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Unionists Oppose Home Rule For Ireland History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

Home rule was very dominant in domestic British politics. Home rule was about getting Ireland more of a say in how it was governed, rather than being ruled from London. However the idea of home rule divided Ireland. There were those in Ireland that wanted more power and those who felt home rule would weaken Ireland. It began in Ireland in the 1870’s but it was not until the 1880’s that Gladstone was won over by the idea. Once he was on board it meant unionists could no longer rely on the British governments support against it. In 1911 it would have been unthinkable to think that in just 10 years time Ireland would be divided into two. However Ulster had always been more isolated. It had become a stronghold for protestant settlement in the seventeenth century and was a stronghold for British influence. It had large numbers of Scottish and English immigrants. ‘In the course of the seventeenth century the proportion of the population with English or Scottish blood rose from 2% to 27%.’ [1] .

Therefore the creation of home rule in Ireland was the idea of an Irish parliament with the legislative authority in matters of Irish concern, and of an Irish executive responsible for its acts to the Irish Parliament or the Irish people. Ireland had little direct impact on her own development. There would firstly be the creation of an Irish Parliament; the right for it to create its own legislation, with freedom from the British parliament. Home Rule therefore does not mean Local Self-Government; Home Rule does not mean National Independence. Ireland would still be part of the British Empire. But many unionists feared it would be a step towards this and the breakup of the UK and the Empire, if Ireland got home rule then why should India not also. The concession of home rule would be interpreted as a sign of weakness and would have a domino effect and would encourage nationalist revolts leading to the loss of all British overseas possessions, including India, the most glittering jewel of the British Empire. [2] There were those in Ireland who wanted it such as the Irish home rule party and most Irish Catholics supported Home Rule, they felt that an Irish Parliament would treat them better than a Parliament based in London. A number of wealthy Protestant landlords also supported Home Rule. They thought that they would be running Ireland’s new Home Rule Parliament. This led to the first home rule bills in 1880s and 1890s, but both were rejected due to a large number of people in Ireland wanting to keep the union and many prominent figures in England such as Lord Salisbury and Lord Hartington and the House of Lords vetoing it. [3] 

The most significant works on home rule crisis are those produced by Hammond in 1938 and Cooke and Vincent in 1974. Hammonds when it first came out did not attract much attention but has recently been used to provoke generations of scholars. Cooke and Vincent have been used to explain the whole political process. They assert that Ireland was ‘little more than a pawn in a purely English parliamentary game’. [4] Later in 1977 Vincent published further works on home rule which have provoked debate and means it is now generally accepted that Gladstone’s main aim was to preserve the union, he was prepared to try all different sorts of reform to achieve this. The historian Parry has shown how it was suspected by contemporaries that Gladstone was never fully converted to home rule. ‘As a result of Parry’s work the study of high politics has acquired a deep and richer dimension’. [5] At present work focuses on the verbal expression of ideas.

Before home rule could be established there were a number of barriers to overcome. It had for many years been blocked by the house of lords, for example in 1886 and 1893 there had been two home rule bills which were both rejected by the Lords. They did not like the idea of Westminster power being reduced. The lords therefore vetoed the home rule bill for sometime but in 1911 the parliaments Act removed the Lords veto power. They could now only delay a bill for up to two years. So it now seemed home rule would be inevitable. Those who opposed the union argued they should have the right to govern themselves and their own nation. They were nationalists. The unionists knew the danger. Edward Carson a southern unionist spoke in 1911 ‘the morning home rule passes ourselves to become responsible for the government of the protestant province of Ulster’. [6] They were therefore making plans to set up a provisional government to rule Ulster if home rule happened. Ulster unionists were to remain part of the UK.

Unionists objected to home rule for a number of reasons, and this widened since 1880. One key argument was that it would be a step towards full separation, regardless of however many powers were withheld from Dublin. There was the question of whether England could afford to let her United Kingdom break up. The empire had been built up over centuries. They worried it would lead to the breakup of the Empire. Ireland was its oldest colony. This was at a time when other countries such as Germany and Italy were consolidating and looking for new territory. The UK could not afford to lose Ireland and then risk setting in motion a chain of losing other lands it had acquired. The unionists believed in strengthening and maintaining the ties between Ireland and Great Britain. They saw home rule as weakening the political and cultural ties. Unionism was focused on preserving the place of Northern Ireland within the UK. The union dates back to 1800 with the Act of Union. However there was a divide between unionists who were usually but not always protestant and Irish nationalists who were usually catholic. Ulster had always had strong links with Scotland. They were more radical than the church of Ireland. There had always been tension between those in the north and hose in the south. If Ireland did split from Britain the problem of how the Irish government would treat its protestant minority was a tricky one. It was held that the Irish unionist minority in Ireland had just as much right to protection and self-determination as did the Irish nationalist majority and should not be forced out of the union.

The home rule crisis was not only fought in Ireland and did not only effect Irish politics but deeply affected British politics. ‘It provoked a new and significant alignment in British politics’. Both British conservatives and Irish Protestants were opposed to home rule and the proposed legislation by Gladstone. British Conservatives enthusiastically supported the Unionists. In 1911 the conservatives got a new leader, Andrew Bonar Law. He was more committed to Unionists than previous conservative leaders. He gave two main reasons against the home rule bill, one being that it was simply corrupt and that it was unjust to expel unionists from the UK. It would be taking their British citizenship.

Irish unionists enjoyed the support for the resistance of home rule from the Conservative and Unionist Party in Great Britain. The British Conservative and Unionist opposition to home rule was just as much a mixture of principle and expediency as was the Liberal commitment of home rule. The Tories viewed home rule as a threat to imperial unity. Unlike Irish unionists who saw it as an attack on the act of union. To them it was more patriotism rather than imperialism. Conservatives wanted to maintain the integrity of the United Kingdom and the British Empire. They also argued that the union worked so why get rid of it. Keep the status quo, developments in communication brought Ireland closer to Great Britain. The Conservatives also needed an issue to rally around; they were politically dependant on Irish unionists. It made the party a well organised electorate machine.

Unionists argue that the union gives a sense of Britishness. It unified against Gladstone’s home rule bill of 1886. Unionists argue that it is stupid to opt out of the largest and richest empire in the world. Ireland relied on Britain for many things including its industries. For example the ship building in the North East needed Britain. Ship building brought prosperity to the city of Belfast. It had long surpassed Dublin as the commercial capital. ‘They argued that an Irish parliament dominated by rural based nationalists, would drain Ulster’s prosperity and discriminate against her industries’. [7] Aside from Ireland needing Britain, Britain needed Ireland. Ireland could be seen as a back door to invading Britain so Britain needed some control over it. If there was an Irish parliament that was hostile to England, Ireland could be used to get a hostile fleet to England. Unionists also argued that a nationalist dominated Parliament in Dublin would isolate their interests. The nationalists were predominantly Catholic. They believed Protestantism would be discriminated against if Ireland were to be independent it would be catholic. Ulster Protestants dreaded the idea of being ruled by politicians like those of the Irish party. They thought home rule would lead to violence and overall anarchy. Politicians’ like Balfour and Lord Salsbury thought the Irish masses were not ready for the responsibilities of self government and home rule would weaken British defences.

Also in terms of defence the British needed the Irish naval bases. They also argued the Irish were not capable of ruling themselves. They viewed Ireland as economically backward. Most unionists were members of the governing and landowning classes. They had prospered under British rule. Landowners in southern and western Ireland feared a nationalist assembly would introduce prosperity taxation which was not to their interests. They feared home rule would be like Rome and be oppressive and catholic. ‘A Dublin parliament would be the creature of the catholic hierarchy’. [8] Although the unionists had ground for fear there were also Catholics who were partly on their side. For example catholic bishops, such as Logue of Armagh, who distrusted the nationalist Party and was critical of it.

Edward Carson himself wrote many things stating his own reasons against home rule. For example the book against home rule, the case for union. He writes a small bit in the preface. His main reasons are it would weaken their national position. He thought it would put a stop to the increase in prosperity in Ireland which had resulted from the land purchase act. Also he thought a separate parliament in Ireland would lead to friction. His main argument was that it was wrong to impose it on the unionists of Ulster. ‘The only intelligible ground upon which home rule can now be defended is the nationality of Ireland. But Ireland is not a nation, it is two nations’. [9] He didn’t think it was fair for those that did not want home rule to be deprived of British rule, British law and British citizenship.

The home rule crisis split the liberal party; it lost a radical group which was led by Chamberlain. They called themselves the liberal unionists and drifted close to the conservatives who had now begun to call themselves unionists. The Irish unionists combined with the British unionist party. Gladstone even encountered opposition from a section of liberals within his own party. ‘Gladstone went out of his way to stress the sovereignty of Westminster Parliament was not in jeopardy’. [10] This was a concern for English unionists. But there opposition was also based on other serious reasons. Firstly how it would work. Without Irish representation in Westminster it could be seen as separatist. It did not give them a voice to speak on matters affecting their own self interests. However it would be unfair to give Ireland a parliament of its own and have them in Westminster. No other British group got this. Since 1886 the conservative party, who dominated the House of Lords, maintained close links with the Irish unionists. The British vote was the only way to get Home Rule for Ireland, only by convincing a majority of them to agree, could they win their own parliament. The reason for the British denial was simple, the security of Britain was the most important, also they wished to protect Irish Protestants from the Catholic majority, as well as many British believing the Irish inferior.

Overall, unionists opposed home rule for many reasons, defence was high up on this list, imperial defence demanded the maintenance of union, and the union was working and providing defence so why abandon it for home rule. By giving home rule this might lead to self government in other parts of their Empire which Britain did not want. It might set into action a chain of events. Also Ireland had financial difficulties since the famine crisis and many argued it was not capable of rulings itself. England was also dependant on Irish food supplies. Therefore Irish unionists opposed home rule because it was not beneficial to them, they were predominantly protestant and would be a minority under any home rule government, unionists in England on the other hand did not want the breakup of an Empire and did not think Ireland was ready nor needed to have home rule. Unionists felt the act of union was good for Ireland and wanted it retained. However there were those in Ireland mainly catholic who disagreed and leading politicians such as Gladstone who came round to the idea. However it is disputed whether he really pushed for it, he simply had to make a choice politically to ensure stability. In the end there had to be a compromise home rule was won for most of Ireland with 6 counties in Northern Ireland including Ulster remaining part of the union.

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