By Fiona Grahame
The first decade of the 20th century was a time of extreme division and disruption in UK domestic politics. The Parliament with its limited franchise was not representative of the People. Movements for Irish Home Rule, Scottish Home Rule and Women’s Suffrage were gaining more support. There was no minimum wage for workers and in 1912 the first national strike by coal miners took place. There were General Elections held in 1900, 1906 and two in 1910. It saw several Prime Ministers come and go with 5 different men serving in that office over the decade.
On the 18th of September 1914 The Government of Ireland Act received Royal Assent. Home rule for Ireland within the UK was to be established. The Act came after years of discussion and pressure put on the Parliament in Westminster. It was never enforced but put on hold with the agreement of the majority Irish political party led by John Redmond MP. Britain had declared war against Germany on 4th of August 1914 which John Redmond and his Irish home rulers supported. At first the delay was to be a short one but just like the war which was to be ‘all over by Christmas’, the Home Rule legislation slipped further back.
Ireland had experienced a hundred years of depopulation. From 1815 to 1850 3 million people emigrated from Ireland. This accelerated from 1850 to 1910 when up to 5 million left Ireland. Many went overseas to the USA but a quarter of them arrived in England and Scotland. Driven from their homeland by extreme poverty and starvation they went to live in the industrial cities of Britain taking low paid jobs and were used to drive down the wages of those already living there.
For decades campaigners in Ireland had agitated to change the ownership of land by absentee landowners and introduce tenants’ rights. By 1852 50 MPs were returned for the Independent Irish Party which championed their cause. It lasted a decade.
Prime Minister Gladstone who required the votes of Irish MPs to stay in power focused on the ‘Irish Question’ promising land reform and home rule. He stated:
“My mission is to pacify Ireland”.
The Land Act that was produced was watered down and weak.
The Irish, however, were not pacified and in 1870 a Peace Preservation Act (a Coercion Act) was passed. This was followed in 1871 by the Westmeath Act which gave the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland even more dictatorial powers.
“Armed with this Bill and a mass of secret information, the Lord-Lieutenant will be able to lay his hand on all the Riband leaders, and either shut them up for two years or force them to quit the country.” The Spectator 6th May 1871
All of these measures were quite legally done by the UK Parliament of the day.
By 1870 there was a Home Government Association in Ireland, later to morph into the Home Rule League seven years later. Its aims were for an Irish Parliament which would have the power to govern Ireland with the exception of Foreign Policy.
A succession of land reform Acts were passed due to continued pressure. In the UK Parliament Irish politicians pursued the question of Irish Home Rule.
In 1874 the Home Rule League had 56 MPs and 1 year later Charles Stewart Parnell was elected. In 1879 The Irish Land League was formed and agitation continued for land reform. There was violence too and political killings. Parnell, an incredible parliamentarian, now leading the Home Rule party piled on the pressure and Prime Minister Gladstone introduced a Home Rule Bill which was thrown out at the Second Stage of the House of Commons. Another Home Rule Bill was also to fall.
John Redmond led the Irish Parliamentary Party. He had managed to get through a series of reforming pieces of legislation: the Land Purchase Acts of 1903 and 1909, the Labourers Acts of 1906 and 1911 and the 1908 Act founding the National University of Ireland. By the General Election of 1910 he led a party that commanded a strong position in the UK Parliament. The Liberal Government was forced into introducing the Third Home Rule Bill in 1912. Ulster Unionists, however, campaigned for a 6 county exclusion. An armed Ulster Volunteer Force was formed and in April 1914 it was supplied from Germany with 35,000 rifles and 5million rounds of ammunition. When the Home Rule Act was passed in September of that same year the Ulster question was still not resolved. Home Rule became ‘a cheque continually post dated.’*
Great Britain declared war on Germany on 4th of August 1914. At the time it was supported by Irish nationalists and unionists. There was a massive recruiting campaign across the whole of Ireland and by the Spring of 1916 150,000 Irish men were in active service. They were all volunteers.
John Redmond made a speech in 1914 where he encouraged Irish volunteers to serve overseas. His position and support for involvement in the war was becoming increasingly difficult as the numbers slaughtered began to filter through to those at home.
Although there was huge public support for the war in Ireland in 1914, this was not universal. The Irish Republican Brotherhood (Fenians) had opposed the war from the start. Funded by supporters in the USA, Sir Roger Casement travelled to Germany in October of 1914 to obtain aid for an Irish Revolution. He succeeded in his mission but a German ship was intercepted and the arms did not get through.
Two years later in April 1916 the Easter Rising took place. It is estimated that 450 ‘rebels’ and civilians were killed (mostly the latter),2000 were wounded, 116 soldiers and police were killed with 3 – 400 wounded. It failed but the following brutal suppression of the Irish people by the UK Government was a turning point. Martial Law was declared. 15 leaders were executed and there were 3,000 arrests and 1000s sent to internment in Wales and England. An additional 75 death sentences were later commuted to imprisonment. Sir Roger Casement was hanged for treason in Pentonville Prison in August 1916.
Anti war and anti English feeling hardened – The Great War was now known as The English War.
John Redmond and his party was quickly losing support in Ireland to a new party Sinn Féin which did not support ‘ The English War’. After April 1917 the Irish prisoners interned in England and Wales were released and the Irish Convention was set up in July 1917 but failed in less than a year.
The Military Service Act bringing in conscription for men 18 to 41 came into force in March 1916 everywhere in the UK but not in Ireland. As the slaughter continued and more men were wanted Prime Minister Lloyd George decided to extend conscription in 1918 to older men, other workers and to Ireland . There was a huge backlash to this and it was never enforced.
Over 200,000 Irish men served in World War 1 (England’s War) with 49,400 killed. All of these men had been volunteers either already in the services before the conflict or who signed up during it. Many ,like Scotland’s islanders, were in the Royal Naval Reserve and transferred to the Royal Navy for the duration of hostilities.
World War 1 ended on 11th of November 1918. The UK General Election was held on Saturday 14th of December. The franchise had been extended to include women over 30 with property and all men of age 21+. The result in Ireland saw Sinn Féin led by Éamon de Valera (who had been sentenced to death and then imprisoned in 1916) win 73 seats (46.9% of the votes cast – 25 seats won by SF were uncontested so the % share of the vote would have been even larger) out of the 105 available. Sinn Féin had never stood in a UK General Election before. The Irish Parliamentary Party was almost wiped out to 7 seats as a repercussion for their support of the war and failure to deliver Home Rule.
Sinn Féin refused to take their seats in London, a policy they continue to apply today, and set up their own Government in Dublin declaring Ireland an independent republic. The first woman MP was also elected, Constance Markievicz for Sinn Féin and she also did not take her seat in WM but in the new Irish Parliament, the Dáil.
It was not a peaceful transition as the UK Government was not willing to give up Ireland, no matter what the people had voted for. The Anglo-Irish war was to last until the creation of the Irish Free State, a UK dominion, in 1922. An independent Ireland was recognised internationally in 1931.
The Irish Question of the 6 of the 9 Ulster counties, which was unresolved in the 1914 Third Home Rule Bill, saw Ireland partitioned.
*‘a cheque continuously post dated’ Ref Great Britain and the Irish Question 1800 – 1922, Paul Adelman & Robert Pearce