The History (Part 2 of 5)
Post-1066, the Normans, who had made short work of England, tried their hand in Ireland, with less success. Elizabeth made a fair fist of expanding their East coast settlements in the 16th ©. The most stubbornly Celtic and rebellious part was Ulster. Subsequent monarchs tried to subdue it by planting Protestant Scots giving them land as settlers and power over the natives, much as in the Americas. Most Irish remained loyally Catholic, creating a cultural and social divide. Their rebellion in 1641 was repressed before they were subjected to harsh military rule under Cromwell,. Many fled to the Jacobite cause in France, then fought a vigorous campaign to regain the throne for James before a decisive defeat by William of Orange at the Boyne in 1690.
Protestant settlers, frightened for their lives, celebrated this relief, which settled them in a dominant position, much as early colonists elsewhere ruled over conquered natives. After a century of sullen unrest, another rebellion in 1798 was quelled but fear of invasion by Napoleon by the ‘back door’ led to Ireland being fully incorporated as part of the Union in 1801. A hundred MPs were sent to Westminster and the cross of St Patrick added to the Union Jack flag.
A period of relative peace followed, with the West and South being run in an almost feudal fashion by large landowners, Dublin and its surrounds becoming ever more Anglicised and Ulster sullen in resentment at its Protestant overlords. This general peace frayed during the potato famine of 1845-49, when blight ruined the harvest such that a million died and a further million emigrated. This spread great resentment towards landowners and the apparently indifferent Peel government in London. Neither thought famine relief appropriate, as it would “weaken people’s resolve to look after themselves.”
Increasing prosperity in Ulster from Victorian industrialisation increased the grip of Protestant unionists on power there. The rest of Ireland remained rural and mostly poor. Increasingly resentful of their lot, electoral reform broadened suffrage and led to the swift rise of Parnell’s Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) which soon held the balance of power at Westminster and pressured Prime Minister Gladstone into a Home Rule Bill in 1885 and again in 1893. Tory opposition, especially in the Lords, defeated both and led to the “Unionist” part of the Conservative and Unionist Party’s name in 1912.
Such development alarmed unionists in Ulster, catalysing the Ulster Unionist Party in 1905. The heated debates around a third Home Rule Bill in 1912 formed the Ulster Volunteers, the first paramilitary organisation. Asquith’s government, having succeeded in removing the Lords’ veto, but this Bill also failed, at the outbreak of the Great War.
Over 200,000 Irish of all faiths fought for the British; over 40,000 never seeing Ireland again. But enmity between the poorer Catholic majority and an increasingly nervous Protestant minority broke into the futile Easter Rising of 1916. This was put down so harshly by the British, it drove ever more Irish to resent what was increasingly seen as colonial misrule.
At the end of the Great War, this resentment break out in open hostility. To deal with this, the Royal Irish Constabulary were reinforced by a poorly trained British force nicknamed “Black and Tans”, whose methods sere crude and whose brutality drove resentment ever higher.
This constant unrest was an embarrassment to Britain and its Empire. At the zenith of its power to be unable to control some poor provinces of the home country was intolerable to the British government, now under Lloyd George who referred to Ireland “this little green cabbage patch”. The traditional template for dealing with colonies of “making the world England” having palpably failed in Ireland, he was keen to find an exit strategy that would save face. However, few of the ministers and diplomats involved had much experience of dealing with other cultures or being sensitive to their priorities in negotiation.
The Unionists in Ireland under Carson had, at first, argued for retaining all of Ireland as part of the UK. Gradually they saw that retaining an area with a built-in, indefinite Protestant/Unionist majority was a better way to retain their power for the future. Six of the nine counties of Ulster filled the bill..
Republicans under Redmond were, at first, adamant that Home Rule must apply across the whole island. They were brought round to thinking that a temporary solution bringing Home Rule to the other 26 counties first was more speedily achievable. The remaining six formed too small a unit to last long. Lloyd George pushed this compromise through in the Irish Free State (Agreement) Bill in March 1922. That December, partition of the island occurred: a new Dominion joined the empire; the six counties remained British.