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The emergence of Sinn Fein: 1916-1919

In the aftermath of the events of 1916 more people than ever in Ireland are convinced that independence from Britain is the only way forward. At this stage the majority still puts faith in the the constitutional methods advocated by John Redmond's Nationalist Home Rule party. The violent approach of the Sinn Feiners, as seen in the Easter Rising, has as yet relatively little support.

This changes over the next few years, largely because of the inability of the British government to provide any new initiatives as the World War drags on and thus delays - it seems endlessly - the fulfilment of the Home Rule Act passed in 1914.

Asquith and Lloyd George make efforts in the right direction. Consultations are undertaken, conventions are organized, and the prisoners serving gaol sentences for the events of Easter 1916 are released in two waves (December 1916, June 1917).

But the mood of impatience in Ireland grows. Sinn Fein candidates begin to win some sensational by-election victories, and the party acquires an energetic new leader. Eamon de Valera, released from prison in June 1917, is elected to head Sinn Fein, replacing its founder Arthur Griffith.

Unrest increases in the spring of 1918 when the British government, desperately short of men on the western front, attempts to impose conscription on Ireland. Protests follow, and a heavy-handed response by the Dublin authorities aggravates the situation. The viceroy, claiming evidence of a treasonable plot between Sinn Fein and the Germans, arrests seventy-three Sinn Fein leaders, including Griffith and de Valera, during the course of one night in May.

No one believes in the German plot, and when evidence is produced it relates almost entirely to the already well- known events of 1914-16. The resulting mood in Ireland is expressed in no uncertain terms in the general election of December 1918.

Sinn Fein polls more than twice as many votes as the Nationalist party, and wins all but six of the seats previously held by the Nationalists. De Valera defeats the Nationalist leader (now John Dillon, after Redmond's death), and a new leading light of the republican movement, Michael Collins, is returned for West Cork.

The Sinn Fein members have no intention of taking their seats at Westminster. Instead, they assemble in the Dublin Mansion House in January 1919 as the Dáil Eireann (Assembly of Eire). Officers are elected: Griffith for Home Affairs, Collins for Finance, de Valera as President. De Valera is once again in gaol in Britain; this is as yet a national assembly only in name. But two years of violence will change that.

Stumbling towards a settlement: 1920-1922

In 1920 Lloyd George secures the passage of a Government of Ireland Act which puts a new spin on the proposal passed into law in 1914. The partition of Ireland is to be accepted as a necessary compromise, but both southern Ireland (twenty-six counties) and northern Ireland (the six counties of northeast Ulster) are now to have their own parliaments with limited devolved powers. Each parliament is to send twenty members to a joint Council of Ireland, which may at any time merge the two without requiring further legislation from Westminster.

The proposal meets neither Nationalist wishes for a united Ireland, nor the Unionist desire to remain an undifferentiated part of the United Kingdom. But both sides decide to take part in the elections held in May 1921.

In southern Ireland the old Nationalist party, under John Dillon, refrains from opposing Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein therefore wins 124 of the 128 seats (the other four being reserved for the strongly Unionist Trinity College in Dublin). These 124 Sinn Feiners now assemble as a reconstituted Dáil. However this is not the southern parliament provided for in Lloyd George's act, and the IRA continues to commit terrorist acts in Sinn Fein's republican cause.

In northern Ireland forty Unionists and twelve Nationalists are elected. Although the Unionists object in principle to this parliament, it is formally opened by George V (with a powerful speech urging reconciliation) in June 1921.

With this much achieved, Lloyd George offers a truce to the Sinn Fein leader, Eamon de Valera, and invites him to London with a view to working out a treaty.

The truce comes into effect on 11 July 1921. Violence in southern Ireland immediately ceases. De Valera sends representatives, led by Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins, to the peace talks in London. They agree to terms which fall short of the nationalist demand for a united Ireland, but which nevertheless offer independence to the twenty-six counties. As the Irish Free State they are to have Dominion status, in the formula pioneered by Canada. Republican sensibilities are assuaged by owing allegiance to the British crown only as head of 'the British Commonwealth of Nations'.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty is ratified by the British parliament in December 1921, but it immediately runs into problems in Ireland. De Valera repudiates it, arguing that his envoys have agreed to terms beyond their brief. In January, after a bitter debate in the Dáil, Griffith and Collins carry the motion for their treaty by a narrow margin of 64 votes to 57. De Valera immediately resigns as president of the Dáil. Griffith is elected in his place.

In northern Ireland the new parliament is now functioning, and there has been talk of accommodation of some kind with the south. But civil war south of the border and sectarian riots in the north soon put an end to that. For the rest of the century, from 1922, the republic of Ireland and northern Ireland go their separate ways.

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