Ireland 1912-1916: An Introduction
By the beginning of the twentieth century, Ireland was divided. Irish nationalists wanted Ireland to be either established as a fully independent nation or with her own home rule parliament in Dublin, while the unionists, mostly concentrated in Ulster, wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom.
Traditionally, the British had been uninterested in the aims of Irish nationalism. But in 1910, when the Liberals failed to win a majority in the general election, they turned their attention to the issue. The Liberal leader, Herbert Asquith, had an idea: the Irish would support Liberal reforms and, in return, a Home Rule Bill for Ireland would be enacted.
In April 1912 the Government of Ireland Bill was introduced to parliament. The Commons passed the Bill but the Lords vetoed. Their veto however, would expire after two years, meaning that in 1914 Home Rule would become law.
So, there were great celebrations in Dublin when the Commons passed the Home Rule Bill, and the Irish leader, John Redmond, was heralded a hero. But the unionists hated the whole idea. Led by Sir Edward Carson, they started a vehement campaign against Home Rule. And, in September 1912, half a million unionists went to Belfast City Hall and signed Ulster’s Solemn League and Covenant, pledging themselves to use all means to defend themselves and to ‘defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland’.
While signing a piece of paper was symbolic, the unionists sought a more powerful way to demonstrate their opposition. In December 1912, the Ulster Volunteer Force was formed to defend the Union by force of arms. The nationalists responded the following year by founding the Irish Volunteers to ensure the Home Rule Bill would be implemented.
At the same time, Dublin was the scene of a fierce industrial dispute between workers who wanted to be unionised, and their employers. Union leader James Larkin formed the Irish Citizen Army, to defend the workers and later to align them with the pursuit of Irish independence.
Patrick Pearse was a school teacher as well as a key figure in the Irish Volunteers and member of the secretive Irish Republican Brotherhood. In March 1914 he predicted that ‘before this generation has passed the Volunteers will draw the sword of Ireland’. And he was right. In fact, only a month later, as the Ulster Volunteer Force lined up against the Irish Volunteers, guns were landed in Ireland for both forces.
As the pros and cons of Home Rule were weighed up by nationalists and unionists, and armed groups prepared for a fight, Prime Minister Asquith came up with another plan. He proposed that any Ulster county that didn’t want Home Rule could excuse itself from the Bill for six years. But it did little to appease Carson, who stated that unionists ‘do not want sentence of death with a stay of execution for six years’.
The British government, alarmed at the rapid escalation of the situation in Ireland, started considering its military options. But, those options became somewhat limited, when Army Officers at the main military headquarters at the Curragh threatened to resign their commissions if they were ordered to move against unionists.
In April 1914, an organisation for women that would support the Irish Volunteers should they decide to break with Britain was formed in Dublin. Its name was Cumann na mBan. And by July of that year, even the King was involved. He invited the home rule and unionists leaders to Buckingham Palace to find a solution, but they agreed upon nothing. In announcing the failure of the talks, Prime Minister Asquith acknowledged that the situation in Europe – where Archduke Ferdinand had been assassinated a month earlier – was making negotiations difficult; the Central Powers of Europe had begun saber-rattling.
The crisis in Europe escalated further and, with nothing bringing the Irish parties together, the government announced, on 31 July 1914, that the Home Rule Amending Bill would not be introduced to Parliament.
Days later the Germans and Russians mobilised, and Britain declared war in defence of Belgium. The question over what the Irish Volunteers should do was answered by John Redmond when he commanded Ireland, ‘to the best of her ability, to go where ever the firing line extends, in defence of right, of freedom and of religion in this war’.
Ultimately 300,000 Irishmen, both nationalists and unionists, would volunteer to fight in the war, while others would strike out against British rule in Easter 1916.
The Easter Rising transformed the political face of Ireland and would leave the country, as W.B. Yeats would write, 'changed, changed utterly'.