Photograph of former Northern Ireland Prime Minister James CraigGetty Images

Prime Minister James Craig ensured Northern Ireland made a significant contribution to the war effort

Conscription was introduced in Britain in April 1939.

There were two attempts to introduce conscription into Northern Ireland (1939 and 1941), but the issue caused serious division along religious and political lines.

Unionists wanted conscription because:

  • it would give Northern Ireland an opportunity to show its loyalty to Britain which would strengthen the links between the two regions;
  • it would convince Britain partition should continue;
  • they were determined to be treated the same as the rest of Britain.

Nationalists objected to conscription because:

  • they did not want to fight for Britain as it was not Ireland’s war;
  • some felt more of a connection to Germany than to Britain because of Germany's assistance during the 1916 Easter Rising.

Conscription in 1939

The British were surprised at the strength of nationalist opposition to conscription.

Therefore, a month after conscription was introduced into Britain, Northern Ireland was made exempt.

This was because the British feared conscription would cause unrest in Ireland and distract Westminster’s time and resources away from fighting Germany.

The Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Sir James Craig, was furious because he met with Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister, but he was unable to overturn the decision because of the “special difficulties” Chamberlain said existed in Northern Ireland.

However, the award of defence contracts worth £6 million to Northern Ireland’s industries helped relieve some of the tension between the two governments, especially as unemployment fell by 30,000 due to the financial arrangements.

The nationalists were jubilant at the exemption from conscription.

Conscription in 1941

Conscription became a possibility again in 1941.

The British Labour Minister, Ernest Bevin, suggested it should be introduced in Northern Ireland.

This was because of the shock of the Belfast Blitz in 1941 and because Britain was virtually standing alone against Germany.

The unionists yet again supported conscription, but in May 1941 Britain exempted Northern Ireland from compulsory military service for a second time.

Why did Britain not impose conscription in Northern Ireland?

The British did not apply conscription to Northern Ireland because:

A) There were very strong protests from the nationalist side.

  • De Valera condemned the proposal, stating it would be an ‘act of oppression’ to introduce it.
  • the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh, Cardinal MacRory, said conscription was not morally justifiable.
  • Over 10,000 nationalists, supported by local Catholic bishops and nationalist politicians, marched in protest in Belfast.

B) It would have been embarrassing for the British to have to deal with mass refusal by nationalists to enlist.

C) Britain did not want to worsen relations with Éire.

D) The RUC Inspector-General warned that introduction of conscription could lead to serious public disorder.

E) The Stormont Cabinet, after initially welcoming the idea of conscription, realised it would create too many problems so they gave up on their request.

However, men and women from both communities volunteered for military service.

About 38,000 people from across Northern Ireland joined the British armed forces.

Many were also in reserved industries. Over 43,000 from Éire fought for the Allies. Many enlisted to escape poverty and unemployment in Éire.