Edward Grierson, The Imperial Dream: British Commonwealth and Empire 1775-1969 (Newton Abbot: Victorian Book Club 1973)


John Bull’s Other Island

In a  sense every nation has its Ireland, the problem that defies solutions. Italy’s Ireland is in Sicily, Iraq’s in Kurdistan; France’s was Algeria, America’s the South; and even Ireland now has its own Irish problem in the six counties of Ulster.

There was therefore nothing particularly new or distinctive about the relationship existing between Britain and her sister island: two neighbours, one rich, one poor; one dominant, one in a state of resentful subjection; tied together by geographical and economic factors yet divided by acute social and religious differences.

From this uneasy partnership, however, important results were to flow. Ireland was to be a testing ground for revolutionary concepts among the governed and for repressive techniques among the governors. At the time when the Old Thirteen [American colonies] had been in revolt against the Empire events in Ireland had helped point the way to independence; and a century and a half later, when Ireland herself finally broke clear, her example found a response even farther from her shores, by the Bay of Bengal and the Gulf of Guinea. She was the exemplar of anti-Imperialism, both in theory and practice.

But was Ireland even in the Empire except as one component of the British Isles? Right to the end of the connection her exact status was a matter of dispute, and indeed still is, for even now that she is independent of Britain her citizens working ‘across the water’ are still popularly regarded as being different from other immigrants and almost as British as the British themselves. Who and what are the Irish? and what is Ireland?

In the eighteenth century she was clearly a colony with representative government, if of rather a peculiar kind; but the activities of the Volunteers’ and the enlightened self-interest of the Rockingham Whigs at Westminster resulted in the ‘Constitution of 1782’ and the Renunciation Act by which Britain formally declared the Irish parliament and judiciary independent ‘for ever,’ though of course subject to the same Crown. Ireland is now a nation,’ Henry Grattan had cried. Yet a striking anomaly remained: her executive was headed by a Lord Lieutenant appointed in London. [187]

Within twenty years of this declaration the Irish parliament had been induced to vote itself out of an existence which had lasted for five hundred years. The bribery and pressure had been expertly applied. The rising of 1798 inspired by Wolfe Tone and his United Irishmen and supported by French arms had gravely alarmed the British government, which once more saw Ireland as a springboard for European enemies as in the time of Elizabeth and William III. Just over a century later the same threat, this time from Germany. was again to bedevil Anglo-Irish relations at a critical time. Irelands physical closeness to Britain and the emotional and political distance she tried to keep were both arguments for absorbing her; and on the first day of the new century the thing was done and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland came into being.

Grattan’s nation thus no longer existed on the map: it had become part of a new multi-national body, and presumably an equal part. But in that case why was there still an English Viceroy and Chief Secretary in Dublin? There were no such functionaries in Edinburgh. And there was another and greater anomaly at work, for where else in the Empire but in Ireland did an Established Church serve a tenth of the people and a minority of Protestants hold sway over a Catholic population deprived of all political rights?

Pitt had hoped to sugar the pill of Union with a programme for Catholic Emancipation, and if he had succeeded it is possible that Ireland might have adapted itself to its new status. The Scots, after all, had had their own religious differences with the English as well as a long and proud tradition in which England had been for centuries the ‘enemy,’ yet the marriage of convenience had worked and the two nations had settled down amicably enough to the business of running an empire. Why should not Ireland do the same? In some respects she had been treated at Union with surprising generosity: she had to pay no more than two-seventeenths of the running costs and had been given a much larger representation in parliamentary seats at Westminster than had come Scotland’s way. Unfortunately the religious question in Ireland had deep social undertones in the gulf between Protestant landlord and Catholic tenant; it concerned land hunger, injustice, the struggle of the dispossessed; and when Emancipation was at last conceded by the Wellington Ministry in 1829 the day for gratitude had gone and an Irish patriot leader had appeared in the person of Daniel O’Connell, whose Catholic Association had immediately to be suppressed.

Concession and Coercion were the unhappy Siamese twins of the [188] Anglo-Irish connection. It is easy to blame English statesmen for their lack of generosity and vision, but the truth was that the sense of Irish nationalism which Grattan had expressed for the Protestant few, O’Connell had shown to the Catholic many, and with its coming something irreconcilable had entered the argument.

The terrible events of the famine of 1845-9 caused by the failure of the potato crop revealed the fatal division which had opened up and the bare subsistence line at which the vast majority of eight million Irishmen existed. During these years a million people died of starvation and disease and as many emigrated. The figures in themselves are bad enough, but the panic that accompanied the emigration in the coffin ships left behind it a legacy of bitter hatred both in Ireland and in the New World against a government which had failed even to feed its people.

The history of Ireland abounds in ironies. So terrible a calamity - a continuing one in the sense that massive emigration continued for the next fifty years and halved the population by 1900 - should have had at least one compensation in providing more land for those who were left. But in fact the reverse occurred; there was a cryíng lack of capital, small-holdings were swallowed up in large estates; tillage gave way to cattle-raising; and the land hunger of the peasantry grew into the central Irish grievance that persisted till the end of the century. Even to-day as you drive through the green and empty countryside you can see the evidence - the great houses of the ‘Ascendancy,’ some of them still in ruins from the ‘Troubles,’ the cottages at the park gates, the absence of ploughed fields, the acreages of grazing in the rather bumpy Arcadian landscape between the mountains and the bog. This was the land of the ‘Whiteboys,’ of the Fenian Brotherhood, where ‘Captain Moonlight’ walked - a land in the grip of creeping civil war whose scars were burning homesteads and the sudden gunshot from ambush under the trees. `My mission is to pacify Ireland,’ said Gladstone, taking office as Prime Minister for the first time. But though he disestablished the Irish Protestant Church and by his Land Act of 1870 removed the worst hardships of eviction, he failed to conciliate the people and had to fall back like his predecessors on a Coercion Act to deal with agrarian crime. Indeed, by the time he returned to office in í88o the situation had got worse; a majority of the Irish members at Westminster had formed themselves into a tightly disciplined ‘Home Rule’ party under the leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell; the Land League had been formed, and the countryside was in the [189] grip of a terrorism so intense and widespread that no landlord’s life was safe, no tenant dared take on a farm from which another had been evicted for fear of boycotting, of social ostracism, in a society where, in the words of a popular jingle

Moonlight’s the law of the League,
And Moonshine’s the law of the land.

In the general chaos of the times even the Irish leaders hacl lost control of the situation. Parnell was gaoled under the provisions of a new Coercion Act and the all-powerful League of which he was President was suppressed - his release, after a bargain with the government in which he pledged himself to calm the country, was promptly followed by the assassination in broad daylight in Dublin’s Phoenix Park of the new Chief Secretary for Ireland, Gladstone’s own nephew by marriage, along with the Under-Secretary, Thomas Burke.

Seldom among civilised nations had a whole society been plunged into such anarchy as Ireland at this time. Every kind of crime was rife. Gangs like The Invincibles’ who had carried out the killings in Phoenix Park were organised along Mafia lines; their crimes were rehearsed down to the last detail of the alibis they would produce in court, vouched for by witnesses who were bribed or terrorised into compliance. Perjury was raised to an art. There were few arrests and even fewer government informers - theirs was not an occupation that promised a long or peaceful life. And even if the criminals were caught, juries for similar reasons would not convict them. A low property-qualification introduced in 1871 had resulted in a new class of jurymen, called in derision ‘The Wild Flowers of Tullahogue’ after the name of a locally manufactured scent, and one can well believe the story of how a jury of these worthies, when told to take their usual places, scrambled with one accord into the dock. ‘Boycotting’ itself was a cruel and dreadful thing when administered by the Land League ‘courts.’ ‘Do you know what a boycott in Ireland means? Sir Edward Carson was to ask a half-incredulous public meeting in England. Do you know that a mother cannot get milk for her dying babe; and that it will be allowed to die, simply, forsooth, because the father or rfiother is under a boycott? ... It is a state of savagery.’ A boycotted man could not be sure that his family would be allowed the wood to make him a coffin. Parnell himself had introduced the system, which he had called Christian and charitable,’ presumably compared with even worse things; and that a man of such calibre and a normally compassionate people should have [190] have lent themselves to such horrors is the yardstick by which we can judge the depths of emotional hatred that existed for the ‘Ascendancy’ and all its works. Every act of apparently insensate cruelty - from the murders in Phoenix Park to the mutilation of cattle in obscure areas of Connaught - was to some degree proof that Catholic Ireland had rejected the Union of 1800; and in this light had come to be regarded by the most powerful of English statesmen, the Liberal Prime Minister, Mr Gladstone, who had convinced himself that only in the granting of Home Rule and the reversal of Pitt’s Act lay escape from an intolerable problem.

Unfortunately at just this moment the Irish Protestants, who formed a majority in the north-east of the island, had won the support of the Tories at Westminster and a sizeable number of Mr Gladstone’s own Liberal followers for a precisely opposite conclusion - that the Union must be maintained.

* * *

In Grattan’s time the Irish north-east, the Protestant province of Ulster, had led the campaign for an independent Irish parliament and judiciary; the celebrated Constitution of 1782 had been a Protestant triumph in which the submerged Catholic mass of the people had played little part. For years the inhabitants of Belfast and County Down had been just as distrustful of Britain and as revolutionary in spirit as the southerners of Dublin and County Cork.

But while the south had sunk into depression after the great famine, the north-east with its abundant flow of capital and its textiles and engineering industries had flourished through the British connection which opened world markets to its goods; and as the southern Catholics under O’Connell’s leadership found themselves a voice and became more militant, the ‘Orangemen’ of Ulster took fright and began to look around for allies against the far more numerous ‘Papists’ whom they and the minority Protestants in the southern counties had dominated since ‘King Billy’s’ victory over James II at the Battle of the Boyne. Gladstone’s land reforms of 1881, which assured to tenants ‘the Three Fs’ demanded by the Land League - Fair rent to be assessed by arbitration, Fixity of tenure, and Freedom for the tenant to sell his tenancy at the best market price - still failed to pacify the south, but in the north they brought about a revolution in political thinking by which the wealthiest and most industrialised Irish province turned its back on Ireland and looked to Britain for support.

This change in political patterns had been noted by acute minds at Westminster, and when in 1886 Mr Gladstone introduced a Home Rule Bill, it was defeated in the House of Commons by an alliance between the Tories, the Ulster Orangemen and a number of Liberal supporters of the Union; and that these by and large represented the will of the British electorate was proved when Gladstone appealed to the country, only to find himself routed at the polls. Six years later he returned to power and got his second Home Rule Bill through the Commons. The House of Lords incontinently threw it out; and this time even that iron willed old roan accepted what seemed to be the inevitable verdict.

Of course we can see now that Gladstone was right and that between 1886 and 1894 a great opportunity was missed of knocking Irish heads together before they had wholly parted company. The fateful division we are still witnessing, with its terrible legacy of bloodshed, was then only in the making and might have been checked by a generous gift to Ireland of what even Ulstermen had for centuries been demanding - the right to run their own affairs. Ireland was a special and peculiar problem, the nearest home and in a sense the farthest away, quite different from other imperial problems. The failure of the British people to recognise the nature of the need - and it was largely a selfish and headstrong refusal to face facts - not only denied the vast majority of Irishmen the Home Rule which was due to them, but it encouraged those revolutionary elements that looked back for inspiration to Wolfe Tone and the rebellion of 1798 - elements which rejected Home Rule as completely as they rejected Union with the hated ‘Saxons.’

This factor - too long ignored or unperceived at Westminster - was to introduce a complication which sometimes baffled the Irish themselves. The Home Rule agitation seemed to have created two Irelands, north and south, but in fact there were four. Southern Ireland - the future Free State’ which is now Eire - was soon to be split between the moderates, the Home Rulers, who were prepared to settle for a status rather lower than Canada’s inside the Empire, and the militants of the growing party of Sinn Fein who demanded at the very least a Dual Monarchy such as existed in Austro-Hungary under the Habsburgs: while the Ulster province in the north-east was split between the hard-core Protestant areas around Belfast and those Ulster counties on the fringe where Catholics were either in a majority or in balance with the Orangists.

Such a situation seemed made for civil war, and when in 1912/13 [192] the Liberal Prime Minister, Mr Asquith, forced the third Home Rule Bill through the Commons, only to find it rejected by the Tory House of Lords, its coming was signalled to everyone.

In 1911 the Lords had lost their power of absolute veto over decisions of the lower House, and their treatment of Asquith’s Bill could only impose a limited delay. But it was a highly dangerous one. Passions on both sides had been aroused. The Tory Party at Westminster had taken up Ulster’s cause: for ideological as well as political reasons it had come to regard any attack on the Union or any attempt to coerce Ulster as a sacrilege which must at all costs be resisted. Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right, Lord Randolph Churchill had declared some years earlier, giving the movement its rallying cry. Lord Randolph was now dead, but Ulster had found itself a leader - Sir Edward Carson. Since this was an Irish problem, it was natural that this champion of the north should be a southerner by birth who sat for a Dublin seat. But the situation had passed out of the realms of comedy, for both sides were arming. Two hundred thousand Orangemen at monster rallies in Belfast signed the covenant binding themselves to resist Home Rule, and in April 1914 25,000 rifles and 3,000,000 rounds of ammunition were smuggled ashore - a gesture followed in the south by a slightly more modest landing of guns at Howth in Dublin Bay. It would have spelt war, if that August the whole Lilliputian problem had not been overtaken by Germany’s invasion of Belgium and the outbreak of Armageddon itself.

For two years thereafter almost everyone behaved beautifully. Asquith’s Home Rule Bill, which in fact promised the Irish a status within the Empire well short of that enjoyed by Canada, Australía and the other dominions, was placed on the statute book with a clause suspending it till hostilities with Germany were over, and as such was accepted gratefully by the southern Irish, if not by the Ulstermen. In the meantime there was a rush to the colours and the whole island began to prosper economically from the struggle engulfing Europe. There remained the irreconcilable Sinn Feiners, for whom even world war was an irrelevance.

On Easter Monday 1916 their armed forces seized the centre of Dublin in a lightning coup and proclaimed an Irish Republic.

If the British at this point had realised how little backing the rising had, if they had understood the apathy or active hostility most Irishmen [193] felt for it and had acted with restraint towards the small band of mutineers whom they had broken within six days, the events of Easter Monday might have joined the other failed movements of Irish history. By shooting the captives in batches by British firing squads the government turned conspirators into martyrs, and when under the stresses of 1917 it attempted to impose conscription on the English model on a people who had never shirked a fight, it declared itself an alien dictatorship.

In 1918, in the first post-war elections, the Sinn Feiners swept the board in southern Ireland, with seventy-three members as against six supporters of a now outdated and discredited Home Rule. In the north, twenty-six Ulster Unionists were returned. The war with Germany and her allies had changed the face of the world but it had not changed ‘the state of Ireland’ or its endemic tendency to disagree. In January 1919 the Sinn Feiners, disdaining the parliament at Westminster to which they had been elected, proclaimed themselves a sovereign assembly - Dail Eireann - and in the following year a war of liberation broke out between its irregular armed forces and the irregulars the British employed against them which in its horrors equalled anything the Germans were supposed to have committed in Belgium in 1914. This was the war between the Volunteers of the Irish Republican Army and the ‘Black and Tans’ which is enshrined in Irish legend under the immortal euphemism of ‘The Troubles.’ The choice for Britain, said Winston Churchill, was between ‘War with the utmost violence and peace with the utmost patience,’ but there could be no doubt what the war-weary British people most desired. It was peace at any price. By the Government of Ireland Act, Ulster was offered (and accepted) Home Rule with a parliament at Belfast of its own: and when the south rejected this recipe for its own future it was offered something even better - full dominion status, complete autonomous self-government, which even Parnell had never asked for and which even the Sinn Feiners might have accepted if it had been offered before the rísing of ‘16.

This the south accepted in the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. But it accepted it under duress, under a British threat of more hostilities, and the settlement was totally rejected by almost half the population, who were prepared to fight yet another bitter civil war with their own more accommodating countrymen for the principle of total separation from Britain and her Empire.

These militants, in fact, lost the war: but they were no[t] slow to win the peace that followed. They had become in spite of themselves [194] a dominion, the Irish Free State - very well. The trappings could be shed. In 1933, having become the government in Dublin, they did away with the Oath of Allegiance to the monarch; in 1936 they sent the Governor-General packing and cut all references to monarchical links still existing in the constitution. In 1937 the Irish Free State took unto itself a new name - Eire. In 1939 it stayed neutral in Hitler’s war. In 1948 it withdrew from the Commonwealth. In 1949 the Irish Republic was officially proclaimed, and there was an end to what was deemed the ‘long and tragic association with the institution of the British Crown.’

What, then, were the lessons to be drawn from these events by a Britain which had now emerged victorious on the world stage after four years of herculean effort, only to be rebuffed in her own back yard?

The first was that British concessions to Ireland had always been too little and too late. Emancipation had been granted the Catholics twenty years after any gratitude could be collected. The land problem had been solved, the land hunger of the peasants appeased, but by that time the Irish had found themselves other grievances. Similarly, Home Rule had been delayed, first by prevarications inside the government and then by the appalling mischance of world war. When it was conceded, no one in southern Ireland wanted it. So the offer was upgraded into one of dominion status, and by then few people in Ireland wanted that.

Was this simply another Irishism, the result of association with a brilliant but too mercurial people? The British certainly had no means of knowing, because not for a century and a half had they been involved with another such popular insurrection by people of their own kith and kin; but in India, their most cherished possession, they were faced with a situation which bore disturbing resemblances to Anglo-Irish history.

What should be made of it? What could be made of it? It was a pertinent question. Because if Ireland had been divided into north and south, Protestant and Catholic, so was India divided into Muslim and Hindu. Might its peoples diverge, just as Ulster and Eire had diverged? Here was a ready-made warning. Also a ready-made temptation to those who hankered after the old precept of Divide and Rule, the best Roman prescription for running an empire.