The centenary of the end of World War I comes as the UK is seeking to finalise the terms of its exit from the European Union. There is a strong historical resonance between both events. The issue of Ireland’s relationship with the UK, the nature of the Irish border, and the exertion of Ulster unionists in Westminster are as central to British politics today as they were in 1918.
The final details of the UK’s divorce from Europe are complicated by the Irish border. And the origins of that border lie in a previous secession from a wider political union – that of the independent Irish state from the United Kingdom in 1921. The process which led to the partition of Ireland and Irish independence owed much to political and military developments within the United Kingdom as a direct result of the end of the Great War.
When the war ended in 1918, the British government had to resolve the issue of devolved government for all or part of Ireland. Legislation to do this had been passed in September 1914 but was sidelined at the outbreak of war.
By November 1918, it was not simply a question of seeking to implement the suspended legislation. Public opinion in nationalist southern Ireland had changed during the war. Resentment at the suppression of the 1916 Easter Rising and the abortive effort to introduce conscription in Ireland earlier in 1918 had radicalised Irish nationalist opinion. The limited offer of devolution that had been acceptable in 1914 was no longer adequate to satisfy Irish demands for greater self-determination. That was especially true in a post-war context, in which new nation states were emerging from the ruins of European empires.
The post-war general election in the UK, held in December 1918, revealed the extent to which Irish political opinion had changed. The pro home-rule Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), which had held the majority of Irish seats at Westminster in the preceding 1910 general election, was reduced to holding just six of the 105 Irish seats in parliament.
Sinn Féin, meanwhile, took 73 of the Irish seats, interpreting the result as a mandate to establish a republic by withdrawing from Westminster and founding an alternative constituent assembly in Ireland. This was achieved the following year with the inaugural sitting of the Dáil Éireann. The establishment of an alternative administration in Ireland between 1919 and 1921 coincided with the Irish Republican Army’s (IRA) guerrilla campaign for independence. But Ulster unionists also did well in the 1918 election, taking 23 of the 30 seats contested in what would become Northern Ireland.
The election outcome was significant for the Irish settlement that would emerge in 1921. Liberal leader David Lloyd George was returned as prime minister but his coalition government was dominated by the Conservative Party, which would ensure that the best interests of Ulster unionists were protected. As a result, when Ireland was partitioned, the six (of nine) Ulster counties that comprised Northern Ireland were selected to protect the unionist majority.
Skillful exploitation of political allies in Westminster ensured that unionists achieved the deal that they felt offered the best protection of their status within the UK. The border distanced them further from “disloyal” southern nationalists. Many unionist Brexit supporters also saw the 2016 referendum as an opportunity to reinforce that distance.
End of empire
Events in Ireland are not adequately recognised when we talk about how the war affected the United Kingdom. The defeated powers saw their empires broken but the UK did not emerge territorially intact either. The political entity that entered the war in 1914 would emerge in 1921 minus over one-fifth of its landmass. The UK that had been created in 1801 (when Ireland was added) had begun to break up.
What’s more, the Irish served as an example to other colonial nationalists seeking independence, especially in India. In this sense, the war can be seen as marking the beginning of the end of the empire – not a strengthening of it.
An Irish partitionist settlement that evolved in 1921, as a consequence of the war’s end, and which was later replicated with equally problematic consequences in India in 1947, continues to cause geo-political and economic problems for Anglo-Irish and wider European relations, as evidenced by the current impasse over Brexit.
The nature of Irish partition was the result of unionists capitalising on their political influence at Westminster to ensure the most favourable delineation of the boundaries of Northern Ireland. A century later, their political descendants are exerting similar influence to ensure the continuation and strengthening of that border.