Throughout 24th April 1916, This threat of Civil War

Throughout the 20th century,
British politics faced a new kind of threat from within. Decades of oppression,
the alienation of Catholics and the subordination of Irish politics meant that conflict
was inevitable. The Irish Question is a term used in British politics to
describe the demands for Irish independence and nationalism in the early 20th
century. Partition in 1921 set up under the Anglo-Irish treaty declared that
the ‘the Irish Free State was established as a dominion within the British
Empire with formal authority over all Ireland. The Northern Ireland government,
with jurisdiction over the six counties of Armagh, Antrim, Fermanagh, Tyrone,
Londonderry and Down, was given the right to opt out of this arrangement and
remain part of the United Kingdom, which it promptly exercised’ (Cunningham,
2001, p. 1).

It can be argued that partition did solve the Irish question in that it granted
Northern Ireland dominion status. Peace was restored initially following the
treaty and even more crucially it removed the Irish Question from British
politics but only short term as partition brought about the immediate end of
the War of Independence in Ireland. This is supported as the Irish question was
about Irish independence, however, partition did not grant full independence in
Ireland and Ireland remained associated to the British crown. Furthermore, the
troubles in the latter part of the 20th century puts forward the
suggestion that the Irish Question was far from solved and still posed a
significant threat to British politics and stability.

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                  Prior to Partition in 1921, the situation in Ireland was
volatile. The Irish Question undoubtedly played a defining role in British
politics and frequently attracted widespread media attention. The Easter rising occurred on 24th April 1916, This
threat of Civil War in Ireland damaged Britain’s reputation as a world
power.  The leaders of the Easter Rising
knew that with the upcoming threat of World War One Britain was fragile and in
desperate need of unity. This proved to be the perfect opportunity to demand
independence as George Russell commented that Britain was ‘A muddling nation
trying to govern one of the cleverest nations in the World’ (Rusell, 1917,
p. 28).

The threat of Civil War showed Britain to be weak and unable to interfere
if Germany attacked its allies. The inability of Britain to keep its own
country united in the midst of World War One proved to be particularly
damaging. If Britain could not keep its own country united, how was Britain
supposed to keep allied forces across the world.? This highlights how fragile
both the situation was in Ireland and how Britain was perceived at this time.

This proved to have a significant impact on British politics, as the island
deemed too small to be independent now risked undermining Britain’s role as a
World Power. The Irish Question also posed a significant
threat to Britain economically and military. This is highlighted as ‘Germany
felt that England would be too busy with Ireland to enter World War One’ (Anon., 2015) .? The cost to deploy troops to restore order in an attempt
to keep peace caused great strain to Britain. The timing of the Easter Rising
coinciding with World War One meant that Britain could not put its full
attention and military force into the War as troops were still needed at home.? This further damaged Britain’s reputation as it once
again highlighted Britain’s inability to control its own country when facing a
World War when other Western countries were considered to be patriotic. The
Irish Question also represented an era of change for British politics.?Despite the previous attempts at Home Rule, when the
third Home Rule Bill was passed in 1912 the general sense of feeling was
optimistic amongst the majority of Ireland, despite it being put on hold in
order to prepare for the First World War. At the time, it appeared to the rest
of the country that Ireland’s demands were met. This in turn, represented an
era of change for the rest of the Britain who became optimistic of other
changes in society to come. The Irish Question affected
domestic policy in that people saw that Ireland’s demands were supposedly met
and therefore why shouldn’t theirs be. This led to an increased prominence of
other social issues in British politics such as homosexuality.

 

                  Evidence
to suggest that partition was not successful comes from the breakdown of the pact made between Michael Collins
and Sir James Craig in 1922 over the proposed boundary commission. Britain’s
inability to deal with the issue and reach a resolution, highlights how the
Irish Question still had great prominence in British politics. Evidence for
this can be found as the British government faced a serious threat of the
breakdown of all that was achieved. This fear was exacerbated by the
Conservative Sunday Express as they highlighted that the government faced ‘the
dreadful alternative of a complete breakdown of the Irish settlement on the one
hand, or a devastating conservative revolt on the other’ (Canning,
1985, p. 31).The
failure of the pact placed Westminster in a difficult position as they could
not afford to alienate either side without risking the breakdown of all that
had been achieved. The British government risked the threat of violence and
upheaval destroying any form of peace and stability that had been stored in
Ireland. The inability of the British government to provide a resolution to
either side’s grievances suggests that the Irish Question was still a matter of
great controversy and even following partition, Westminster could not afford to
alienate either side as the situation in Ireland was so fragile.

 

It can be suggested that partition did not in fact
‘solve’ the Irish Question. The Irish Question was an issue of independence and
sovereignty, of which partition and the Government of Northern Ireland Act
(1920) never solved. This can be supported as, section 75 of the Act ‘reserved the
sovereign right of Westminster to legislate on any matter and states’ (Cunningham,
2001, p. 1).

In addition to this, the Act re-iterated that ‘the supreme authority of the
Parliament of the United Kingdom shall remain unaffected and undiminished over
all persons, matters and things in Ireland’ (ibid., p.1). Partition had not granted Ireland independence or
sovereignty. Westminster still held the greatest authority, and could over rule
on any matter they deemed fit to do so. Cunningham would argue that Partition
did not solve the Irish Question as the key demands of the matter was not met.

Westminster still had the authority to overrule if it so wished, and Ireland
was far from being granted Independence suggesting that partition alone had failed
to solve the matter. Further evidence to suggest that partition did not solve
the Irish Question comes from the ineffective constraints put on the Northern
Ireland Government. The lack of political institutions established to support
the new government enhances the argument that the British government was never
fully committed to handing over its power and sovereignty and by putting in
place few democratic institutions, it ensured that the British government
stayed as the supreme power as the new government was never taken too
seriously. Furthermore, the lack of constraints put on the new government ensured
that the subordination of Catholics in Northern Ireland continued, in effect,
the Northern Ireland government was a protestant government for protestant
citizens. No form of checks and balances were put in place on the powers of the
Northern Ireland government which ensured that the Catholics in Northern
Ireland never achieved equality. Equally, the role of Secretary of State was
never established along with the Northern Ireland Committee. Furthermore,
evidence to suggest that the British government was not fully committed to
partition is that ‘Northern Ireland was formally the responsibility of the
Home Office but was relegated to the general department’ (ibid., p.1).  The lack of
constraints put in place, posed a significant threat to the legitimacy and
accountability of the new government and thereby reinstated the idea that
Westminster held the up most authority and remained unchallenged. It further
puts forward the argument that following on from partition the Catholics was
still treated as inferior and could not access the same rights as Protestants
in Northern Ireland. This highlights the argument that although partition may
well be viewed as a step towards progression, the government had no effective
checks and balances put on them which allowed for the continued subordination
of Catholics. Sovereignty was still held at Westminster and the British
government took no interest in affairs in Northern Ireland unless it was
beneficial to them. This in turn meant that the problems that pre-dated
partition still existed in Ireland, but this time in Northern Ireland. The lack
of equal rights afforded to Catholics and Britain’s dismissal of how the
Northern Ireland government was operating suggests that partition had not
solved the Irish Question.

 

Additionally,
the continued subordination of Catholics in Northern Ireland can be emphasised
by the establishment of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA).

This highlights how the situation in Ireland was still fragile, with the
existence of ghettoization and grievances on both sides and the continued
subordination of Catholics in Northern Ireland. NICRA attracted widespread
media attention through the initially peaceful protests and the reaction of the
British government, and in particular the police force. NICRA was established ‘to defend the basic freedoms of all citizens; to
protect the rights of the individual; to highlight all possible abuses of
power; to demand guarantees for freedom of speech, assembly and association; to
inform the public of their lawful rights’ (Aughey & Morrow, 1996) . NICRA in effect
attempted to put constraints on the Northern Ireland government that the
British government had failed to do so. However, the
situation in Ireland came to a hiatus at a protest in Derry in October 1968
when armed police tackled the crowds. This protest ‘led to serious unrest, allegations of police brutality
and the attention of the international media’ (ibid., p.13). This placed Westminster back in the heart of the Irish
Question. The widespread media attention that NICRA attracted meant that
Westminster could no longer ignore the situation in Ireland as it now posed a
significant threat to Britain on the international stage. This suggests that
partition had not solved the Irish Question as during the troubles Britain was
placed back into the centre of the matter and it was once again playing a
prominent role in British politics but this time affecting Britain’s reputation
on an international stage. The failure of Westminster to deal with the October
march without the use of force only heightened feelings of discontent and
determination in Ireland. Following the October march the situation only
exacerbated as there was constant marches and counter marches.  The eruption of violence on the streets ‘led
to the formation of local vigilantes that in turn led to the resurgence of
paramilitaries in local communities’ (Fitzduff & O’Hagan, 2009). This put significant
pressure on Prime Minister Wilson to introduce reforms by meeting the demands
of NICRA. This can be highlighted as ‘it was clear that reform was necessary if
the Nationalist population was to be reconciled with the Northern Ireland
state’ (Cunningham, 2001, p. 6). However, the government’s inability once again to act
accordingly an introduce a one-man-one-vote or repeal the repressive Special
Powers Act only increased the sectarian divide leading to civil rights marches
becoming increasingly violent. ‘The Catholic minority and the Republic of Ireland have
continued to reject partition and managed to destabilise the North by the late
1960’s’ (Smooha, 2001). Wilson was left with no choice but to deploy troops in
order to restore order in Ireland. This in turn, reinserted the Irish Question
directly back into British politics as it had been decades earlier as the
Economist commented “Britain was once again up to the neck in the Irish
Question” and the Northern Ireland government found its sovereignty being
deteriorated in the name of security. This highlights the problems associated
with partition and the Irish Question, as within fifty years the British
government was making steps back towards direct rule.

 

Partition in 1921 arguably satisfied both the Unionists
and the Nationalist demands. It in effect, met their demands as in the Republic
of Ireland the Catholic Church was now free to dominate and in Northern Ireland
the Protestants were free to retain their links to the British government. It
in effect, met their demands as in the Republic of Ireland the Catholic Church
was now free to dominate and in Northern Ireland the Protestants were free to
retain their links to the British government.?Partition removed the Irish ‘question’ from mainstream British
politics where for forty years it had proved highly contentious’ (Cunningham, 2001, p. 2). Therefore, it can be argued that Partition was successful
in that it lay the foundations for the Good Friday Agreement under Blair as it
attempted to solve the Irish Question partially. Furthermore, it can be argued
that Partition was successful in that it removed violence from the streets in
the foreseeable future. It was not for close to 50 years that Britain needed to
deploy troops which can be argued as 50 years of relative peace. Consequently,
partition solved the Irish Question short-term.

 

Further
evidence to suggest that the Irish Question was unresolved comes from the
policy of internment. The introduction of internment only heightened tensions
in August 1971. ‘The
introduction of internment, used exclusively against Nationalists and
Republicans, had alienated the whole of the Catholic community’ (Cunningham, 2001, p. 9). Internment in particular angered the Catholic community.

The report by Crompton which was set up to investigate claims of ill-treatment
of internees only infuriated them further. The report completely dismissed
their claims when it reached the conclusion that it’s ‘semantic
distinction that physical ill-treatment of internees did not constitute
brutality’ (ibid., p.9). This policy only increased
the sectarian divide, which lead to increasingly hardened attitudes towards the
British government, especially when the poor treatment of internees became
widespread. It led to the campaigns arguing that equality for Catholics was
impossible within the state structures currently in place. This lead critics of internment such as Cunningham to
argue that the relationship between Britain and Ireland was no better off to
what it had been 50 years ago and therefore partition had not solved the Irish
Question as the rights of internees and Catholics in particular were restricted
and continued to be treated as subordinate. The policy of internment only
increased the prominence of the Irish Question. Once again, the British
government was forced to take action due to widespread campaigns and media
attention. This all reached a critical moment in January 1972, in what would
become known as ‘Bloody Sunday’. The ‘Bloody Sunday killings increased IRA
recruitment, paramilitary violence and led to huge rise in deaths in subsequent
years’ (Bowcott, 2010). On this day, some may argue the Irish
Question reached its climax. The British army opened fire on what began as a
peaceful civil rights demonstration against internment in Derry. The results of
this was astronomical; 14 innocent civilians were killed and Britain’s
reputation was damaged internationally. This reinforced the notion that Britain
could no longer leave Northern Ireland to its own devices. As a result, on
March 24th, 1972, now Prime Minister Edward Heath announced the
return of direct rule for the first time again in fifty years. This places
great emphasis on the argument that partition had not ‘solved’ the Irish question
as this repealed all that was achieved under the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

 

The
evidence suggests that Partition did not solve the Irish Question, however, it
did remove it from British politics for fifty years and restored some form of
order in Ireland for half a century. Consequently, in these fifty years the
issues in Ireland were far from solved it just was not deemed important to
Britain. The Catholic minority were continued to be treated as subordinate and
second-rate citizens with no equal rights in Northern Ireland. This in turn,
set the foundations for what would become known as ‘troubles’ in the sixties
following on from decades of oppression and harsh treatment which put the Irish
Question directly back into British politics. Partition had failed to establish
two key principles; it had failed to reach a resolution on boundaries under the
Craig-Collins pact and it failed to set up an effective government in Northern
Ireland which had constraints in place to ensure the rights of citizens.

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