three.

The Committee had begun making practical arrangements for a rising by May 1915.  Though never given the full support of the Volunteers, Sinn Fein or the IRB – who all considered an uprising premature, inappropriate and unlikely to win popular support – the Committee was in contact with German agents and delayed plans in the hope of significant backing from Germany.  When Casement and the Committee eventually co-presented a scheme for a German invasion to coincide with the rebellion, Berlin turned down the idea, agreeing only to send arms to Ireland.  Despite opposition from nationalist politicians (the plan was hardly a secret, though theoretically kept from the British), the Committee went ahead anyway, and the date of the rising was set for 23 April 1916.

Up to a point the Germans kept their word, sending a few thousand old rifles and a handful of machine guns to southwest Ireland on a disguised steamer in early April.  They also sent Casement, by submarine, to act as a figurehead for the rebellion, but the British were way ahead of them, using intelligence from the United States to catch both the guns and Casement, who was captured on 20 April, stripped of his knighthood and hanged as a traitor.   News of the losses sparked another round of calls for the rising to be cancelled from leading nationalist figures, which cut down the number of people taking part but only postponed the event for one day.

The Rising went ahead on 24 April and, as TV documentaries have been at pains to point out, lasted less than a week.  Following the post office occupation, rebels took several buildings covering roads into Dublin after fierce street fighting with British garrison troops, but attempts to storm Dublin Castle and the local arsenal failed.  The Empire fought back with ruthless efficiency.  Britain put the whole of Ireland under martial law from 27 April, and troops led by General Maxwell forced the surrender of surviving rebels on 1 May.  About 300 were killed in the fighting, roughly a third of them military personnel, and another 1,000 or so were wounded or reported missing.

dublin-after-british-shelling-1916
Dublin after it was shelled by a British gunboat… that’ll teach them to mess with the post office.
Soldiers_holding_street_UCD_Archives
This was always a form of civil war… 35% of the troops killed during the Rising were Irish born.

That’s about where the British heritage story ends, and it tends to dismiss the Rising as a failure.  From a simply historical point of view – in other words without taking sides – that’s nonsense.  Of course it didn’t sweep the rebels to political power in a liberated Ireland, but none of the Rising’s main protagonists expected that it would.  In its intended role as a demonstration of Irish intent and impatience, it could hardly have been more successful.

The enormous international splash created by the Rising amounted to a massive propaganda victory for Irish nationalists, particularly in the USA, a constituency the British government dared not upset as long as it remained neutral. The government’s relatively mild reaction in the aftermath of the Rising –’only’ 14 rebels were executed and those imprisoned were given amnesty in 1917 – was an attempt to soothe US opinion that made very little difference, and nothing an increasingly divided administration could do would restore Britain’s popular reputation in southern Ireland.  By 1919, when enforcement of Home Rule was finally due, southern Irish politics had shifted decisively away from the compromise it represented, and after three years of sporadic civil war the Independent Irish Free State was established in 1922, with Ulster becoming an autonomous province within the United Kingdom.

Whatever your view of the violence it entailed, the modern standards we like to set for other countries insist that Irish nationalism in 1916 was a just cause – just as they make Britain an evil empire straight out of central casting.  Opposed or let down by their supporters, manifestly doomed to failure and, at best, imprisonment, the Easter rebels were in effect successful martyrs for that cause.  At the time, of course, they were officially British, and it seems a shame British popular history can’t treat them with the respect it reserves for violent rebels with a cause like Oliver Cromwell or Robin Hood.