A shifting political leadership

Ireland before the first World War was a stage set for revolution - nationalism's growing, evolving appeal complemented by the emergence of the labour and women's movements

Ireland before the first World War really does seem like a foreign country from this remove – a place of land war, few rights for workers, no votes for women and a struggle for a type of independence that kept Ireland within the empire.

Yet the political landscape changed so quickly that, even by the end of that war, Ireland was in many ways unrecognisable from how it had been only years earlier. There were new ambitions, expectations and heroes.

John Redmond, and those who followed him, became the most literal examples of that, and arguably remain so. They emerged from that period on the wrong side of history. The Ireland that emerged from that period had little time for Redmond, or the men who had gone to the Western Front at his instigation. They left for foreign fields and those who returned arrived to a different homeland.

And yet, even after the introduction of the third Home Rule Bill in 1912, they represented the mainstream of Irish opinion. Under Redmond, the political power of Irish politicians had gained unprecedented strength. He could not have known that his Irish Parliamentary Party was about to be swept away, just at the moment it seemed to have achieved much of what it had spent four decades working towards.

Those years, from 1870 onwards, formed the backdrop against which Irish nationalism grew in political influence. Ireland in the 19th century was one fully embedded within the United Kingdom, as defined by the Act of Union of 1801. Until the latter part of the 19th century, the Irish political landscape had been based on the traditional conservative and liberal lines seen in the rest of the United Kingdom.

The major social and political concerns of the time were centred around land rights, another issue that would eventually reach its end point when, into the first decade of the 20th century, several acts were introduced which offered greater rights to tenants. However, for much of the 1800s, the tension between tenants and landlords was the source of regular protest and violence.

It was along the dual track of land reform and Home Rule that the Irish political landscape developed during this time. In 1870, the Home Rule League was established under the leadership of Isaac Butt and grew into a significant political party that would alter voting patterns for good. Nevertheless, Home Rule was not aimed at winning full independence, but an Irish parliament within the British empire.

Under Charles Stewart Parnell the Home Rule party – which changed its name to the Irish Parliamentary Party – truly gained ground, winning seats and political clout. Parnell also absorbed the Irish Republican Brotherhood into the political campaign, despite its advocating violence as a means of winning tenants rights and furthering the republican cause.

With the support of British prime minister William Gladstone there were two unsuccessful Home Rule Bills (1886 and 1893). However, the IPP then went through a period of upheaval, splitting over Parnell’s relationship with divorcee Katharine O’Shea. His death in 1891 led to John Redmond taking over the party at a time when nationalist politics was rife with rivalries and division. However, while there were further splits – such as the formation of a breakaway All-For-Ireland-League – under Redmond it earned a substantial number of MPs in the second general election of 1910 and Irish nationalists now found themselves holding the balance of power. It was this that led to the introduction of Home Rule bill in 1912.

Of course, the story of Ireland is not simply a nationalist one. For Unionists, Home Rule threatened them with a Dublin-based government that, they believed, would be wrong for a range of reasons: economic and constitutional being obvious ones, but the threat to their identity, and the vista of “Rome rule” being key factors too.

While opposition to the first Home Rule Bill was led by southern Unionists, many of them landlords, that movement gradually became focused on Ulster and the commercial and industrial middle classes that would form the next generation of leaders.

Ultimately, opposition to Home Rule was formed by a broad coalition, crossing denominational and social boundaries. Opposition to the third Hole Rule bill was led by Dublin-born barrister Edward Carson, who in February 1910 became leader of the Unionist MPs in Westminster. Apart from Trinity and south Dublin representatives, these were Ulster-based. Carson’s strategy was to insist that Home Rule could not be introduced so long as such a significant size of the Irish population – numbering almost one million – were opposed to it.

During this time, Belfast had become a prosperous and industrial city, and this wealth became an argument for those in favour or maintaining the Union. But this wealth also brought migration to the city and was a trigger for occasional sectarian rioting as the population became increasingly polarised. This division also manifested itself increasingly in voting patterns.

However, Ireland at the time was not interested solely in the fight for, or against, Home Rule. There were a great many social issues at play, not least the extraordinary level of poverty. Dublin was a city of slums, with a stench that was noted by many visitors. Against this backdrop, a workers’ movement began to grow that would prove a significant force in Irish politics.

This was led by two men who would become vital characters in Irish lore, but had been born in Britain, of Irish parents. James Larkin was born in Liverpool and had been active in trade unionism since the Liverpool dockers’ strike of 1905, and then in a major strike by Belfast dockers in 1907. Here, he used the tactic of not handling the goods of strike-breakers. Moving to Dublin in 1908, he became noted for “messianic” qualities that attracted both adulation and loathing. Nevertheless, in Cork, Belfast and Dublin he proved a pivotal figure in the organisation of strikes – and would become a major figure in Irish history in the years to come.

So too would Edinburgh-born James Connolly, who founded the short-lived Irish Socialist Republican Party after his arrival in Ireland in 1896. He believed Irish socialism was bound up with national liberation, even though he denounced the Home Rule Party as an enemy of the working classes.

The Home Rule Bill arrived at a time of burgeoning trade unionism in Ireland, in a Dublin that was still fat with tenements and filled with unskilled workers who were paid poorly for long hours. The opportunity for militancy – especially against a backdrop of growing nationalist militancy – was obvious and Connolly would later take advantage of this.

However, in 1912, with William X O’Brien, Connolly and Larkin set up the Irish Labour Party as a direct response to the forthcoming Home Rule Bill. This political wing of the Irish Trade Union Congress was intended to give the workers a voice in any future Dublin parliament.

At the time, though, there were many without a significant voice in Irish politics, and the most significant group of all was women. They could not yet vote, and in an Ireland of Home Rule there was no sense that they would earn that.

For Ireland’s suffrage movement, a disparate group since developing in the late 19th century, Home Rule was not seen as a potential answer to their demands. Instead, nationalist women in particular found themselves quite torn by the vista presented to them.

On the one hand, they had the option of remaining within the British empire and awaiting the vote that was still denied women at this time. Or, they could wait for Home Rule to be enacted in Ireland, without any great hope of achieving their aims there. In fact, Redmond’s Irish Parliamentary Party was opposed to universal suffrage as it was argued it would lead to the redrawing of electoral boundaries.

The Irish Women’s Franchise League, led by Francis and Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, developed as the main voice on the matter, even welcomed Redmond to address them in 1912, only for him to tell them that he would not advocate women’s suffrage either before or after Home Rule. In public, he stated that it was a matter for a future Irish parliament, although two years of confrontations with suffragettes at the annual convention saw all women banned from there in 1912.

The suffrage movement also faced more straight-talking opponents. such as the National League for Opposing Woman Suffrage, which held meetings at which speakers (often female) would argue against suffrage on such grounds as the “injurious effect on themselves by placing on them new responsibilities” and the “depreciation in the validity of the law” likely to follow from female legislation.

Going into 1912, then, many Irish movements found themselves at a crossroads – most obviously nationalists, unionists, workers and women. None could have known that the path ahead would prove advantageous for some and disastrous for others – nor the extraordinary manner in which the chips would fall.

Read More