The Irish free State and Northern Ireland

In 1921 with the Anglo-Irish Treaty, Ireland became a dominion like Canada or South Africa. That is, although Ireland became the 'Irish Free State' the country remained within the Commonwealth and retained links with Britain. The aftermath of the Great War necessitated the continuation of Anglo-Irish relations, strained as they were. Political differences were put into perspective by economic differences - for the rest of the Twenties and Thirties Anglo-Irish relations remained well below the peak of public interest and threat of slipping into complete state of disorder than the years prior to the outbreak of war in 1914 and the immediate aftermath.

This is in part explained by the fact that by 1927 the Irish electorate had been won over by Fianna Fail, the 'Soldiers of Destiny', in settling differences over the oath of loyalty and taken seats in the Dail Eireann, the Irish Parliament in Dublin. Though the Nationalist Fianna Fail were vehemently anti-British there were sections in southern Ireland, the new Free State, that were and to these groups the British government looked to maintain Anglo-Irish relations. The partition of Ireland had originally been intended as a temporary expedient to circumvent the Ulster problem, but by the 1930s seemed to have become an accepted fact.

However in 1932 the moderate government of W.T. Cosgrave was replaced by de Valera's Fianna Fail party it seemed the continuation of relatively harmonious relations between Irish and British governments would come to an end. De Valera stressed that though the Irish Free State existed within the British Commonwealth it was not 'of it', and a period of economic war between the governments followed - de Valera refused to pay the annuities due to England conditional from the previous land purchase acts. The British government levied 20% dues on Irish goods, and de Valera responded with a similar protectionist programme. De Valera also embarked on constitutional revisions to replace the existing arrangements that had stood since 1921. Sympathy for Britain was hard to come by whilst the Irish won the support of Commonwealth and Empire nations, notably South Africa (with whom the Irish already had an established bond).

Britain was eager to settle Irish affairs quickly during the mid-Thirties - with the abdication of Edward VIII and the deterioration of European affairs. To this end Anglo- Irish talks were set for 1938, in which three main areas were considered: the return of naval bases to the Irish, an end to economic war, and trade agreements. De Valera effectively ended the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, and despite securing the constitutional position of the Free State the position of the six counties of Northern Ireland remained as ambivalent as ever. Many had hoped the 1938 talks would act as a catalyst to negotiations between north and south but neither was inclined to do so.

The success of de Valera in dealing with the British government had a further effect in that it sparked another wave of nationalist and extremist groups in the south into campaigns of violence once again. The IRA began bombing campaigns again, and in 1939-40 mainland British targets were hit. Two IRA members were hanged in 1940 under the conditions of the new Prevention of Terrorism Act (1939). De Valera was incensed, yet during the war detained over 400 IRA members in fear that Irish neutrality would be compromised. In the aftermath of the British retreat from India in 1947 the Irish government followed suit and decided to leave the Commonwealth, declaring independence in 1948. The British government clung on to the northern pro-Union counties and responded with the Ireland Act (1949) which upheld Northern Ireland was to remain a part of the United Kingdom. The Act declared that British interest would only end when the Province desired to leave the Union. These events of the later 1940s heightened the divisions between north and south and prompted nationalists to reactivate their efforts to bring a free united Ireland into being.

From the 1950s Anglo-Irish relations were dominated by the position of Northern Ireland and the maintenance of the Union, the obstacle to a united Ireland. Nationalists continued to look to Catholic minorities in the north with determination to bring a united Ireland into being and an end to sectarian discrimination. Catholics suffered prejudice in finding housing and employment, and electoral corruption to under-represent Catholics in local government. In addition there were accusations of brutality against Catholics by the RUC and 'B-Specials'. Therefore it is unsurprising that the strongly nationalist Sinn Fein and the IRA turned their attentions on Northern Ireland.

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