Ulster Unionism, Nationalist Rebellion and the Irish Free State

The concept of political loyalty to the Union was given an effective political machine with the Ulster Unionist Council and a paramilitary force, the Ulster Volunteer Force. Further support came from connivance with Conservative and Unionist politicians in Britain. Ulster Unionism brought Ireland to the verge of civil war in 1914.

The Liberal government emerged weakened by the second general election of 1910, with a decline in their number of parliamentary seats. Most notable however was the return of Irish nationalist MPs to hold the political balance, this time under their new leader John Redmond. This ensured the return of Home Rule, laying dormant since the fall of Parnell and split of the IPP and the failure of the second Home Rule Bill in 1893, to the British Parliament. Sure enough a third Home Rule Bill was brought forward in 1912. This provoked a radical reaction in Ulster with the signing of a "covenant" by over 200,000 Ulstermen and the rapid armament of the Ulster Volunteers organised by Sir Edward Carson in 1912. The nationalists responded with the mobilisation of the Irish Volunteers. Unionists in the South were using their political influence in the House of Lords and on the Conservative Party to prevent Home Rule. The issue proved the uniting point for the Conservative-Unionist party in Britain that had descended into internal disagreement since their fall from government in 1906.

The situation was exacerbated because the Unionists knew the 1911 Parliament Act deprived the security of the Union its cushion of overwhelming support in the House of Lords (which had by 1912 been deprived its power to veto decisions of the House of Commons). With enough support in the Commons and continued Nationalist pressure through Parliament, Home Rule would be inevitable.

The usual objections to the Home Rule Bill were voiced on both sides of the Irish Sea - the break up of the United Kingdom, economic consequences for the north, the safety of 250,000 Unionists outside Ulster, moral objections (i.e. it was wrong to compel a minority to comply with the wishes of the majority), the detrimental consequences Home Rule would have on the Empire (that it might stimulate nationalist campaigns in other imperial territories such as India).

The situation needed firm leadership from the British government. However the Prime Minister, Asquith, provided neither. Furthermore the 'Curagh Incident' revealed that the government could not rely on its armed forces to forcibly prevent violence from Ulster and by 1913-14 it seemed Ireland would descend into a bloody conflict over Home Rule. Even the intervention of George V with the Buckingham Palace Conference in 1914 failed to placate the two sides. The outbreak of the Great War seemed to have saved Ireland from civil war and the British government from calamity as a vague Home Rule Bill was rushed through Parliament days into the conflict.

At the outbreak of war in 1914 the Asquith government thought it had put the Irish problem into cold storage as the third Home Rule Bill had been passed but its implementation postponed until the end of hostilities with Germany and the Ulster question left undefined. Superficially with John Redmond's acceptance of this arrangement and the support of Unionism for the war seemed to hold the promise if not of peace, then of stasis in Ireland.

However the emergence of the Ulster Volunteers in the North and the Irish Volunteers in the South meant that the Irish felt Irish issue could only be decided by force and violence. Many Irishmen believed the threat of Ulster violence rather than the outbreak of war in Europe had led to the postponement of Home Rule for all Ireland and that Redmond had committed his greatest tactical error at the point of England's greatest weakness. Redmond consequentially lost the support of many nationalists. With traditional Irish leadership in agreement and the majority of the least fanatical enrolled in Kitchener's armies, power in wartime Ireland passed into the hands of an extremist minority dominated by Arthur Greenwood's Sinn Fein.

In 1916 Sinn Fein and the Irish Volunteers staged the Easter Rising in Dublin, originally intended to supplement the arrival of German forces in southern Ireland. The German landing was prevented and the conspirator Sir Roger Casement captured and executed for treason. The Easter Rising went ahead,

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