Ireland’s difficulty is England’s opportunity

Recently it was suggested to me that the English ruling class have wanted out of Ireland for up to 150 years. I thought this was implausible given that  in the twentieth century the British showed that they could – on the face of it – with relative ease within thirty years divest themselves of an entire colonial empire that once ruled over one-quarter of the Earth’s surface; so why could they not get out of this wee place when they wanted to?

We know Ireland was England’s first colony, but also their closest geographically and probably their most troublesome. It was the first colony to successfully rebel against their rule. So what was their problem in getting out if they really wanted to?

Perhaps they didn’t want to, I thought.

Nothing is ever straight-forward in politics. Nothing is ever as it is presented in the public sphere. The departure of a colonial power is often not what it appears. In Ireland we should know this better than many.

John Bull and Ireland
John Bull and Ireland

I still don’t believe the English ruling class ever intend to leave Ireland – north or south. I don’t believe that a real form of independence from British rule was achieved for the twenty-six counties in December 1922. John Bull remained pulling the financial strings in the ‘Republic of Ireland’ behind public view through the Bank of England until the 1970s. All that was achieved in 1922 was that the manner in which power was presented to the public in Ireland changed. England took a back seat and allowed the Irish gombeen class and the Church to front things.


What is true is that 150 years ago – fifty years after the Act of Union of 1800 – the English decided to further radically change their relationship with Ireland. This was sometime shortly after the trauma of the so-called ‘famine’ of the 1840s.

Initially I think the English ruling class saw the failure of the potato crop in 1844 – 1849 as their opportunity to break the troublesome Irish tenantry and re-model the country.

Evictions in Ireland during the 1840's
Evictions in Ireland during the 1840’s

There was a massive re-distribution of wealth in Ireland following the 1840s. During and immediately after the genocide half a million rural properties became vacant. One quarter of all Irish land changed ownership. From 1850 to 1870 the number of small, ‘uneconomic’ land holdings fell by half as the farms of the dead and departed tenants were incorporated into larger holdings. In these twenty years agricultural output rose by 70% and rents went up by 20%. In the 1860s bank savings doubled. The number of agrarian outrages fell from 1362 in 1850 to 232 in 1860.

So, all that would suggest, from the capitalists’ viewpoint, that the genocide of the 1840s had been a success.  Ireland was by the 1860s giving a much better return on investment.

However in spite of the short term financial success of the genocide for the ruling class, there was an aspect of that trauma that caused the English to plan for a radically different relationship with Ireland. This plan began to be implemented by Gladstone immediately after his election in 1868 and continued to unfold into the twentieth century.


As soon as widespread starvation began to impact on most areas of Irish life from 1845 onwards, the government in London expected the landed gentry in Ireland to shoulder a substantial financial burden and manage the outfall of destitution. The prevailing view in Victorian Britain was that it was not the government’s responsibility to support the less fortunate, it was the rich landowning class that should manage the poor in their immediate community. But it soon became obvious to London, as the mass starvation unfolded, that the Irish landowning class could not or would not sufficiently respond to the crisis. As a result the imperial government was dragged into areas of public policy in Ireland it wished to avoid.

Irish ascendancy

The primary reason was that the Irish landowning class did not have the financial resources of their English peers. The Irish estates were usually much smaller and were not as well managed.  There were good reasons for this discrepancy.

The simple fact was that Ireland suffered, like India and many other colonies – but unlike England – from a distant and unaccountable imperial government and an imposed ruling class. Unlike the landowning class in England, the Irish landlords were largely much more detached from and resented by their tenantry. It is not an oversimplification to say that most of the landed estates in Ireland were appropriated in Norman, Elizabethan and Cromwellian times from the ancient Gaelic tuatha. The cohesive ancient Gaelic structure with their sophisticated Brehon Law system that had kept Ireland comparatively peaceful and civilised for millennia had been destroyed by the English and Roman invaders from the eleventh century onwards, leaving the native people with little connection to their new rulers.

Irish landlords suffered frequent agitation from their tenants including lethal personal attack. This alienation, combined with the fact that there was no elected parliament in Ireland since 1800 to mediate in such matters, created an undercurrent of lawlessness, uncertainty and fear that was prevalent for much of the 19th century. Within this culture the Irish landlord class did not invest as much in their estates as their English counterparts nor did they plan for what seemed to them like an uncertain future. Therefore many Irish estates were less productive, in debt and burdened with many more tenants than their English counterparts.

The Irish Poor Law of 1838 put a further burden on the property owning class by levying a Poor Rate to help fund the 130 workhouses, which by 1850 held over 200,000 destitute people. The financial burden of this was immense.  By the time of Irish independence, the Boards of Guardians composed of the local landlord class who ran the workhouses, had had to borrow heavily and owed the British Exchequer £1.3 million – equivalent to £250 million at today’s rates.

Workhouse Dining Hall
Workhouse Dining Hall

The failure of the Irish landlord class, in the eyes of the British government during the crisis of the 1840s, clearly showed that, as the agents of England’s rule in Ireland, they were no longer fit for purpose and were in fact a threat to the continuation of English rule in the way they attracted ongoing antagonism.


England’s response to the failings of the Irish landowning class was quite ruthless and remarkable for its time.

The Liberal Government of Gladstone began a process of divesting the landlord class of their holdings and returning them to the native Irish. Between 1870 and 1930 15 million of Ireland’s 17 million acres in the twenty-six counties were bought by the tenantry with government loans.

W.S. Gladstone

Gladstone believed that a dispossessed tenantry were now a threat to England’s rule in Ireland, given the weaknesses of the landlord class. He calculated that the creation of an enlarged and contented property owning class in Ireland was better insurance for the continuation of English rule than a dysfunctional and impoverished landed gentry. Gladstone began a series of ground-breaking land reforms through acts of parliament in 1870, 1881 and 1885. These were continued into the twentieth century and by the new Irish Free State government. These reforms increased tenant rights and enabled tenants to buy their property.

As the property owning class in Ireland increased so did voting rights. In effect Gladstone was creating a so-called ‘property owning democracy’ one hundred years before Margaret Thatcher claimed it as her idea in the 1980s.

A secret ballot was introduced in 1872 and by 1884 30% of the adult male population had the right to vote – fifty years earlier only 37,000 Irish men had the vote. It was these new middle class voters in Ireland who elected the Irish Parliamentary Party MPs under Butt and Parnell whose efforts at Westminster brought Home Rule close to fruition. By 1902  English Tories under Lord Salisbury passed a further Land Act offering landlords a 12% bonus on the sale of their land to tenants. The days of the Irish Ascendancy were numbered. In 1918 the English introduced universal suffrage and Sinn Fein was elected in a landslide. England’s relationship with Ireland was about to become very different.

The blowback on Gladstone’s initiative was of course unionist opposition to the prospect of Irish Home Rule. The success of unionist armed defiance of the British Crown in 1912-14 encouraged Irish nationalists to go down the same route. So we had the Rising of 1916 followed by the War of Independence.


However, after the end of the Irish Civil war in 1923, there was almost fifty years of relative peace throughout the island of Ireland. The Dublin government of the twenty-six counties claimed their independence from British rule and the Northern Ireland government was left by the British to run the new northern statelet largely unhindered. The British had achieved their goal of re-structuring their presence in Ireland by allowing the Irish gombeen class to be their local agents, both north and south, while discrete control of both jurisdictions was still maintained in London. It was an old imperial trick first practiced by the Romans.


That period of peace was threatened when serious civil unrest began in the northern state in 1968 leading to a re-emergence of the IRA. Once again the British felt let down by their governing class, this time in the north of Ireland, and once more they took radical steps; removing the elected government from office in Belfast and reluctantly replacing it with their own ministers in 1972 as a temporary holding position until they had worked out their next steps. It took over twenty-five years – until 1998 – to reach agreement on local government in Northern Ireland.

Imperial Palace, Stormont, Belfast
Imperial Palace, Stormont, Belfast

Curiously, one year ago in December 2016 the British used their media in the form of the BBC to destroy this locally elected administration.

Given that long term British policy in Ireland is to maintain a client class to govern the colony, it prompts the question what they’re up to now.


One thought on “Ireland’s difficulty is England’s opportunity

  1. A brilliant analysis. It is possible that the English ruling class have either:

    1. A lesson planned for Ireland when Brexit occurs in the form of a new financial crisis.

    2. Are planning to use Ireland as a proxy inside the EU.

    Your assessment of the level of independence we won in 1916-23 agrees with mine, although I would add that our not being subject to military conscription is probably the most important right we Irish won in that period.

    Laurence O’B

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