Academic journal article History Review

Britain and Ireland 1798-1921: Changing the Question or Altering the Answers? Simon Lemieux Shows How a Synoptic Approach Enables Us to Appreciate the True Nature of the Irish Question

Academic journal article History Review

Britain and Ireland 1798-1921: Changing the Question or Altering the Answers? Simon Lemieux Shows How a Synoptic Approach Enables Us to Appreciate the True Nature of the Irish Question

Article excerpt

'Every time the English tried to solve the Irish Question, the Irish changed the question ' is a very familiar starting point for most students of Anglo-Irish relations during this period. Less familiar perhaps is the origin of that well-used phrase; it surfaced first in Sellar and Yeatman's humorous book on British history 1066 and All That first published in 1930. What they actually wrote was 'Gladstone spent his declining years trying to guess the answer to the Irish question; unfortunately, whenever he was getting warm, the Irish secretly changed the question.' The aim of this article is to examine this proposition in more depth. Firstly, did the Irish really change the question? Secondly, and perhaps more significantly for those tackling this topic as a synoptic theme, what were the main changes in Ireland both internally and externally during this period? Rather than attempt to provide a potted history of Ireland or of the Irish policy of successive British governments, the emphasis is on themes and trends, rather than chronology or causation.

The Irish Question

The answer to the first question 'Did the Irish change the question?', is essentially that no they did not. The majority of the Irish saw the question as ridding themselves of unacceptable aspects of enforced British overlordship, from 1798 and the rout of Wolf Tone's rebellion (leading in 1801 to the imposition of the Act of Union) to the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty that guaranteed virtual independence to the bulk of Ireland excepting six counties in Ulster. (See the Glossary for an explanation of terms in bold print.) For many in Ireland it was 'the national demand', a desire to break the connection with England which dated back to the 16th century. For nationalist Ireland, both the question and problem was Britain and how to modify or indeed remove her domination. What changed and differed were the specific targets or grievances, its intensity and the degree of success.

The remainder of this piece will focus on the changes that did take place concerning Ireland and Britain, whilst accepting that there was essentially continuity at the heart of the question. The areas to be covered will be: politics, economics, society, culture, religion and, lastly, Ireland and the wider world. It was these accumulated developments that caused and enabled the repeal of the Union in 1921 and thus the final answer to the Irish question for Ireland outside Ulster.


The most significant political change was what might be termed the politicisation of nationalist Catholic Ireland. In 1800, the main opponents of the Act of Union, which replaced a devolved Irish Parliament in Dublin with direct rule from Westminster, were Protestants such as Grattan and Emmet. Catholics were largely excluded from the process of government, few could vote and none could stand for election. Largely voiceless and powerless, Catholic Ireland remained largely unorganised politically until Daniel O'Connell's campaign for Catholic Emancipation in the 1820s. The success of his Catholic Association in achieving its goal in 1829, and an extension of the vote in 1832, meant that the way was now open for Catholic and nationalist parties to fight elections and increasingly dominate Ireland's contingent of Westminster MPs. A further expansion of the franchise in 1867 and the adoption of the secret ballot in 1872 further helped the nationalist parties. Such political organisation reached its apogee in the 1880s under Charles Stuart Parnell (himself actually an agnostic Protestant) and his Irish Home Rule Party. In 1885, all bar one constituency outside Protestant Ulster were won by his party. Sinn Fein, on a more radical platform demanding complete separation from Britain, were to achieve a similar domination following the 1918 general election.

This politicisation of Ireland (enabled by both capable leadership and political reforms passed in London) meant that Ireland's grievances were now much more fully articulated in the House of Commons. …

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