British Government and Irish Revolution 1910 – 1922

Pages: 423

As lover of history, I was very interested in reading this book. I started reading this last Wednesday and I finished it today. This book details the decisions by the British government that shaped Ireland in the 20th century and that still affect Ireland right up to today.

Fanning focuses on the inaction of the British government from 1910 until 1920 to implement Irish autonomy laws. This book is crucial reading to understand Irish history 100 years ago.
The story of the book boils down to the fact that the British government did not want to force the unionists who lived in the north of Ireland to live under an Irish Parliament. Irish nationalists expected all of Ireland to be given autonomy within the United Kingdom with an Irish Parliament based in Baile Átha Cliath. This plan was anathema to much of British life and to the unionists in the north who did not want to be ruled by an Irish parliament.

Reasons for unionist resistance

One of the areas that the book does not deal with in depth are the reasons why the unionists in Ulster were so hostile to being governed by an Irish parliament. There are many reasons including religious, political and economic ones. While it is a fabulous book, it might have good to have spelled out in detail what the reasons were that forced unionists in Ulster to rebel. The Protestants of Ulster were afraid of being a minority in Ireland ruled by a mainly Catholic parliament. They had a fear that Catholics would want to discriminate against them or seek property that had been taken from Catholics by Protestants. There was a foundation to this fear as the United Irish League used priests as officers and worked with the Ancient Order of Hibernians which promoted an exclusively Catholic vision of Ireland. It would have been better for Irish nationalists to have developed a secular vision for Ireland such as the Society of United Irishmen had done in the 1790s.
The economic fear was that an Irish government would impose tarrifs on imports and exports so the industries based in Ulster would be damaged.

Aided and abetted by the British Conservatives and establishment

The Unionists rebelled against the democratic action of the British Parliament. They were actively encouraged and supported by the British Conservative party. The Conservatives had lost a string of elections and were keen to win power again. They used the Irish crisis to increase their popularity in order to win the next election. It was blatant opportunism on their behalf notwithstanding that they did have strong unionist convictions. Along with this the British military refused orders to take action against unionists, specifically the UVF. Britain’s democracy was in  crisis and came very close to failing. In fact it can be argued that British democracy did fail just over 100 years ago as the British government allowed to unionists to rebel and they were supported by the British establishment and British Army. Had the British government taken action to stop or hinder the unionists there probably would have been a civil war in Ireland, and perhaps in Britain. This is what the British wanted to avoid at all costs.
The horrible reality is that democracy failed in 1912-1914. Irish nationalists in the British parliament had peacefully and democratically achieved, in theory, home rule for Ireland. Nevertheless as the unionists had refused to live by the law and went running for guns to resist it with violence, democracy failed. The British army  refused to take action against the simmering rebellion. This destroyed any chances that the democratic will of the British parliament would prevail. The gun had been forced into the very heart of Irish and British politics. As the unionists had started this, nationalists emulated them. The whole situation was ready to explode and something would have finally given and civil war would have started in Ireland. Had it not been for the First World War, there probably would have been armed conflict in Ireland in late 1914 or early 1915.

The message was not lost on Irish nationalists

The fact that the British were supine and refused to confront the unionists and their threat of violence was not lost on Irish nationalists. They saw that the British did caved to the threat of violence so Irish nationalists used the same methods for their own objectives. Had an Irish parliament been created in 1914, it is fair to think that the Irish Republican Brotherhood would not have planned a rebellion, as happened in 1916.

No coercion of Ulster – the crux of the problem

The crux of the problem was that there were many unionists in the north of Ireland and the British government did not want to coerce them. More than anything else they did not want the political and constitutional problem that would arise if they tried to force Unionists who were of British identity to live under an Irish Parliament. John Redmond and the other nationalist leaders did not seem to understand the magnitude of this problem and that the unionists were in earnest about rebelling and using violence to stop a law being implemented.

The three dirty secrets of unionists

The unionists have three dirty secrets:
Number one – they refused to accept the law that was democratically, legitimately, and peacefully passed by the parliament of the country to which they claimed they were loyal. They went to the enemy of their country, Germany, to buy guns in order to be able to fight their own government to prevent them having to live under a law passed democratically by their own parliament.
Number two – unionists deliberately abandoned some of their own people in counties Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan so that they would have a bigger unionist majority in a smaller area. This is rarely mentioned by unionists.
Number three – they claimed to have a right not to be forced to live in a jurisdiction that they did not want to live in but they denied other people the same right. Ulster had many nationalists living it as well as unionists but when the six counties of Northern Ireland were chosen, nationalists living in these counties were denied the right to not live in a jurisdiction that they did not want to live in. People in south county Down, Armagh, Tyrone, Fermanagh and Derry could not leave Northern Ireland and become part of the Irish state.
Fanning devoted a chapter to the issue of the Boundary Commission which was a sop or a trick to Mícheál Ó Coileáin and Art Ó Gríofa to allow them to believe that the border in Ireland would be drastically changed. The British government did not design it that way. In private, they knew that there would be very little change to the border as the Unionists in Ulster were not going to allow it.

Lessons for Ireland in the future

The policy, of the British government 100 years ago perhaps serves as a guide to what might happen in the next 20 years in Ireland. If the problem was that the British government did not want to coerce unionists to live under an Irish parliament, what will they do in let’s say 20 years time if unionists are no longer a majority in Northern Ireland? Will there be a reluctance to coerce them? Would the British refuse to move against them even though they are a minority? What will happen if a minority refused to accept the end of Northern Ireland and resort to violence and terrorism to prevent an all-Ireland state being created? Will the Irish government have to put the boot in the unionists? This is a live issue. There are no easy answers for us. The British did not want to grasp the nettle one hundred years ago. Will the English government in 20 years’ time want to? Will they face the same reluctance from the British armed forces to move against their fellow British people?

Some mistakes in the book

There are some mistakes in this book. For example, on page 333 I noticed Fanning called Frederick Cavendish the Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland. This was not true – he was the Chief Secretary of Ireland. This is surprising that he did not notice that error. There are other mistakes. On page 193, he said that there were 37 members present for the first meeting of Dáil Éireann. This is not correct. There were only 27 members present. While the book does not seem to be full of mistakes, the fact that I noticed at least three errors means that caution is needed in accepting everything that he wrote as being correct.