The Anglo-Irish Problem

The Ulster Banner hangs at a window on Shankill road in West Belfast, Northern Ireland, August 18, 2014. Cathal McNaughton / Reuters

In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when it was fashionable to speak of international problems in terms of "Questions" to be solved, the "Irish Question" proved particularly intractable for successive British governments. For Gladstone in 1886 it was "the long vexed and troubled relations between Great Britain and Ireland which exhibit to us the one and only conspicuous failure of the political genius of our race." He devoted much of his later political life to the question but his attempts to solve it were unsuccessful.

Lloyd George, a generation later, believed that he had found the answer. But his belief was tempered with caution. "I am not going to say that we have found the specific at last. This has been said too often. But we must try; at any rate I can see nothing better." Lloyd George's first attempt at a solution-the Government of Ireland Act, 1920-divided Ireland into two locally autonomous regions within the United Kingdom. "Northern Ireland" came into existence; but "Southern Ireland" was stillborn. So he negotiated with Irish nationalists (whose acceptance led to a civil war in their ranks) the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. The Treaty provided that Ireland should have a status within the Commonwealth like that of Canada and other dominions but allowed Northern Ireland to opt out within a month and retain its existing status within the United Kingdom. Since Northern Ireland did opt out, the effect of his solution was the partition of Ireland.

After 50 years it is evident that Lloyd George's solution was not the right one. Partition shelved, but did not solve, the "Irish Question." Northern Ireland, one of the two entities which it brought into being, was never stable and it eventually became unworkable within its existing framework. In March of this year the British government prorogued its regional Parliament for a year and resumed responsibility for the region by appointing a Secretary of State with legislative and executive functions for which he is responsible to the Westminster Parliament


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