Throughout the 20th century, British politics faced a newkind of threat from within. Decades of oppression, the alienation of Catholics andthe subordination of Irish politics meant that conflict was inevitable. TheIrish Question is a phrase used in British politics to describe the demands forIrish autonomy and patriotism in the early 20th century. Partitionwas set up in 1921 under the Anglo-Irish treaty, it declared that the ‘theIrish Free State was established as a dominion within the British Empire withformal authority over all Ireland’ (Cunningham, 2001, p. 1).
It can be contendedthat partition did solve the Irish question in that it granted Ireland a dominionstatus. Peace was restored initially following the settlement and even morecrucially it expelled the Irish Question from British legislative issues shortterm. However, the Irish question was about autonomy, nonetheless, partitiondid not grant Ireland independence and Ireland remained associated to theBritish crown. Furthermore, the troubles in the latter part of the 20thcentury puts forward the suggestion that the Irish Question was far from solvedand still posed a significant threat to British politics and stability. However,it did bring about the immediate end of the War of Independence and broughtabout initial stability in the years following partition. Prior toPartition in 1921, the situation in Ireland was uncertain. The Irish Questionundoubtedly played a defining role in British politics and frequently attractedwidespread media attention.
The Easter rising occurred on 24th April1916, This threat of Civil War in Ireland damaged Britain’s reputation as aworld power. The leaders of the EasterRising knew that with the upcoming threat of World War One Britain was fragileand in desperate need of unity. This proved to be the perfect opportunity todemand independence as George Russell commented that Britain was ‘A muddlingnation trying to govern one of the cleverest nations in the World’ (Rusell, 1917, p. 28). The threatof Civil War showed Britain to be weak and unable to interfere if Germanyattacked its allies. The inability of Britain to keep its own country united inthe midst of World War One proved to be particularly damaging. If Britain couldnot keep its own country united, how was Britain supposed to keep allied forcesacross the world.?This highlights how fragile both the situationwas in Ireland and how Britain was perceived at this time.
This proved to havea significant impact on British politics, as the island that was deemed toosmall to be independent now risked undermining Britain’s role as a World Power.The Irish Questionalso posed a significant threat to Britain economically and military. This ishighlighted as ‘Germany felt that England would be too busy with Ireland toenter World War One’ (Anon., 2015) .? The cost todeploy troops to restore order in an attempt to keep peace caused great strainto Britain. The timing of the Easter Rising coinciding with World War One meantthat Britain could not put its full attention and military force into the Waras troops were still needed at home.?This further damaged Britain’s reputation asit once again highlighted Britain’s inability to control its own country whenfacing a World War when other Western were fuelled by patriotism. The IrishQuestion also represented an era of change for British politics.
?Despite theprevious attempts at Home Rule, when the third Home Rule Bill was passed in1912 the general sense of feeling was optimistic amongst the majority ofIreland, despite it being put on hold in order to prepare for the First WorldWar. At the time, it appeared to the rest of the country that Ireland’s demandswere met. This showed an era of change for the rest of the Britain who becameoptimistic of other changes in society to come.The IrishQuestion affected domestic policy in that people saw Ireland’s demands beingsupposedly met and therefore why shouldn’t theirs be. This led to an increasedprominence of other social issues in British politics such as homosexuality.
Further evidenceto suggest that partition was not successful comes from thebreakdown of the pact made between Michael Collins and Sir James Craig in 1922over the proposed boundary commission. Britain’s inability to deal with theissue and reach a resolution, highlighted how the Irish Question still hadgreat prominence in British politics. Evidence for this can be found as theBritish government faced a serious threat of the breakdown of all that wasachieved. This fear was exacerbated by the Conservative Sunday Express as theyhighlighted that the government faced ‘the dreadful alternative of a completebreakdown of the Irish settlement on the one hand, or a devastatingconservative revolt on the other’ (Canning, 1985, p. 31).
The failure of thepact placed Westminster in a difficult position as they could not afford toalienate either side without risking the breakdown of all that had beenachieved. The British government risked the threat of violence and upheavaldestroying any form of peace and stability that had been stored in Ireland. Thefailure of the British government to provide a resolution to either side’sgrievances proposes that the Irish Question was still a matter of greatcontroversy and even following partition, Westminster could not afford toalienate either side as the situation in Ireland was so fragile.
It can besuggested that partition did not in fact ‘solve’ the Irish Question. The IrishQuestion was an issue of independence and sovereignty, of which partition andthe Government of Northern Ireland Act (1920) never solved. This can besupported as, section 75 of the Act’reserved the sovereign right of Westminster to legislate on any matter andstates’ (Cunningham, 2001, p. 1). In addition tothis, the Act re-iterated that ‘the supreme authority of the Parliament of theUnited Kingdom shall remain unaffected and undiminished over all persons,matters and things in Ireland’ (ibid., p.
1). Partition had not granted Irelandindependence or sovereignty. Westminster still held the greatest authority, andcould over rule on any matter they deemed fit to do so. Cunningham would arguethat Partition did not solve the Irish Question as the key demands of the matterwas not met. Westminster still had the authority to overrule if it so wished,and Ireland was far from being granted Independence suggesting that partitionalone had failed to solve the matter. Further evidence to suggest thatpartition did not solve the Irish Question comes from the ineffectiveconstraints put on the Northern Ireland Government.
The lack of politicalinstitutions established to support the new government enhances the argumentthat the British government was never fully committed to handing over its powerand sovereignty and by putting in place few democratic institutions, it ensuredthat the British government stayed as the supreme power as the new governmentwas never taken too seriously. Furthermore, the lack of constraints put on thenew government ensured that the subordination of Catholics in Northern Irelandcontinued, in effect, the Northern Ireland government was a government forprotestant citizens only. No form of checks and balances were put in place onthe powers of the Northern Ireland government which ensured that the Catholicsin Northern Ireland never achieved equality. Furthermore, evidence to suggestthat the British government was never fully committed to partition is that ‘Northern Ireland was formally the responsibilityof the Home Office but was relegated to the general department’ (ibid.
, p.1). The lack of constraints put in place, posed asignificant threat to the legitimacy and accountability of the new governmentand thereby reinstated the idea that Westminster held the up most authority andremained unchallenged. It further puts forward the argument that followingpartition the Catholics were still treated as inferior and could not access thesame rights as Protestants in Northern Ireland. This highlights the argumentthat although partition may well be viewed as a step towards progression, thegovernment had no effective checks and balances put on them which allowed forthe continued subordination of Catholics.
Sovereignty was still held atWestminster and the British government took no interest in affairs in NorthernIreland unless it was beneficial to them. This in turn meant that the problemsthat pre-dated partition still existed in Ireland, but this time in NorthernIreland. The lack of equal rights afforded to Catholics and Britain’s dismissalof how the Northern Ireland government was operating suggests that partitionhad not solved the Irish Question. The continued subordination ofCatholics in Northern Ireland can be emphasised by the establishment of theNorthern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA). This highlights how thesituation in Ireland was still fragile, with the existence of ghettoisation andgrievances on both sides and the continued subordination of Catholics inNorthern Ireland.
NICRA attracted widespread media attention through theinitially peaceful protests and the reaction of the British government, and inparticular the police force. NICRA was established ‘todefend the basic freedoms of all citizens; to protect the rights of theindividual; to highlight all possible abuses of power’ (Aughey & Morrow, 1996). NICRA in effect attempted to put constraints on the Northern Irelandgovernment that the British government had failed to do so and in doing soprotect the rights of the Catholic minority. However, the situation in Irelandcame to a hiatus at a protest in Derry in October 1968 when armed police tackledthe crowds. This protest ‘led to serious unrest, allegations of policebrutality and the attention of the international media’ (ibid., p.13).
This placedWestminster back in the heart of the Irish Question. The widespread mediaattention that NICRA attracted meant that Westminster could no longer ignorethe situation in Ireland as it now posed a significant threat to Britain on theinternational stage. This suggests that partition had not solved the IrishQuestion as during the troubles Britain was placed back into the centre of thematter and it was once again playing a prominent role in British politics butthis time affecting Britain’s reputation on an international stage.
The failureof Westminster to deal with the October march without the use of force onlyheightened feelings of discontent and determination in Ireland. Following theOctober march the situation only exacerbated as there was constant marches andcounter marches. The eruption ofviolence on the streets ‘led to the formation of local vigilantes that in turnled to the resurgence of paramilitaries in local communities’ (Fitzduff & O’Hagan, 2009). This put significantpressure on Prime Minister Wilson to introduce reforms by meeting the demandsof NICRA. This can be highlighted as ‘it was clear that reform was necessary if the Nationalist populationwas to be reconciled with the Northern Ireland state’ (Cunningham, 2001, p. 6). Thegovernment’s inability once again to act accordingly an introduce aone-man-one-vote or repeal the repressive Special Powers Act only increased thesectarian divide leading to civil rights marches becoming increasingly violent.
‘The Catholic minority and the Republicof Ireland have continued to reject partition and managed to destabilise theNorth by the late 1960’s’ (Smooha, 2001). This left Wilson with no choice but todeploy troops in order to restore order in Ireland. This in turn, reinsertedthe Irish Question directly back into British politics as it had been decadesearlier as the Economist newspaper commented “Britain was once again up to theneck in the Irish Question” and the Northern Ireland government found its sovereigntybeing deteriorated in the name of security.
This highlights the problemsassociated with partition and the Irish Question, as within fifty years theBritish government was making steps back towards direct rule. Alternatively,partition in 1921 satisfied both the Unionists and the Nationalist demands. Itin effect, met their demands as in the Republic of Ireland the Catholic Churchwas now free to dominate and in Northern Ireland the Protestants were free tokeep their links to the British government. Partition had ‘removed theIrish question from mainstream British politics where for forty years it hadproved highly contentious’ (Cunningham, 2001, p. 2).
It canbe argued that Partition was successful in that it lay the foundations for theGood Friday Agreement under Blair as it attempted to solve the Irish Questionpartially. Furthermore, it can be argued that Partition was successful in thatit removed violence from the streets and brought about the immediate end of theWar of Independence. For fifty years following partition Britain did not needto deploy troops which may lead some to argue that it was 50 years of relativepeace for Ireland. Consequently, partition did solve the Irish Question, butonly short-term. Evidence to suggest that the IrishQuestion was unresolved comes from the policy of internment.
The introductionof internment only heightened tensions in August 1971. ‘The introduction of internment, used exclusivelyagainst Nationalists and Republicans, had alienated the whole of the Catholiccommunity’ (Cunningham, 2001, p. 9).
Internment inparticular angered the Catholic community. The report by Crompton which was setup to investigate claims of ill-treatment of internees only infuriated themfurther. The report completely dismissed their claims when it reached theconclusion that it’s ‘semanticdistinction that physical ill-treatment of internees did not constitutebrutality’ (ibid., p.9). This policy only increased the sectariandivide, which lead to increasingly hardened attitudes towards the Britishgovernment, especially when the poor treatment of internees became widespread.
It led to campaigns that declared that equality for Catholics was unattainablewithin the state infrastructure that was in place. This leadcritics of internment such as Cunningham to argue that the relationship betweenBritain and Ireland was no better off to what it had been 50 years ago and thereforepartition had not solved the Irish Question as the rights of internees andCatholics in particular were restricted and continued to be treated assubordinate. The policy of internment only increased the prominence of theIrish Question. Once again, the British government was forced to take actiondue to widespread campaigns and media attention. This all reached a criticalmoment in January 1972, in what would become known as ‘Bloody Sunday’.
The’Bloody Sunday killings increased IRA recruitment, paramilitary violence andled to huge rise in deaths in subsequent years’ (Bowcott, 2010). On this day, some may argue the IrishQuestion reached its climax. The British army opened fire on what began as apeaceful civil rights demonstration against internment in Derry.
The results ofthis was astronomical; 14 innocent civilians were killed and Britain’sreputation was damaged internationally. This reinforced the notion that Britaincould no longer leave Northern Ireland to its own devices. As a result, onMarch 24th, 1972, Prime Minister Edward Heath announced the returnof direct rule for the first time again in fifty years.
This places greatemphasis on the argument that partition had not ‘solved’ the Irish question asthis repealed all that was achieved under the Anglo-Irish Treaty. In conclusion, the evidencesuggests that Partition did not solve the Irish Question, however, it didremove it from British politics for fifty years and restored some form of orderin Ireland for half a century. Consequently, in these fifty years the issues inIreland were far from clarified, it just was not deemed a vital issue forWestminster. The Catholic minority were continued to be treated as subordinate andsecond-rate citizens with no equal rights in Northern Ireland.
This in turn,set the foundations for what would become known as ‘troubles’ in the sixtiesfollowing on from decades of oppression and harsh treatment which put the IrishQuestion directly back into British politics. Partition had failed to solve twokey issues; it failed to reach a settlement on the boundary commission underthe Craig-Collins pact and it failed to set up an effective government inNorthern Ireland which had constraints in place to ensure the rights ofcitizens.