The Irish Experience

The Republic of Ireland’s parliament, Dáil Éireann – “Assembly of Ireland”

Listening to Mary Lou Macdonald in a television interview, leader of the Irish social democratic party, Sinn Fein, I was struck by how unselfconsciously she used the phrase English nationalist, rather than British nationalist. She was not, after all, referring to Welsh or Scot. If the term is used in Scotland it meets with inane cries of ‘racism’. In the Republic of Ireland, English nationalism is an all too real legacy familiar to Irish from centuries of brutal colonial rule.


In Scotland we prefer to blank out similar suppression of our rights littering 300 years of London rule. Far too many Scots suppose life in modern Scotland enjoys unfettered freedoms and full democracy. What is there to worry about? We can buy what we want, just not get the government and policies we want. But who cares about politics? We see no Stasi agents arresting dissenters and disappearing into the night. And so, the more adventurous among us look for historical parallels in an attempt to understand our situation. We can do no better than study Ireland’s bloody struggle. For the curious a good starting point is to follow Churchill’s wake. If anybody stood for the imposition of rule by the British Empire, he did. He was its champion. Anything less, a concession here or there, he considered appeasement or even defeat. There are plenty of modern-day English nationalists who express the same hostility to any suggestion of Scottish hegemony no matter how mild.

Liberal with far-right Tory inclinations

In 1922 Churchill was still a Liberal working in the War Office under the party’s then leader Lloyd George. Together, they had had to come to terms with the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia, that it was there to stay. Revolution made British politicians jittery. They sensed the old world order was in for a kicking.

It is important to know the restless, impulsive nature of Churchill. He contemplated overthrowing the Russian revolution before sanity got the better of ambition. His close colleagues thought him more of a Tory than Tory ministers. For his part, Lloyd George considered Churchill ‘an obsessive’. He was no less so when it came to giving Ireland its liberty. Though the Easter Rising in 1916 barely altered the Liberal party’s attitude to a united Ireland, Churchill seemed perturbed by the growing rebellion and thought it should be put down if the need ever arose. Even when moderate nationalists were swept away by the party for full independence, Sinn Fein, in the 1918 British General Election, securing 73 seats, the British parliament was not much moved. They would not see a Sinn Fein MP in the halls of power for they refused to take their seats. One supposes Boris Johnson and his cohorts will respond likewise, with a yawn and a racist remark, if poll predictions come to pass and the SNP wipe out all but three MSPs at the 2021 Scottish Election, deciding to withdraw MPs from Westminster. Tories need do nothing. They hold all the cards.

Master of all he surveyed

By 1921 Churchill was master of the Colonial Office, ensuring that Britain’s domain of colonised countries remained ruled by whites. America was not yet a greater military power, Britain still able to tell ever nation under the sun what was good for them and who should rule them. Whenever the question of Ireland was brought up, Churchill’s view was the same as when at the War Office, he advocated suppressing rebellion with fiscal and trade coercion or armed force.  However, he recognised his policy of reprisals, destined to fail, was not winning hearts or minds. IRA guerrilla attacks continued unabated. The only solution was to allow an election to take place in Southern Ireland – Ulster being protected from any fallout – and see what happened. There was lots of talk about a truce, but as far as can be gleaned from historical reports, this tactic relied on lots of anti-republican candidates standing for election.

Had Churchill been able to commandeer ‘Sinn Fein is not Ireland’ to paraphrase an inane Scottish Tory slogan, he would have used it. Back then, ‘Ireland is British’ was good enough. What he did say was, “If necessary, we can break up the Irish parliament and resort to coercion.” (David Brynmor Jones Diary – Vol 3.) Alas for Churchill and Empire loyalists, the election resulted in a walk-over for Sinn Fein. The British state has a similar problem with Scotland, how to deal with the rise of the SNP without having the democratic authority needed from the Scottish electorate.

Politeness doesn’t always work

Finally, the government of Lloyd George was in a panic. They had no strategy to stop the march of Irish nationalism. The only voice heard was Churchill and his ‘shoot ’em up’ solution to everything. Meanwhile, politicians in the Ulster Parliament watched with increasing alarm events unfolding and resorted to what they do today, put pressure on Westminster behind the scenes to gain favour. With Churchill banging his fist on the cabinet table, the alternative was to adopt martial law in all the Irish counties and govern unelected, or do a deal with Sinn Fein. The former idea was a logistical and costly nightmare, the latter initially unthinkable. In keeping with English colonial rule, the British government did what it had always done, refused to talk to elected ‘upstarts’, (see Gordon Brown and SNP example), and instead imposed martial law, backed by the infamous Black and Tans that Churchill declared “were getting to the root of the matter quicker than the military”. (ibid.)

An interesting fact: Churchill was not given a place on Lloyd George’s Irish Committee – a committee the mechanism by which you delegate matters of state to consider specific events and make recommendations. Churchill was distrusted by his own party and by the Tory party he was soon to rejoin, with whom he had a lot in common. His absence was explained as presenting a caring, benign face to the disconsolate Irish. The tactic worked. In Churchill’s intimidating absence, the committee looked at the implications of stomping all over a nation they had let starve during devastating potato famines, and pulled back, making conciliatory offers of a truce. Churchill never liked the word, a quirk that came to his rescue when facing Nazism. He thought a truce gave kudos to IRA tactics. Outnumbered by colleagues, he accepted his heavy-handed approach to contain Irish dissent had not succeeded – for the moment.

IRA force Britain to the negotiation table

And so it came to pass the IRA strategy of organised dissent and dissonance worked. The British government acknowledged acceding to a truce left Republicans in charge of the Irish Parliament, they controlled most of southern Ireland. Likewise, if current polls prove prescient in Scotland in 2021, the SNP look to be in full control of all constituencies bar one in Shetland, one in Aberdeen, one in the Borders. There is no doubt the SNP hope this forces Boris Johnson to negotiate and endorse a  second referendum on independence. But they reckon without Boris modelling his persona and his policies on Churchill. Lloyd George packed his bags and organised successive meetings with the Republican leader Èamon de Valera, to agree upon the basics for full-scale negotiations.

Unsurprisingly, the Irish wanted a republic, no half-measures. The British wanted negotiations to stretch endlessly and tire out Irish demands, In the event, Republicans eventually accepting dominion status – no better than a colony or a protectorate. More on that shortly. An ulterior motive in protracted negotiations was to cause the Republican movement to split into soft and hard factions, and with luck and infiltration, start an internal war.  The British way of control has never varied, generation after generation, divide and rule, and if uncontrolled disorder arises, step in as the saviour of law and order. In Scotland there is a view held by Nicola Sturgeon’s supporters, that the do nothing sudden or shocking, a rose petal diplomacy – a modern version of hippy flower power – is by far the best route to independence. They hope to seduce English power into submission. Nothing could be further from the Irish experience. Hence, an opposing faction in Scottish politics, the realists, if you like, feel the SNP liable to accept a compromise if they ever get to the negotiating table.

Powers we did not give

At this point, I am obliged to digress for a moment to pre-empt alarmists among us by stating the obvious. I am not advocating violent insurrection. Scots do not die for their country, they die for other people’s countries. What I suggest is, the British Tory party, by warlike history and its exceptionalism, now emulating the opportunistic, amoral Donald Trump, knows violent discord wins the day for the party in power. Excessive authority can be stamped on a disorderly society with impunity. Authoritarian regimes know enough people will welcome tough action that helps them get to work on time. The strong arm approach has a down-side. Strict control is expensive to maintain over a long period. It drains the Treasury coffers. It upsets the social order. Eventually, you are forced to negotiate. Alex Salmond chose debate. He was the one person who could and did rev up the anti and turn a talking shop of unionists in Holyrood into a hotbed of visionary zeal. There seems nothing but calm in the SNP benches since his departure.

Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, an articulate prime minister but badly educated in egalitarianism at one of Scotland’s premiere private schools, Fettes College, was smart enough to see what was coming. Reluctant to offer Scots anything more than Labour’s discredited neo-liberal policies, he agreed to the reinstatement of Scotland’s Parliament, later expressing regret over what he saw as devolution “encouraging nationalists to ask for more” – unintentionally admitting Scotland has less than constitutes full democracy!

In Ireland’s case, the intention was to offer a settlement, spurred by Churchill breathing fire and brimstone, allowing limited Republican rule but keep Ireland as a state within the Empire. It is hard not to see Scottish devolution as a significant parallel, a parliament offered in diminutive form, an ‘executive’, with hobbled powers, a gift on loan. Freedoms limited artificially invariably call for group action to allow people to exercise free will. In Ireland’s case, after cabinet discussion, the British offered unconditional talks to the Republicans, Churchill having preferred to restart war, over-ruled by his colleagues.

The negotiations

Lloyd George, as unionist as any Scotsman on the make, and in common with today’s English politicians, chose a one-sided, largely unionist negotiating team to do their best to brow beat the Irish down to a free tram pass and a latch key to live in their own country. Scotland should expect the same treatment when its time comes. Churchill chaired the defence side of discussions with the same arrogance of Theresa May and Boris Johnson waving aside Scotland’s request to be part of EU withdrawal talks. He contemptuously dismissed justified Irish calls that they be responsible for their own defence, had their own army, dispensed with a navy, and wished to be neutral in conflicts involving the British government. Again, Scotland’s team will have all that and more to contend with, assuming they arrive at the negotiating chamber fully prepared!

The dealer always wins

Churchill wanted full control of strategic ports in Ireland, a condition that had de Valera’s team scoff in disbelief. From this one can see clearly how Westminster will demand retention of Faslane Dockyard in a future Scottish settlement. This is why I suggest the counter offer, they rent it for £3 billion a year for a maximum of 10 years, leaving on the ninth, and clearing up any toxic mess left behind at their expense. For the initial talks, Churchill was sidelined a second time, watching in annoyance as Lloyd George saw to the detail of the settlement. By any standard it was a case of the invader demanding restitution for things he had actually stolen.

A brief example of conditions the British wanted reads like a duke’s list of what he wants in taxes and tithes from the commoners tilling his land: members of Ireland’s parliament, the Dáil, must take an oath offering loyalty to the British King; respect for the Crown to be accepted in the new state, including hereditary land ownership – Scottish landowners will like that one; recognising the Ulster Parliament together with a Northern Ireland boundary, partition – a ‘boundary’, that old problem again! – must be accepted, Ulster kept as a separate province; no fiscal autonomy, the reverse of which currency will you use? thrown at Scotland; countries with which Ireland could and could not make a treaty – British enemies must be, ipso facto, Irish enemies; trade with England before all others, and so on, and so forth. Behind those conditions was Lloyd George and Churchill’s avowed determination to keep Ulster Unionists happy, as the Tory party does now with billion pound bungs from the public purse for DUP support. Scotland can expect a similar hidden agenda when facing England’s conditions, a bridge to Ireland probably still a delusional proposal.

Sign Here – Brits Rules rule

Lloyd George managed to have de Valera sign an outline agreement which virtually reduced Ireland to dominion status, one of the key issues that opened wide the schism between de Valera and Michael Collins. For de Valera’s part, capitulation to too many British demands troubled him deeply. His subsequent volte face, was to have tragic consequences. To his credit, for it effectively created the Republic, Churchill stood by the Agreement and expected to implement those sections under his brief, but he is recorded belittling the accord as ‘wicked’ in later months. He thought the war against Sinn Fein should have been continued until they were truly broken.

As Colonial Secretary, Churchill took on the role of handing powers over to Ireland but made the process a tangled web. There is scholarly disagreement he did so deliberately to gain advantage, another angle, and so much money was involved he wanted to keep out of Ireland’s hands. By January 1922 a provisional government was established with Michael Collins and the writer and newspaper editor Arthur Griffiths drafting a constitution.

Coincidentally, the SNP has a draft Constitution for Scotland, but it lies dormant while the SNP chase faulty policies on social issues better tackled in a constitution after Independence Day. There is a loss of dynamism the Irish would never have allowed. They knew how to capitalise on principles to encourage adherents to the cause. Collins, Minister of Finance, and Griffiths leading the delegation, handled negotiations, de Valera staying in Ireland to allow the plenipotentiaries to refer back to him without being  pressured into any agreements. “To me, the task is a loathsome one,” Collins wrote. “I go in the spirit of a soldier who acts against his best judgment at the orders of his superior.” In a letter he wrote that he had “signed my death warrant”.

He was right to be on his guard. De Valera suddenly rejected the Agreement because it involved the partition of Ireland and did not create an independent republic. In Griffiths and Collins in particular, de Valera had found scapegoats. The SNP are just as guilty of creating scapegoats when it comes to protecting their perceived reputation. To the crushing disappointment of Collins the revolutionary, de Valera reverted to war to achieve a genuine, self-reliant, obsequious to no nation, republic. Because of the Oath to the King, he and his followers could never, ever, vote for the Treaty. Collins thought it a paltry excuse, something not worthy of breaking a treaty.

De Valera was heavily castigated for his alleged deviousness and vanity. What remains is a master politician, a man who knew his constituency and understood his place in history. He understood he was a symbol of Ireland’s struggle for independence. Nothing less than a true republic would do. But it was Collins who had fought and beaten the British to the negotiation table by his brilliance for intelligence work and intimidation. We do not have a Collins or a de Valera in the Scottish parliament … or do we?

Churchill put his trust in Collins and Griffiths to deliver the dominion state negotiated, which they did with great reluctance. Like Scotland’s devolution, to them it was only the beginning of things. Churchill was shocked at de Valera’s renunciation, an Englishman who did not understand the passions that motivate revolutionaries.

Jolly bad mannered chaps

The IRA repudiated the Provisional Government and promptly resumed its forays into Ulster. Churchill retaliated by submitting a bill to the Westminster parliament asking for support for an invasion force if the IRA declared a republic. He employed all the leverage he had. He refused to supply arms to the Provisional Government unless they used them against the IRA. England’s age old tactic of divide and rule took on a bloody aspect, not resolved until the Good Friday Agreement. In April 1922 Churchill approved the Special Powers Act that suspended habeas corpus, removed civil rights, including detention without trial, legalised street searches and house raids without warrant, and instituted imprisonment for refusal to comply. By the next election, people fearing conflict, the Provisional Government achieved a win for the pro-Treaty side, and Churchill used that to drive a wedge between Irishman and Irishman.

Compared to the contempt with which Boris Johnson treats Ulster’s expectations by tearing up the Brexit Withdrawal and endangering the Good Friday Agreement, Churchill gave his full support to Ulster Unionists. He did not betray them. Churchill had no fear of Catholics fighting Protestants, they were too few, but he  guessed correctly Protestants would be hostile to Catholics. Today, the Protestant community finds itself in the minority compared to the growing increase of Catholics, both numerically and politically, something Churchill never foresaw. A Catholic majority is more inclined to vote for a united Ireland.

Once more, England’s departure from a territory it governed resulted in partition and prolonged violence. So, despite Churchill’s many attempts to derail the Irish Agreement (“a sane chauffeur who suddenly drives you over a cliff”), it came to pass without his Machiavellian intervention.

Could we see a similar outcome with Scotland’s independence negotiated by a bellicose Boris Johnson? Tories usually arrive with gifts of money and false promises. Johnson chooses the Churchillian path, divide and rule. In Scotland’s case, he proposes a policy in which the Tories appropriate part of the Barnett Formula (in reality Scotland’s taxes), and they themselves dispense the largesse to Tory supporting constituencies in Scotland, an English version of American pork barrel politics.

The Dissolution of the Union

At this point my research for this essay ends, chiefly because the well informed know the rest of Ireland’s tortured history, a war that lasted until the end of the 20th century. What we see now is a proud, confident, independent nation state, recovered quickly from the financial crash of 2008, still belittled by a jingoistic England, ironically prospering at the expense of England’s grand folly – the dumping of European co-operation, culture and values. Over time, Ireland removed the remnants of dominion status and, with a new Constitution in 1937, became fully independent. There is one more important comparison to discuss. Scotland’s independence is inevitable. It will be aided and abetted by forces outside the UK, stronger than the UK with the leverage to make Westminster listen, those third parties repulsed by Tory contempt for the rule of law and human rights.

However, the question I ask myself is this, is the current SNP crop of MPs and MSPs clever enough, tough enough, to negotiate our freedoms without compromise, without concessions, and without a politician who can scare the living daylights out of the destroyers of democracy? I remain to be convinced. The cunning of the British government is these matters is legendary. Not reading the small print is the difference between a new Scotland and Scotland cheated.



Apologia: Though of Irish decent (Grandfather from County Mayo), I offer apologies to irish readers if my interpretation of events is innaccurate, and welcome correction.

Film Dramatisation: This early Irish dramatisation of the Treaty negotiations has the look of a school’s broadcast but is no less accurate or truthful for all that. You’ll enjoy recognising a few fine Irish actors in their fresh-faced youth. If you have an hour-and-half, spend it viewing this informative piece.

Further reading: Churchill’s tenure as Dundee MP – link:

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10 Responses to The Irish Experience

  1. duncanio says:

    Well, if we ever get to the negotiating table with the British it had better not be a delegation led or instructed by Nicola Sturgeon.

    She blinks in the dark with her eyes shut.

  2. benmadigan says:

    with regards to the Irish drafting a constitution in 1922. They had had long practice.
    A rudimentary constitution of the republic was drafted for the 1798 rebellion and re-worked for Emmet’s rebellion in 1803.
    The most well-known and radical of these early constitutions is the Fenian constitution of 1867, which you can see at this link

    Phoenix Rising – The Fenian Flame (2)

  3. Thank you very much Gareth for this insightful historical analysis of the traumatic Irish experience as they struggled towards independence, and for some portentous lessons of relevance to our own (hopefully) forthcoming Scottish negotiations with London. Here follows a link to a useful vimeo discussion with young Irish historian Fearghal Mac Bhloscaidh/ Fergal McCluskey about developments in republicanism up to 1916, including the degree to which by its very nature it could transcend sectarianism. The interview is in excellent Belfast Irish, with English subtitles —

  4. Grouse Beater says:

    You’re welcome. I’ll hae a listen to the interview.

  5. Hugh Wallace says:

    Are the current crop of SNP politicians up to the task? Mostly: absolutely not.

    A very interesting article, thank you GB.

  6. billcraig44mailscot says:

    Thanks for that Gareth. The first question has to be about the strength of our current political leadership. Turbulent times lie ahead.

  7. Grouse Beater says:

    Hello Bill

    I have lost trust in the current SNP leadership. The first jolt was seeing the top ignore the rank and file, and then begin its systematic purges, while all the time eschewing indepdfence as an attainable goal. The phrtas ‘lost the plot’ is apt.

  8. ‘Think about it: it’d be a very British breeze to redeploy those ‘assets‘. A thirty year proxy ‘civil war’ in Scotland might just about see out all those remaining oil revenues which are currently flowing to Westminster’s City of London banks and The White House’s Wall Street with the dark money proceeds being ‘washed’ by their Putin regime partners. Don’t underestimate the evil of the British elite. They are without doubt unrivalled Machiavellian masters at fomenting and sustaining conflict and manufacturing divisions between those who have the same interests in independence. And if you doubt this possible look into the Irish Civil War of 1922/23 that turned the same side against one another.’

    ‘The ‘Flatscreen Universe’: Scotland’s Cytokine Storm’ (2021) by #GaslightingGilligan

    Twitter: @GasGilligan (© 2017) *free download*.

  9. Lanark says:

    Thank you for a very interesting read. It’s always worthwhile to acknowledge the first country to leave the “precious” Union.

    I don’t know if you are aware of the Scot Jock McPeake and the role he played in the death of Michael Collins. He may even have been Collins’ assassin.

    A shadowy figure who was able to join the Irish Army just after the war of independence and then after the death of Collins, defected to the anti treaty IRA .

    He returned to Glasgow and obscurity not long after.

  10. davidbsb says:

    Might I recommend “ The Irish History “ podcast. By Fin Dwyer.

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