“UK intransigence, incompetence and self-delusion.” A look back at the history of Home Rule and Devolution in Ireland by Alister Rutherford.
The impetus for this post comes from reading a book on Home Rule by Alvin Jackson. He is professor of Modern History at Queen’s University Belfast. This is a very detailed and at the same time very partial look at Home Rule. The give-away is the subtitle – An Irish History, 1800-2000 (my emphasis). Jackson’s approach is more about the history of an idea – Home Rule for Ireland – rather than the events themselves. His focus on Ireland means that he takes virtually no account of similar developments in Scotland either in the 19th century or in the latter part of the 20th century. His decision to continue the period under review to 2000 is also revealing. It means in effect that he simply ignores the development of the Republic of Ireland as an independent state. With these reservations in mind, it is still a very interesting book. It offers a pretty detailed insight into the mindset of some of the key players in the rise and fall of Home Rule.
Despite Jackson’s attempts to portray the existence of the Northern Ireland Assembly as some kind of success for Home Rule, the truth is rather that Home Rule failed. While Jackson does offer some reasons for this failure, he makes no attempt at an overall assessment of the movement and why it failed in its core objective. For Home Rule was proposed as a measure to keep the whole of Ireland in the UK. In this it failed utterly. But why?
UK intransigence, incompetence and self-delusion
The failure of Home Rule is not alas some unlucky accident. Rather, the long drawn out death of the movement is just one more example of a continuing failure on the part of the UK. The UK establishment has a long and inglorious history of failing to make adjustments in time to new developments. This goes all the way back to the American revolution and continues to this day with the UK’s approach to Scottish independence and to the EU. There seem to be six phases to this self-deception.
For most of the 19th century the UK establishment simply denied that there was any problem in the relationship between Ireland and the rest of the UK. The growing demand for a parliament in Ireland was just ignored as the work of a few extremist rabble rousers or the inconsequential demands of what would now be called the “chattering classes” The distress caused by continuing anti catholic laws and the economic suffering of tenant farmers were equally disdained and ignored.
As the 19th century wore on, even some of the more die-hard upholders of the status-quo were forced to admit that “something had to be done”. Especially with regard to catholic emancipation and agricultural reform. But this something was always as little as possible and after as long a delay as possible. Which meant that the UK establishment never gained much in the way of credibility or support for its all too reluctant acts.
3 Too Little, Too Late
By the latter quarter of the 19th century denial and delay were no longer feasible options. The strength of the Irish party in the House of Commons meant that UK governments were often dependent on the votes of Irish MPs. And the overwhelming majority of them were committed to the establishment of a parliament to deal with Irish matters – Home Rule. Unfortunately this led to a split within the UK establishment. While the Liberals under Gladstone did, albeit reluctantly, accept the need for an Irish Home Rule parliament, the Conservatives did not. In fact, ever since, the Conservatives have been vehemently opposed to any and every proposal for Home Rule or devolution as it is now termed. With the UK establishment bitterly divided there was no coherent attempt to persuade the general public of the benefits of Home Rule. Despite some talk from the Liberals of a Scottish parliament – Home Rule for All – nothing of substance ever came of this. There was never any attempt to place Home Rule for Ireland in the wider context of improving the government of all of the UK. In the end the various Home Rule bills which came before parliament satisfied no-one. Opponents saw them as giving in to Irish pressure, while most of the Irish MPs regarded the fine print as onerous and keeping Ireland in a second class status.
4. Complete Failure of UK policy
Growing disenchantment with the failure of the reformist Irish party to secure Home Rule within in the UK, meant that more and more Irish people began to support a complete break with the UK. Faced with what they regarded as an intransigent UK establishment these forces staged the celebrated Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916. Though crushed, the brutal reprisals by the UK government simply persuaded even more Irish people to reject any compromise with the UK. In the general election of 1918 a clear majority of Irish MPs were elected on a commitment to establish an Irish Republic. This they did in the following year. The UK government opposed this and tried to destroy the new state by going to war against it. However despite much bloodshed, the UK eventually gave in and recognized the new Irish Free State in the 1921 Anglo-Irish treaty. Not all of Ireland was to be part of this new state. Six of the northern counties, those where the overall majority was made up of protestants, were granted their own Assembly. This was the Home Rule parliament that Jackson refers to in his book. Thus UK self-delusion and intransigence brought about the worst possible outcome for both the UK and for Ireland. A split Ireland and the complete loss to the UK of most of Ireland.
5. Grudging Acceptance of New Realities
The UK and the new state had a turbulent relationship in the first half of the 20th century. The Free State remained within the British Commonwealth and the British Monarch remained Head of State. There were also various economic disputes including a trade war. During the 2nd World War Ireland remained neutral, another cause for dispute between the two states. It was not until 1949 with the implementation of the Republic of Ireland Act that the current status of Ireland became established. All links to the UK and the crown were abolished. The Republic of Ireland was here to stay.
6. Friends and Allies
The final phase in the UK’s tortuous relationship with Ireland has now been reached. The two countries are now best of buddies. A formal visit by the Queen to Dublin and joint Prime Ministerial statements both confirmed the close bonds which link the two states and the degree of friendship and co-operation between them.
Lessons for Scotland?
The importance of this outline of the UK’s tortured relationship with Ireland is that it is not unique. Something pretty similar could be written about most of the independent countries that were once upon a time part of the British Empire. The UK’s special relationship with the USA for example was a long time a coming. But come it did. Likewise with India, the new South Africa and most of her former territories, the UK sooner or later adjusts and ends up as the best of friends with former subjects or enemies.
We can only hope that this pattern, without of course any bloodshed, will be repeated with Scotland. The UK has already passed through the denial, delay and the too little, too late phases. With a yes vote in 2014 there is every reason to hope that the rest of the UK will very quickly move to establishing the kind of close and friendly relations with an independent Scotland as she has with Ireland.