First World War

The outbreak of the First World War undoubtedly contributed to the transformation of Irish politics 1914 – 1918. The onset of war having stalled the constitutional negotiations in Ireland left the main political party in Ireland in a vulnerable position. Failure of the War Office to acknowledge the recruitment of the Irish to the war effort antagonised many Irish citizens whilst Redmond’s Irish Political Party appeared to have little to offer the Nationalists who sought independence for Ireland. Redmond’s speech at Wooden Bridge saw his loyalties and motives questioned. The prolonged war accompanied by impatience and disillusionment with Irish Politics brought the Irish Question to the fore in 1916 with the Easter Rising at the same time attributing to a revolution in Irish Politics. Undoubtedly the handling of the affair by the British Government, contributed to a political change of allegiance and for those that were previously apathetic; it managed to unite people who demanded a more pro-active stance from their electoral representatives. The “British War” unquestionably contributed to a transformation in Irish politics; with the rise of Sinn, a popular alternative to the IPP, a further transformation emerged.Divisions however, existed long before beforehand particularly between the British and Irish with Irish support drawn against the British during the Boer War; Cecil Rhodes support for Home Rule and for Parnell drew support from many Nationalists; Donal McCracken notes that, “it is not the empire as it then existed that attracted the Irish so much as the vision Rhodes had offered them in 1888 – imperialism of the home rule stripe or Home Rule plus empire.”1 Following the defeat of the Home Rule at the hands of the House of Lords (1893) Donal McCracken also adds that “though the Irish were down, the Boers still knew so well how to preserve the independence of their country.”2Initially the suspension of the newly implemented Home Rule Bill would directly affect Irish politics. Its suspension was a direct result to the outbreak of war; for Redmond and the Irish Political Party, Home Rule appeared further away than ever. The frustration at the suspension of Home Rule would eventually impact on the decline of the IPP. Paul Aldeman states that “Home Rule became a cheque continually post-dated;”3 however “the principle of the partition of Ireland had been accepted by all sides – and that was to be important for the future.”4 Redmond was prepared to consider a temporary exclusion of distinctly protestant areas of Ulster whilst Carson accepted the decision reluctantly as it required deserting southern Unionists. The rejection of the amending bill in June 1914 by the House of Lords saw the House of Lords replace the permanent exclusion of Ulster with their own amendment, insisting on the county option.Tensions flared between Nationalists and Unionists, Civil War loomed closer. Following a long running conflict of interests in the constitutional rights of Ireland; support had grown dramatically for both the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Irish Volunteers; war again attributed to their popularity. The formation and growth of both organisations would deeply influence the future of Irish and British politics. The prospect of Civil War in Ireland was a real possibility; Michael Laffan notes that “Carson was fortunate that the European crisis distracted attention from Ulster.”5Another way in which the war impacted on Irish politics was Redmond’s call for the Irish Volunteers to join the British Army, in his speech at Wooden Bridge; a move that increased the frustration of Nationalists and instilled suspicions as to Redmond’s motives. The formation of the Ulster Division by Kitchener at the war office incited further cultural and political unrest, in light of the Curragh Mutiny, the army’s unionist sympathy’s and issues surrounding gun running on both sides appeared to favour Unionists.The war impacted further on Irish politics, with the failure of the War Office initially, to accommodate Redmond’s Irish Volunteers with the establishment of an Irish Brigade further infuriated Nationalists; whilst at the same time appeared to undermine Redmond and the IPP Alvin Jackson adds that “The key difficulty with the Irish Party lay, therefore, in the fact that after 1914, it had little or nothing to offer the Irish electorate beyond a call to join the British Army.”6 Nationalists therefore had more reason to resent Redmond’s call to war. The stance in supporting the war by the Irish Political Party and the Ulster Unionists was inevitably in the hope of gleaning support from the British Government with regards to their Irish claims.JJ Lee remarks “it was not until Redmond actually urged his followers at Wooden Bridge to volunteer for the British Army, that the more extreme Nationalists felt compelled to repudiate him.”7 Redmond’s speech at Wooden Bridge was ultimately a key factor in the transformation of Irish politics. The issues of physically supporting the British War offensive caused a split within the Irish Volunteers with criticism directed solely at Redmond. Regarding Redmond and the IPP, Alvin Jackson comments that “Wooden Bridge and the Irish loss at Flanders functioned as a grim mechanism for its own destruction.”8 Pauric Travers derives that “failure to harness the enthusiasm of the Volunteers not only damaged Irish recruitment but also helped drive the young men into the hands of militant nationalists.”9The transformation of British politics in May 1915 would again influence Irish Politics. Asquith’s formation of a coalition government in order to remain in power comprised of conservatives opposed to Home Rule. Carson joined the cabinet, Redmond, however, refused. Redmond’s refusal may have been viewed as a stance against the British; in the eyes of many nationalists it removed him and the IPP from direct involvement with negotiations. Paul Adelman suggests “Redmond’s alliance with the Liberals in effect came to an end with the formation of the coalition government … All this played into the hands of extreme Irish Nationalists, who were already waiting in the wings to take advantage of the wartime difficulties of the British government.”10The face of Irish politics was to transform once again, war presenting the opportunity for Nationalist rebels to mark their stance. War had undermined the Nationalists achievements whilst it afforded new opportunities for radical critics; it contributed to Nationalists cynicism of Irish politics driving extremists to pursue a new way forward.The split within the IPP having driven extremists opposed to British Rule and the war into the hands of the Irish Republican Brotherhood; the result saw a movement front a rebellion in an attempt to expel the British in 1916. War once again afforded the opportunity for Nationalists to place emphasis on their plight. No-one could have estimated the impact the rebellion would have in the transformation of Irish politics; ultimately it was responsible for the rise of Sinn Fein whilst further ensuring demise of the IPP.Infiltration of the Gaelic League by the IRB along with the influences of Patrick Pearse and Socialist James Connolly played a major role in what became the Easter Rising. The involvement of Roger Casement and Clan na Gael in America with Count Bernstorff saw a promise of German recognition of Ireland as a Republic. However the interception of the “Aud” on the eve of the Rising dealt a major blow to the rebels with the seizure of a consignment of arms. The arrest of Casement after disembarking a German submarine saw him tried, found guilty of treason and subsequently executed. Pauric Travers remarks that “the German connection was peripheral to the main preparations of the rising”.11 The Rising, from the Unionist perspective, perceived all nationalists as disloyal; particularly with the introduction of conscription in Ireland having been strongly opposed by Redmond. Thomas Hennessey adds that “the Rising owed a considerable debt to the fact that the United Kingdom was involved in a major European war.”12The aftermath of the Rising was to prove much more significant and instrumental in altering Ireland’s political history whilst attributing to divisions and negotiations that would affect both British and Irish for decades to come. The British Government’s handling of the insurgents greatly influenced and altered Irish Politics. Joseph Lee perceives, “The insurrection of 1916 was a desperate gamble. Remarkably it paid off, largely because the British execution of the rebels outraged a previously indifferent population.”13The repercussion of the rebellion was handed over to the army by Asquith. A draconian policy of imprisonment or internment accompanied by wholesale arrests and executions was to follow. Alvin Jackson states that, “What this rather crude but not particularly brutal reaction achieved was an active sympathy for militant nationalism where often only a passive interest had existed … this sequence of actions could not have been better calculated to endorse revolutionary nationalism”14 Whilst Pauric Travers comments that “The executions replenished the national pantheon of martyrs in a way which death in combat would never have done.”15 Internment camps, however, gave nationalists the emotional incentive acting as revolutionary academies providing opportunities for political education whilst allowing valuable contacts to be made.Alvin Jackson suggests, as in the past with the Fenian rising in 1867 and the Clan na Gael bombers in the 1880’s “Irish parliamentarians had been far enough removed from the British Government but close enough to militant factions to benefit from both.”16 Alan O’Day adds that “the detention of suspected sympathisers during the next few weeks increased hostility towards Britain, hardening popular opinion and damaging the standing of Redmond and the Irish Party.”17War contributed to a “knock on” effect between Irish and British politics. Once again the British government were destined to secure a new settlement with the involvement of Lloyd George on Asquith’s request. Pauric Travers suggests that whilst “the Irish Convention was primarily a means for placating American opinion and the Irish Party, it did pose some threat to Northern Unionists.”18 Alvin Jackson states that “the rebels had been able to achieve what had eluded the parliamentarians since August 1914 – the reactivation of the national question,”19Widespread public criticism and condemnation of the British handling in wake of the Easter Rising and the failure of the 1916 negotiations with Lloyd George had a dramatic impact on Irish Politics. Ultimately the failure in negotiations with Lloyd George had also impacted on the shift of allegiance within Irish Politics. Redmond’s belief was that the partition proposals were temporary whilst Carson’s acceptance of the six counties was viewed as permanent. The failure dealt a severe blow to Redmond and the IPP seriously weakening their authority and position. Michael Laffan adds, “Irish nationalists concluded that he had been fooled, or out-manoeuvred, or both, and the already tottering Parliamentary Party never recovered from the blow.”20With Asquith’s abilities as war leader under scrutiny, Lloyd Georges collaboration with the Conservatives saw Asquith relinquish his power; Lloyd George assuming the role of Prime Minister. It was necessary for the government to try to find a solution to the problems in Ireland to avoid further distraction from the war.The failure of Unionists and Nationalists in the form of the Irish Convention to find a solution to the political situation in Ireland further undermined the political stance of the IPP whilst Sinn Fein’s popularity gained substantially. Michael Laffan argues that “Notably the conventions membership did not reflect the changes taking place in Irish political life, in particular the shift of Nationalist opinion towards Sinn Fein.”21 The abandonment of the Southern Unionists by the Northerners saw the Southerners flank with Redmond in the hope of preserving a better deal for themselves with the inevitability of Home Rule. J J Lee notes “the main contribution of the convention was to show that Southern Unionists were now seeking to accommodate themselves to the likelihood of a Southern State”22 whilst Alvin Jackson notes “the disintegration of Irish Unionism involved considerable internal acrimony.”23The release of interned prisoners altered the face of politics in 1917. Prior to this there had been no single cohesive party to challenge the IPP’s 50 year political reign. Upon release militant nationalists that had previously been split into numerous separatist groups united under Sinn Fein; a move that would eventually displace the IPP. Sinn Fein although not directly involved with the Easter Rising benefited immensely from it. In Ireland the elections of 1917 saw allegiance shift from the IPP to Sinn Fein with Sinn Fein winning two by-elections and acquiring “safe” Redmondite seats. A prominent change in particular was with Plunkett claiming victory in Roscommon whilst De Valera achieved success in East Clare. The release of prisoners from internment and the empathy towards them also helped boost the credibility of Sinn Fein. Arthur Griffith’s “Sinn Fein Policy” 1905 – 1907 saw newly elected members adopt the abstinence policy adding further to political difficulties.The intensity of war in particular the German offensive on the Western Front once again saw the British Government contemplate expanding conscription to Ireland; gain this had implications on Irelands Political Parties whilst Cultural Nationalism proved a major influence.Lloyd Georges dual policy of immediate enactment of Home Rule linked to conscription outraged Nationalists. The Mansion House Conference saw De Valera, Griffith, members of the Irish Party and the Irish labour party unite against conscription. The Catholic Church’s anti- conscription stance branding it oppressive and inhumane further strengthened the psychological partition. The opposition to conscription and the war effort contradicted that of other Nations. Pauric Travers comments, “Everywhere churches rallied to the patriotic mood and only in Nationalist Ireland was the mood opposed to war.”24 Widespread opposition and protest saw the government back down with conscription never imposed in Ireland.The elections in 1918 saw Sinn Fein claim 73 seats although not entirely unexpected due to their noted rise in membership between 1917 and 1918. The pledge with the Irish Labour Party inevitably saw Sinn Fein in contention with the IPP for seats.World War On undeniably contributed to the transformation in Irish Politics. A key factor initially was the duration of the war instigating discontentment following the initial suspension of Home Rule. The failure of the IPP to offer the Irish electorate a clear vision following the onset of war further attributed to their fall from grace. Britain’s handling following the Easter Rising is notably one of the most significant factors that attributed to a transformation in Irish politics; attributing directly to the rise to power of Sinn Fein and ultimately to the demise of the IPP. The conscription crisis with the backing of the church added to Sinn Fein’s popularity.The Irish economy also suffered as a result of the war, whilst agriculturalists initially thrived, industry within Dublin declined with major factories reducing working hours; undoubtedly this helped boost Sinn Fein’s popularity. The transformation in politics within Ireland would have been inevitable without the onset of war; however, afforded extreme Nationalists the opportunity and the motive for change. In doing so the face of Irish politics changed dramatically with the emergence of Sinn Fein, the rise to power and ultimately their election success in 1918. The demise of the IPP’s 50 year reign can be attributed to the impact and the demands of war; from the suspension of the Home Rule, the economic climate, Redmond’s speech at Wooden Bridge, failure of the War Office to acknowledge the Irish war effort and conscription ultimately pushed Nationalists patience to their limits. The foundations had been laid for extremists to act, culminating with the Easter Rising. Factionists groups united in the ashes of the Rising seeking an alternative to IPP whilst finding it in Sinn Fein; in turn the Unionists staunchly united against Home Rule.