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John Horne: Ireland at the Crossroad, 1920-21. Nation, Empire, Partition Professor John Horne

25 February 2021

A Úachtaráin agus a chairde.

Thank you, President Higgins, for inviting me to address this second session of Machnamh 100 on the events of a century ago. You asked me to put them in a wider context. It is no easy task.

Nothing less was at stake in 1920-1921 than Ireland’s sovereignty, its contested future, its fractured territory and the outcome of a war. A crossroad - that still shapes our lives today. Yet it was, indeed, part of a wider context, a ‘world crisis’, and reflecting on this may help us to think about our national history. However, this is not history for history’s sake. You also ask us to think about ‘ethical commemoration’. I take this seriously and shall do so at the end. But first, and bearing that in mind, let me reflect on Ireland’s crossroad in terms of nation, empire and partition, through all of which runs the theme of violence. 


Ireland a century ago, we know, was embroiled in a war fought in the name of Irish sovereignty by nationalists and opposed not just by the British but by those in Ireland who wished to preserve the Union. Put thus, it has the ring of inevitability. That comes from what went before (the home rule crisis, the Great War, Easter 1916, the rise of Sinn Féin) and from what came after, including the eventual Republic. Also, nationality has since become the basis of state-hood and citizenship worldwide. In 1948 the UN declared it a human right.

So it seems to me vital to break this teleology, this logic of inevitability, and recall just how fluid relations between nation, state and empire were in the era of the First World War (1912-23) and how diverse the sources of sovereignty were (by which I mean political authority). Colonial empires were at their peak, the British the largest. Dynastic empires (Habsburg, Romanov, Ottoman) which had ruled Eastern Europe, Russia and the Middle East for centuries only collapsed with the war, leaving multiple nationalities and new nation-states. And nationality did not always imply statehood. Nations might exist inside a state or an empire. If a nation became a state, who belonged to it? How did it assert its sovereignty?

Ireland before 1914, was a laboratory of such ideas. Regarding the state, physical force for full independence vied with a legislated path to home rule. As for the nation, Thomas Davis imagined it in the 1840s open to ‘the stranger within our gates’ as to ‘the Irishman of a hundred generations.’ Later, there were more overtly cultural views, to which the Anglo-Irish (like Davis) contributed. Cultural nationalism mapped onto home rule politics even if a new generation urged full independence (Roy Foster’s ‘vivid faces’). In Ulster, mobilisation against home rule honed an opposed (and also cultural) sense of nationality in defence of the union. All this shaped plans ranging from home rule in 1914 to the Irish Convention of 1917, from the Government of Ireland Act, 1920, with its two parliaments, north and south (plus federal elements), to the Free State’s limited sovereignty. But such solutions were not just Irish. They also abounded elsewhere in the world, e.g. in Austria-Hungary (Arthur Griffith’s model for a joint Anglo-Irish monarchy) or Britain’s settler dominions. 

However, in the second half of the First World War, Irish nationalists radically redefined the relations of nation, state and sovereignty. We can find purely Irish reasons for this (which it is how it is usually seen). But I want to suggest that it was also part of the ‘world crisis’ that I mentioned at the beginning. For the Great War was above all an existential war. It mobilised whole peoples but at the cost of huge sacrifice. With German defeat, the fall of Europe’s empires, the Russian revolution and colonial revolt, it galvanised the issue of sovereignty. Who ruled, by what authority, to what end? What was to be the role of the people in politics? US president Woodrow Wilson caught this Zeitgeist with his idea of ‘self-determination.’ Briefly, he was a secular Messiah.

Sean T. O’Kelly, famously went to Wilson in Paris in 1919 with the First Dáil’s ‘Message to the Free Nations of the World’. This summoned other sovereign nations to support ‘the Irish Republic by recognising Ireland’s national status and her right to its vindication at the [Paris] Peace Congress.’ The case was not dismissed as that of a colony (as were those of India, Egypt and others) but because the Allies saw Ireland as a matter of internal British sovereignty.

Ireland was thus caught up in the ‘Wilsonian moment’ of 1919 despite Wilson ignoring Ireland. But while the Allies sought to build a European order with the new nation-states and through the League of Nations, Ireland was initially barred from this. It was ironic. There was something deeply European both in Ireland’s claim to be part of this new order and in the form it took at home. For the first Dáil acted as a classic constituent assembly in the tradition of the French Revolution, while also invoking the nation proclaimed by insurrection in 1916. Remarkably, it also forged an underground state in resistance to the British. This was national sovereignty in action. Could it have been pursued non-violently, as Gandhi tried in India at the same time? We shall never know.

That such a zero-sum clash over sovereignty (Irish versus British) led to war in Ireland is not surprising. But neither was it uniquely Irish. I have argued elsewhere that a ‘greater war’ prolonged something of the violence of the Great War until c.1923. The Allies tried to make a Europe of nation-states but they did so in a world still in flames. Their writ was limited by wars, national revolutions, counter-revolutions and the world threat of Bolshevism. For example, the Poland they decreed ended up twice as big after wars with Lithuania, Ukraine and Russia. Ireland’s war of independence (and civil war) were part of this ‘greater war.’ A century ago, Ireland shared a specific European context.

Since the loyalties and identities of ordinary people were at stake in these border, national and revolutionary wars in Europe, and since the combatants included militias and paramilitaries, civilians tended to be both subjects and actors of violence. We could draw a grim diagram of mutual dehumanisation. One side might stigmatise the foe as collaborators or informers, the other as rebels, terrorists or ‘Bolsheviks’, feeding a spiral of repressive or dissuasive brutality. When Major Bernard Montgomery (the victor of El Alamein, who had Donegal roots) recalled that in battling the IRA in Cork in early 1921: ‘It never bothered me how many houses were burned. I regarded all civilians as Shinners’ (Sinn Féiners), he was voicing a sentiment heard from Silesia to Latvia, the Ruhr to Budapest. Yet this does not mean that violence was the same on both sides in Ireland, let alone everywhere else. The violence varied in nature and intensity, which brings me to my second theme, empire.


One way to understand the war of independence is as a colonial conflict. This was often how it was portrayed by republicans at the time. This is perhaps not self-evident, if only because the ‘colonial’ was so multi-layered in Ireland and its meaning varied so much. The union, after all, was the status quo of the British state itself. That made the First Dáil, let alone the IRA’s guerrilla war, a head-on challenge unlike any other colonial war. The Great War, the Sinn Féin challenge and a Europe of nation-states meant even Lloyd George’s Conservative-led coalition now took some Irish devolution to be inevitable. The die-hard unionist, Walter Long, told cabinet as much in 1919, referring to the new European order. Ireland might, it was accepted, have autonomy within the UK. But the price (signalled by the pre-war home rule crisis) was the exclusion of Ulster unionists, with their claim to be a distinct people. On this reckoning, nation and sovereignty, not empire, drove the Anglo-Irish war.

Yet in other, often paradoxical, ways, the language and realities of empire enveloped the conflict. The insurgents saw themselves as battling not just Britain but its global imperialism. In this they reflected back Britain’s own self-image of an imperial mobilisation for the Great War. They drew on the legacy of those like James Connolly who put Ireland firmly in the camp of India or Egypt when condemning British oppression. This view was reinforced by events like the Amritsar massacre in India or the nationalist revolt of Saad Zaghloul in Egypt, both in 1919. As Art O’Brien, president of the Sinn Féin Association of Great Britain, remarked after Terence MacSwiney’s hunger strike in 1920: ‘From the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean it is the same combat against the same enemy. Today, we’re the avant-garde. But it isn’t just for Ireland that the Lord Mayor has died, it is so that the whole British empire is destroyed.’

As for the British, they faced what some at the time saw as a ‘crisis’ of empire. Historians debate the point. Did the empire reach its apex in 1919-20, as it absorbed ex-German colonies and the former Ottoman Middle East, or did protests in India, Egypt, Palestine and Ireland signal, as Art O’Brien hoped, the beginning of the end? I think both are true. It would take another world war to bring decolonisation but from 1919 to 1923, imperial over-reach amid post-war retrenchment prompted a crisis of which Ireland was part. In mid-1920, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir Henry Wilson, feared ‘the loss of Ireland to begin with; the loss of the Empire in the second place; and the loss of England itself to finish up with.’ A southern unionist (he was a Longford man, killed by two IRA gunmen in 1922), he saw through the glass darkly. But the sentiment typified British Conservatism more generally.

Colonialism shaped British responses in other ways. Reactions to the famine seventy years earlier exposed a double standard in behaviour imbued with the racial ‘othering’ which characterised rule in the non-settler colonies. Now, to see Sinn Féiners (and by extension the Irish) as barbaric, even ‘Bolshevik,’ justified a use of force by the regular army and above all by the RIC Auxiliaries that would not have been tolerated in Britain despite a wave of social unrest in the post-war years. It indeed echoed that used in India and Egypt. Yet many in Britain did not see the Irish like this. The 1920s were not the 1840s. Much had changed, including reforms in Ireland on the land, in education and  welfare. Plans for home rule were proof of this. Ironically, home rule also suggested empire, but a quite different one - the self-governing dominion. It was a model enhanced by the dominions’ role in the war (especially Canada and Australia) and their independent status at the Paris peace conference.

These different threads of empire were woven into the ending of the war. By mid-1921, there was deadlock. Militarily, the IRA could not win, but the British had lost the battle for legitimacy. The price of enforcing rule in nationalist Ireland was a revolt by liberal opinion at home. This remained convinced that Britain had fought the Great War for liberal values, including the rights of small nations. It accused the crown forces in Ireland of ‘Prussianism’, that is to say of atrocities (burning Balbriggan, Cork) like those of the Germans in Belgium in 1914. Sir Neville Macready, Commander-in-Chief, advised Lloyd George to negotiate - or fight a different war: ‘Will the cabinet begin to howl when they hear of us shooting a hundred men in one week?’ he asked. It was, I think, that tipping-point of counter-insurgency. In the 1950s, for the British in Kenya, the French in Algeria, it was when the violence spun out of control.

In Ireland, this did not happen. Following King George V’s appeal on opening the new Northern Ireland Parliament, came the Truce in July 1921. I don’t mean to downplay the violence that did occur. But maybe the fact that Irish nationalists fought a state to which they also talked distinguished the war from bloodier inter-ethnic conflicts in Eastern Europe where the imperial state had collapsed. Deaths in the Anglo-Irish war (as Eunan O’Halpin and Daithí Ó Corráin have shown) were low by comparison. Moreover, if the war was less violent than some later wars of decolonisation, perhaps it foreshadowed those later wars, in that the colonial power ultimately had a limited stake while the rebels used the twin-track Irish model, political and military. Yet the tool used in the Anglo-Irish Treaty of January 1922 to square the circle over sovereignty and give a peaceful path to full independence (‘the freedom to achieve freedom’) was dominion status. Partition was the pre-condition, civil war the price.


Partition, my last theme, puts Ulster at the heart of Ireland’s crossroad. We can see partition (the segregation of religious and ethnic groups by dividing territories) as one more tool of empire. It had been tried before 1914 in India, with the failed attempt to partition Bengal, as it would be in the new colony in Palestine. Yet we can also see it in the European context I began with in terms of the contradictions of nationalism.

For the Allies at the peace conference wrestled with overlapping ethnic and religious identities as they tried to reconcile frontiers with peoples. Many new nation-states had other national elements within while claiming nationals of their own in neighbouring states. Nation and minority were inextricably linked (indeed, ‘minority’ as a political term dates from this period) and the relationship was often framed in terms of ‘disloyalty’ and irredentism. This mattered less for a civic, pluralist idea of nationality, as espoused by Woodrow Wilson. But with the singular ethno-nationalism that so often prevailed in the new Europe (as later in the post-colonial world), minority protection was vital. Minority rights were stitched into the new state constitutions (e.g. that of Poland guaranteed the Jewish sabbath) and their protection concerned the League of Nations.

The ‘two Irelands’ created in 1920-21 faced this question, albeit in unequal measure. In the south, during the War of Independence, the Protestant population fell by a third. Reasons for emigration varied - economic, cultural, intimidation, alleged ‘collaboration’ - but it occurred on a patchy basis. The IRA was not sectarian as such and Protestants were a minority of those killed, if disproportionately so. Any tendency to stigmatise a minority by its religion or old loyalties was local, limited and not endorsed by the new state - which is not to say that Protestants always felt at ease in the post-war south.

In Northern Ireland, however, the failure of the union to provide a one-state solution for both islands threatened unionists with minority status in the event of an all-island republic. The answer was to reconfigure the union in Ireland as a territorial enclave. While the Ulster covenant of 1912 had shown the ability of unionists to defend ‘equal citizenship’ in the United Kingdom, the logic of events since 1916 pushed them towards a devolved state in order to do so. It realigned state, nation and sovereignty in opposition to Sinn Féin.

Catholics and nationalists caught in this enclave became, in the modern sense, a minority. Tensions going back to the colonisation and subsequent industrialisation of Ulster were brutally redefined a century ago in ways that made Northern Ireland more akin to central and eastern Europe. Timothy Wilson has shown this in his comparison with Silesia, where Germans and Poles fought a bitter ethnic war in 1919-21. Shipyard expulsions in Belfast, in July 1920, and the ‘pogroms’ of 1920 to 1922 used violence to corral and redefine the living space of a minority that was not leaving. This was less guerrilla war than inter-communal conflict in the form of local siege. Battles in Belfast even reminded some of the western front, only the victims were mainly civilians.

The irony is that a form of home rule enabled northern unionists to invest their own identity as a distinct people in a partly autonomous state. The cost was institutionalised discrimination against a supposedly ‘disloyal’ minority. So much is commonplace. Less commonly acknowledged are the implications for the United Kingdom as a whole as it adjusted to partition. For it is a further irony that the UK, which had played a key role in creating the new European order, including its minorities protections, acquired its own minority in Northern Ireland. But because Ireland had been treated in Paris as a purely UK matter, the northern minority remained unrecognised as such and outside the remit of the League of Nations (despite the Free State joining the League and the new European order). For that - and for many other reasons - this consequence of partition remained frozen for nearly fifty years.

A Úachtaráin, I have tried to highlight the historical significance of Ireland’s crossroad a century ago by seeing it in the contexts of Europe, the British empire and a ‘world crisis’ down to 1923. I am conscious of what I’ve left out. For example, the class conflict (and socialism) of these years, epitomised by revolutionary Russia, gave a strong undertow to events in Ireland. But there remains your challenge of commemoration. This, as you explored in the first seminar, means recovery: of actors (the ‘vivid faces’), of victims, of the unheard. Yet the point of commemoration is also to interrogate the past for the sake of the present, and of ‘ethical’ commemoration, to do so not for pious or political reasons but in order to be critical and self-critical - in a word pluralist. I hope the frameworks I’ve suggested help in this endeavour. For me, commemoration includes using hindsight (but always understanding the past in its own terms) to ask what is important about the past now. Since the link of past to present changes all the time, answers are provisional and subjective. But in this spirit, let me end with four reflections from the present as I see it now.

First, sovereignty is relative, not absolute, a lesson sovereigns themselves have learned throughout history. It is a fiction, but one by which societies order their politics at home and abroad. It can be declined in degrees and practised at different levels. The only test is effectiveness, which includes being accepted. The events of a century ago were a hard, divisive lesson; but the Ireland which found a place briefly as a British dominion and later in Europe learned it to good effect. Now I find it striking to see the United Kingdom, whose empire dissolved mid-century, whose re-engagement with Europe has now ended and whose own union is under strain, wrestle with this same issue.

Second, the nation, too, is something we construct, though it is rooted in lived reality. It is also the main entity in which sovereignty has been vested over the past century, for good or evil. Often it has been for evil, as when a unitary or majority identity defines the nation (and so the state) to the cost of its minorities. With the rise of fascism and communism, this led to irredentist wars, the redrawing of borders and the destruction of minorities, contributing to the Second World War. A Europe premised on civic, pluralist politics had to be painfully rebuilt. Ireland clearly suffered nothing like this. But was it totally exempt? The south fashioned a robust democracy, no mean feat for a new state. But a conservative social consensus left a heavy burden, one that also weighed on relations with the north. In the north, however, the Irish version of the inter-war minority question did not merely persist. It took a thirty-year conflict before equal nationalities, a layering of sovereignty, civic rights and an end to southern irredentism addressed this legacy of partition.

Third, the nature of nationalism should not obscure the legacy of imperialism. Complex, many-sided (how could it be otherwise with a British Empire that ruled nearly a quarter of humankind in 1920?), this provided a way forward in Ireland in the dominion form I’ve described. That really is worthy of reflection. But it also resulted in the violence visited by the crown forces on Irish civilians and the Irish landscape. Cork city or Balbriggan, destroyed in late 1920, ought perhaps, in Anglo-Irish relations a century later, to be ‘sites of memory’ (to use the concept of historian Pierre Nora) or even of reconciliation (they were decried in Britain at the time). But are they? If Ireland was Britain’s oldest colony, the war of independence was its first war of decolonisation since the loss of America. It was part of a process (including Palestine, India, Malaya, Kenya) that lasted till the 1960s. I wonder if the UK has yet come to terms with this side of empire, its violence, and in particular that of decolonisation.

Finally, violence as such. The legitimacy of using violence to resist empire or occupation and assert sovereignty or defend a nation is an eternal debate. But violence always comes at a cost. In the era of the Great War, violence and politics were more closely linked than ever. Along with enrolment in legal mass armies, civilians took up arms as paramilitaries (for and against the state), as guerrillas, and so on. The Irish rebels were examples of this trend. But so, too, were the British irregulars and unionist paramilitaries in the north. The brutal short cut by which the gunman on any side presumes to incarnate the state or the national will cast a long shadow in Ireland (as elsewhere). Getting rid of armed paramilitaries, many of whose organisations trace their descent from the Great War era, has played out differently, south and north. But a hundred years on, it seems – seems – to have worked. Not the least important legacy of events a century ago may be our hard-won knowledge in both Ireland and the UK that peace (like sovereignty and the nation) is a process.

Thank you. And I look forward to your comments.