Controversial issues in Anglo-Irish relations 1910–21

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2006), Reviews, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 14

Controversial issues in Anglo-Irish relations 1910–21 1Controversial issues in Anglo-Irish relations 1910–21
Cornelius O’Leary and Patrick Maume
(Four Courts Press, ?45)
ISBN 1851826572

The last two decades have witnessed a dramatic thaw in Anglo-Irish relations following the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985—giving Dublin an entrenched role in the North—and the intense cooperation between the two governments that underlay the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Today’s rapport is a far cry from the diplomatic chill that characterised relations from the partition settlement of 1922 until the early 1970s.
The critical background that shaped the London–Dublin axis for so long is the focus of this book—the formative decade 1910–21, spanning the Ulster crisis, the Easter Rising and the Irish Revolution. Harnessing a plethora of untapped primary sources and up-to-date literature on the Irish Question, the authors range over the ‘high politics’ of the period, subjecting the crises, compromises and personalities of the period to sharp, penetrating analysis.
The years 1910–21 saw a profound shift in the balance of power, both in Ireland—where Sinn Féin’s demand for a republic eclipsed the Home Rule policy of Redmond—and at Westminster, where a weak pro-Home Rule Liberal government was replaced by 1919 by a Tory-dominated coalition and its Ulster Unionist allies. The results of this seismic shift and the 1916 Rising were the War of Independence and the partition of Ireland in 1921. Against this well-traversed backcloth, O’Leary and Maume set out to explore a number of crucial issues neglected by previous historians. What, for example, was the likelihood of civil war erupting in Ireland in 1914, and how important was James Craig, the archetypal Ulster Unionist leader, in shaping the 1920 partition act and the fateful treaty of 1921? A civil war, they conclude, was unlikely given that Carson had virtually achieved his ‘clean cut’ for the six counties. Craig’s influence, however, was immense by 1920.
These years witnessed the movement of Ulster Unionism from the political margins to the centre of British politics under the charismatic partnership of Edward Carson, the Dublin lawyer, and the shrewd James Craig, his finger firmly on the Orange pulse. Carson’s aim in assuming the Ulster Unionist leadership in 1911 was to use ‘Ulster’ to ‘kill Home Rule stone dead’ for all Ireland. By 1913, however, as partition emerged as a real political option, ‘King Carson’ was forced reluctantly to abandon ‘his own people’ in the south.
The authors trace the rise of partition against the background of the threat from the Ulster Volunteer Force and the alliance between a Conservative opposition, ‘hungry for office’, and the Ulster Unionists. To a Tory party bitterly divided over free trade and smarting at the removal of the Lords’ veto in 1911, the cry of ‘Irish Protestants in danger’ was very appealing. Under Bonar Law, a ruthless partisan of Ulster Presbyterian roots, the Tories would come close to undermining the British constitution before the First World War.
Yet, as O’Leary and Maume point out, Carson, saturnine and outwardly unyielding, cut a much more moderate figure in private, counselling moderation and actively seeking a compromise. This was demonstrated by his enthusiasm for the Lloyd George partition scheme of June 1916 in the wake of the Rising. As Ireland began to lurch towards militant separatism following the executions, both Carson and Redmond endorsed Lloyd George’s ambiguous proposals for immediate 26-county Home Rule coupled with six-county partition. Redmond and the northern nationalist leader Joe Devlin assured nationalists that partition would be temporary and would avert the catastrophe of an ‘Orange Parliament’ in Belfast. Carson, who had a cast-iron assurance that the border would be permanent, sold the scheme to Unionism on the grounds that it would secure permanent Protestant self-determination in an ‘ethnographic’ six-county bloc.
The Irish Parliamentary Party’s flirtation with partition was to destroy its authority, but the scheme was finally wrecked by a Southern Unionist backlash masterminded by the Tory heavyweights Walter Long and the Irish landlord Lord Lansdowne. Thus, incredibly, ‘King Carson’ was thrown over by the Tories to suit a selfish agenda.
Like previous historians, O’Leary and Maume tend to see the 1916 initiative as the last opportunity to achieve a bloodless compromise on the Irish Question. Certainly, Devlin felt that the scheme would have minimised partition by avoiding the creation of a rampant Unionist parliament in Belfast.
The Sinn Féin landslide of 1918 heralded the establishment of Dáil Éireann and the Anglo-Irish War. Yet, as this book argues compellingly, Sinn Féin’s abstentionist policy left the northern nationalists virtually defenceless as the British government embarked on partition. As a pro-Unionist Churchill rejoiced in the ‘blessed abstention of Sinn Féin’ in 1919, the Irish benches were dominated by Craig and his strengthened phalanx of Ulster Unionists.
O’Leary and Maume skilfully use cabinet records to show how Craig, the future Northern Ireland prime minister and a junior minister in the coalition, was able to influence the shape of the 1920 act in the interests of Ulster Unionism. He not only succeeded in overturning the government’s preference for a nine-county North in favour of a more governable (and less nationalist) six-county unit but also prevented the inclusion of minority safeguards and a meaningful Council of Ireland.
As Joe Devlin, then a solitary figure at Westminster, warned in 1920: ‘This will mean the worst form of partition and permanent partition’. In a succinct final chapter the authors show how Sinn Féin efforts to overcome the ‘Ulster rock’ at the subsequent Treaty negotiations of 1921 were doomed to failure. In the end Craig, backed by the grey eminence of Bonar Law, stood firm and the Irish were forced to accept a deliberately ambiguous boundary commission that failed to deliver. Unsurprisingly, the authors see Craig as the main victor in the Treaty negotiations.
This book, clearly the product of years of research and mature reflection, is an invaluable contribution to an understanding of the complex events and personalities surrounding the emergence of two Irish states in 1922.

Eamon Phoenix is Principal Lecturer in History at Stranmillis University College, Queen’s University, Belfast.

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