At the start of the 20th century the British ruling class was deeply split on a number of political questions, and no event would reveal this more than the mutiny at the Curragh army base in March 1914.
In the preceding decades, the question of the ‘Corn Laws’ – essentially whether to pursue a protectionist or free-trade policy – had divided the Tory and Liberal parties. Added to this was the Liberal government’s pursuit of increased taxes on the rich, known as the ‘People’s Budget’, being blocked by the Tory-dominated House of Lords. Parliament was thus locked in a constitutional crisis, leading to two General Elections in 1910.
While the Liberals eventually managed to overcome the Lords’ obstruction on constitutional and social reform, they relied on the nationalist Irish Parliamentary Party for support, who demanded ‘Home Rule’ for Ireland.
This issue of Home Rule – the ‘Irish Question’ – had dogged the British bourgeoisie ever since the Irish Parliament was abolished by the 1801 Act of Union. The chief difficulty lay in the sectarian divisions planted in Ireland by British imperialism, as a tool of colonial and class oppression in Britain’s oldest imperial conquest.
These divisions would spin out of the control of the ruling class, creating the looming threat of a sectarian bloodbath in Ulster.
The largely Protestant, industrialised north-eastern province of Ulster was raised into a reactionary frenzy against the idea of an all-Ireland parliament, which would be dominated by southern Catholic politicians. Institutions like the Orange Order, which had been established to divide the Irish working class on religious lines, condemned Home Rule as a plot to destroy the rights of Protestants and eject Ireland from the British Empire.
Edward Carson, the leading representative of the anti-Home Rule section of the Irish ruling class, infamously pronounced that ‘Home Rule means Rome Rule’, implying the Catholic majority would vote however the Pope or the Churches dictated.
The majority of Irish industrialists, based in the north-east of Ireland – who depended on the markets opened by the Empire – demanded that Home Rule be abandoned by the Liberals, or at the very least Ulster be exempted from it.
Carson formed the ‘Solemn League and Covenant’ against Home Rule – a pseudo-Biblical pledge signed by over a million people, some literally in their own blood – and oversaw the formation of the Protestant paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force to resist.
Supporting this campaign was the increasingly reactionary Tory party under Andrew Bonar Law. Law repeated the fear mongering over ‘Rome Rule’, overlooked the smuggling of 25,000 German guns into Ireland to arm the UVF, and accused the Liberal party of “lighting the fires of civil war” in an “ignoble conspiracy” to deliver Home Rule.
Law and Carson addressed a rally of over 100,000 UVF men in April 1912. In an infamously inflammatory speech, Law asserted that Ulster Unionists should never ‘submit’ to Home Rule, even if it passed Parliament, and that the Tory party would defend them whatever lengths they went to – essentially an endorsement of an armed rebellion against the Government.
The monarch even weighed in on the side of the Unionists, with King George V demanding that the Prime Minister HH Asquith exclude Ulster from the Home Rule Bill. If he did not, Asquith was threatened with dismissal or the refusal of Royal Assent to the Bill.
The Liberals’ support base was also in precipitous decline, with the rise of the Labour party.
Attempts by the ruling class to get together and resolve their disagreement failed. The two general elections in 1910 changed little, but there were also highly secret “Truce of God” meetings between senior Liberals, Tories and Carson to try and find agreement – on trade tariffs, the House of Lords and Home Rule.
As these talks collapsed, and fears of Civil War grew, the Liberal government became concerned about the loyalty of the British forces in Ireland. Many army officers had familial or financial connections to Ulster and shared the Protestant-supremacist and pro-Empire views of the Unionists.
A special cabinet committee was formed to investigate, and the Commander-in-Chief of the colonial forces Sir Arthur Paget informed of the Government’s concerns.
Paget then announced to the 70 officers stationed at the Curragh base that the Army would imminently be deployed to counter the UVF, going as far as to say that Ulster “would be in a blaze” in a matter of days. Officers with homes or property in Ulster were recused, while any others who refused were threatened with dismissal.
In response to this, the mutiny took place: 57 of the officers said they would refuse to fight the UVF and tendered their resignations. It is unclear if any such attack was ever really planned, or Paget spoke out of turn, as following the media furore over the ‘Curragh Incident’ the Liberal government denied everything.
At the time the Irish Marxist James Connolly was sceptical of the incident, believing the ‘mutiny’ was deliberately provoked in order to force the Government to concede to Ulster’s demand for exemption from Home Rule. In any case, this is what happened: a temporary exemption for Ulster was included in the final Home Rule Bill.
The ‘Irish Question’ was not resolved by exemption, however; what would later become the partition of Ireland that survives to this day. The Home Rule crisis was cut across by the First World War, forcing the ruling class together in ‘national unity’. Even the Irish bourgeois nationalists went along with this, allowing the implementation of the Home Rule Bill to be delayed until after the war.
Home Rule would never come to pass however, and after 1916 Ireland would enter a revolutionary period.