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First World War: When Enemies United

Before the First World War, Irish Unionists and Nationalists were poised to fight each other over the imposition of Home Rule by the British. Then, remarkably, they fought and died side by side, writes Richard S. Grayson.

In the summer of 1914 war threatened to engulf Ireland. Sure enough, it came in early August. But it was not the war that anybody had expected. For much of 1912-14 Ireland verged not on a Great War but on civil war.Yet remarkably, when Europe erupted into flames, Ireland’s two rival paramilitary groups both marched to join the British army to fight against a common foe.

At the root of divisions in Belfast was the campaign for Home Rule, a form of devolution not independence. Home Rule consistently secured the support of the vast majority of Irish voters in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, it was different in the north-east of Ireland (the greater part of the province of Ulster). There, unlike in the rest of the island, Protestants were in the majority. They feared that Home Rule would mean Rome Rule by a Catholic-dominated Dublin Parliament. They also had a fiercely British identity and believed that Home Rule would undermine the Union between Great Britain and Ireland.

While the House of Lords had powers to block any legislation from the Commons indefinitely, there was no question of Home Rule becoming law as the Conservatives (who opposed Home Rule) dominated the Lords. However, that changed with the 1911 Parliament Act which pared back the Lords’ powers. Suddenly, it became clear that a combination of the votes of Liberal MPs and the Irish Parliamentary Party (the ‘Nationalist’ party led by John Redmond which represented most of Ireland) would inevitably lead to Home Rule.

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