Britain’s empire may have disintegrated many years ago, but its Irish question remains.
As we mark the one hundredth anniversary of the Ulster Covenant, signed in protest at plans to grant Irish self-government, it can feel as though, in light of recent riots and the ongoing difficulties associated with the power-sharing agreement, that the Irish question remains unsolved.
It has been said that the ultimate irony of Home Rule was the establishment of a devolved parliament at Stormont in 1921, offered to those who had refused such a scheme for the whole of Ireland. Still more ironic, perhaps, was the creation of the new Irish Free State as a Dominion of the British Empire on a par with Canada and Australia, thus effectively recognising southern Ireland as the colony nationalists had always claimed England treated it as. But what exactly did Home Rule mean, and what was the Irish question?
In April 1886 William Gladstone described his first Home Rule Bill as an endeavour ‘to reconcile imperial unity with diversity of legislation’. The use of the word ‘imperial’ in place of ‘the United Kingdom’s’ or ‘Britain’s’ demonstrates the paradox inherent in the British-Irish relationship. The absence of such clarity rendered ill the plausibility of a Home Rule scheme along Gladstonian lines. Out of necessity, his two Home Rule Bills had to deal with the 1801 Act of Union, which decreed ‘that the said United Kingdom shall be represented in one and the same Parliament’. However, opponents largely focused their arguments on the claim that the proposals would result in imperial disintegration.
The problem was that neither the Union nor Gladstone’s measures made sense in either explicitly colonial or authoritatively metropolitan terms. This provoked the Liberal Unionist Lord Hartington to question ‘What is the meaning of “United Kingdom”?’. If Ireland’s place was not only up for debate but also potentially subject to constitutional alteration, then the entire makeup of the United Kingdom, and what it was held to represent, was in flux.
Because Gladstone sought to evade the taunts of his critics that he intended the repeal of the Act of Union, he couched his justifications of Home Rule in distinctly imperialised terms. As Joseph Chamberlain pointed out, Gladstone ‘looked for his model to the relations between this country and her self-governing…colonies’. Indeed, Gladstone was quite explicit from the start in his admission that he had done so, declaring in his opening speech on the 1886 Bill that ‘the problem of responsible government has been solved for us in our Colonies’.
Gladstone’s language in 1886 was remarkably similar to that he had used when previously explaining his stance on so-called ‘responsible government’ in the colonies. Having envisioned that ‘the connection between this country and her colonies is not a selfish and sordid connection…it is at once a connection of interest, of honour, feeling and duty’, he believed that in the case of Ireland ‘the best and surest foundation we can find to build upon is the foundation afforded by the affections, the convictions, and the will of the nation’. The ties of sentiment that held together ‘Greater Britain’ would, once truly in place between Great Britain and Ireland, secure their amicable future. The success of one would guarantee the attainment of the other.
Gladstone’s 1886 bill, in particular, treated Ireland like a colony. It proposed the exclusion of all Irish representation from the reconstituted Westminster parliament. The problem was that the presence of an Irish contingent within the Westminster parliament was perhaps the only tangible evidence of Ireland being anything other than a colony. This plan, more than any other, generated the accusation that Gladstone was intent on detaching Ireland from Britain. Hartington claimed that it was ‘the clear, the palpable, the unanswerable proof, the outward and visible sign of the complete separation which is intended by this measure’.
This notion of a visible partition between the two nations was clearly taken to heart by Gladstone because he subsequently modified his scheme. When Home Rule legislation was next introduced, in 1893, the measure was described by one opponent as ‘a scheme cunningly devised to meet the objections which proved fatal to’ the 1886 measure. Retention of Irish members was now deemed essential and was accordingly worked into the proposals. Gladstone believed that this meant that the new Bill ‘visibly exhibited’ the link ‘in a manner intelligible to the people.’ However, this stress on the requirement of a visible bond between Ireland and Britain suggests that, without it, the connection would be so tenuous as to be unintelligible.
Gladstone may have viewed the solution to the Irish question through the lens of colonial responsible government, thus treating Ireland like a colony, but the 1893 bill showed that he strove to convince others of his awareness of its inclusion in the United Kingdom, modifying the bill to meet his detractors’ objections. But Ireland could not legislatively be both, no matter how hard Gladstone tried. It was trapped in its ‘half-way house’ between theory and reality.
Britain’s empire may have disintegrated many years ago, but its Irish question remains. In the absence of an empire, the problem of how to make Home Rule work takes on a different dimension. For instance, the ongoing debate over whether to devolve greater tax raising powers to Stormont, to allow Northern Ireland to compete with the Republic’s low corporate tax rate in particular, suggests that Home Rule continues to offer an awkward ‘half-way house arrangement’, albeit now between the Republic and the rest of the United Kingdom. In Scotland, the grant of Home Rule has failed to placate nationalists such as Alex Salmond, whose plans for a 2014 referendum are designed to coincide with the anniversary of another act of defiance against the English (The Battle of Bannockburn). If Salmond is successful, there may not be a great deal left of the United Kingdom by the time we remember the one hundredth anniversary of the event which helped signal the death nail of Gladstonian Home Rule for Ireland – the Easter Rising of 1916. ■
Image courtesy of adambangor.
Naomi Lloyd-Jones is an AHRC-funded PhD student in the history department at King’s College London, researching a four nations history of the Irish Home Rule crisis. You can follow her on Twitter @beingahistorian.