BRITISH ATTITUDES TO IRELAND
All British governments endeavoured to keep stability as their main strategy with regard
to Ireland; coercion & conciliation were often used in combination but sometimes one
predominated rather than the other.
British governments were reactive rather than proactive except over the Act of Union
itself and the three Home Rule Bills (it could be argued that the 3rd Home Rule bill was a
reaction to a Redmond initiative to keep the Liberals in power on condition they brought
in a Home Rule bill).
The Tories were seen as staunch supporters of Anglicanism and generally more
repressive than the Whigs; however both parties were against Repeal and Gladstone’s
conversion to Home Rule was a shock to many Liberals. In the end
Conservative/Unionists made bigger concessions/more appeasement than the
Whigs/Liberals. This may be because the Tories/Conservatives/Unionists were in power
for more of the period than the Whigs/Liberals.
As the C19 progressed govts had to take public opinion and the press more into account;
this together with extensions of the franchise meant increased democratisation. The
British political tradition was an anti-catholic one and this view was shared by the public
who were often anti Irish (immigrants). However as the number of Irish immigrants
increased they became a potent political force that could not be ignored. For Home Rule
reasons Irish RCs voted Liberal unless they were influenced on religious grounds in which
case they voted Conservative.
1800/30: For nearly all this period the Tories were in power; Pitt had implemented the
Union but had faced royal & party opposition to CE. After 1812 Peel was the dominant
Tory in Irish matters as Chief Sec he had brought in reforms but he enforced law & order
and had established the foundations of a police force. Liverpool (PM 1812-27) allowed his
cabinet to keep an open mind on CE. By and large however many of the Tory
rank-and-file as staunch Anglicans were hostile to CE – hence the vilification of “Orange
Peel” as a traitor. Peel & Wellington introduced CE in the interests of stability.
1830/41: The Whigs were prepared to introduce Irish reform (including dilution of the
status of the C of I); and with the Lichfield House Compact (1835) work with O’Connell to
keep Peel out. They were not prepared to even think about Repeal.
1841/6: Peel & the Conservatives smashed Repeal and followed a policy of
appeasement (Maynooth & Charitable Bequests) to wean the RC Church away from
Repeal/nationalism. The Repeal of the Corn Laws led to the Conservatives destroying
Peel; the Whigs then took office, taking a doctrinaire approach to famine relief.
The next 20 odd years were a period of Whig/Peelite/Radical coalitions (at the end of the
period these fused into the Liberals) and Conservative minority govts. Following the
failure of Repeal in 1843 and the farcical Young Ireland rebellion (1848) Ireland was
quiet. Furthermore the Famine had knocked the stuffing out of Ireland; though farmers
did reasonably well and the northeast continued to industrialise.
1868/74: WEG & the Liberals in office. In the aftermath of the Fenian Rising WEG
announced that his mission was to pacify Ireland (this was largely reactive though it can
be argued that disestablishment was proactive as it meant electoral gain in 1868).
Disestablishment led to the temporary reaction of some Irish Anglicans who started the
Home Rule Movement. This removed the wedge that had kept Anglicans & Presbyterians
apart; this eventually led to the formation of a formidable Liberal enemy in the form of
Ulster Unionism a generation later. Disestablishment did however largely de-fuse the
religious issue (but not that of northern sectarian tension); but this cut off one of the two
legs of the Union settlement. The 1870 Land Act was largely ineffective but was the first
act to inflict damage on the landowning class. Butt’s Home Rule League accounted for 59
seats at the election and virtually wiped Irish Liberal representation – one of the major
factors that brought Disraeli to power.
1874/80: Disraeli & the Conservatives kept well clear of Ireland. It had done WEG little
good; furthermore Disraeli was fully occupied in a series of foreign & imperial crises. In
his last year of office he had to contend with the beginning of the Land War including
obstructionism in the Commons.
1880/85: Gladstone inherited the Land War, coercion was used but also the concession
of the 1881 Land Act. He was frustrated by Parnell & the Land League: CSP, Davitt etc
were arrested. Soon convinced that CSP was less of a problem out of prison the
Kilmainham Treaty came about. The possibility of a WEG/CSP dialogue was thwarted by
the Phoenix Park murders; however it was possible that cooperation might happen at a
future date. WEG fell in summer 1885 when Conservatives and dissident Liberals refused
to back coercion.
1885: Salisbury’s caretaker govt did not renew coercion and passed the Ashbourne Land
Act; Salisbury allowed his Lord Lieutenant to explore ideas of Home Rule (this was a
tactical & cynical ploy on Salisbury’s account that led CSP to throw the Irish nationalist
vote in GB behind Salisbury rather than WEG).
1886: Following the unique election result in December 1885 CSP held the balance of
power. On the release of the Harwarden Kite CSP threw his weight behind WEG who
formed his 3rd govt in January. WEG’s motives for adopting Home Rule were/are
disputed; whatever the motivation it was a proactive response. The 1st HR bill was
defeated in the Commons and WEG’s govt fell. (It was a badly flawed bill as well as being
unacceptable to Conservatives & Liberal Unionists). The political battle-lines were then
redrawn until at least 1914: Libs & Nats v Liberal Unionists & Conservatives (ie Unionists).
1886/1905: Excepting WEG’s 4th govt (2nd HR bill) and Rosebery’s govt these were
years of Unionist ministries characterised by “20 years of firm government” (coercion)
and constructive Unionism (conciliation or appeasement?). The former meant a
no-nonsense approach to a renewed land war (the “Plan of Campaign”) spearheaded by
“Bloody Balfour” and the abortive attempt to destroy CSP following The Times’ articles on
“Parnellism and Crime”. (CSP then destroyed himself with his foolish & arrogant stand
following the O’Shea divorce). Constructive/reformist govt took the form of the
Congested Districts Act and various land purchase acts. More importantly the 1898
County Councils Act and Wyndham’s 1903 Land Purchase Act undermined the Union.
Ulster Unionist’s also benefited from the 1898 act; but they reacted with intense suspicion
to the Devolution talks (1904) when Wyndham’s civil servants had gone beyond their
brief. (This also showed that certain southern landlords were contemplating giving in on
1906/16: With a massive majority (and with WEG dead) the Liberals did not pursue
Home Rule but Ireland benefited from the series of welfare reforms (including OAPs &
National Insurance for the poorest). Nationalist support for the 1909 budget and the loss
of the Liberal overall majority in the 1910 elections led to Redmond driving a hard
bargain. The intended Liberal reform of the Lords would enable a future HR bill to be
passed; Redmond ensured that Asquith introduced the 3rd HR bill. Unionists, now led by
Bonar Law – a virtual Ulsterman - accused the govt of adopting HR as the price for
remaining in power. With the Lords short-circuited Ulster was the only way to smash
Home Rule. Asquith mistook intransigence for firmness and was thwarted by Carson,
Craig & Bonar Law in 1914. Matters were temporarily defused by the outbreak of war and
the shelving of the Home Rule Act for the duration of WW1. The length of the war and
nationalist frustration gave Pearse etc their opportunity. Asquith’s Chief Secretary Birell
had been complacent & lax, allowing the Irish Volunteers to exercise and develop. After
the Rising martial law led to the executions and the creation of martyrs. This was
matched by the abortive conciliation of the LG talks, the prisoner releases and the 1917
Irish Convention (round table talks).
1916/21: With LG as PM (a Liberal largely backed by Unionists) the war was prosecuted
more efficiently and energetically; Ireland slipped down the priority list as the war had to
be won. Conscription, the death of the discredited Redmond and the coupon election
played into the hands of Sinn Fein. IRA terrorism was matched by govt reprisals, coercion
and martial law (in Munster). LG was reacting to events. But his Govt of Ireland Act
(1920) endeavoured to produce two Home Rule Parliaments; only the Northern one
functioned as envisaged, thus Partition was implemented. Within the year the Truce and
Treaty (1921) were implemented, indicated a new approach to create and maintain
stability: Independence would be permitted within the framework of the Empire
(Dominion status). However it is worth noting that this ultimate piece of conciliation
incurred the wrath & suspicion of Craig and the Ulster Unionists. Moreover Sinn Fein
acceptance of the Treaty was underwritten by LG’s threat of immediate and terrible war
(the ultimate coercive measure) if the SF delegation did not sign.