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24 September 2014
Wars and Conflict - 1916 Rising

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Image of Erin unfurling the Home Rule Flag

Ireland epitomised by Erin unfurling the Home Rule Flag ©

As a result of the Act of Union in 1800, Ireland lost its parliament in Dublin and was governed directly from Westminster where it was represented by 100 MPs and 28 peers. Subsequently two forms of nationalist opposition to British rule emerged. A militant minority in Ireland inspired by the Wolfe Tone rebellion in 1798, formed successive, small, secretive organisations and aimed through the use of force to establish a fully independent Irish republic; rebellions were attempted in 1803, 1848, 1867 and 1916. In contrast, constitutional nationalists organised contested elections and had more limited objectives. Their aim was to restore a measure of self-government to Ireland by using their political influence to have the necessary legislation passed by the British parliament. They were highly successful. By the 1880s, the nationalist Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) was returning 80 MPs to the House of Commons; it had developed by then into the first modern political party in Westminster’s history.

The Party’s success was due to the gradual growth of political consciousness in Ireland (literacy levels had reached over 80 per cent by 1891), to the charismatic qualities of its leader, Charles Stewart Parnell (1878-90), and to the gradual extension of the franchise; by 1884 most heads of households among labourers and small farmers had the vote. Both its appeal and the expectations of its mainly Catholic supporters were also raised by the ‘conversion’ of Gladstone to Irish home rule in 1885 - he was leader of the Liberal Party, one of Britain’s two major parties. In 1886, he introduced the first Home Rule Bill to Westminster; it would have restored self-government to Ireland, creating a local assembly with two chambers sitting in Dublin, having jurisdiction over all 32 Irish counties. However, some members of the Liberal Party opposed and this helped ensure its defeat in the Commons. In 1892, restored again as prime minister, Gladstone introduced a second Home Rule Bill the following year. It was similar in content to the first, but on this occasion the measure was massively rejected by the conservative-dominated House of Lords.

Gladstone retired from politics in 1894. Parnell’s career had been prematurely ended by the Kitty O’Shea affair in 1890 and he died in 1891. The IPP then split but was eventually reunited under the leadership of John Redmond – a Catholic barrister and nationalist MP - in 1900. The party’s hopes rose again when in 1905 the Liberals once more formed a government – the last ever in their history. As a result of two general elections in 1910 the Irish MPs held the ‘balance of power’ at Westminster. In 1912 Asquith the then prime minister, dependent on Irish support, introduced the third Home Rule Bill. Self-government for Ireland at last seemed certain. Though it was opposed by the Ulster unionist movement, it seemed unlikely that this body could prevent it. It had the backing of the vast bulk of the population in Ireland and of a healthy majority of MPs in the Commons. Meanwhile, the powers of the House of Lords had been reduced in 1911; as a result, peers could delay legislation for up to two years, but they had lost the right to veto it altogether.

Image of John Redmond

John Redmond leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party ©

The political situation was transformed, however, by the outbreak of war in Europe. Both unionist and nationalist leaders agreed to support Britain’s war effort, and to postpone a settlement of the Irish question until after hostilities had ceased. The Home Rule bill became law on 28th September 1914 but its operation was suspended during the conflict which was expected to be over by 1915. Acting like an Irish Kitchener, Redmond urged his followers to enlist in the British Army. He justified his appeal by arguing that Britain was fighting ‘in defence of right, of freedom and of religion’. By this he meant the rights of gallant and catholic little Belgium, a small nation that had been invaded by Germany. Tactically there were strong arguments in favour of his response. To support England was a means of proving that Ireland could be trusted with self-government, and of disproving the unionist allegation that if given home rule it would inevitably stab England in the back in her hour of danger. In addition, there was even a possibility that Ulster unionists might be reconciled to Irish unity, once nationalists had provided such tangible evidence of their steadfast loyalty to the empire.

1916 Easter Rising: Prelude
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Image of Professor Alvin Jackson Alvin Jackson, Professor of Modern History, Queen's University of Belfast
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Image of Professor Paul Bew Paul Bew, Professor of Irish Politics, Queen's University of Belfast
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Image of Professor Keith Jeffery Keith Jeffery, Professor of Modern History, University of Ulster at Jordanstown
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Image of Dr Eamon Phoenix Dr. Eamon Phoenix, Political Historian, Stranmillis University College, Belfast
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