Rebellion's failure opens door to direct rule

John Murphy reviews Acts of Union by Dáire Keogh and Kevin Whelan (eds), Four Courts Press, Dublin, £39 hbk

THIS HANDSOME book of articles on the causes, contexts and consequences of the 1800 Act of Union between Ireland and Britain is based on two conferences held on the bicentenary of that event last year. It includes the results of the latest research on the abolition of the College Green parliament, nearly a century after London shut down Scotland’s parliament in 1707.

There had been several proposals for a legislative union between Ireland and England in the 17th and 18th centuries. From the early 1790s English prime minister William Pitt planned such a union as a central part of the strategic and political consolidation of the UK in its wars with revolutionary and Napoleonic France.

Pitt saw his opportunity with the defeat of the 1798 Rebellion. The panic-stricken Irish landlord class seized on the guarantee of direct rule from London as the best way of upholding their ascendancy for the long-term. At the same the College Green parliament, which the landlords dominated, had made itself so unpopular by its repression at home that the more moderate Catholic leaders thought union with Britain could not but be an improvement.

The Catholic Church supported the union as a way of winning Catholic emancipation. It was deceived and had to wait another 30 years for that.Moderate Catholic support for the 1800 Act of Union paralleled northern nationalist support for the abolition of the Stormont parliament in 1972. There too direct rule was initially welcomed. The disillusionment came later.

Looked at in the long term, the Union marked a decisive shift in the balance of power between Ireland and Great Britain. In 1800 the ratio of population was 2 to 1 (10 million to five million). When the Union began to break up 120 years later, the ratio was 10 to 1 (40 million to four million). The word ‘colonialism’ first appeared in 1886 in an English text on Ireland, when the imperial theorist Dicey, in resisting Home rule arguments, observed that “English colonialism works well enough” in Ireland.

It is a pity the book does not pay more attention to the Union’s economic dimensions. One could read it without appreciating that the Irish pound continued as a separate currency from the pound sterling for a quarter-century after 1800.

It is an historical coincidence that it was exactly a quarter-century too after Ireland joined the EEC in 1973 that Dáil Éireann voted to abolish the púnt and commit the Irish state to EU monetary union and the euro.One wonders whether Irish membership of the eurozone will last as long as its use of the pound sterling, something of course that continues to this day in the six counties?

Britain’s self-interest was such that it was unable to countenance an independent Ireland. Its concept of ‘Britishness’ was such in 1800 that it was incapable of treating Catholics as equal fellow-citizens inside the UK union. That imaginative and political failure of Britishness was at the heart of the Anglo-Irish problem in the 1790s. Its effects can be seen ever more clearly as the concept of Britishness decomposed in the 1990s.

As Kevin Whelan writes in Acts of Union:

“The arc of empire and the arc of Britishness were directly synchronous. With empire gone, with Protestantism fading in the face of a secularising and multi-cultural society, and with its old continental adversaries now its partners in the EU, Britishness no longer has a coherent principle. “Recent development in Scotland and Wales indicate the new realities, while in a sense reverting to pre-imperial and pre-union politics. These developments have also striking implications for Northern Ireland, where they are slowly surfacing in the political arena.Within decades, we may use the term post-British like we now do the term post-Soviet. In the words of Hugo Young, ‘Britain is a brief artefact, not a continuous entity.’"

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