The Failure of the British to Solve the Irish Question Arises From Ignorance and A Racist, Imperialist Mentality

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Last updated: November 10, 2019

The quotation above is a nationalist view of British policy in Ireland from an Irish perspective. The “Irish Question” is a very complex one to explain, as there is no specific definition. It has a number of facets and is a subject to change. British policy towards Ireland has also changed over time. In tackling this essay it is important to look at it from two different angles, perceptions at the time and looking at it with hindsight.

Britain conquered Ireland for strategic reasons. It is situated very close to Britain, and is an ideal staging point for an attack.A desire for land and expansion of their empire was the main motive.

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Ireland was also important because it was prime land to give away to supporters of the King. Britain ran Ireland as it did the other of the countries within its empire. Until 1886, British policy was to retain the union whilst instituting some reforms but mainly maintaining order. Ireland was ruled from London, and pressures came to give Ireland “Home Rule”, specifically from the “Irish Home Rule Party”. Home Rule intended to give the whole of Ireland a form of internal self-government within the UK.This policy came to dominate British politics from 1886 until 1914.

Prime Minister Gladstone split the Liberal Party by converting to Home Rule, forming the Gladstonian Liberals and the Liberal Unionists. It is unclear whether Gladstone’s conversion was genuine belief or political expediency. Home Rule policy was not popular with Irish nationalists who wanted total independence, rather than devolution.

It was strongly opposed by Ulster Protestants, who said, “Home Rule Means Rome Rule. ” At this time the British can be seen as imperialist.By allowing Home Rule they were conceding to the Irish but not completely losing Ireland.

Protestants, especially in the Northeast, were strongly pro British and saw Home Rule as the first stage towards independence from the UK. This was strongly resented for many reasons, such as the economic link favored by many industrialists. Randolph Churchill, a prominent member of Home Rule opposition, once said to a crowd during a speech, “Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right. ” Showing his view that people in Ireland were prepared to fight for what they believed was right.The opposition party, the Conservatives were strongly against Home Rule too, and had full support of the Irish Unionist party. The links between Northeast Ireland and the Tories were further cemented when Andrew Bonar Law became Conservative leader. He instigated the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force, to oppose Home Rule by any means.

Home Rule may have been used by the Conservatives as a political tool to gain power which shows a very ignorant approach by the British and how little respect they had for the Irish. In 1886 the first Home Rule Bill was defeated in the Commons due to the defection of 96 liberals.By 1892 the Liberals had returned to power, after a short spell out of Parliament and were still eager to pass a Home Rule Bill. In 1893 a second attempt was defeated in the House of Lords. The House of Lords had an ulterior motive for rejecting it. Many members or their friends owned land in Ireland. They felt that an Irish Parliament would be hostile towards rich landowners. This ignorance was purely self-interest on the part of the Lords.

In September 1914 a third Home Rule Bill was presented to Parliament. This brought bitter opposition from Ulster Protestants.Pro and anti-Home Rule groups in Ireland brought the country to the brink of civil war. There were two main factions, the Ulster Volunteer Force, a well armed and disciplined Protestant movement, and the Irish Volunteers who were poorly armed. The Bill was passed, but was suspended due to the start of War. The Home Rule saga depicts the racist, imperialist mentality of some British, if you are looking at it from an Irish nationalist’s perspective. Many believed that it was simply a ploy to retain power but not lose face by conceding to the Irish.

Home Rule can be looked at from two different angles: whether Gladstone really wanted to give it to Ireland or if it was just political expediency that would suit both sides better, with Briton not really conceding any power to Ireland. With the help of hindsight this policy is ignorant and imperialistic of the British, wanting to hold on to Ireland, instigating polices which did not really devolve any power to the Irish but keeping them quiet. Home Rule can be seen from many viewpoints but ultimately the British conceded nothing to the Irish and simply postponed the problems in Ireland.The “Easter Uprising” took place in Dublin in 1916.

Patrick Pearce announced the establishment of Irish Provisional Government. The Uprising was a failure. The Irish people saw it as a betrayal of the people fighting for their country. The British retaliation was brutal with the deaths of 112 British soldiers resulting in the execution of all the main conspirators. This rising showed that a growing number of Irish groups just wanted to be left alone.

The beneficiary was Sinn Fein who had been wrongly accused for its involvement in the Easter rising.Sinn Fein was a political group that fiercely wanted independence. At the next elections Sinn Fein won many more seats than the Irish Parliamentary Party, who were supporters of Home Rule. This is a fine example of a country rising up against imperialist Britain, and the start of the first tangible opposition.

Sinn Fein met in Dublin in 1919 and passed a “Declaration of Independence”. They reinstated the Republic that had been announced at the Easter Rising, and demanded that Britain evacuate the whole of Ireland. Eventually guerrilla warfare erupted.On one side was the Irish Republican Army, on other side was the special British auxiliaries know as the “Black and Tans”, a notoriously violent and repressive force. Each side perpetrated atrocities but the “Black and Tan’s” wrongdoings were more widely known. The British government responded by enacting the 1920 Government of Ireland Act. This proposed to establish separate governments for Northern and Southern Ireland, but each with extensive home rule programs.

At this time the British Government was moving towards a more pro-active policy when imposing its will on Ireland. Many see Partition as more imperialist than Home Rule.Dail Eirann, the Sinn Fein Government rejected the 1920 Act, and negotiations took place and a settlement was reached. The country would be split, the South having free government and being renamed the Irish Free State.

Six counties were carved out of Ulster and would remain part of Britain, called Northern Ireland. This settlement quickly became one of the most controversial issues in Irish history. It was eventually accepted but not without bitter opposition, mainly from the pro unionists, who saw it as a stepping-stone to full independence. It was a progressive step for the republicans.It contained substantial flaws, for example it ignored the wishes of Catholics and nationalists in Northern Ireland.

It did not establish a truly free Republic, simply an autonomous state. Partition was the response of the British to the changing nature of the Irish question. It is another example of the British Government being reactive rather than pro-active in their policymaking. Whether or not the Irish gained from partition is questionable. Partition can be analyzed as the British desperately clinging to the last remnants of its Empire, mainly for economic and strategic reasons.

The savage and brutal actions of the “Black and Tans” are an example of Imperialist brutality, with the British trying to solve political matters with violence rather than negotiations. The IRA also ran a terror campaign. However the British can be blamed for provoking the situation, and effectively lowering themselves to violent, repressive tactics to solve political problems. This can be seen as a very imperialist and out-of-date approach, when looked at the time and also when looking at the situation with hindsight. After Partition a chasm formed which lay at the heart of Irish politics and society from 1922 to the present day.The Catholic nationalists in Northern Ireland were excluded from the Free State of Ireland. The Protestants of Ulster retained their links with Britain, albeit in a more modified form.

Tension was inevitable and culminated in an indefinite rift between the two religions in Northern Ireland. After the 1920 Anglo-Irish Treaty matters got progressively worse in Northern Ireland. The partitioned government was largely Protestant, and has been described as, ‘A Protestant government for Protestant people’. With only a third of the population Roman Catholics, by the 1930s there was substantial discrimination.The Police force (the RUC) was 90% Protestant and the auxiliaries (the B-Specials) were 100% Protestant. In the Wolf shipyards there were 10,000 Protestants employed compared to 83 Catholics.

Council housing was virtually impossible to be granted unless you were a Protestant. Electoral discrimination was rife in the form of gerrymandering, making it near impossible for a Catholic to gain a seat in the government. This discrimination was the root of the increasing social problems. At this time the British were taking a back seat and Ireland was low on their political agenda.This shows the ignorance of the British in failing to see the extent of the social injustices in Northern Ireland. Irish nationalist historians see the devolved government of Stormont as imperialist, racist agents of the British Empire, discriminating against Catholics to retain their control of Northern Ireland.

However this is not entirely the truth. Stormont was very much a separate organization to Britain largely following its own agenda and policymaking, but it retained backing from Westminster. As long as Northern Ireland was quiet and there were no major problems Westminster was largely uninterested in Ireland.At an early stage it is fair to call Westminster ignorant towards the Irish question, but as time progressed many MPs simply had no idea what was actually going on in Ireland. It was irrelevant to them. For example the civil riots in Ulster were not included in Westminster’s agenda one year as they were “Stormont’s business”.

Britain had been mainly reactive in their policy making towards Northern Ireland, rather than pro-active. This is what upset the Catholic minority. Looking back at this period, perhaps if Westminster had had more involvement the political and social injustices may not have become so entrenched over the next 30 years.Maters were getting progressively worse for Catholics in Northern Ireland. Progress towards civil rights was very slow for the Catholics so they formed the civil rights movement. Their demands included, “one man one vote”, ending of gerrymandering and general discrimination such as in housing and jobs. Their demonstrations were firmly put down by the Protestant majority police forces.

The civil rights movement led to the reform of the IRA after the Catholics demanded protection. In 1967 Westminster promised equal rights and an end to discrimination. They first sent British troops to Northern Ireland in 1969.The Catholics at first warmly welcomed their presence. The Home Secretary James Callaghan, appointed the Cameron Commission to force Stormont to make reforms.

Between 1969 and 1971 many reforms were made and the scale of the discrimination was reduced. This did not bring a halt to violence and unrest. With the IRA reformed it continued to be supported, and cease-fires were unlikely. Matters with Stormont desperately trying to reach a solution but to no avail. The events of Bloody Sunday were the last straw for the Northern Irish.

It caused an upsurge in bombings and murders.In 1972 Westminster introduced Direct Rule to try and solve the problem. This removed all Stormont’s credibility. Since the introduction of Direct Rule Britain has tried unsuccessfully to find a way to return power to the province. They have sought to include all parties in this, the most recent being the “Good Friday Agreement”. At the same time they have given guarantees to the Northern Irish that there will be no change unless they want it, but this has given the Protestants a very effective veto on the union with the rest of Ireland. British policy can be seen in two ways over this time.That they re simply “holding the line” and preserving law and order, or that they are attempting to find a political accord.

The Irish question is a very complex one. The view that Britain’s failure to solve the problems was due to a racist, ignorant and imperialist mentality can be seen as appropriate with the benefit of hindsight. However in the 1860s Britain was a country that prided itself on its Empire. As times changed it slowly gave independence to its colonies, but Ireland was too close to home to be granted independence. The instigation of Home Rule was a step towards this, but was ultimately too little too late.

Partition was merely the next appropriate stage. It was part of Britain’s policy to hold on to Ireland, while making concessions, such as the formation of Eire. As time passed Britain’s Empire dwindled and British policy became increasingly reactive rather than pro-active. Recent governments have become increasingly committed to finding political accord, however there is no simple solution. It is fair to say that Britain has not done all that is possible to find a median that encompasses every denomination and individual. The fact that imperialist views were prevalent previously is not an issue.Although there was certainly ignorance, disinterest may have been a more significant factor in the deterioration of the situation.

It is these past issues that can be seen as the principal reasons for Britain’s failure to solve the Irish question. The Irish question is a very complex one, probably the main reason Britain has tried to avoid it. Britain’s involvement has always spelled trouble from the day they conquered it in the 1500’s. Returning to the question, that Britons failure to solve the problem was due to a racist, ignorant imperialist mentality is not far from the truth and very prevalent before 1970’s.Britain was a country that prided itself on its empire, but as times changed it slowly gave independence to its colonies. Ireland was to “close to home” to be granted full independence. It is this prior reluctance to give Ireland independence before there was no turning back, so as not to appear weak, that caused the troubles. Britain’s main failure was their reactive role in relation to the problems, rather than being proactive in policy making towards Ireland, before the turn of the 1970`s.

Since then they have been trying to find a political accord but this nearly impossible, due to the political state of Ireland.The British made many mistakes in Ireland. Such as using the army, who were seen as a symbol of imperialist oppression, and were entirely unsuitable as a police force. The main problem of the Irish question is the complexity of it. There is no simple political answer.

It is fair to say that Britain has not done all that is possible to find a median at which every denomination and individual in Ireland is politically content, but this is nearly impossible. The Irish question is one that is doomed to go round and round in circles, with no solution to be seen in the near future.

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