Cornelius O'Leary, Patrick Maume. Controversial Issues in Anglo-Irish Relations, 1910-1921. Dublin and Portland: Four Courts Press, 2004. 179 pp. $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-85182-657-5.
Reviewed by Jason Knirck (Department of History, Central Washington University)
Published on H-Albion (December, 2005)
Home Rule as Seen from Westminster
Controversial Issues in Anglo-Irish Relations is a well-researched and intriguing addition to the ever-growing literature on the Home Rule crisis in Ireland after 1912. The book's somewhat stilted title does not adequately convey its contents, which focus squarely on the negotiations over Home Rule (and eventually the Anglo-Irish Treaty) between the British government and Irish representatives after 1910. This is not an examination of the totality of the Anglo-Irish relationship between 1910 and 1921, as cultural or economic matters are not really discussed at all. Instead, the emphasis is placed on Westminster, and the changing attitudes held and policies advocated by various members of the British government. The book, as a whole, is organized chronologically, with each individual chapter following a broadly chronological structure as well. The period from 1910-14 is collected into a single chapter, while each year from 1916 through 1921 receives its own chapter. For source material, the authors draw heavily upon British Cabinet papers, letters and memoirs, as is suitable for a work of this kind. They also make significant use of the various documents produced by the Irish delegation during the negotiations leading up to the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The book does not recapitulate various aspects of the period that have been well covered elsewhere, such as the Easter Rising or the acceleration of IRA violence after 1919, but instead hones in on high politics, arguing that this aspect of the Home Rule crisis often gets short shrift.
Despite the misleading title, this focus works well, and Controversial Issues in Anglo-Irish Relations fills a gap by emphasizing some aspects of the Anglo-Irish relationship that often get underplayed in standard Irish historiography. The book makes two major assertions, each of which are thought-provoking and contentious. First of all, Westminster is presented as the main locus of negotiations over Home Rule. As stated on the dust jacket, "the book draws on archival research to argue that the contingencies of high politics were as important as ethnic divisions" in explaining the failure of various attempts to grant Home Rule. The perceived cultural and religious differences between Ulster and the rest of Ireland, as a result, are mentioned barely at all, and instead the authors explain the political stakes involved in the negotiations, the divisions within the British establishment, and the shifting positions of the Ulster Unionists. Particular emphasis is given to Edward Carson's role, as he personally favored compromise at various junctures, but had difficulty persuading the more hard-line rank and file Unionists to follow his lead. Carson and John Redmond even came to an agreement on Home Rule in 1916, which was then scuttled by "diehards among the southern Unionists and British Conservatives" (pg. 54).
Concentrating on Westminster also serves to call attention to the wider context of Irish affairs during this period. Several times, the authors note that Home Rule was not the most critical issue on the British horizon, as Lloyd George's primary goal by 1917 was to successfully prosecute the European war. Similarly, the crisis of 1909-11 in England was first and foremost about Lloyd George's "People's Budget," and, as Conservatives later claimed, Home Rule was not really central to these discussions. Although much Irish attention has been focused on Andrew Bonar Law's perceived support for Ulster resistance, however violent, O'Leary and Maume note that the major issue convulsing the Conservative Party in 1912 was tariff reform, not Ulster (p. 26). These reminders of the broader context of Irish issues are much-needed, especially since a fair portion of Irish historiography is, as O'Leary and Maume observe, "Hibernocentric" (p. 13).
The effect of this emphasis on Westminster is often to render Irish nationalists voiceless, as British politicians and Ulster Unionists are clearly presented as the driving forces behind most, if not all, of the specific policies and initiatives that arose during this decade. The majority of the Irish voices in the text are Unionists, and when Irish nationalists appear, they are usually reacting to British governmental decisions or proposals. While this reactive characterization may be valid for John Redmond's Irish Parliamentary Party, it probably does some injustice to Sinn Féin. However, one suspects this one-sided emphasis is deliberate, as the authors believe that the Irish side has been covered excessively by Irish historians. This assertion is undoubtedly true, as there are a variety of works that analyze the Irish actors in this drama, including Patrick Maume's own excellent The Long Gestation: Irish Nationalist Life 1890-1918 (1999). In fact, minimizing the Irish context of the events covered in Controversial Issues in Anglo-Irish Relations is not really problematic because that context has been covered so well elsewhere.
The second major, and very original, contribution of this book is its emphasis on Ulster. For O'Leary and Maume, the Ulster question was the most important stumbling block to a settlement of the Home Rule issue, and this was as true in 1912 as it was in 1921. The Ulster dimension of the 1912-14 crisis is well known, but the centrality given to Ulster during the Treaty negotiations is original and stimulating. It flies in the face of much Sinn Féin rhetoric at the time--the Dáil debates over the Anglo-Irish Treaty focused far more heavily on the Oath and the Crown than on partition--and also flies in the face of much of the historiography on the Treaty, which also tends to emphasize imperial issues. Many historians of this period, myself included, spend a lot of time discussing the novelty of Irish proposals for external association, and the infighting between the Irish plenipotentiaries in London and the rest of the Cabinet in Dublin. Those subjects are glossed over rapidly in Controversial Issues in Anglo-Irish Relations , and instead the refusal of James Craig and other Ulster Unionists to consider inclusion in any Irish state is made the primary determinative factor in the ultimate Treaty settlement. In fact, the negotiations between Craig and Lloyd George in late 1921, according to O'Leary and Maume, "determined the future course of Irish history" (p. 132). Moving away from the now-standard Irish depiction of Lloyd George as an inveterate liar and double-crosser (the "Welsh Wizard" upon whom so much ignominy was heaped during the Treaty debates), O'Leary and Maume instead portray the Prime Minister as genuinely seeking an agreement that would include both Ulster Unionists and Irish nationalists. It was only when Craig repeatedly rebuffed Lloyd George's attempts at compromise that the Prime Minister turned his attention toward reaching a settlement solely with Sinn Féin. As a result, it was Craig's position, rather than the divisions within the Irish delegation or the tactical mistakes of individual plenipotentiaries, that prevented a more comprehensive settlement from being reached, and that left the northern issue essentially unresolved for the next eighty years. There is a question of whether the book's sources may have unduly shaped this conclusion, however. When viewed in terms of differences of opinion within British and Unionist elites, partition does emerge as the determinative issue, if only because there was, generally speaking, much broader agreement on the role of the Crown. From the perspective of later Irish nationalists, on the other hand, partition was certainly a major stumbling block, but so was the relationship between Ireland and the Crown.
In focusing on British politics and on Ulster, the authors shed new light on issues that often get under-analyzed in most works about the Irish revolution. The fact that most Irish nationalists themselves frequently ignored Ulster and the vagaries of contemporary British politics does not mean that later historians should replicate these omissions, and Controversial Issues in Anglo-Irish Relations is an excellent reminder that these issues need to be addressed by historians of the period. Overall, the book represents excellent research and command of the subject. There are only a few questionable assertions of fact, such as claiming that Sinn Féin and the Irish Volunteers "merged" in the fall of 1917, a construction that would probably not have been accepted by most Volunteers at the time (pg. 62). My only serious criticisms of the book are structural and stylistic. The book's chronological structure probably impedes more than it illuminates, as the twin themes of Ulster and Westminster could have been brought out even more strongly by a thematic or topical approach. The rigid adherence to chronology also led to some fairly rough transitions between subjects which were not related to each other in any way except time frame (see, e.g., p. 99). The repeated use of short paragraphs--there are too many brief one-sentence paragraphs--also makes the prose seem choppy, and at times prevents the book from gaining momentum behind its arguments. But the arguments themselves are challenging and refreshing, and for those reasons alone the book should be read by all scholars interested in the Irish Revolution.
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Jason Knirck. Review of O'Leary, Cornelius; Maume, Patrick, Controversial Issues in Anglo-Irish Relations, 1910-1921.
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