Picture by Fritz Rambo
Over the past few days, I’ve heard the sentiment expressed, that the Easter Rising was responsible for the eventual partition of Ireland – was it really?
There’s no disputing the fact, that the Easter Rising was a momentous event in Irish History. The consequences of the Easter Rising were instrumental in altering public opinion and radicalising the political climate of the time. To simplify and embellish the Rising as the single cause of partition is a failure to fathom the wider historical ambience of the time. Partition should not be seen in isolation and attributed solely to one event – partition, as a potential solution to the 1912-14 crisis, was well in existence, before the Easter Rising planning, never mind the commencement of the event.
The Liberal Government under Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, introduced a 3rd Home Rule Bill for Ireland, not because they wanted too, but because they had too, largely the product of parliamentary arithmetic, to survive in power. The constitutional crisis from 1909, precipitated by the anti-Irish House of Lords, enabled John Redmond’s Irish Party to hold the balance of power, offering support to a Liberal Government and in turn an inadvertent “commitment” to Home Rule was reciprocated. Asquith was not an enthusiastic proponent of Home Rule and his attitude to the Bill throughout the 1912-14 illustrates this. Before a Home Rule Bill was even introduced, elements within the Liberal Party were already considering partition (exclusion) for Ulster, namely Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George, who feared a Unionist backlash in Ulster, the “Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right” mentality that had already publicly opposed two previous Home Rule Bills. Augustine Birrell, Irish Chief Secretary, had even stated that some form of partition would ensure that would be no Civil War. Asquith’s response “we are not going to be frightened by the menace of Civil War.” How Asquith was to eat these words!
The Bill that was introduced into the House of Commons on 11th April 1912, was Home Rule for all-Ireland. No provision for Ulster was made, although the Bill stated “if fresh evidence or facts or the pressure of British opinion dictates, this may take the form of special treatment for Ulster” . This would mean special provision for Ulster in essence, partition – even at an early stage, this became a reality for the Government. According to Professor Michael Laffan, a partitionist amendment to the Bill could have settled the Ulster question, before it came back to hunt him. Patricia Jalland believes failure to concede on Ulster was a “fatal error” and may have “prevented a dangerous growth in Ulster Unionist militancy.” By August 1912, Churchill in a letter to Lloyd George was ready for partition, when he stated “the time has come for action about Ulster to be settled.”
The Ulster Unionist campaign that emanated during this period was to force the Liberal Government into a rethink, into a compromise partitionist disposition. The embryonic Unionist objective was to destroy the Bill in its entirety – Unionists akin to Nationalists believed Ireland must be treated as an indivisible unit, Carson’s mythology was to “use Ulster as a weapon to break Home Rule.” As the crisis developed, this was to change, political pragmatism took preference. The verbal menace and often treasonous, contemptuous and inflammatory speeches of Edward Carson and Andrew Bonar Law radicalised Irish society. The intensification of the crisis took on a militant image with the formation of the Ulster Volunteers Force. By September 1913, Asquith’s “wait and see” strategy was abandoned as compromise talks proceeded, in the form of a partitionist settlement. Edward Carson’s own view had moved to a compromise, partitionist mind-set. Carson had been long threatening of establishing a Provisional Government in Ulster, that would be cut off from a Dublin Home Rule Parliament, “the morning Home Rule passes, ourselves to become responsible for the government of the Protestant province of Ulster.” In September 1913, in a letter to Bonar Law, Carson stated “the minimum would be six plantation counties.” Bonar Law had been moving towards a partitionist settlement. Asquith, now willing to move on this, even at the risk of provoking Redmond.
When the Liberal Government offered concessions to Unionist resistance, it seemed that their extreme measures had been vindicated. By 1914, Asquith had presented Redmond and Carson with partitionist proposals. Redmond accepted partition albeit in the words of Asquith, “Redmond shivered visibly and was a great deal perturbed.” Acceptance of compromise now put Redmond in a weak position, an Gandhi said “any compromise on mere fundamentals is a surrender.” Did Redmond have a choice? Carson rejected the proposal, wanting permanent partition as opposed to temporary, stating “we do not want a sentence of death with a stay of execution for 6 years.” Subsequent events such as the Curragh Mutiny and the landing of 25000 rifles at Larne undermined Home Rule to the extent that the Unionist ultimatum, partition, was unavoidable.
The Home Rule Act reached the statue books with Royal assent in 1914, but its implementation was suspended due to the commencement of WW1. A proviso within the Act included an amendment clause for Ulster counties to remain under London administration for a time, yet to be agreed. Partition was already an inevitability before the Rising began! Redmond, the leader of Irish nationalism, fought tenaciously against partition, had accepted this concession as a compromise to pacify Ulster Unionists and avoid Civil War. Carson and Unionists, backed by a Lords recommendation, supported the governments Amending Bill in the House of Lords on 8th July 1914 to temporarily partition Ulster from the workings of a future Act. Respective leaders, Carson and Redmond had accepted Partition, though vehemently opposed the concept when the crisis began.
There’s no doubting the impact of the Easter Rising on Post rising Ireland. The sea change in public opinion after the executions, mass arrests, imposition of martial law and the impeding conscription crisis succeeded in advancing radical nationalism at the expense of constitutional nationalism. After the Rising, Home Rule, was replaced with the drive National self determination, further compounded by Sinn Fein’s electoral rise and success in 1918 General Election. It could be argued that the Rising was a precursor for events to come,that in essence killed the imposition of Home Rule. It could be argued that the Rising was the catalyst for, what was to become the Free State, gaining additional powers through dominion status. Would this power have been offered by the British, without the Rising?
In the aftermath of the Rising, the Lloyd George Negotiations recommended the proposals that had been formalised pre War, compromise, in the form of partition. Both Redmond and Carson accepted the partition, although the ambiguity of what was on offer, resulted in the Collapse of negotiations.
In a British parliamentary context, Partition was inevitable, as the Conservative Party eventually strengthened their power and influence. In 1914, the Liberal government ruled the United Kingdom; in 1915 the Conservatives became a minority in coalition; in 1916 they became preponderant when the Liberals split; and after 1918 they were the dominant party in Government. Power had shifted from the allies of Irish Nationalists to the allies of Ulster Unionism. Lloyd George, the Prime Minster, a supporter of partition since 1912, was responsible for the fourth Home Rule Bill, the Government of Ireland Act, 1920 with a heavily weighted Ulster Unionist alliance including Walter Long.
It would be irrational to attribute the Easter Rising solely to the partition of Ireland. I believe the partition of Ireland was already in motion, the political dynamics existent from 1912 created a partitionist mind-set making it a potential solution to the unsolvable Irish question. The British Government had introduced the concept of partition in 1912 and made the concept a functional reality – the partition foundations were laid, as the crisis unfolded, the building structure was added. The partitionist proposals pre-Rising, became the accepted solution post-Rising. By 1921, Unionists who opposed partition, ten years earlier, and whom the concept gradually evolved, were only more than willing to operate within an area of their choice.