When Enemies United: Before the First World War, Irish Unionists and Nationalists Were Poised to Fight Each Other over the Imposition of Home Rule by the British. Then, Remarkably, They Fought and Died Side by Side

Article excerpt


In the summer of 1914 war threatened to engulf Ireland. Sure enough, it came in early August. But it was not the war that anybody had expected. For much of 1912-14 Ireland verged not on a Great War but on civil war. Yet remarkably, when Europe erupted into flames, Ireland's two rival paramilitary groups both marched to join the British army to fight against a common foe.

At the root of divisions in Belfast was the campaign for Home Rule, a form of devolution not independence. Home Rule consistently secured

the support of the vast majority of Irish voters in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, it was different in the north-east of Ireland (the greater part of the province of Ulster). There, unlike in the rest of the island, Protestants were in the majority. They feared that Home Rule would mean Rome Rule by a Catholic-dominated Dublin Parliament. They also had a fiercely British identity and believed that Home Rule would undermine the Union between Great Britain and Ireland.

While the House of Lords had powers to block any legislation from the Commons indefinitely, there was no question of Home Rule becoming law as the Conservatives (who opposed Home Rule) dominated the Lords. However, that changed with the 1911 Parliament Act which pared back the Lords' powers. Suddenly, it became clear that a combination of the votes of Liberal MPs and the Irish Parliamentary Party (the 'Nationalist' party led by John Redmond which represented most of Ireland) would inevitably lead to Home Rule.

When the Home Rule Bill of 1912 was introduced to Parliament, Unionists in Ulster resolved to resist in every way they could. Despite their staunch loyalty to the Crown, they believed that it was justified to resist Parliament, ultimately through force. The Unionist leader in Ireland, Edward Carson, led mass public opposition to Home Rule, primarily in Ulster. On 'Ulster Day', September 28th, 1912, 237,368 men and 234,046 women publicly declared their opposition by signing the Ulster Covenant, which declared that they would use 'all means which may be found necessary' to defeat Home Rule.

Many gave practical form to their opposition by joining a paramilitary organisation, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), which was ready to seize control of strategic locations to support a provisional government and ultimately to fight the British military and police. By the end of February 1914 the UVF had recruited around 90,000 men, one third of them in Belfast. There are questions about the true strength of this force, but the UVF became threatening enough when in April 1914 it landed 20,000 rifles it had purchased in Hamburg. Meanwhile, many members were uniformed and units steadily acquired the trappings of a regular army such as regimental colours.


Irish nationalism did not stand idly by while the UVF was established. In November 1913, led by Eoin MacNeill, a professor at University College, Dublin, the Irish Volunteers (IV) were established as a counterbalance to the UVF. Across Ireland their support soon topped that of the UVF, with as many as 40,000 in Ulster. Overtly, the Irish Volunteers used conciliatory language, aided by the fact that, if Home Rule were passed, they would be upholding the will of the British Parliament.

Bythe summer of 1914, the Home Rule Bill had passed through the Commons and was about to become law. One day in June the rival volunteer groups drilled in West Belfast. Carson told the UVF: 'Now, men, that you have got your arms, no matter what happens, I rely upon every man to fight for those arms to the end.' Although Redmond had initially been alarmed by the radical potential of the Irish Volunteers, his party had steadily gained influence over them and the Nationalist MP for West Belfast, Joseph Devlin, attended their parade.

So, by the summer of 1914, there were two paramilitary forces in West Belfast, implacably opposed and ready to fight for or against the imposition of Home Rule by the London government. …