The ‘Irish Question’ is a complex problem that Britain had been unable to solve for nearly two centuries. There were various issues at stake- namely land, nationalism and religion. These issues changed both as a result of time and changes in British politics. But at the root of the inability to deal with this issue lay Britain’s lack of understanding of the complex nature of the Irish question and their refusal to seek durable solutions to it.
The year 1870 marked a watershed in Irish politics. Till this date, while Ireland was always on the horizon, a number of important developments took place that would change relations between Britain and Ireland forever. These three developments encompassed the three broad planks of the Irish question- religion, land and nationalism. In 1869 Gladstone disestablished the Church of Ireland, in 1870 a new Land Act was passed and in the same year the Home Rule League was formed. Individually, neither of these developments would have been significant. But taken together, and seen in the background of events between 1840-1870, they were magnified manifold. To assess the importance of events in 1870 and later, it is necessary to take a quick look at the pre-1870 period.
In 1801 Act of Union provided that Ireland would have in the United Kingdom about one-fifth of the representation of Great Britain, with 100 members in the House of Commons. The union of the churches of England and Ireland as the established denominations of their respective countries was also effected, and the preeminent position in Ireland of Protestant Episcopalianism was further secured by the continuation of the British Test Act, which virtually excluded Nonconformists (both Roman Catholic and Protestant) from Parliament and from membership in municipal corporations. Not until 1828–29 did the repeal of the Test Act and the concession of Catholic emancipation provided political equality for most purposes. It was also provided in the Union that there should be free trade between the two countries and that Irish merchandise would be admitted to British colonies on the same terms as British merchandise.
The logic of the 1801 Act of Union was that through union with the British parliament, the path for Catholic emancipation would be opened up. Within the framework of the United Kingdom, the Catholics would be a less threatening minority. But as can be seen it was almost 30 years after the Act that Catholic emancipation was granted. While the British state did eventually give way, it did so after much dilly-dallying and after provoking maximum resentment. There was an imperial context to the Act of Union as well. Ireland was often viewed as another colony of the British, and since this was long before the era of decolonization, if Ireland broke away, it would set a bad precedent. So, Ireland was not just tactically or strategically important, but it also had symbolic value.
The election of the Catholic Daniel O’Connell to a Parliamentary seat for County Clare provoked a panic among Protestants and the Episcopalians. In the post emancipation period, Catholics and Protestants drifted further apart, with the latter increasingly clinging to Union, the former, slowly but decisively seeking its repeal. Thus we see that in the pre 1870 period questions of religion and nationalism were already beginning to get intertwined. This process is accelerated in the post 1870 period. But there was another crucial factor that was just as, if not more important for the Irish, and this was the question of land.
Irish society in the 19th century was not a simple dichotomy between the landlord and a tenant. There was a complex, layered structure. The ‘middling farmers’ were becoming increasingly important. Below them were the smallholders who possessed between 1-15 acres. And finally there were the cottiers. These were labourers who received their wages in land, and were dependent on potato farming. The Great Famine of 1848 brought the issue of land to the fore like never before. The Famine was a catastrophic event not merely in terms of lives lost, but also in terms of the destruction to the rural economy. But many of the economic effects of the Famine had their roots in a pre-Famine context but the disaster accelerated them to a level where they became qualitatively different. The patterns of the Irish agricultural economy prior to the Famine remain shrouded in confusion, but there is little doubt that the potato was an important part of the diet and provided much nutrition. This was also a period where Ireland had failed to industrialize (outside Ulster) which meant a greater dependence on land. And this agriculture was in most places backward, unproductive and carried out using primitive techniques. There was much discontent surrounding British response to the Famine and the time lag between an official government response and relief efforts. Before the famine the smallholders and cottiers outnumbered the farmer by two to one, a ratio that was drastically changed by the Famine. Holdings of very small farms declined drastically by almost half. Holdings above 30 acres registered a sharp increase from 17% to 26%. The Famine also left behind an abiding resentment of ‘England’. The post Famine Ireland was marked by a psychological feeling of inadequacy, helplessness and embarrassment, heightened by disunity among the farming classes. The landlord class continued to emphasise profit extraction rather than investment. Debts and encumbrances continued even among those who had managed to retain their estates after 1849.
Among the early protestors on the Land Issue was James Fintan Lalor who argued that the land question was an issue between ‘a people and a class’. The Tenant Protection societies formed in the 1850s campaigned for rents fixed by independent valuation and solidarity among tenants. But at this stage they did not constitute an influential pressure group. At this time an Independent Irish Party too was formed but it never really challenged more traditional political formations and it split up in 1859.
It was in the 1860s that Ireland came to the forefront of British politics largely as a result of Gladstone. He disestablished the Church of Ireland which already according to one source had become ‘effete and bearing all marks of the decrepitude of age and of approaching inevitable dissolution.’ By the Act of 1869 while the Church was technically expropriated, it was generously re-endowed. Gladstone’s disestablishment of the Church of Ireland suggested that it was inappropriate to have a formal link between the state and a denomination supported only by the minority in Ireland. This was a terrible shock to the Irish Protestant elite. It could be argued that in some sense, the religious divide in Ireland was not an inevitability. It is with the hindsight of history that we often see certain patterns emerging that seem inevitable, and differences seem irreconciliable. But this may be not always be true. The disestablishment of the Church gains huge significance because it introduced an almost artificial wedge into Irish society. This is not to say that the Irish were not divided earlier, but historical divisions can often be less incendiary than those introduced by external forces.
These religious developments were matched by radical political developments and economic disaster. The first Irish Land Act was introduced in 1870 which conceded the principles of secure tenure and compensation for improvements made to property if tenants were evicted. But since improving tenants were hardly the sort who were evicted, this made little difference. Further, there was no provision for rent control and those who had to vacate on the expiry of a lease were not protected.
Gladstone may also have been concerned at the cleavage between English and Irish public opinion caused by the execution at Manchester of William P. Allen, Michael Larkin, and Michael O'Brien for involvement in a Fenian prisoner-rescue operation that resulted in the shooting of a British police sergeant. To most English people the “Manchester murderers” richly deserved their fate; to most Irish people they were the “Manchester martyrs,” celebrated in ballad and legend.
In 1870 a constitutional movement, the Home Government Association, or the Home Rule League was founded by Isaac Butt, a prominent Unionist lawyer interested in land reform. For Butt, Home Rule meant a developed parliament at Dublin, which was compatible with a federalized arrangement for the United Kingdom. While he was initially supported by many disillusioned Protestants, the support tailed off as Catholic issues came to the fore. By the time of the 1874 elections, a surprising number of MPS, 59 of them, supported Home Rule. The Home Rulers had subsumed Irish Liberalism.
But the politics of the period were given a new twist by the agricultural crisis of the 1870s. The crisis marked by rising profits and production till 1876 followed by a disastrous harvest in 1877 and subsequent blights, freak rainfall and cold and falling prices brought about by the entry of American beef and grain into the British market. The 1879 Famine seemed to reinforce the notion that Ireland was a ‘junior partner’ in her relationship with Britain and that British norms were being super imposed on an Irish framework. The reluctance of the British to deal with these sentiments at this stage were to prove catastrophic later. It is also interesting to note that while Butt was essentially a moderate, in his capacity as a lawyer, he did defend some extremists. While these extremists were a minority at this stage, their message of desperation did strike a chord amongst some.
It is around this economic issue of land and deprivation that and the fear that the famines would return, the Land League was formed in 1879 seeking to achieve for tenants, security of tenure, fair rents and the freedom to sell property. Davitt was soon joined by Charles Stewart Parnell and under him the Land League absorbed the Home Rule cause and became an aggressive disciplined party. While there was little that was radical in its demands, its style of functioning is a matter of interest. It was a legal non-violent organization whose chief weapons were publicity and moral intimidation. There was no overt support over violence or agrarian outrage although incidents of these were recorded in the late 1870s and early 1880s. The League however did rely on implicit violence. Tactics such as threatening letters, breaking up of a landlord’s marriage celebrations, were archaic but effective measures. But the most important tactics were withholding rent, keeping evicted farms empty and the weapon of boycott. What was significant about these methods was that they were essentially peaceful, but politically radical. The peasantry could join be involved on economic grounds but in the process of fighting for their rights, would be politicized. Moreover, the intangible threat of violence made it difficult for the government to respond through coercion which could have made the situation even more volatile. The outlawing of the League in October 1881 and the arrest of Parnell did lead to a situation of almost anarchic disorder. Attempts to suppress a popular movement had only escalated it.
It could be argued that most Irish people at this stage were not nationalist. They were certainly Anglophobic and deeply resented British attitude, but there was no demand for separation. Many in fact argued that Parnell was too constitutional in his style of functioning. But he was politically savvy enough to realise the value of the land question and how it could be used for political purposes. One of the more visible outcomes of this land war was Gladstone’s Land Act of 1881 which granted tenants the right of free sale and introduced a complex mechanism for fixing disputed increases in rent. Given the intensity of protest in this period, the Act was remarkably inadequate. It was a short term measure seeking to curb a long term economic problem which contained within it seeds of political dissent. It neither solved the problem, nor did it ensure that it would not resurface in a more virulent form. But the importance of the two Acts of 1870 and 1881 lay not so much in the land reform proposals, but in the recognition that Ireland would be treated differently from England. If we examine the land issue in Ireland and the British response to it, it becomes clear that the British were always a step behind. By introducing short term measures to deal with trenchant issues, they sought to postpone or simply wish away the land problem. Had they dealt with it effectively, the Land League might not have been able to adopt the political overtones that it eventually came to acquire. The consequences of the 1881 Act are debatable but they were certainly the first step towards the eradication of landlordism in Ireland.
While the land issue had taken centre stage in the Irish question for the time being, issues of religion and nationalism were not far behind. The Land League reinforced the politicization of rural Catholic nationalist Ireland, in contrast to a more urban, English, and implicitly Protestant landlord identity. Realising the growing political dangers of the Land League (and its effects on the Home Rule movement), Gladstone in 1885 accepted that Home Rule as pushed by Parnell and the creation of an Irish parliament could help in reconciling the Ireland to the Union. When Gladstone pushed ahead with the Home Rule Bill he triggered off a major political crisis. The elections of 1885 and 1886, under the new universal franchise of 1884, dramatically recast the political face of Ireland. There was a virtual elimination of the Liberal party and it signalled a tacit undermining of the Union at a fundamental level. This was accompanied by a sharp rise in Unionist sentiments as well. They joined the Conservatives with Chamberlain’s Liberal Unionists and the new Ulster Unionist Movement. The preservation of the Union evoked much political passion in Britain and the Home Rule Bill was defeated in the Lords in 1893.
Gladstone’s policies uptil this point have been a matter of intense debate and speculation. It would seem likely that he was irritated by the waste of time in Parliament and wished to implement his own ideas about devolution. But Parnell’s role in Gladstone’s ‘conversion’ to the Irish cause must be examined more closely. Parnell, being an astute politician realised that for his cause to be successful he would need the support of at least one major political party and he managed to win over Gladstone. It is also important to note that the introduction of the Home Rule Bill intensified internal political divisions within Westminster. The Irish Parliamentary Party is now more closely allied with the Liberals while the Tories are more firmly linked to the Unionist cause. The House of Lords became an important focus for Unionism. Unionism at this stage was more pan-Irish than Ulster Unionist in nature.
The following period saw differences in Ireland being sharpened and two sides entrenching themselves even further. The Catholic clergy which had not been entirely comfortable with the Land League (and then the National League) lined up unequivocally behind the national movement and the assumptions of a ‘Catholic nation’ alienated Ulster even further. The Ulster convention of 1892 was an attempt to retain Protestant ascendancy in Ulster and was underestimated by both British politicians and Irish nationalists. By the end of the century it was becoming increasingly clear that many of the differences were virtually irreconciliable. 1910 saw the rise of two opposing forces: the Irish nationalists MPs led by John Redmond and the Ulster Unionist Council led by Edwin Carson, the Dublin lawyer. The UUC, in a historic break from the past, now claimed to speak for all of the north, rather than merely Ireland’s landlord elite. The mass resistance of Ulster, excellently organized, and very determined became hard to ignore. They gained the support of the British Tories. Their bravado was given concrete shape by the formation of an Ulster Volunteer Force which by May 1914 had 25,000 rifles, 3 million rounds of ammunition and could call upon the services of 23,000 men. The nationalists had their own militia in the form of the Irish Volunteer Force formed in November 1913, and the situation was becoming increasingly volatile with Ireland on the verge on civil war.
Meanwhile, political developments in Westminster were gathering pace. Redmond agreed to support Asquith in return for the promise of a Home Rule Bill. The reduction of the power of the House of Lords meant that the Bill’s chances of success were now much higher. The Unionists were now galvanised into action and in 1912 thousands of Ulstermen signed the Solemn League and Covenant to resist Home Rule. At a point when collision seemed inevitable and threatened to spill much blood, the First World War broke out.
The War gave much needed breathing space to both sides. While it temporarily defused the situtation, it brought to the fore the separatist demands of southern Ireland. The war period also saw the infamous Easter Uprising (1916). It was not a well-organised insurrection but it took the authorities by surprise. The reaction of the government was swift and brutal. Martial law was imposed, arrests, deportation and reprisals against the innocent mounted. Lloyd George’s Military Bill and his attempts to impose conscription brought disparate elements together and the Sinn Fein, the Irish Parliamentary Party and other nationalist groups joined into an anti-conscription campaign. As British rule was rapidly breaking down, they formed the Dail Eireann or the Irish Assembly and the IRA sought to resist British administration through terrorist attacks and ambushes. Finally, when the Anglo Irish war of 1919-21 ended with partition, it left the nationalists dismayed.
The Anglo Irish Treaty provided that Ireland should in future have the “same constitutional status in the community of Nations known as the British Empire as the Dominion of Canada, the Commonwealth of Australia, the Dominion of New Zealand, and the Union of South Africa with a parliament having powers to make laws for the peace, order and good government of Ireland and an Executive responsible to that parliament.” The new dominion was to be known as the Irish Free State. This peace agreement, ratified by the British Parliament, became operative when it had also been passed (January 1922) by a meeting of the Dáil. The new state comprised only 26 of the 32 counties; the northeastern area, known as Northern Ireland, remained part of the United Kingdom. It was the worst possible scenario for the nationalists. The worst option for them had been a four county opt out for a limited period. The question now was: was this the magic formula to solve the Irish question? As subsequent developments have shown- clearly not.
So the question that arises is why the British were unable to deal with the Irish problem more effectively. To do so we return to the three strands of the Irish question- religion, land and nationalism. With regard to the issue of land, we see that the British were always a step behind. While both the Acts of 1870 and 1881 granted a number of concessions, most of them came too late and were short term measures rather than a long term solution. Both in 1870 and 1881 it seemed as if the British were not keen to get to the heart of the Irish problem. Each time a number of questions were left unanswered and the British failed to deal with the genius of Parnell. He was able to mobilize the masses around the land issue and politicize them. On hindsight, it becomes clear that had the land issue been dealt with adequately, perhaps the nationalist problem might have died down. But recurring famines, economic deprivation, and a feeling of discrimination provided a potent combination. In fact, some later economists have concluded that the land issue was not as serious as it has been made out to be. Most of the landlords were absentee landlords while other historians have challenged the notion that rack-renting was enforced by eviction. But the myth of the evil landlord was crucial to the potency of the Land League. The question of whether the land issue could be separated from the national issue soon became irrelevant. The League’s unprecedented success in linking farmers’ grievances to the previously abstract issues of self-government produced a political mobilization that was imposing in scale and permanent in its effect. The British not only failed to keep pace with the changing economic demands and the rapid politicization of the Irish Question, more often than not, they failed to grasp the essence of the question. By the time they introduced land reform, the issues had moved much beyond land to the realm of Home Rule and eventually to self government.
British failure thus occurred at many levels- there was a neglect of Irish issues till matters had got out of hand, there was a lack of recognition of the seriousness of the nationalist feeling in Ireland and an inability to solve Ireland’s economic problems. When the British did try to deal with the Irish, the use of violence or half hearted legislative measures only angered the Irish more. Hence, British incompetence, lack of foresight and an inability to comprehend the Irish Question and the changing nature of the issues subsumed within it, contributed to the overall failure of the British in tackling the Irish question successfully.