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24 September 2014
Wars and Conflict - Personal Perpective

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Or, we can see it through today’s eyes: judging it negatively by reference to our contemporary abhorrence of violence - and even blaming it for the appalling events of the past thirty years in Northern Ireland.

It is assumed by many that Home Rule would have evolved automatically into sovereign independence...

But that is doubly unhistorical. First of all, the world of 1916 was a very different one from that of today - one in which not only the leaders of the Rising, but also the British against whom they fought, and the enemies with whom Britain was then contending, still saw the violence of war as glorious rather than terrible.

Moreover, it is unhistorical to see the tragic events in the North as having been mainly inspired by memories of 1916. Although 1916 has certainly been used as a justification for the IRA’s campaign of violence, that campaign has been much more a continuation of an endemic tradition of pogroms and sectarianism in the north-east, the roots of which lie far back in the history of that part of Ireland in the 19th century - indeed right back to the 17th century.

But there is also a third way of looking at 1916, viz., in terms of alternative history, i.e., what might otherwise have happened.

What was on offer before 1916 was Home Rule – devolution, well short of independence. It is assumed by many that Home Rule would have evolved automatically into sovereign independence. But that is far from certain - for two reasons.

First of all, up to 1914 there was little public support for Irish independence: as I have just said it was despair at the absence of such a spirit that provoked the Rising. It is a failure of imagination on our part, together with a mythic view of history, that make us think otherwise. The truth is that without 1916 our people might well have settled down for a time at least within a Home Rule system.

Independence carried a not insignificant cost...

This is all the more true because with the evolution of the welfare state, Ireland would have become increasingly dependent financially on Britain. Already, by 1909, a combination of Balfour’s policy of ‘killing Home Rule by kindness’ through substantial capital and current transfers, and Lloyd George’s initiation of old age pensions and unemployment payments, had reversed the substantial 19th century perverse financial flows from the poorer to the richer island.

Even as early in the process of the evolution of the modern welfare state as the 1920’s, independence carried a not insignificant cost: civil service pay and pensions had to be cut by 10 per cent shortly after the State was founded. If Home Rule had endured for any length of time, a move to independence would have become so costly in the short-run that it is most unlikely that there would ever have been a willingness to pay the price of doing without these transfers - which, judging by the current experience of Northern Ireland, might today have risen to around £10-12 billion.

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