Ireland: Republican and Unionist

To the relief of millions of her subjects in her realms around the world, the Queen returned safely from the Republic of Ireland after what newspapers in Britain referred to as a triumph.

Amongst all the welcome talk of reconciliation, the implicit assumption in the reporting in the British-Irish media was that this visit and the Queen’s speech were in effect an apology for the wrongs done by Britain to Ireland over the last 800 years or so.  Eight hundred years is a lot to cover in a Britain-Watch post, but the last one hundred years, starting in 1911 – the year when the Third Irish Home Rule Bill was introduced by the Liberal government – cover some of the most turbulent in Ireland’s history.

Collision of Aspirations: Unionism and Nationalism

For the 86 Irish Nationalist MPs at Westminster in 1911 this Bill represented the aspirations of the vast bulk of the 4½ million people living in Ireland.  The House of Lords’ veto being bypassed by the operation of the 1911 Parliament Act, the Ireland Home Rule Act was ready for the Royal Assent in March 1914.

The Act however was fatally flawed in that despite every possible warning, it did not allow for the aspirations of the 800,000 Ulster Protestant people and the 300,000 Catholic Unionist population throughout Ireland to remain British citizens owing undiluted allegiance to the Crown.  In fact, the three Home Rule bills of 1886, 1893 and 1914 presented in the sharpest form the questions: what is a people and what are their rights?

With the passage of the Third Home Rule Bill in March 1914 against the opposition of the Conservative and Unionist majority in the House of Lords, the 86 members of the Irish National Party in the House of Commons, led by John Redmond, had achieved constitutionally all that they had asked for in terms of Irish self-rule.  With the earlier passage of the Irish Land Purchase Bill under the Conservatives in 1903, it was reasonably argued that the last of the major economic disabilities disproportionately affecting the Irish Catholic population of the United Kingdom had been satisfactorily addressed.

Rights of one People living within or alongside another, more numerous People

What are the rights of small peoples surrounded by more numerous peoples of a different religion, language, historic identity?  These questions were central to the attempts under the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 to make the multi-racial, multi-cultural empires of three defeated Central Powers (Germany, Austria, Turkey) into 13 separate, smaller countries with boundaries based as far as possible on the single race, religion, language ideal as implicit in US President Wilson’s famous 14 points.  It is still the central question in the Arab-Israeli conflict today.

In 1911, among the Irish nationalists of every hue, and among the bulk of the Liberal Party and their successors in kind right up to the present day, the prevailing view was, and still is in some quarters, that the Protestant Unionist people of Ireland should not be considered a people in Versailles terms.  This was despite the fact that they are descended from the English and Scottish settlers in the first years of the 17th Century – of the very same stock who founded the English colonies in North America in fact.  Their loyalty to and sense of identity with the British Crown is and was as profound as any national identity ever could be, with no wish whatever to speak Gaelic as their national language[1].

From 1911 to 1916 the Liberal government of Asquith and its Ireland Chief Secretary, Austin Burrell, placed their faith in the infinite power of democratic elections to bind up wounds, despite the fact that less than 50 years before, the democratic United States itself had gone through the Western World’s most costly civil war, whose wounds were still raw in 1911, still visible in fact 50 years later.

Not only was Protestant Ulster distinct, Catholic Ireland was itself split three ways between the Unionists, the Nationalist Party who wished to keep the Crown, and the Republicans who were adamantly opposed to it.

No Compromise by the extreme Republicans

Among the latter were those like Eamon de Valera (later Prime Minister [1932] of the Irish Free State and first President of the Republic of Ireland [1949]) who sought a violent rupture with Britain.  This they achieved with the Dublin “Easter Rising” in April 1916, an armed insurrection against the State by around 1,500 members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) with the active support of Germany, a country with which the British Empire was engaged in mortal struggle.  The insurrection was suppressed after a few days, but it was followed by 3 years of low-level lawlessness, not helped by the British government’s release of about l,500 prisoners, many convicted of the most serious crimes, in the usual, vain liberal hope that Britain’s bitterest enemies would be “conciliated” by such foolish gestures, instead of resuming their activities against the State.  By 1919 these resulted in widespread guerrilla war, eventually brought to an end by a truce in June 1921.  Those Irish people killed on the rebel side are commemorated in the Garden of Remembrance in which the Queen laid a wreath on Tuesday (17th May 2011).

Most of the around 500 killed in the Easter Rising were innocent bystanders caught in the cross fire between the rebels and the forces of the Crown – mainly Catholic Royal Irish Constabulary officers.  Forty members of the British Army were killed amid widespread destruction in central Dublin.  Compared with the 49,500 Irish soldiers (from the Unionist and Nationalist communities) who were killed fighting for Crown and Empire in France and Belgium in the First World War (1914-18), the total numbers who died actually fighting for Irish independence as commemorated in the Garden of Remembrance were quite small.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 6 1921, which brought fighting against Britain temporarily to an end, set up the independent Free State (Saorstat Eireann) in the 26 counties of Southern Ireland.  This Treaty was immediately repudiated by the extremist republicans, led by de Valera, who proceeded to launch a war against their fellow Irishmen who supported the Treaty and the institutions of the new state.  These were endorsed in the elections to the Irish Parliament, the Dail, of May 1922, by 92 to 36.

The new Irish government brought in much more severe measures of repression against the insurgents than the British government ever did even to protect its backdoor when fighting the greatest war in history, with the result that 77 executions were carried out by the new Irish government over 5½ months in 1922/23, compared with 15 at the time of insurrection at Easter 1916 and 24 on convictions for murder during the 1919-1921 “war of independence”[2].

The Garden of Remembrance actually does not extend beyond 1921 and therefore does not commemorate these 77 executed by the Irish themselves, nor those civilians killed in the crossfire and mayhem instigated by de Valera, nor the killings of the police (Garda Siochana – successor to the Royal Irish Constabulary) in the 26 Counties, nor those of the new Irish Army.  Still less of course does the Garden of Remembrance have anything to say about the 49,500 Irish servicemen who died fighting for the Crown and Empire in 1914-18.  Such a memorial at Island Bridge in Dublin was planned under the British in 1919, but was finally completed and dedicated only in 1988.  The Queen asked to lay a wreath there, which she did during her visit.

Doubtless this tardiness on the part of successive Irish governments was one of many things which the Queen had in mind when on May 18th she addressed the audience at Dublin Castle saying, “with the benefit of historical hindsight, we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all”.

This phrase has been universally interpreted among liberals in Britain and enthusiastically approved by them to mean an apology by us, the British, for all the “heartache, turbulence, and loss” as the Queen put it.  Thus Libby Purves, in the Times of May 23, referred incorrectly to the Queen saying that she “wished that past British actions had been done differently or not at all”.  Fully aware as Ms Purves is clearly not of the mix of identities and loyalties and the refusal of de Valera’s party, Fianna Fail, to recognise this until very recently, the Queen would recall her own Grandfather’s words on opening the first Northern Ireland Parliament on 22nd June 1921:

“This is a great and critical occasion in the history of the Six Counties [Northern Ireland], but not for the Six Counties alone.  I appeal to all Irish men to pause, stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation to forgive and forget, and to join in making for the land they love a new era of peace, contentment and good will”.

De Valera’s reaction was to declare that he was the President of the all-Ireland Republic and the King had no right to speak for Ireland.  After the huge blood sacrifices – 5,000 killed on the Somme in 1916 from the 36th (Ulster) Division alone – a sacrifice repeated in the jungles of Burma in the Second World War – the 800,000 Ulster Protestant people had surely won the right to remain in their own homeland of three centuries as subjects of that Crown in whose name these sacrifices were made (despite the evident willingness by the modern-day liberal moralists, with no great attachment to British symbols, to sacrifice them again on the altar of “better international relations”).

The answer to the question posed at the beginning of this post is that blood sacrifice, not elections, defines peoples.  Looking after your own fellow citizens is the primary duty of governments.  De Valera’s and Fianna Fail’s past refusal to recognise this for the Ulster Unionists after 1921 while demanding it for themselves, has immeasurably prolonged the “heartache, turbulence and loss” as the Queen so movingly phrased it.  Thankfully, to judge from the Irish Times (among many other reactions), it looks as if her words on May 18 2011 and her Grandfather’s on June 22 1921 will finally be heeded.


[1]The first and national language of the Republic of Ireland is officially Irish Gaelic, with about 40-80,000 speakers: English, though used by the vast majority, is officially a second language.

[2] All 116 individuals are listed by Dorothy McArdle in her book “The Irish Republic”, 1936.  They include Erskine Childers, former Clerk in the House of Commons, executed by the Irish military authorities.  Michael Collins, a leading IRB member who negotiated the Treaty with Britain, was killed by the rebels in August 1922.  Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, was also assassinated in 1922.

See SF Bush’s letter to Daily Telegraph of 24 June 1999 on “Appeasement raising Sinn Fein’s vote”.


Top| Home

Leave a Reply

Top| Home