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Pressure and concessions: 1898-1910

By the end of the century there is so much political discontent in Ireland, with nationalists returned to Westminster for virtually all the constituencies outside Ulster, that the Conservative government - committed as it is to preserving the union - judges that the time has come for concessions. The Local Government Act of 1898 takes a small compromise step towards Home Rule by establishing elected councils to deal with local affairs.

The considerably more significant Land Purchase Act of 1903 ends, almost at a stroke, the long-standing grievances of smallholders victimized by often absentee landlords. The landlords are given inducements to sell their estates to a land commission, which then transforms the tenants' rents into payments towards eventual purchase.

Such measures improve the situation without lessening the hunger for Home Rule, and in 1900 the Home Rule activists much improve their own political position. After the Parnell divorce case the party has split into two warring sections. Now, under the leadership of John Redmond, they agree to sink their differences. As a united faction at Westminster they aim to exert pressure as soon as they find themselves holding the balance of power.

They are nothing more than a minority party during the Conservative administration up to 1906, and again after the Liberal landslide of that year. But their chance comes in 1910, when Asquith needs their support if he is to carry through his radical assault on the house of lords.

In both the elections of 1910 the Liberal government wins only enough seats to govern with Labour and Irish nationalist support. The price of this support on the Irish part is a commitment to bring before parliament another Home Rule bill.

The passage of the Parliament Act in 1911 means that the lords, where the Conservative majority has consistently blocked Home Rule bills in the past, can now do no greater harm than delay the measure by two years. The new Irish bill is discussed and planned during 1911 in a mood of justifiable optimism among nationalists. But their opponents take them by surprise.

Ulster volunteers and Irish volunteers: 1911-1914

Ulster, the most Protestant region of Ireland since the 17th century, is where the union with Britain has its most passionate supporters. And from 1910 the Unionist members of parliament have a brilliant and ruthless leader in the person of Edward Carson.

In September 1911, when it is known that a Home Rule bill is in the pipeline (but six months before it is placed before parliament), Carson gives warning of what is to come when he addresses a crowd of 50,000 Orangemen and Unionists outside Belfast. He tells them that the morning after Home Rule is granted to Ireland, they must be ready to administer and defend their own 'Protestant Province of Ulster'.

That winter Ulster is full of Protestants drilling (a licence to drill can be acquired from any Justice of the Peace, as long as the intention is to defend the United Kingdom's constitution). In the following spring Carson, with at his side the new leader of the Conservative party, Andrew Bonar Law, reviews another gathering of Ulster volunteers outside Belfast. It shows every sign of being a military parade.

100,000 men march in columns past a saluting base above which flies a gigantic union jack. This event is held on 9 April 1912, two days before Asquith's Home Rule bill is presented to the house of commons.

The final gesture of unionist solidarity during 1912 is the Solemn League and Covenant, a document in the militant Scottish tradition which is signed from September 28 in the Belfast town hall. Hundreds of yards of desks enable more than 500 people to sign simultaneously. Eventually almost half a million men and women do so, committing themselves to disobey any future Home Rule government.

Finally, in January 1913, with the Home Rule bill now making its way through the house of commons, the unionists take an openly military stance. They decide to raise an Ulster Volunteer Force of 100,000 men aged between seventeen and sixty-five. Dummy wooden rifles now appear in the drill parades held in Orange halls.

These developments prompt a similar response on the nationalist side. In November 1913 a body calling itself the Irish National Volunteers is formed in Dublin and begins its own programme of recruitment and drilling. Six months later it too claims 100,000 members.

By now the wooden rifles are giving way to real ones. In April 1914 Carson's organization succeeds in landing at Larne more than 24,000 rifles and three million rounds of ammunition purchased in Germany. In July a much smaller shipment of arms, also from Germany, comes ashore in Howth for the Irish volunteers (resulting on this occasion in a clash with the military, on the Dublin quays, and several civilian casualties).

The prospect of civil disorder is made worse by evidence that the British government will be powerless to cope with it. There is much discussion whether the British army should be ordered to quell Protestant resistance in Ulster, and if so whether the order would be obeyed. In 1914 a commanding officer foolishly asks the cavalry regiment stationed on the Curragh in Dublin whether they would accept such an order or prefer to be dismissed from the army. The officers reply they would choose dismissal.

The so-called Curragh mutiny suggests that little can prevent the Orangemen from wrecking Home Rule. But greater issues postpone the crisis. Two days after the contraband weapons are landed in Dublin for the Irish volunteers, Austria declares war on Serbia.

Patriotism and plots: 1914

The immediate effect of Britain's entry into World War I, on 4 August 1914, is two-edged. On the surface it defuses the recent tensions over independence. But there is a minority in Ireland which refuses to postpone the struggle. The new crisis has the effect of driving their activities underground.

In Westminster the leader of the Home Rule faction, John Redmond, immediately suggests that the Irish and Ulster volunteers should collaborate in defending Ireland's coasts, enabling British troops to be withdrawn for the war effort. In subsequent weeks he goes further, urging Ireland's gallant young men to play a full role in Britain's effort 'in defence of the highest principles of religion and morality and right'.

In making these patriotic commitments, Redmond knows that the onset of war has delivered him the prize of Home Rule for most of Ireland. He has an agreement with Asquith that a Home Rule Act will be passed (excluding, for the moment at least, Ulster). An accompanying act will at the same time delay implementation for a year or until the end of the war, whichever is shorter.

Both acts receive the royal assent, on September 18, though only after Carson and the entire Conservative opposition have walked out of the chamber of the house of commons in protest.

The people of Ireland respond to Redmond's show of support for Britain. As many as 200,000 young men, an extremely high proportion of the population, eventually volunteer for service in the British army. But among a hard-line minority the crisis of Britain's war suggests other possibilities.

Some thirteen thousand members of the Irish National Volunteers (or about 8% of the total) reject Redmond's alliance with Britain, committing themselves to an uninterrupted struggle for independence. Becoming known as the Irish Volunteers, or sometimes Sinn Fein Volunteers, they join forces with the tiny but militant Irish Republican Brotherhood.

The I.R.B. and Casement: 1914-1916

In August 1914, within days of the outbreak of the European war, the council of the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood resolves to plan an armed uprising against a Britain distracted by the conflict. It is to be hatched by a small group working within the ranks of the Irish Volunteers, whose leaders are to remain unaware of it.

At the same time a separate scheme is evolving abroad, thanks to the activities of Roger Casement - a retired member of the British consular service who is passionately committed to Irish independence. Casement is a leading figure in the group which organizes the shipment of arms to Howth in July 1914. In that same month he sails to America to procure more weapons.

Casement is in America when war breaks out. With leading Fenians in New York he develops a bold new plan. Casement will travel to Germany to enlist German support for Irish independence and to attempt a more hare-brained scheme - to persuade Irish prisoners of war to change sides and to invade Ireland, armed with German weapons.

The Germans respond to this idea. By December 1914 they are able to assemble 2000 Irish prisoners on whom Casement can practise his powers of persuasion. But after several visits to the prison camp he has enlisted only one soldier to his cause, Sergeant Thomas Quinlisk, a man whom even Casement, in his diary, describes as something of a rogue.

Casement's mission, already bordering on farce, soon turns into tragedy. While his own efforts are failing, Fenian leaders in America persuade the Germans to send a shipment of arms to Ireland in the spring of 1916. Casement discovers that they are intended for an immediate uprising. Considering this a disastrous policy, he decides to return to Ireland to urge caution.

20,000 rifles and 5 million rounds of ammunition travel in a German ship to be landed in the bay of Tralee. Casement makes the journey in a submarine. Both the arms and Casement himself meet disaster during the course of April 21.

The German ship is intercepted by the British navy and is escorted into Queenstown, where the captain succeeds in scuttling the vessel with all its cargo. Casement, ferried by collapsible dinghy from the submarine, lands on a beach in county Kerry. Hiding in some brambles, after an exhausting walk inland, he is spotted by a local constable and is found to have a German railway ticket in his pocket. He is arrested, and is subsequently hanged for treason.

April 21 in this year is Good Friday. The detail is significant. The uprising planned by the secret caucus within the Irish Volunteers is scheduled for Easter.

The Easter Rising: 1916

The prime mover of the Easter Rising is an eccentric poet, Patrick Pearse, who combines considerable skill in plotting the event with a mystical belief in the value of shed blood (his response to the heavy casualties in the Flanders trenches is that 'the old heart of the earth needed to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefields').

The other leading figure, once the day comes, is the journalist James Connolly, a republican activist who is only let into the plot when his own separate plans for an armed uprising seem likely to wreck Pearse's scenario.

Pearse's romantic streak ensures that the plot goes ahead even after everything conspires against it. The gesture and the spilt blood will be at least as important as short-term victory (and indeed, in terms of myth-making in support of a cause, this proves to be the case).

The first disaster is the failure of a long process of deception by which Pearse has persuaded the official leader of the Irish Volunteers, the more pacific Eoin MacNeill, that treacherous British plans make an uprising inevitable. MacNeill orders all the volunteers to mobilize. But on Easter Saturday, just before the uprising is due to begin, he discovers that he has been deceived. He sends out the order to stand down.

The next blow for Pearce is the news, arriving at the same time, that his consignment of arms is at the bottom of the sea. As a result his force on Easter Monday is some 1500 ill-equpped men. But Pearse's mystical belief in the regenerative power of spilt blood means that there is no question of cancelling the plan. When Connolly is assembling his men early on Easter Monday, a friend asks him whether there is any realistic chance of success. 'None whatever', he replies.

Nevertheless, the first step is easy. Armed volunteers are a familiar sight in Dublin. Pearse and Connolly calmly march their men along O'Connell Street, the main thoroughfare. Other groups are deploying elsewhere in the city.

Pearse and Connolly take their men into the General Post Office, with its great classical portico. There is no resistance, in a functioning civilian building, and soon Pearse reappears under the portico to read a proclamation from the 'provisional government' announcing the establishment of the Irish republic - in token of which a new green, white and orange flag is already fluttering above.

About twenty other buildings at strategic points around the city have been occupied at the same time. But since the average Dubliner is either bemused or downright hostile to these unexpected events, there is nothing the revolutionaries can do except wait to be attacked.

They do not have to wait long. The British soon deploy troops and artillery. By Friday the Post Office is largely destroyed and is ablaze. On Saturday afternoon Pearse appears on the steps to hand his sword to the British commander. The order to surrender is circulated to the various republican outposts.

In several it is very ill received. Some have seen no action, others have done gallant service. British reinforcements, arriving on the Wednesday, have met spirited resistance from buildings under the command of Eamon de Valera, whose men inflict casualties of more than 200 dead and wounded.

The rebel casualties are not high (64 dead in the week, compared to more than 220 civilians caught in crossfire and shelling), but the shock of the event radically alters the mood in Ireland - as do the court martials and executions which follow. For ten days, from May 3, there are a succession of men in front of firing squads, among them Pearse and Connolly. More than 1500 people are given prison sentences, including a life sentence for Eoin MacNeill who made strenuous efforts to prevent the rebellion.

The Easter Rising provides Irish republicanism with a new generation of martyrs. The rebels have been generally referred to as Sinn Feiners. As Pearse predicted, their blood gives a mighty boost to Sinn Fein.

The emergence of Sinn Fein: 1916-1919

In the aftermath of the events of 1916 more people than ever in Ireland are convinced that independence from Britain is the only way forward. At this stage the majority still puts faith in the the constitutional methods advocated by John Redmond's Nationalist Home Rule party. The violent approach of the Sinn Feiners, as seen in the Easter Rising, has as yet relatively little support.

This changes over the next few years, largely because of the inability of the British government to provide any new initiatives as the World War drags on and thus delays - it seems endlessly - the fulfilment of the Home Rule Act passed in 1914.

Asquith and Lloyd George make efforts in the right direction. Consultations are undertaken, conventions are organized, and the prisoners serving gaol sentences for the events of Easter 1916 are released in two waves (December 1916, June 1917).

But the mood of impatience in Ireland grows. Sinn Fein candidates begin to win some sensational by-election victories, and the party acquires an energetic new leader. Eamon de Valera, released from prison in June 1917, is elected to head Sinn Fein, replacing its founder Arthur Griffith.

Unrest increases in the spring of 1918 when the British government, desperately short of men on the western front, attempts to impose conscription on Ireland. Protests follow, and a heavy-handed response by the Dublin authorities aggravates the situation. The viceroy, claiming evidence of a treasonable plot between Sinn Fein and the Germans, arrests seventy-three Sinn Fein leaders, including Griffith and de Valera, during the course of one night in May.

No one believes in the German plot, and when evidence is produced it relates almost entirely to the already well- known events of 1914-16. The resulting mood in Ireland is expressed in no uncertain terms in the general election of December 1918.

Sinn Fein polls more than twice as many votes as the Nationalist party, and wins all but six of the seats previously held by the Nationalists. De Valera defeats the Nationalist leader (now John Dillon, after Redmond's death), and a new leading light of the republican movement, Michael Collins, is returned for West Cork.

The Sinn Fein members have no intention of taking their seats at Westminster. Instead, they assemble in the Dublin Mansion House in January 1919 as the Dáil Eireann (Assembly of Eire). Officers are elected: Griffith for Home Affairs, Collins for Finance, de Valera as President. De Valera is once again in gaol in Britain; this is as yet a national assembly only in name. But two years of violence will change that.

The Troubles: 1919-1921

From January 1919 to July 1921 Ireland is racked by the first of the two periods known colloquially as the Troubles. The events are more formally known as the War of Independence (in Ireland) and the Anglo-Irish War (in Britain).

The Volunteers, or armed supporters of Sinn Fein, are secretly informed at the end of January that they are now the army of Ireland, fighting on behalf of the newly established Dáil Eireann, and that as such they are morally justified in killing enemies of the state - namely British policemen and soldiers. The war of independence is not declared, but in the minds of the combatants of one side it has begun. The Volunteers begin to call themselves the Irish Republican Army, or IRA.

It is inevitably a guerrilla war, and in the way of such wars the violence rapidly escalates. The authorities, confronted by terrorist acts, take drastic reprisals which are then seen as justifying the next retaliation.

The ruthlessly talented leader on the republican side of the war is Michael Collins, who is influential at every level. He is a leading member of the Dáil (a body declared illegal by Britain in September 1919), as well as being the most powerful figure within both the public Irish Republican Army and the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood. It is he who authorizes the assassination of targeted enemies. It is he who goes secretly to England in January 1919 and springs de Valera from Lincoln gaol with a duplicate key.

The situation in Ireland is even more ugly from June 1920. When the Royal Irish Constabulary becomes depleted by the high number of Irish resignations, the British government ships in half-trained replacements from England. Their violent behaviour makes them notorious in Irish history under their nickname of the Black and Tans (the name of a hunt in Munster, applied to the newcomers because in the rush to send them into action they are issued with a motley blend of black police and khaki military uniforms).

Ambushes, reprisals, explosions and arson (British auxiliaries burn much of the centre of Cork in December 1920) become everyday events - to a mounting crescendo of outrage both in Britain and abroad.

Stumbling towards a settlement: 1920-1922

In 1920 Lloyd George secures the passage of a Government of Ireland Act which puts a new spin on the proposal passed into law in 1914. The partition of Ireland is to be accepted as a necessary compromise, but both southern Ireland (twenty-six counties) and northern Ireland (the six counties of northeast Ulster) are now to have their own parliaments with limited devolved powers. Each parliament is to send twenty members to a joint Council of Ireland, which may at any time merge the two without requiring further legislation from Westminster.

The proposal meets neither Nationalist wishes for a united Ireland, nor the Unionist desire to remain an undifferentiated part of the United Kingdom. But both sides decide to take part in the elections held in May 1921.

In southern Ireland the old Nationalist party, under John Dillon, refrains from opposing Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein therefore wins 124 of the 128 seats (the other four being reserved for the strongly Unionist Trinity College in Dublin). These 124 Sinn Feiners now assemble as a reconstituted Dáil. However this is not the southern parliament provided for in Lloyd George's act, and the IRA continues to commit terrorist acts in Sinn Fein's republican cause.

In northern Ireland forty Unionists and twelve Nationalists are elected. Although the Unionists object in principle to this parliament, it is formally opened by George V (with a powerful speech urging reconciliation) in June 1921.

With this much achieved, Lloyd George offers a truce to the Sinn Fein leader, Eamon de Valera, and invites him to London with a view to working out a treaty.

The truce comes into effect on 11 July 1921. Violence in southern Ireland immediately ceases. De Valera sends representatives, led by Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins, to the peace talks in London. They agree to terms which fall short of the nationalist demand for a united Ireland, but which nevertheless offer independence to the twenty-six counties. As the Irish Free State they are to have Dominion status, in the formula pioneered by Canada. Republican sensibilities are assuaged by owing allegiance to the British crown only as head of 'the British Commonwealth of Nations'.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty is ratified by the British parliament in December 1921, but it immediately runs into problems in Ireland. De Valera repudiates it, arguing that his envoys have agreed to terms beyond their brief. In January, after a bitter debate in the Dáil, Griffith and Collins carry the motion for their treaty by a narrow margin of 64 votes to 57. De Valera immediately resigns as president of the Dáil. Griffith is elected in his place.

In northern Ireland the new parliament is now functioning, and there has been talk of accommodation of some kind with the south. But civil war south of the border and sectarian riots in the north soon put an end to that. For the rest of the century, from 1922, the republic of Ireland and northern Ireland go their separate ways.

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