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Over the period from 1800 to 1921, Constitutional nationalism achieved some success insofar as it influenced some quite significant reforms within the Union, particularly in the areas of Politics, Economics and Religion. However, there was a notable failure to achieve reform of the Union, and towards the very end of the period, the constitutional movement all but fell apart, leading to the conclusion that although they had achieved some small successes, overall they were not very successful in achieving reform within, and of, the union.
From the very outset of the Union, constitutional nationalism had little success. Despite considerable opposition to the union from Henry Grattan and the Patriots, the Act of Union was passed in 1880, setting the tone for the following years. Grattan made speeches in Parliament when he was an MP attempting to bring the Catholic question on to the political agenda; he wanted to address the fact that the Catholic emancipation clause that was originally included in the Act of Union, and was what had ‘sold’ the bill to the Irish, was removed from the final legislation. However, he was unsuccessful – the first failure to achieve reform within the union.
O’Connell was somewhat successful in achieving reform within the Union, making him one of the most famous figures of the constitutional nationalist movement; Catholic emancipation in 1829 stands as perhaps the most significant reform of the few successes that constitutional nationalism achieved during 1800-1921, and for this there must be some credit given. Catholic Emancipation’s impact was not limited to religious issues – politically it resulted in the opening up of offices in towns across Ireland as it repealed the Tests and Corporations acts that had previously prevented Catholics from holding any sort of public office. However, the extent to which it can be considered a big success is severely limited – despite the considerable concessions it gave to Catholics, there remained several issues – most significantly that the Church of Ireland remained the established church and therefore Catholics were still obliged to contribute financially towards it.
Although the Tithes Commutation Act in 1836 removed the direct responsibility for the tithes from the peasants and was of symbolic significance, it remained an issue until the Church of Ireland was disestablished in 1869. Furthermore, Catholic emancipation raised the voting threshold, thereby reducing the number of Catholic voters – something that was addressed later not because of constitutional nationalism, but the British Government’s introduction of the Great Reform Act in 1832. In his alliance with the Whigs during the 1830s, O’Connell was able to press for a number of small reforms, and although some of these were achieved, ultimately they were insignificant and did nothing to advance O’Connell’s desire for the repeal of the Act of Union.
Although O’Connell admittedly achieved some success in this early part of the period with the Catholic Association, he saw failure with his National Repeal Association. Despite numerous mass meetings and wide public support, he never was able to achieve repeal of the Act of Union, and its failure saw the decline of Constitutional nationalism for several years as more revolutionary nationalism in the form of Young Ireland Developed. After the early success of Catholic emancipation, constitutional nationalism achieved little progress in pushing reform within and of the union, and ultimately the failure of the National Repeal Association saw a downturn in their activity and a rise of other types of nationalist groups.
Economically, there was some quite considerable reform achieved within the Union over the period from 1800-1921. The Land Acts can be seen as a success; however, how much these small successes can be attributed to Constitutional Nationalism is questionable. Certainly the motivation for the first land act is difficult to link conclusively to Constitutional nationalism – although a tenants’ rights movement had been established in the 1850s in the form of the All Ireland Tenants League, it had long since disintegrated, and there were evidently other incentives for Gladstone to introduce reform in Ireland. The revolutionary nationalist fenians had started to carry out attacks on the English mainland and Gladstone had further motivation in the form of the potential political advantages that reform could bring – he could use it as a means of reuniting the liberal party as well as appealing to the large numbers of people who had been enfranchised by the 1867 Reform Act – Irish church reform as he promised in the 1868 General Election would appeal not only to Roman Catholics but also to non conformists and many working men throughout Great Britain.
Therefore it is evident that the First Land Act of 1870 cannot be attributed as a success for Constitutional Nationalism. However, the second land act can be seen as an achievement of Constitutional Nationalism; The Irish National Land League, formed by Davitt in 1879 and of which Parnell was president had widespread campaigning for the ‘3 Fs’ – Fair Rents, Fixed Tenure and Free Sale, via relatively constitutional methods such as boycotts and propaganda. Parnell also tried to disassociate the movement from the more violent activity that was taking place in Ireland. However, the extent to which the movement as whole can be called ‘constitutional’ nationalism is doubtful – the movement arose from the new departure, combining constitutional nationalism, revolutionary nationalism and agrarian radicalism, and throughout the campaign various violent outrages somewhat distanced the movement from the ‘constitutional’ label.
Furthermore there is cause to doubt the extent to which The Second Land Act was a result of the movement or indeed constitutional nationalism as a whole. However, the second land act has been described as a political stroke by Gladstone – with the purpose of destroying the excuse for the Land League to exist and removing the necessity for violence by granting the tenants their major demands. In this light, the 2nd Land Act can be seen as a success, but given the limited part played by constitutional nationalist movement in achieving it, this small reform within the union cannot be hailed as a success for constitutional nationalism.
Furthermore the resultant arrest of Parnell can be seen to make it almost a failure – having put the most important figure of the constitutional nationalist movement at the time behind bars. However, there was to come some success in terms of achieving reform within the Union in the form of Parnell and Gladstone’s Kilmainham Treaty in 1882 – in return for Parnell using his influence in Ireland to stop violence and support the land act, the Coercion Act was relaxed and the Land Act was amended to include those in arrears – two fairly significant developments within the union, both economically and politically.
Perhaps the most significant area in which there was failure covers the campaign for Home Rule. Despite the more organised structure of the Irish Parliamentary Party after 1882, their campaign for Home Rule had very little impact, and whether it actually influenced Gladstone to introduce the first home rule bill is also not certain – Although the fact that the IPP won every seat bar one in southern Ireland was important, Gladstone had other motivation including the fact that if he had spoken out in favour of Home Rule, the break up of the Liberal Party would have almost inevitably followed. After this first Home Rule Bill failed in 1886, Parnell fell out of favour. There was some small success in that he had made Home Rule a realistic aim for the IPP to pursue, going some way towards achieving reform of the Union, however he died before anything became a reality, and ultimately Home Rule was to fail.
This first failure was made yet more serious by the resulting split in the IPP – with McCarthy taking official leadership of the Party whilst Parnell took a wing for himself – a situation not conducive to success of further campaigns for reform. The Second Home Rule Bill in 1893, developed with the help of both Parnellite and anti-Parnellite Irish MPs passed through the commons but was rejected by the Lords – and to some extent this can be seen as a minor success for Constitutional Nationalism, as they furthered the course for reform of the Act of Union, and the Unionist majority in the Lords meant that they could not very well expect such a bill to pass through with ease. However, ultimately this was yet another failure for constitutional nationalism. The passing of the 3rd and Final Home Rule Bill in 1912 stands out as perhaps the most significant success for Constitutional Nationalism, achieving for the first time some reform of the Union itself.
Although it was a moderate measure, it was supported by Redmond and the Nationalist Party and was passed – initially a success, but Redmond’s agreement to postpone the enactment of the new Law until after WWI proved to be a fatal blow for Constitutional Nationalism. His support for the War was in effect the nail in the coffin for Constitutional Nationalism – as the war dragged on, the Nationalist movement as a whole became disjointed and the purpose of the IPP became difficult to discern – this playing into the hands of the more revolutionary and extreme Irish Nationalists, particularly after the Easter rising of 1916 and the subsequent rise of Sinn Fein as the main political face of Irish Nationalism. This further illustrates the nature of constitutional nationalism over the period – although some small successes were achieved, they were overridden by failure and
This final and damning failure of Irish Constitutional Nationalism was illustrated in the General election of 1918, when Sinn Fein won the overwhelming majority of Irish seats, almost totally destroying the IPP who remained with just 6. The final reform of the union in the form of the Anglo-Irish treaty was arguably not due to constitutional nationalism at all, rather more down to the revolutionary activities of Sinn Fein and the IRA. Therefore this ended Constitutional nationalism with failure.
Throughout the period 1800-1921, Constitutional Nationalism proved to be largely unsuccessful in achieving reform within and of the union. Although there were some individual successes in various areas – with regard to religion, Catholic Emancipation and the eventual disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, Politically the introduction of home rule as a realistic goal and the opening up of offices to Catholics, and economically the significant land acts and the reform that this bought to Irish tenant farmers. However, much of this cannot be linked concretely to Constitutional nationalism and all of these reforms were within, rather than of the union. Therefore, although there were some individual successes, overall, Constitutional nationalism was largely unsuccessful in achieving reform within, and of, the union.