In 1921, when Republican leaders entered Downing Street to negotiate Irish independence it marked the irreversible decline of the British Empire.
Ireland was Britain’s first colony – and was among the first to resist subjugation through a mass uprising for national liberation.
This movement came out of opposition to the colonial oppression faced by the Irish and the economic underdevelopment of all but a few cities such as Belfast in the north.
By the beginning of the 20th century, elections in Ireland consistently returned a majority of MPs on a mandate to establish “home rule” through constitutional means. But real democracy never extended to the Irish.
Hardline Unionists launched the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) in 1912 to stop even the limited independence promised by the Home Rule Bill and from the outset they were given support from the British establishment.
In response a nationalist movement, the Irish Volunteers (IVF), was formed in 1913. The majority of Irish Volunteers continued to support the constitutional home rule politicians, and enlisted to fight for Britain when the First World War broke out in 1914.
However there was a sizeable minority who recognised that Britain would never relinquish Ireland without a fight.
Rather than die defending Britain’s empire, they saw their opportunity to strike a blow against it and launched a military uprising against British rule in Easter 1916.
The poorly equipped rebellion was rapidly quelled and the leaders executed. But the arrogance of the British government simply fuelled support for radical republicanism.
Republican activists, who were now organised around the Sinn Fein party, were treated as extremist agitators, but no amount of repression could curtail their influence.
When the British raised the threat of conscription in 1918 it provoked widespread resistance through strikes and demonstrations.
By the time elections took place in December 1918, the “criminal” insurgents from Sinn Fein won 73 out 105 seats. Half of Sinn Fein’s candidates were in prison at the time.
In January 1919 they set up their own illegal parliament in Dublin, the first Dail. On the same day, the IVF (who later formed the IRA) claimed its first police casualties in a raid to capture explosives.
Mass popular support for the IRA meant that by 1920 a guerrilla war was stretching British control in Ireland to breaking point. Sinn Fein were running alternative law courts in large areas of the country where the official administration had no effective control.
The British government once more responded with increased repression. One leading officer of the Royal Irish Constabulary, Colonel Smyth, summed up British policy, saying, “Sinn Fein has had all the sport up to the present and we are going to have it now.
“You may make mistakes occasionally, and innocent persons may be shot, but that cannot be helped... The more you shoot the better I will like you.” He was killed a month later.
Support for the struggle was not simply expressed through elections. For example, in May 1920, dock and railway workers refused to handle army supplies being imported to Ireland.
In many rural areas small farmers and labourers began to take over land owned by hated Unionist landlords.
By 1921 the British were forced to concede that Ireland was ungovernable and entered in negotiations with Sinn Fein. The terms of the treaty fell far short of the demands that had galvanised resistance for more than three years.
It established an Irish free state that excluded six Ulster counties. A majority of Sinn Fein voted to accept this as the best on offer – under threats of even greater British military intervention.
In reality, Britain was no longer in a position to continue a full scale occupation of Ireland.
Lloyd George’s threat of immediate and terrible war if the treaty was not signed was a bluff. British imperialism was stretched to near breaking point in policing its empire.
Some 30,000 IRA volunteers vowed to continue the struggle. This struggle was waged as a civil war between pro- and anti-treaty forces for two more years, in which time partition became an entrenched division.
Next week I want to look at how the different political forces and class interests involved in the war of independence and the subsequent civil war shaped the nature of the new states that emerged north and south.