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Ireland’s Global Revolution by Professor Fearghal McGarry

25th November, 2021

Prof Ferriter began by raising two questions central to understanding the settlements and conflicts of 1921-22. Why were many Irish revolutionaries committed to a republic rather than some lesser form of independence? And what did they understand the ‘Republic’ to mean?

Thinking about international post-war change provides useful insights into both questions. I want to develop three arguments here. First, the global context is central to understanding the rhetoric and strategies of Irish republicans during the revolution. Second, international developments shaped the settlements imposed on Ireland in important ways. Third, these global influences, particularly the evolution of ideas about sovereignty and empire after the First World War, have contemporary relevance as we commemorate these centenaries.

The impact of Easter 1916 was central to the embrace of the Republic. The legacy of the rebellion, as much emotional as ideological, saw the cause of the republic unite almost every faction of advanced nationalism by 1917 when Sinn Féin formally adopted the republic as its goal. Despite a long tradition of republican thought among Irish insurrectionaries, the decision to proclaim a republic in 1916 probably owed more to the contemporary political context, and the example of the United States (which five of the Proclamation’s seven signatories had visited). When Min Ryan asked Tom Clarke in the GPO why the Rising had proceeded in such unfavourable circumstances, Clarke told her that ‘a rebellion was necessary to make Ireland’s position felt at the Peace Conference so that its relation to the British Empire would strike the world’. When she asked him, ‘Why a republic’? Clarke explained: ‘You must have something striking in order to appeal to the imagination of the world’.

Although it seemed quixotic to many in 1916, the Republic was an idea whose time had come by 1919 when, following the collapse of the great empires, republics become the norm across much of Europe. Sinn Féin, as Diarmaid has noted, did not outline a clear sense of what the Republic might entail but it did propose a remarkably clear strategy of how it would be achieved. The party identified four means to secure a republic in its 1918 election manifesto: abstention from Westminster; political agitation; the establishment of an Irish parliament; and an appeal for recognition to the Peace Conference.

Sinn Féin’s appeal to a Peace Conference that had declared its intention to settle ‘the future of the Nations of the world . . . on the principle of government by consent of the governed’ was astute. Both republicans and imperialists understood the potentially incendiary implications of President Wilson’s Fourteen Points speech which seemed to herald a new world order based on national self-determination and the rule of international law rather than military might. Britain and France even felt it necessary to affirm, insincerely, that governments should derive ‘their authority from the initiative and free choice of the indigenous population’. In demanding a republic, Irish revolutionaries believed the tide of history was on their side. In the weeks prior to the general election, republics were proclaimed in Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Sinn Féin’s election leaflets highlighted how its demands had already been achieved by other peoples: ‘Poland free! An object lesson for Ireland. Poland is now Sinn Féin’.

Declaring independence, as republicans did when the Dáil first met in January 1919 was one thing: achieving it another. Whereas the Irish Party’s efforts to win self-government had centred on Westminster, Irish republicans saw international recognition as the key to attaining independence. The Irish Declaration of Independence, intended for a global as much as an Irish audience, demanded ‘the recognition and support of every free nation in the world’. The Dáil’s Message to the Free Nations of the World similarly called ‘upon every free nation to support the Irish Republic by recognising Ireland’s national status and her rights to its vindication at the Peace Congress’.

In retrospect, what is striking about early 1919 – the period we now recall as the start of the War of Independence – was the extent to which propaganda and politics rather than violence – were central to republican strategy. For many in Sinn Féin, the shootings at Soloheadbeg on the same day as the Dáil first met came as an unwelcome distraction from the carefully-orchestrated performance at the Mansion House in front of an audience of international correspondents.

But in practical (as opposed to propaganda) terms, the Peace Conference strategy was flawed. The ‘Big Four’ which determined its outcome were never likely to side – against Britain – with a movement that had identified itself with its ‘gallant’ German allies in 1916. Self-determination, moreover, was intended for the oppressed nations of the defeated empires rather than those of its victors.

So, rather than the Poles or Czechs, the position of Irish republicans was in some respects more analogous to the anti-colonial nationalists who were similarly excluded from the Peace Conference. With their hopes initially raised – and then dashed – by what Erez Manela has described as the ‘Wilsonian moment’, Indian and Egyptian revolutionaries (the countries with which Ireland was most frequently compared) embarked on similar campaigns. They rejected offers of limited self-government, agitated at home and abroad, and drew on Wilsonian rhetoric to articulate longstanding grievances in drawn-out campaigns that eventually led to partial independence.

Surveying Irish efforts within this context, what is perhaps most striking is the extent to which similar anti-imperial strategies were common to diverse revolutionary movements. For example, declarations of Independence; the establishment of provisional republican governments; appeals to the Peace Conference, followed by the transfer of revolutionary diplomatic efforts to Washington DC; the mobilisation of diasporic support; presidential tours across the United States; and the floating of national loans were deployed by Korean as well as Irish republicans in 1920.

What most marked out the Irish among these revolutionary movements was the relative size and influence of its diaspora, a product of the post-Famine migration that had scattered almost two million people across the globe, but was concentrated in the new global superpower that was the US. Consequently, the Irish were perhaps the most politically influential of the global revolutionary movement’s disappointed by the failure to secure recognition at Paris. Not for nothing did President Wilson blame the Irish for wrecking his presidency when he failed to win domestic political support for League of Nations membership.

How did international factors shape the settlements that brought the Irish conflict to an end? Arguably, popular memory and State commemoration of the independence struggle places more emphasis than is warranted on the domestic and military dimensions of a campaign that prioritised political struggle, revolutionary diplomacy, and international propaganda. As Michael Collins advised the Dáil’s representative in Rome, ‘Real progress is much more to be estimated by what is thought abroad than by what is thought at home.’ The commander-in-chief in Ireland, General Neville Macready, similarly acknowledged, ‘This propaganda business is the strongest weapon [Sinn Féin] has.’

Even military events within Ireland, such as the sacking of Balbriggan and Cork by the Black and Tans, were as significant for their international reverberations as their impact at home. British actions in Ireland provoked dismay and outrage (including within Britain), while international press coverage had a devastating impact on Britain’s global reputation.

The mobilization of the Irish diaspora ensured that events at home resonated across the world, ensuring that ‘the Irish question’ transcended narrow ethnic politics. One striking example was the impact of the hunger strike by Terence MacSwiney who became a global icon whose cause prompted protests and strikes involving anti-imperial, anti-colonial, socialist, and trade-union movements. Despite Irish-American racism, and the tendency of some Irish republicans to base their claim to self-government in part on ‘whiteness’, such displays of solidarity included prominent black-rights activists such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey (as explored recently by David Brundage and Miriam Nyhan Grey).

Imperialists similarly perceived the Irish question as rooted in broader struggles. Sir Henry Wilson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, linked the challenge from Irish republicans with labor unrest in Britain, Bolshevism, and global anti-colonial agitation. Britain, he noted in his diary, ‘is fighting New York & Cairo & Calcutta & Moscow who are only using Ireland as a tool & lever against England, & nothing but determined shooting on our part is any use.’ Imagined or real, these connections shaped British decision-making as to how the Irish war should be conducted and concluded, with the implications for imperial rule in Egypt and India frequently cited by figures such as Wilson who declared, ‘If we lose Ireland we have lost the Empire.’

For British politicians, as Maurice Walsh has noted, among ‘the most discomfiting feature of events in Ireland was that tactics of imperial repression usually concealed were now being documented and described in the daily press’. The condemnation of reprisals by conservative as well as liberal newspapers in Britain (and America) prompted concerns about the morality and efficacy of David Lloyd George’s Irish policy, undermining his government’s resolve to sustain its counter-insurrectionary campaign despite increasing military success in the final months of the conflict. An awareness that it was losing the propaganda war, not least in the United States, explains the British government’s humiliating decision to negotiate with a movement it had recently condemned as a ‘murder gang’.

The settlements that followed were similarly shaped by international pressures and imperial calculations. The fateful decision to devolve power to a Unionist-controlled northern state (rather than merely excluding Ulster from an Irish settlement) resulted, in part, from a desire to be seen to conform to the gospel of self-determination.

Like the Treaty settlement to follow, partition was shaped by concerns about other troublesome parts of the empire such as Palestine and Egypt where a new terminology of mandates, Free States, and dominions was coined to facilitate the containing of nationalist aspirations for independence within reconfigured imperial frameworks.

Wider shifts in liberal political thought, as Arie Dubnov has observed, shaped the appeal of partition as a means for resolving national differences within imperial structures. The ‘un-mixing of peoples’ through the creation of national self-governing states was regarded positively by the international community, as was demonstrated by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne where the redrawing of borders was accompanied by mass population transfers. Irish partition influenced partition plans in Palestine and India. Only after the Second World War was it widely conceded that partition was a violent process that intensified conflict over national identities and minorities within partitioned states.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 was similarly shaped by international factors and imperial considerations. Pressure from the US and British Empire contributed to London’s decision to concede an Irish dominion, a form of statehood defined in the Treaty’s first article of agreement as having ‘the same constitutional status’ as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. As Diarmaid has noted, imperial figures such as the South African statesman J.A. Smuts, through his influence on the King, helped to facilitate the Treaty settlement.

Through its diaspora, Irish republicans wielded considerable influence on Britain’s Irish policy. Explaining to British MPs the necessity for the unpopular concession of Dominion status, Winston Churchill noted how Britain’s ‘great interests in India and in Egypt’, the Dominions, and the United States had been damaged ‘by the loud insistent outcry raised by the Irish race all over the world’. In his influential Caird Hall speech advocating a Treaty that extended his government ‘to the utmost limit possible’, Churchill argued that it would ‘not only be a blessing in itself estimable, but with it would be removed the greatest obstacle which has ever existed to Anglo-American unity, and that far across the Atlantic Ocean we should reap a harvest sown in the Emerald Isle.’

As Heather Jones has argued in an important essay in The Irish Revolution: A Global History, both the king’s speech at the opening of the Northern Irish parliament and British debates on the oath of allegiance during the Treaty negotiations demonstrated the shift in British imperial ideas that was occurring in – but also through – Ireland. As George V noted during his visit to Belfast: ‘everything which touches Ireland finds an echo in the remotest parts of the Empire.’

The Irish were negotiating their terms of self-government at a time of rapid change for the British Empire. For many Irish revolutionaries, political developments since Easter 1916 made the notion of an oath of allegiance to a British monarch unthinkable because a particular form of state, the republic, had become synonymous with independence. Conversely, for many British politicians, the role of the monarch as the crucial element that would bind together a political community of nations transitioning from a London-governed Empire to a less hierarchical Commonwealth of Nations (a term first used in the Anglo-Irish Treaty) was too important to allow for compromise on the oath. These transnational developments help to explain the difficulty of fashioning a Treaty settlement acceptable to both Irish republicans and British imperialists, and the drift to Civil War that resulted.

Ultimately, Britain’s insistence on the role of the monarch and Empire in the Treaty proved a pyrrhic victory, delegitimising for many Irish nationalists the Irish Free State established in 1922. By 1937, both Treaty settlement and Free State had been scrapped: ironically, in part because of the success with which the Irish Free State worked with other ‘restless dominions’ to assert its legislative independence. There is a tragic dimension to these developments given that the Treaty debates centred on whether the settlement would forever lock Ireland into imperial subjugation or permit a gradual evolution to full independence.

What relevance does consideration of Ireland’s global revolution have for commemoration? Exploring Ireland’s revolution beyond the island draws our attention to the importance of political ideas in shaping the revolution, something that is not always evident from historiographical and commemorative focus on domestic and military dimensions of the conflict. It reminds us how the Irish question, for a brief period, galvanized international attention, symbolising as it did broader transformations as an imperial and colonial world order slowly gave way to more egalitarian forms of statehood.

Finally, consideration of the importance of ideas such as self-determination and empire should complicate commemoration given that the legacy of these conflicts, in the form of a partitioned island with a contested border, continues to shape our present rather than constituting a past that can be safely consigned to history. Underlying the commemorative strategy of the Irish state is the idea of the Decade of Centenaries as marking a tragic period of ‘shared history’, shaped by people from ‘multiple identities and traditions’, requiring egalitarian remembrance. Although well-meaning, commemorations that prioritise the needs of present-day reconciliation over interrogation of the ideas and agency that shaped the struggles and enmities of the revolutionary era may end up contributing little to either reconciliation or historical understanding.