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We may have been here before. Prime Minister David Cameron has pulled off a coup; but the narrowness of his majority, combined with the political upheaval north of the border, suggests we are entering an era reminiscent of Westminster post-1885, when the votes of the Irish Home Rule party became vital to Liberal governments.
Charles Stewart Parnell’s party exercised a hegemony over Irish constituencies outside Ulster, and was bent on extracting the right terms for secession. Closely run general elections, particularly in 1885 and 1910, put nationalists from the Celtic fringe in a pivotal position, in effect allowing the Liberals the support that enabled them to govern.
In 1886 their price was a home rule bill introduced by Prime Minister William Gladstone: it would have given Ireland its own parliament, and a certain degree of autonomy. The Conservatives shrieked that this was a corrupt bargain to enable the Liberals to retain power, subordinating the Mother of Parliaments to a party out to wreck the Union. The bill did not pass but Parnell was excoriated — like Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish National party leader, today — as the most dangerous person in Britain.
Unlike Ms Sturgeon, Parnell had form (imprisonment for seditious speeches and suspected links to revolutionary Fenians). His successor, John Redmond, presented a more reassuring profile when he in turn held the balance and enabled the Liberals to govern in 1910. Home rule for Ireland, he insisted, would not negate the commitment of Ireland to the British empire. But many of his supporters hoped and planned for more. Manoeuvring a larger party into a dependent position was, for the Home Rulers, introducing a whole new set of problems. And for many Liberals, adherence to Irish home rule was an albatross inheritance, forced on them by electoral necessity. Even the Tories had to govern Ireland with an eye to the nationalists’ susceptibilities and legislative bribery, known as “killing home rule with kindness”.
The Liberals passed a home rule bill in 1912 but implementation was blocked by a movement in Ulster that mustered a paramilitary force; hundreds of thousands signed a Solemn League and Covenant against home rule; plans were made for a provisional government of the province. Ireland faced civil war. The Liberals’ response was pusillanimous; Prime Minister Herbert Asquith and his ministers were still wavering when the 1914 assassination in Sarajevo let them temporarily off the hook.
The reactions precipitated by the SNP are not so dramatic. It is unlikely that we will see a Scottish parallel to Dublin’s 1916 Easter Rising, which was in part a reaction to the postponement of home rule. The putsch failed but in its aftermath both the Home Rulers and the Liberals were decimated in the 1918 election, when Sinn Féin swept the board outside Ulster. The subsequent guerrilla war ended in the treaty of 1921: three-quarters of Ireland gained a large measure of autonomy as the Irish Free State; the six north-eastern counties received their own home rule within the UK, which they exploited enthusiastically in the Protestant/Unionist interest.
Yet it is worth remembering that, in 1912, their arguments stressed the threat to democracy from a party pledged to break up the UK and holding a weak government to ransom to achieve their aim of irredentist nationalism. The Conservatives and Unionists exaggerated the project of Redmond and his party. But as in 1886 there was always the argument of the slippery slope: that home rule, once granted, could only be the first step to complete and violent separation.
Evaluating what has happened since Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair implemented a kind of home rule for Scotland, one has to concede that the argument has some merit. The groundswell of support for independence has risen to flood level, defeat in last September’s referendum notwithstanding.
Here, too, there may be a parallel with the Emerald Isle 100 years ago. As Redmond manoeuvred towards home rule, a purposeful and alienated element in Ireland was heading in a more radical direction. A whole generation was changing its mind. That generation’s moment came at Easter 1916. In the new political balance we will see if the SNP can extract terms that satisfy its supporters, who have now vanquished both the major parties in Scotland and tasted blood.
But political realities could yet constrict their possibilities. And, while Ms Sturgeon and her party may indeed be dangerous, they may find that their new position inhibits their potential to be as dangerous as their supporters want them to be.
Ed Miliband may have lost the election for the opposition Labour party when he declared, ludicrously, that he would not govern with the aid of the SNP. We are entering an era where for future governments, as with the Liberals after 1885, it may not be a matter of choice.
The writer is Carroll professor of Irish history at Oxford and author of ‘Vivid Faces: the Revolutionary Generation in Ireland 1890-1923’
Letter in response to this report: