In March 1916, British general John Maxwell was superseded as general officer commanding in Egypt and recalled home to England, where he sought further employment. The following month, on 24 April – Easter Monday – a rebellion by 1,600 republicans in Dublin provided Maxwell with his new job. A few days after the Easter Rising, he became military governor in Ireland, equipped by martial law with sweeping powers.
Maxwell’s task was to crush the rebellion and restore order. In doing that, he was instrumental in implementing a British policy that would have profound consequences for Anglo-Irish relations. By imposing draconian measures, including 15 executions, Maxwell declared that in Ireland “there will be no treason whispered for 100 years”.
In truth, the British response accelerated a shift in Irish nationalist feeling away from the constitutional home-rule movement and towards Sinn Féin’s militant separatism. Sinn Féin was quick to capitalise on this anti-British sentiment, decisively winning the most Irish seats in the general election of December 1918 and declaring Ireland an independent republic.
On the very day that the republican parliament first met, Irish nationalists gunned down Royal Irish Constabulary constables. In doing so, they fired the first shots of the Irish War of Independence, a two-year guerrilla conflict fought between the IRA and the British Army.
This led to the first of my five landmarks in Anglo-Irish relations over the course of the last 100 years…
The Anglo-Irish Treaty, 1921
Ireland spirals from one war to the next
Two years and five months had passed and more than 2,000 people had lost their lives before, in July 1921, the British government and Irish nationalists agreed to bring the Irish War of Independence to an end with a truce. The signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in London on 6 December punctuated an extraordinary five months characterised by hope, impatience, apprehension and vagueness concerning objectives.
At no stage was the recognition of an Irish republic – Sinn Féin’s stated aim – a serious possibility. Instead, British prime minister David Lloyd George offered Ireland dominion status: it would stay within the empire, and members of an Irish parliament would swear an oath of allegiance to the crown.
Controversially, the Sinn Féin leader Éamon de Valera stayed away from the negotiations. Fearful that Irish resistance would spread if it was left to fester, the British side, which included Winston Churchill, wanted the matter settled once and for all.
Did the Sinn Féin delegates get what they wanted out of the negotiations? That’s been up for debate for almost 100 years. On the one hand, Ireland won dominion status (an Irish Free State); on the other, Britain retained its naval bases in Ireland to guarantee security and defence.
The treaty also allowed Ulster unionists one year to opt out of the new Irish state. If the unionists took this option, Ulster would become subject to the 1920 Government of Ireland Act, which had created the new state of Northern Ireland.
In a dramatic finale to the negotiations, Lloyd George held up two letters addressed to James Craig, the prime minister of Northern Ireland. One of these indicated that agreement had been reached. The other indicated breakdown – and Lloyd George threatened “war within three days” if the answer was no.
The Irish delegation, including Michael Collins, director of intelligence for the IRA, signed. It was a compromise rejected by de Valera, and sparked a vicious civil war from 1922–23 between those who accepted the treaty (including Collins and the Free State army) and those who opposed it (the IRA and de Valera).
The conflict led to 1,500 deaths, the assassination of Collins, and saw many who had fought on the same Irish republican side during the War of Independence now bitterly opposed to one another. In the end, the IRA had neither the resources nor the popular support to defeat the new, bloated Free State army.
The political wing of the IRA, now known as Anti-Treaty Sinn Féin, abstained from the new Irish parliament until 1927, by which time most of its members had joined de Valera’s new political party, Fianna Fáil. For decades afterwards the civil war divide shaped Irish politics.
London agreements, 1938
De Valera leaves Britain to fight on alone
The rise of Fianna Fáil, established by de Valera in 1926, represented a stunning political comeback by the defeated republicans of the civil war, cemented when the party won the general election of 1932.
De Valera was intent on tearing up the Anglo-Irish Treaty. His ultimate aim was to ensure that the Irish Free State could exercise an independent foreign policy, an aim lent added urgency by the end of the 1930s as international conflict seemed ever more likely.
Securing the control of the so called ‘Treaty ports’ was a central part of de Valera’s quest for increased independence. The London agreements of April 1938 – three accords covering trade, finance and defence – witnessed the transfer to the Irish government of harbour defences at Lough Swilly, Berehaven and Cobh that had been retained by the British government under the Anglo-Irish Treaty.
The warm personal relationships de Valera built with senior members of the British establishment, including prime minister Neville Chamberlain and Malcolm MacDonald of the Dominions Office, contributed to his success in Anglo-Irish relations. MacDonald corresponded with de Valera in May 1938: “I cherish especially the memory of our friendly and fruitful talks together. If the personal relations which we established are a symbol of the friendship which will gradually grow between the peoples of the two islands, then indeed is the future bright.” De Valera replied: “It has been such a pleasure to have one as understanding as you to deal with in the difficult matters of the relations with the two countries.”
Following the ports agreement, de Valera took the independence struggle to its logical next stage by declaring Irish neutrality when the Second World War broke out. The effect of the agreement, de Valera told the Dáil (Irish parliament), was “to hand over to the Irish state complete control of those defences, and it recognises and finally establishes Irish sovereignty over the 26 counties and the territorial seas”. Despite agreement with Britain over the ports, de Valera’s overwhelming priority was to defend this newly won sovereignty – and that took precedence over southern Ireland joining Britain and the Allies during the war.
Declaration of the Republic, 1949
Fine Gael cuts the final ties with London
After 16 years in power, de Valera’s Fianna Fáil didn’t achieve a majority in the 1948 general election, and was replaced by a coalition government led by Fine Gael’s John A Costello. Anglo-Irish relations seemed healthy;
a trade agreement was negotiated in June 1948 with the British government, improving access for Irish agricultural exports, and British prime minister Clement Attlee took his summer break in the west of Ireland.
However, while on a visit to Canada in September, Costello announced his government’s intention to repeal the External Relations Act, 1936, under which the king signed the credentials of Irish ambassadors. This was southern Ireland’s last remaining formal link with the Commonwealth.
The legislation repealing the External Relations Act, which stated that the new description of the state would be the Republic of Ireland, came into force on Easter Monday 1949. Costello told the Dáil that the removal of this last link with the British crown would end a provocation to republicans, and thus take the gun out of Irish politics. Privately, he hoped it would ensure that Fine Gael was no longer branded the ‘pro-British party’.
Though Costello hadn’t consulted them before repealing the act, the British decided to maintain existing trade, nationality and immigration arrangements, and not to treat the Republic as a foreign country. Yet the British had a surprise of their own. Without forewarning the Irish, they enacted the Ireland Act, 1949, under which they declared that Northern Ireland would not cease to be part of the UK without the approval of its parliament.
Bloody Sunday, 1972
Ulster slips into a 30-year nightmare
Tensions in Northern Ireland were already rising when, on Sunday 30 January 1972, British paratroopers killed 13 unarmed men at a protest march against the recent introduction of internment without trial. In the aftermath of ‘Bloody Sunday’, Irish historian and Labour Party politician Conor Cruise O’Brien observed that: “For a few days people talked and wrote of a national change of mood like that which had set in after the executions of 1916.”
Late on that horrifying day the Taoiseach (Irish prime minister), Jack Lynch, rang Edward Heath who since 1970 had led Britain as Conservative prime minister. In a tense and emotional conversation, Lynch struggled to assess and convey the enormity of the events and the potential fallout. He told Heath: “The situation could escalate beyond what any of us would anticipate at this stage.”
In response, Heath was terse and defensive: “The people… who deliberately organised this march in circumstances which we all know in which the IRA were bound to intervene, carry a heavy responsibility for any damage which ensued.”
This difficult conversation came at a sensitive time in Anglo-Irish relations, which were already fragile. And it set the tone for the rest of the year – a year during which 470 people died in the euphemistically named ‘Troubles’ – 323 of them civilians.
Heath and his successors eventually came to recognise the importance of a power-sharing solution to the Northern Ireland problem, and of the key role that the Republic of Ireland could play in attempts to solve the crisis.
But these advances in Anglo-Irish relations were painstaking and fractured, evolving over a 30-year period punctuated by frequent violence. The IRA’s demand for a British withdrawal from Northern Ireland, its guerrilla and bombing campaign in Northern Ireland (and mainland Britain), and resistance to those attacks by British army troops and loyalist (unionist) paramilitaries, resulted in 3,500 deaths between 1969 and the mid-1990s.
The Queen visits Ireland, 2011
The old foes find common ground
In April 1998, the Belfast Agreement contained proposals for a Northern Ireland Assembly with a power-sharing executive, new cross-border institutions with the Republic of Ireland and a body linking devolved assemblies across the UK with Westminster and Dublin. The Republic of Ireland also agreed to drop its constitutional claim to the six counties that formed Northern Ireland, which had existed since the introduction and ratification of the Irish constitution in 1937. There were also proposals on the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons, the future of policing in Northern Ireland and the early release of paramilitary prisoners.
April and May 1998 saw declarations of history-making and transformation as the electorate – 94 per cent in the Republic and 71 per cent in Northern Ireland – endorsed the agreement. Former Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald suggested that: “We had perhaps just seen the long, drawn-out tragedy of Northern Ireland move, at a single stroke, out of current affairs and into history.”
As well as bringing a degree of peace to Northern Ireland, the agreement prompted a thaw in Anglo-Irish relations that continued over the following decade and beyond. This was reflected by the willingness of both the British and Irish to back the Queen’s state visit to Ireland in May 2011 – almost exactly 100 years after the last visit by a reigning British monarch to southern Ireland, by Elizabeth II’s grandfather, King George V.
In a speech at Dublin Castle – formerly the centre of British power in Ireland – the Irish president Mary McAleese declared: “This visit is a culmination of the success of the peace process.” Underlining this sentiment, the Queen bowed her head in the Irish Garden of Remembrance honouring the 1916 rebels, and asserted in a carefully crafted speech at Dublin Castle: “With the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all.”
Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin.
This article was first published in the May 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine