The Irish Question

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The Republic of Ireland is the only nation which shares a border with the United Kingdom, yet the fight for Irish independence is often one omitted from British history textbooks and seen as wholly insignificant in comparison to the totemic nature of two World Wars. However, this conflict provided the first harbinger of the decline of the imperial age and the misbegotten belief that foreign lands could simply be ruled paternally from Westminster.

Ireland was initially invaded by England in the 12th Century and the territory gradually fell under the sovereignty under the King of England, supported by the Vatican. The relationship between Ireland and mainland Britain had often been contentious, and a nationalist uprising in 1798 supported by the French led to the merging of the Irish and British parliaments into one political entity. The island was deeply split between the Protestant Ascendancy (often of English ancestry) who controlled all political power and favoured closer ties with the mainland and the poorer Catholics who sought Home Rule (i.e., the right to govern themselves) and even outright independence.

The 19th Century was a dark time in Irish history. An epidemic of the potato blight disease, coupled with non-interventionist policies from the British Whig government, led to the Great Famine. Millions starved and the population halved in size. In turn, this fuelled resentment towards Westminster and led to (unanswered) clamours for Home Rule.

Agitation was particularly high during the First World War. The failure to grant any meaningful concessions towards Home Rule had led to nationalistic fervour for independence, all while the British were occupied with fighting Germany. After months of planning, on 24 April 1916, Irish nationalists seized control of Dublin, the capital. This rebellion, known as the Easter Rising, was met with the full might of the British.

They began by shelling the city and then started to execute civilians. Their repression was marked by atrocities. In one instance, British soldiers burst into houses on North King Street and massacred 15 men they accused of being rebels. They then robbed them. Unsurprisingly, no British soldier was found guilty for their actions. On 29 April, the rebels surrendered, and the British arrested 2000 people, executing 15 of their leaders.

If the British had hoped that their show of force demonstrated the inevitability of colonial rule, they were deeply mistaken. Instead, the rebels gained sympathy for their cause, while the British were seen as repressive, heavy-handed and even evil. The nationalists began therefore to unite under one political party – Sinn Féin – which loosely translates as ‘we, ourselves’ in English.

In the 1918 general election, Sinn Féin won a landslide victory in Ireland. They promised to establish an Irish Republic and refused to attend Parliament in Westminster. Instead, they created their own parliament in Dublin – the Dáil. The authority of the Dáil was not recognised by the British, and on 21 January 1919, the day of the first meeting of this Parliament, confrontations led to the death of two loyalist (British supporting) police officers.

This was the spark for war. The rebels’ army, known as the Irish Republican Army (IRA), on paper, consisted of over 100,000 men: in reality, it was closer to 15,000. However, these soldiers were highly motivated, fighting for their own independence. Ordinary soldiers were bolstered by the ‘Squad’, who were picked personally by IRA leaders and carried out assassinations of policemen and suspected informers within the IRA.

By contrast, the British force initially consisted of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and the Dublin Metropolitan Police (around 17,000 in total). These officers were supported by the infamous ‘Black and Tans’. Mostly ex-British soldiers, these men gained a reputation for viciousness and brutality; in retaliation for IRA attacks, they murdered civilians and burnt towns.

As the war dragged on, Britain did begin to send in its army, but their job was mainly to support the police already stationed there. These policeman were poorly trained for counter-insurgency work, and so were ill-prepared to take on the more dynamic IRA.

The British also had to contend with one crucial problem – they lacked the support of the local population. Resignations in the RIC reached staggering levels as officers were demoralised by the ostracisation they faced. Dockers and railway workers stopped carrying British forces and arms. Trials by jury stopped as jurors would not attend. Ireland came to a standstill.

All the while, the IRA harried the British. They employed guerrilla tactics and made the most of their knowledge of the country. The Squad was a particular threat to British forces. In one operation, on 21 November 1920 – later known as Bloody Sunday – they killed 13 British operatives hiding in different hotels in Dublin. In response, that afternoon, the RIC opened fire into a crowd of a football match, killing 13 civilians. This only escalated the violence; in the next eight months, death tolls spiralled. More than 80% of deaths of the three-year war occurred in this period.

By this stage, the IRA high command felt that they were on the brink of defeat, lacking in men and armaments. Eager for a high profile operation, they attacked Custom House – the centre of local government in Ireland – on 25 May 1921. It was a terrible defeat – 80 IRA members were captured – yet the British were increasingly unwilling to pursue this colonial war.

Lloyd George, the British PM, succumbed to pressure from within his own party and entered into peace talks, supported by the King. In June 1921, the British government thus called for truce, not knowing how close the IRA were to collapsing.

At this point, the fighting ceased. Leaders of the IRA travelled to England to negotiate, agreeing to the Anglo-Irish Treaty. This created the Irish Free State, a dominion of the British Empire. It also allowed the six, predominantly Protestant, counties of Northern Ireland to secede, leading to the modern-day partition. When the IRA returned home with the treaty, they faced a divided government. Some agreed that it was the best that they would receive; some saw it as a steppingstone towards a proper republic; others refused to get behind the treaty, wanting more concessions from the British.

These tensions dragged the Irish Free State into civil war between supporters and opponents of the treaty. Ireland’s dominion status ultimately continued until 1949, when Ireland formally became a Republic. To this day, questions about Irish reunification loom and, with support growing in Northern Ireland, the coming decades look set to further inflame the Irish question.

Hart, P., 2003. The IRA at War 1916-1923, Oxford University Press.

Hopkinson, M., 2002. The Irish War of Independence, Gill & Macmillan

Comerford, R., 2003. Ireland (Inventing the Nation), Hodder Arnold.