h i s t o r y v e r n on b o g danor
Lion, Harp & Unicorn The Two Unions: Ireland, Scotland, and the Survival of the
United Kingdom, 1707–2007
By Alvin Jackson (Oxford University Press 467pp £35)
The United Kingdom came into exist- ence as a result of two parliamentary unions, the union with Scotland in 1707 and the union with Ireland in 1801. They were the product of crisis rather than popular pressure, and were achieved through corrupt means. Neither was accompanied by any vision of what the future of a united kingdom might be like. The union with Scotland, however, survived, while that with Ireland did not, except in the six counties now comprising Northern Ireland. The remaining twenty-six counties broke away from Britain when Ireland secured her independence in 1921.
Gladstone, who tried unsuccessfully to secure Home Rule for Ireland (or, as we would now call it, devolution), declared that there had been ‘a Union in Scotland and a Union in Ireland, just as there was a river in Monmouth and a river in Macedon’. He believed that ‘English policy has achieved no triumph so great as the union between England and Scotland’, whereas relations between Britain and Ireland exhibited to us ‘the one and only conspicuous failure of the political genius of our race to confront and master difficulty, and to obtain in a reasonable degree the main ends of civilised life’.
Why was the one union a success, while the other failed? Alvin Jackson brings the tools of modern historical scholarship to answer this conundrum in his impressive book. The Two Unions offers welcome relief from the usual polemics, but Jackson’s argument is complex and to summarise is inevitably to oversimplify. Nevertheless, it is clear that much of the history of the two unions was determined by their origins. The union with Scotland came about through consent, as a bargain between two autonomous teams of representatives negotiating freely, and it sought to preserve the two central institutions of Scottish civil society – the Kirk and the legal system. The union with Ireland, by contrast,
was not a ‘treaty or contract freely made between two independent states’, but was devised by Pitt and his inner circle in London and imposed upon a Protestant elite, which initially resisted it. Religion, which united Scotland, divided Ireland, and the British party system could not secure a foothold in a country dominated by sectarian division. The union with Scotland secured the rights of Presbyterians. That with Ireland failed to secure the rights of Catholics. Emancipation had indeed been promised with the union, but George III refused to concede it, believing that it would violate his coronation oath, and so it did not come about until 1829. As so often with Ireland, concessions, which, if given willingly, might have secured goodwill, were made too late and under pressure, so that any goodwill was lost. In consequence, the union never escaped the taint of the Protestant Ascendancy.
The outcome was that union proved compatible with the sense of nationality in Scotland, while in Ireland they were brought into conflict. Later, British inaction during the famine, and refusal to accept Home Rule, added to Irish grievances. ‘What fools we were’, George V told Ramsay MacDonald in 1930, ‘not to have accepted Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill. The Empire now would not have had the Irish Free State giving us so
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‘With the benefit of historical hindsight’, the Queen declared in Dublin earlier this year, ‘we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all.’ Even so, the union with Ireland survived and, had it not been for the Great War, it might possibly have proved permanent. The nationalist Daniel O’Connell declared in 1836 that ‘the people of Ireland are ready to become a portion of the Empire … a kind of West Briton if made so in benefits and justice’. Perhaps Ireland was even beginning to be integrated into the British political system as Scotland had been. In 1914, with Home Rule on the statute book, John Redmond, the nationalist leader, stood up in the Commons to assure England of Irish loyalty. Redmond’s brother was to die on the western front in 1917, the year after the British executed the leaders of the Easter Rising in Dublin.
The obstacles to the success of union with Ireland, were, Jackson believes, ‘overwhelming; but it still took the universal conflagration of 1914–1918 to bring down the 120-year old edifice’. In 1914 Britain claimed to be fighting to defend the rights of small nations such as Belgium and Serbia. Yet when the small nation on Britain’s doorstep sought, in 1918, to exercise her right of self-determination by establishing her own parliament in Dublin, the Lloyd George government tried to extirpate it by force. Rereading the history of AngloIrish relations during the era of union, it is difficult to resist the conclusion that the British took leave not only of their principles but also of their senses when they came to deal with the Emerald Isle.
Even though it has been said that historians remember the future and imagine the past, it is dangerous to think that we can learn lessons from history. Nevertheless, the temptation is sometimes too great to resist. What is clear is that, were the SNP to dominate Scottish representation at Westminster as the Irish nationalists did from 1885, Britain would not fight against independence for thirty-five years as our Victorian and Edwardian forebears did. Instead, after a test of Scottish opinion through a referendum, negotiations would begin on ending the union.
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