Later this year, the people of Scotland will vote either to remain in the United Kingdom or to become an independent state. One hundred years ago today, Ireland stood on the cusp of self-government in rather different conditions.
After a protracted constitutional struggle, which almost resulted in civil war in Ireland, the Irish Home Rule Act passed its third and final reading in the House of Commons on 25 May 1914. To a historian of the idea of Irish self-government, the politics of contemporary Scotland offer a fascinating set of parallels and contrasts.
The Home Rule Act of 1914 would have created a devolved legislature with limited powers in Ireland, similar to today’s Scottish Parliament. It remains one of modern Irish history’s ‘what ifs’, though; suspended for the duration of the First World War, it was never enacted. The descent into violent struggle, which resulted in partition and eventual independence for three-quarters of the island, superseded the relatively limited provisions of the devolution act.
The history of Ireland’s turbulent relationship with Britain a hundred years ago seems a world away from the narrative of contemporary Scotland’s embrace of devolution and its potential – peacefully achieved – independence. Yet Ireland remains the only constitutional precedent of a component part of the United Kingdom to leave its political borders, which opens up comparisons between Irish and Scottish experiences.
Scotland’s path to the September referendum is, perhaps, the logical culmination of the devolution project instigated by the Blair government of the late 1990s. The chief manifesto of the independence campaign, the Scottish government’s mammoth white paper, presses the case that devolution has revitalised Scotland’s political and economic life; the constitutional limitations on autonomy, however, hampers further advancements.
‘Progress under devolution has shown us what is possible’, the white paper confidently asserts, ‘but it is not enough’. 1 Scottish nationalism, in other words, has outgrown the structures of devolution.
This was the fear of unionist political thinkers one hundred years ago when considering Irish nationalism’s demand for devolved Home Rule. One of the most distinguished of their number, the legal academic A. V. Dicey, argued in 1886 that ‘Home Rule is the halfway house to Separation’. 2
Devolution, according to Dicey, threatened to introduce a number of anomalies into the operation of British sovereignty, not least likely conflict between an Irish legislature and Westminster. Subversively, Dicey saw the impulse for ‘Separatism’ coming more from England than Ireland: English enthusiasm for a Union state that included devolution would be sapped by inevitable tensions between the centre and periphery.
Dicey believed that British sovereignty could not be split apart without dangerous constitutional consequences. He rationalised that if Ireland were to gain self-governance, it made more sense for Westminster to grant formal independence rather than the untested experiment of devolution.
As distasteful as this idea was to unionists in the age of high imperialism, at least the stability of British parliamentary sovereignty would have been secured. Dicey argued that the ‘halfway house’ of devolution would prove unsatisfactory to both the Irish and English, albeit for different reasons, with inevitably painful results.
The twenty-first-century Scottish narrative of devolution largely bears out Dicey’s prediction. The Scottish Home Rule experiment has largely been deemed a success: devolution has facilitated the Scottish National Party’s evolution into a responsible party of government, which in turn has emphasised political and cultural differences between Holyrood and Westminster. But there is another example of devolution that is at times forgotten in debates about the British constitution: the old parliament of Northern Ireland, which sat from 1921 to 1972.
The Northern Irish contribution to devolution was hugely problematic. A one-party executive until the early 1970s, the ruling Ulster Unionist Party in effect annexed the apparatus of local power.
While the Northern Irish parliament only had the status of a devolved body, a belief that it possessed more complete autonomy became ingrained into the unionist psyche. This was aided by the uninterest of successive British governments in the affairs of Northern Ireland; while Westminster remained the legal sovereign, the UUP was permitted to behave as if it held supreme authority.
When inter-communal violence broke out in the late 1960s, the British government was forced belatedly to become involved in Irish troubles once again. The abolition of the parliament in Belfast by Westminster in 1972 was an admission by the sovereign power that devolution was part of the problem. It came as a traumatic shock to the UUP to find out that constitutionally they weren’t ‘in charge’.
The history of devolution in the United Kingdom is a mixed bag. One thing seems common, though: devolution breeds an independence of mind that can outgrow the structures of limited self-government. The SNP believe that we have reached this moment in Scotland. Questioning the structures of the Union won’t end if the vote fails to achieve independence. Devolution might be a powerful manifestation of that classic law of historical change, that of unintended consequences. The ‘halfway house’ threatens to become a cold house for one prominent partner of the Union, regardless of what happens in September.
Colin Reid is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Northumbria specialising in 19th and 20th-century Anglo-Irish history. He is the author of The Lost Ireland of Stephen Gwynn: Irish Constitutional Nationalism and Cultural Politics, 1864-1950 (MUP, 2011). You can find him on twitter @Colin_W_Reid.
Header image: John Redmond, the leader of the Home Rule party in 1914 [Wikicommons]