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How consistent was British policy towards Ireland from 1798-1921? Essay

Throughout the period, British policy towards Ireland did have considerable variations. There was a range from incredibly coercive measures to a more conciliatory approach, and this variation spread across several key areas; Law and Order in Ireland, the Religious question, Economic policy and finally maintenance of the Union itself. Although there can be no doubt that throughout the period, British policy was consistent in its principles – that it aimed to keep Ireland within the Union – the policies themselves were not; the ways that successive governments went about upholding this basic principle differed substantially, and therefore over the whole period, British policy towards Ireland was not very consistent.

In terms of Law and Order in Ireland, throughout the period there was a limited amount of consistency in British policy; over the whole period the problem of Ireland’s Law and Order was addressed through a mixture of coercion and reform, with the intention of keeping Ireland close to Britain. Coercion as a method was evident throughout – from the suppression of Wolfe Tone’s rising in 1798 through to the violent response to the 1916 Easter uprising – in both cases the British Government reacted with violence and the leaders of the rebellions were arrested and executed. During the period of Sir Robert Peel’s premiership, coercion formed a key part of his policy towards Ireland. Measures such as the Arms Act, which prevented Catholics from carrying arms, and his drafting of troops into Ireland, were clearly coercive.

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Gladstone too used coercion to a certain extent; in 1881 he introduced the Protection of Person and Property Act which allowed persons to be imprisoned without trial. Moreover, there were substantial inconsistencies in the use of coercion itself – in the treatment of the Irish and Ulster nationalists – with officers refusing to stop the UVF from obtaining guns in March 1914 at the Curragh Mutiny, yet came down on the Catholics’ plans to obtain weapons at Howth later the same year. However, throughout the period there was also a reformist attitude towards Ireland. Peel’s introduction of the Royal Irish Constabulary was effectively the first police force and it aimed to keep peace in Ireland. Furthermore, in his ‘plan of conciliation’ in the 1840s a number of concessions were made towards Ireland in an attempt to resolve the problems with violence by appeasing the Irish to a certain extent – measures such as replacing lord de Gray with Heytesbury as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1844 – de Gray had been reluctant to promote equal opportunities for Catholics and the introduction of Heytesbury was intended to stem the growth of violent opposition in Ireland.

Gladstone too used a ‘plan of pacification’ to resolve disputes. However, there were some quite considerable inconsistencies. The Kilmainham treaty in 1882 is one such example – the negotiations between Parnell and Gladstone, and Parnell agreeing to use his influence in Ireland to sort out the law and order problem that had arisen from the Land Wars was something that was not seen at all throughout the period – indeed Sir Robert Peel took the opposite approach with Daniel O’Connell and no negotiations between the two took place. Throughout the period, although there was some consistency in that overall the two methods of Coercion and reform were used, they appeared to be instigated rather pragmatically and this can be seen as inconsistent policy.

The approach of various governments towards religion in Ireland was certainly rather inconsistent. At the beginning of the period, when Pitt proposed the Act of Union, Catholic emancipation was proposed along with it, initially showing a rather open approach to solving the ‘Catholic question’. However, it was removed from the final version of the Act, leaving the religious issue unaddressed for the next 30 years and Catholics still with inferior rights in Ireland. Peel’s approach to Catholic emancipation was clearly reluctant, and when it was passed in 1829 along with it was a considerable reduction of the franchise, again showing a hostile approach.

However, this was turned around by Peel’s last ministry in the 1840s – the granting of several key reforms such as the Maynooth grant in 1845 and the Irish colleges Bill of the same year show that Peel himself was inconsistent in his religious policy towards Ireland. Ultimately there was a complete turnaround made by Gladstone in 1869 when he disestablished the Church of Ireland, and enabled Church property to be sold to tenants. This illustrates considerable inconsistency in British policy towards Ireland – from considerable hostility towards Catholics and refusal to grant them rights in order to defend the established church, to its eventual disestablishment.

Maintaining the Act of Union was a consistent aim throughout the period, however, there was a definite shift in British policy from the beginning of the period to the end, with a more concession-making approach adopted as time progressed. Therefore, on the whole in this area too British policy towards Ireland was inconsistent. The sceptical stance adopted at the start of the period – keeping Ireland as close to Britain as possible for fear of letting go of the ‘Achilles heel’ to France was reversed quite spectacularly with the granting of Dominion Status to Ireland in 1921. Rather than any determined policy throughout the period, Britain’s approach in this area was rather more reactive – as the strength of Irish Nationalism Increased, so the concessions that were made grew.

Particularly after the later part of the 19th Century with Gladstone’s conversion to home rule, there was a gradual move to a consensus on the necessity of Ireland having at least a certain degree of independence – the successive Home Rule Bills gained more and more support. Moreover, there was considerable variation in the treatment of the Ulster Problem – from including it with Ireland to keeping it as a part of Great Britain. The final granting of Dominion Status in 1921 after the failure of the Government of Ireland Act finally partitioned Ireland – again a complete change from the original view of Ireland as a single country unified with Britain.

Finally, economic policy towards Ireland showed further inconsistency. Although it remained relatively similar between governments until the later part of the 19th Century, in that it treated Ireland much the same way as the rest of Britain – Ireland had many of the same financial responsibilities as Britain had in the form of Poor Rates and Income tax. Throughout the period there was a laissez faire approach to dealings with Irish land and industry. However, there were inconsistencies at certain points – the great famine in the late 1840s saw measures such as Peel’s purchase of a large amount of cheap grain in order to flood the market and lower prices.

The Land Acts in the later part of the decade also went against the typical treatment of Ireland and it’s economic matters – tenant rights had been all but ignored in the first half of the century, and the second Land Act of 1881 and its granting of the ‘3 Fs’ and the land purchase scheme given by the Wyndhams Act in 1903 was a clear turnaround, and completely changed the pattern of land ownership in Ireland; about 9 million acres of land were transferred to tenant hands by 1914, and 75% of tenants were buying their landlords’ land. The period saw a considerable change in British economic policy towards Ireland, and therefore it was inconsistent.

Throughout the period 1798-1921, there were some quite considerable inconsistencies in British policy towards Ireland. Although to a certain extent it can be seen that their motivating principles behind policy remained relatively similar – in particular the defence of Ireland as part of the union and keeping it as close as possible with the final concession of dominion status in 1921.However, in other areas such as economic policy, the religious problem and sorting out the religious question, there was substantial change throughout. Therefore, overall British policy towards Ireland was not very consistent throughout the period.

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