guest blog relating to possible Irish alternative history scenarios during the latter part of the 20th century. In the first part of the article I mainly focused on hypothetical PODs during World War Two and particularly during the Northern Irish Troubles. I explored these specific time periods because they are my main areas of interest and knowledge, however, it was pointed out by some readers that there are many other potential PODs from the revolutionary period (1912-23), some of which could have resulted in far reaching consequences for both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. This is perfectly true and therefore I have developed a number of scenarios from this period and have examined the potential consequences of such divergences. Enjoy...
1912-14: The Home Rule Crisis and the prospect of an Ulster Protestant uprising
At a cursory glance, the pre-WW1 Home Rule Crisis appears to be one of the most bizarre occurrences in modern history. This was a confrontation in which a militant Ulster Unionist movement threatened to fight against an elected UK government, and the stated aim of the Unionists was to maintain the link with London and to remain under the control of the same government they were threatening to rise up against! This paradox can be partly explained by several factors. During the early 20th century, North East Ulster and the city of Belfast in particular was an industrial hub for ship-building and linen production, amongst other industries. Belfast had greatly benefited from the Union and from its place within the Empire. Unionist industrialists feared that a Dublin government would favour the agricultural sector over industry, as the Southern economy was still predominantly agrarian. Religion was also a factor as, by the late 19th century, the political affiliations within Irish society were largely determined by the sectarian division. The Unionists argued that Home Rule would mean ‘Rome Rule’, i.e. a nation and government controlled by the Catholic Church. Furthermore, the Ulster Unionists (UUC) weren't alone in their campaign as they enjoyed considerable support from the British Conservative Party.
Home Rule itself was not full independence, but rather self-government within the Union. Devolution had been the long-term political objective of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), and was supported by the British Liberal Party. Previous Home Rule Bills had been defeated in 1886 & 1893, but constitutional changes meant that the 1912 Bill would become law after a delay of 2 years. With their parliamentary safeguard removed, the UUC leadership elected to take more militant action to oppose Home Rule; with the mass signing of the Ulster Solemn League & Covenant, the formation of the 100,000 strong Ulster Volunteer Force, and the purchase and importation of 25,000 rifles from Britain’s continental enemy, Imperial Germany. With the Act due to pass into law in August 1914 and with no satisfactory compromise reached, the grim prospect of civil war appeared on the horizon. So what happened to avert this potential disaster? Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo and the whole of Europe went to war. Both the IPP and UUC backed Britain’s war effort, and the implementation of Home Rule was suspended until the end of the European conflict.
The intriguing POD here is; what if world war had not broken out in August of 1914? Would there have been a civil war in Ireland? The general consensus is probably not. Lloyd George’s Liberal government were in an unenviable position due to the political pressure from Bonar Law’s Tories. What’s more, on paper at least, the UVF significantly outnumbered the Crown forces in Ireland, and the loyalty of the Army Officer Corps was already in question due to the Curragh ‘Mutiny’ of March 1914. The IPP had established their own Volunteer force in support of Home Rule, with a total strength of 180,000. However, this force was poorly armed with only 1,500 antiquated rifles. Under these circumstances it is likely that the Liberals & Nationalists would have agreed to a political compromise rather than risk an unwanted war. Also, it is questionable whether the UVF could or would have gone to war if their bluff was called. An uprising against even a section of the British government/security forces would surely have been treated as an act of treason, and an armed campaign would surely have exposed the stark contradictions inherent in their campaign. From a military standpoint the UVF had only one rifle for every four men. Such a relative shortage of weaponry would likely have reduced the UVF to fighting a guerrilla style war, and such tactics would not have been favourably looked upon by the Unionists’ Tory allies. Bearing all this in mind, one can imagine a Protestant Uprising degenerating into a dirty, bloody insurgency which would surely have damaged the Unionists’ political credibility.
Easter 1916 – A nation-wide rising, or no rising at all
The 1916 Dublin Uprising is considered a great watershed moment in modern Irish history. The violent rebellion launched by a coalition of radical fringe groups kick-started the Irish revolution and would ultimately lead to independence, although few commentators of the time would have predicted this outcome. The rising itself was a military fiasco, and was only marginally more successful than the abortive Irish rebellions of the 19th century. Although a military failure, the rising turned into a major propaganda victory for the republican participants, not least due to the British military executions of the rebel leaders (which provoked widespread sympathy and outrage amongst the Irish people).
There are several possible PODs emerging from the Easter Week of 1916. The Dublin Rising itself almost didn't occur. A shipment of arms was due to be landed in Tralee Bay by the German trawler Aud, but the ship was intercepted by the Royal Navy and scuttled by its Captain. Roger Casement, the rebel’s liaison with the Germans, was captured around the same time. Furthermore, Eoin MacNeill (commander of the Irish Volunteers) opposed the uprising and countermanded the orders for planned manoeuvres on Easter Sunday. Patrick Pearce, James Connolly, and the other leaders vowed to go ahead with their plan on the next day, but the setbacks meant that only around 1,200 rebels could be mobilised, and the uprising itself was almost completely confined to Dublin city centre.
It is nearly impossible to imagine any scenario where the rising could have been successful. If MacNeill and the full strength of the Volunteers had backed the rebellion, and if the Aud’s rifles had been landed and distributed, then the rebellion would have been more widespread across Ireland and likely would taken more British time, men and resources to suppress. Nevertheless, the final outcome would surely have been the same.
But could the British authorities have stopped the rising from occurring? The short answer is yes, although (surprisingly) such a preventative action may not have made much of a difference to the overall political situation. British Naval Intelligence knew about the Aud and so was able to intercept the arms shipment, however, the authorities in Dublin Castle assumed the threat had been averted and so were taken by surprise on Easter Monday. If British Intelligence was better informed they may have been able to prevent the uprising by arresting the leadership. However, the arrests, trials and likely executions (remembering that Roger Casement was hung even though he never fired a shot in anger) would surely have resulted in the same anti-British backlash from the Irish people. In any event, anti-British feeling reached fever pitch with the passing of the 1918 Irish Conscription Act (a piece of legislation which would have passed even without the rising).
It is true that the rebellion was not initially well received by the Irish public and famously the captured rebels were jeered and pelted by local Dubliners. This poses yet another interesting question i.e. could the British have recovered from the aftermath of the rising and retained political support in Ireland? This is perhaps a trickier question to answer. Two major factors impacted on the British position in the immediate post-rising period; their punishment of the captured rebels, and their efforts to boost the moderate IPP. Although much is made of the executions of the 15 rebel leaders (and later of Roger Casement), the British reaction was hardly extreme given the context of the time. If any other European power had suffered a rebellion at a time of war (not to mention a rising backed by their enemy), they surely would have responded as harshly as the British did, if not more harshly. Lloyd George did initiate fresh negotiations aimed at implementing Home Rule in 1916, but again these talks broke down due to Unionist intransigence and the now likely prospect of partition (which politically, John Redmond’s IPP couldn’t accept). As it turned out, the IPP was irreparably damaged by the rise of anti-British feeling during the 1916-18 period, by their own failure to deliver Home Rule, and by the huge number of Irish casualties suffered during the Great War (which Redmond had supported). Sinn Fein were in the best position to benefit from the growing disillusionment of the Irish nationalist population, and this Party won a huge victory in the 1918 general election; an election which provided Sinn Fein with a popular mandate for full Irish independence.
And so, maybe the Easter Rising was not as decisive as many assume. But interestingly enough, perhaps the most intriguing ‘what if’ from 1916 is this; what if Eamon De Valera had been executed by the British after his capture? If so, Ireland would have lost her most dominant and influential political figure of the 20th century.
[Editor's Note: If you want to see more Easter Rising what ifs, check out Andrew Schneider's take on the rebellion.]
The Civil War, the first Northern Irish Troubles, and the assassination of Michael Collins
It is one of the sad ironies of the revolutionary period that the most brutal and vindictive conflict was not between the British and the Irish, or even between the Protestant and Catholic communities. The Civil War was in fact fought between opposing factions within the Republican movement, the very same movement which had fought a successful guerrilla war against the British state and had forced a truce by July 1921. The split resulted from the negotiated Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921, which basically led to the formation of a 26 county Irish Free State and a self-governing 6 county Northern Ireland. The Pro-Treaty faction, led by Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins, supported the Treaty as a stepping stone towards an Irish Republic. In contrast, the Anti-Treaty side opposed the agreement as they resented the terms which would recognise partition and keep the Free State under the Crown and within the Commonwealth. The Civil War was short but bloody. The Pro-Treaty side emerged victorious but the wartime divide would continue to poison Irish politics for decades to come.
Several PODs were possible during this period. The most obvious scenario is that of an Anti-Treaty victory. The reality is that the A-T IRA waited too long before commencing hostilities and, by the time the shooting started in late June 1922, the initiative had been lost. The Anti-Treaty side had lost the votes in the Cabinet, the Dail and, most importantly, they were decisively defeated in the first Free State election. Despite this, the majority of the ‘old’ IRA was against the Treaty and so their best opportunity for victory would have been to launch a coup d’état in early 1922, before Collins was able to build up the 50,000 strong National Army. If the IRA had succeeded in taking control in 1922, this poses some more interesting ‘what ifs’? If the IRA did take power they would not have enjoyed a democratic mandate to rule the country and, even before the war, the IRA Command had spoken of establishing a military dictatorship. The collapse of the fledgling Irish democracy makes for a sobering prospect, especially as the British government were unlikely to have accepted such an outcome and could well have intervened militarily.
A secondary outcome of the Southern Civil War was an end to the serious sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, which had been ongoing since the summer of 1920. There was fresh violence during the spring of 1922 as the IRA launched a campaign along the newly established border. In fact, the Pro and Anti-Treaty factions co-operated against the North and Collins covertly supplied arms to Northern IRA units. After June 1922 much of the pressure was taken off the Northern Unionist government, as the IRA units withdrew to fight for both sides in the South. There were other factors involved in the decline of violence in the North (such as the imposition of internment, etc.). Nevertheless, if the Civil War hadn't broken out in June, the Unionist government would have remained under extreme pressure and would have found it difficult to survive, although it’s tough to imagine a scenario where partition could have ended in 1922 (as even De Valera admitted it would not be possible to absorb 1 million hostile Protestants against their will).
There are moments in history where a single bullet or bomb can dramatically change the course of events. One such instance took place during the Irish Civil War, on the 22nd August 1922, when Michael Collins was shot and killed during an ambush in his native County Cork. At the time of his death, Collins was a young, dynamic and resourceful leader who had already demonstrated his military skills during the War of Independence, and his political finesse during his spell as Finance Minister and through his role as chief negotiator with the British government. Collins’ assassination was closely followed by the death of Arthur Griffiths, leaving the uninspiring W.T. Cosgrave to lead the ruthless suppression of the A-T IRA and to guide the Free State through the austere and intellectually barren 1920s. So, what if Collins had survived? It is likely that he would have remained a leading figure in Irish politics for many years, if not decades, to come. It is known that Collins wanted to make peace with the Anti-Treaty side at the time of his death. If a truce had been possible in 1922 then perhaps the decades long, poisonous divide in Southern Irish politics could have been avoided. At the very least Collins could have offered an alternative leadership to the dominance of Eamon De Valera during the 1930s and 40s. As with JFK, the premature death of Michael Collins robbed a nation of so many possibilities...
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