The pressures for Home Rule in Ireland had been present for decades, if partially put into abeyance during the Great War. There was the Easter Rising in 1916, when an Irish Republic was declared, but this rebellion was soon ended. Even in the fateful weeks before the declaration of war against Germany on 4 August 1914, the British government was at least as much concerned with the Irish Problem as they were with far-away difficulties on the European continent.
At the end of the Great War negotiations continued against a continuing background of resistance to Home Rule in the north-east of the Ireland. There, loyalists were as prepared to fight to remain within the United Kingdom as their fellow islanders further south were prepared to fight for independence.
The chronology of the period is confusing and confused, with assorted groups of republicans having differing ideas of what Home Rule might actually mean. Originally, it implied self-determination, without any clear indication of either independence or a republic, and these political differences persisted. Further, many if not all republicans envisaged a republic that encompassed the entire island.
The UK parliament passed the Government of Ireland Act 1920, creating two entities, one in the north, one in the south. The intention was that both entities would remain part of the United Kingdom, and foresaw the eventual reunification of the island.
In the general election of 1918, Sein Féin won a landslide of the votes in the south, and promptly withdrew from the UK parliament at Westminster, forming their own government, the Dáil Éireann, and declaring independence, UDI—a “unilateral declaration of independence”. Almost simultaneously, a guerilla war against the British began, mostly in the south. To counter this, and the Royal Irish Constabulary who were often the main focus of the attacks, the British government recruited ex-army veterans in Britain, and sent them to Ireland. These troops were called the “Black and Tans” after the colour of their uniforms. Both sides in this War of Independence were responsible for considerable violence, atrocities and reprisals; the war persisted without a clear winner well into 1921.
Established under the provisions of the Government of Ireland Act, the parliament of Northern Ireland was convened, with the official opening on 22 June 1921, by King George V. The King was a man of modest intellectual abilities, a man who seemed to prefer stamp collecting to almost anything else; he had previously refused his cousin, Tsar Nicholas, refuge in the country, even though the tsar had been offered safe passage by the Russian revolutionaries. However, the activities of the Black and Tans were bad enough to concern the King’s sensibilities. He was originally to have delivered an anodyne speech; but with the assistance of his friend Jan Smuts, the prime minister of the Union of South Africa, what he actually delivered was as different as it was well received by all sides; it was, effectively, a fait accompli. At one point he asked,
all Irishmen to pause, to stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation, to forgive and to forget, and to join in making for the land they love a new era of peace, contentment, and good will
The British prime minister, David Lloyd George wrote to the leader of Sinn Féin, Éamon de Valera suggesting a conference, which the latter agreed to. A truce was agreed upon, on 9 July, to come into effect on 11 July.
Negotiations began soon afterwards, leading to the Anglo-Irish Treaty. However, this was not acceptable to some, the anti-treaty group; the Irish Civil war between them and the pro-treaty lobby was inevitable. This lasted until the middle of 1923, when the anti-treaty group were defeated.
Matters didn’t end there; the south of Ireland only became a fully independent state in 1949; the problem of the border between the two parts of Ireland was never properly resolved; political tensions remained between the two parts; and even the name of this new country remained—and remains—problematic.