Throughout However, the Irish question was about autonomy,

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 phrase used in British politics to describe the demands for
Irish autonomy and patriotism in the early 20th century. Partition
was set up in 1921 under the Anglo-Irish treaty, it declared that the ‘the
Irish Free State was established as a dominion within the British Empire with
formal authority over all Ireland’ (Cunningham, 2001, p. 1). It can be contended
that partition did solve the Irish question in that it granted Ireland a dominion
status. Peace was restored initially following the settlement and even more
crucially it expelled the Irish Question from British legislative issues short
term. However, the Irish question was about autonomy, nonetheless, partition
did not grant Ireland independence 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. However,
it did bring about the immediate end of the War of Independence and brought
about initial stability in the years following partition.


                  Prior to
Partition in 1921, the situation in Ireland was uncertain. 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 that was deemed too
small to be independent now risked undermining Britain’s role as a World Power.

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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 were fuelled by patriotism. 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 showed 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 Ireland’s demands being
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.


                  Further 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, highlighted 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
failure of the British government to provide a resolution to either side’s
grievances proposes 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 government for
protestant citizens only. 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. Furthermore, evidence to suggest
that the British government was never 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
partition the Catholics were 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.


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 ghettoisation 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’ (Aughey &
Morrow, 1996)
. NICRA in effect attempted to put constraints on the Northern Ireland
government that the British government had failed to do so and in doing so
protect the rights of the Catholic minority. 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). 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). This left Wilson 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 newspaper 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 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
keep their links to the British government. Partition had ‘removed the
Irish question from mainstream British politics where for forty years it had
proved highly contentious’ (Cunningham, 2001, p. 2). 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 and brought about the immediate end of the
War of Independence. For fifty years following partition Britain did not need
to deploy troops which may lead some to argue that it was 50 years of relative
peace for Ireland. Consequently, partition did solve the Irish Question, but
only short-term.


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 campaigns that declared that equality for Catholics was unattainable
within the state infrastructure that was 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, 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.


In conclusion, 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 clarified, it just was not deemed a vital issue for
Westminster. 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 solve two
key issues; it failed to reach a settlement on the boundary commission 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


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