The Decision to Divide Ireland
Home rule made no progress in the Conservative-controlled Parliament of the first decade of the twentieth century. But when the Liberals swept back into power in 1910 behind Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith, Ireland was at the top of their agenda. In 1912 Asquith brought forward the third Home Rule Bill, which reached further than any of its predecessors and enjoyed wide popularity among the Irish people.
Ulster Volunteers and Irish Volunteers
There was one section of the Irish population, however, that still opposed home rule — the Ulster Protestants. Seeing the latest Home Rule Bill as the final step toward separation, the members of the Orange Order rose up against it. They organized the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), a paramilitary group committed to defending Ulster's union with England. The UVF began drilling and stockpiling weapons. By 1914 there were estimated to be more than 100,000 men ready to fight for the UVF.
In response, Nationalists in the south began their own paramilitary organization called the Irish Volunteers. The Volunteers was initially organized by the remnants of the IRB, although its politics were generally closer to the moderates of the Home Rule Party. The Volunteers claimed to have more than 100,000 members as well, though it had fewer weapons than its rivals in the North.
Dealing with the Ulster Problem
The Ulster dilemma froze the Home Rule Bill in its tracks. Although the Liberals may have had sufficient votes to push the bill through, it was politically very awkward to push away a big group of loyal British subjects, especially when those subjects were threatening to fight to stay in. A leading solution to this problem was to grant home rule and then use the British army to enforce it in Ulster. This proposal faltered when the mutiny at the Curragh revealed that British army officers were opposed to fighting Ulster troops.
The mutiny at the Curragh showed that the Ulster problem was tougher than people had thought. Sir Arthur Paget, the chief of military forces in Ireland, told his officers that they could choose to exempt themselves from enforcing Irish home rule on Ulster. Most of his officers immediately exempted themselves, thereby calling into question the government's power to enforce any resolution.
The second set of options revolved around some form of partition, in effect dividing Ireland into two states. There were nine counties in the traditional province of Ulster, but only six of them had large Protestant populations, and in 1910 only four of them had Protestant majorities. Unionists and Nationalists suggested different partition plans. Some supported having all of Ulster split off and stay with the United Kingdom, which might have facilitated reunification in the future. Others thought it would be better if only those counties with Protestant majorities broke away from the Irish nation. Both sides spent the next four years wrangling over various proposals, but none met the approval of both the Unionist and the Nationalist sides.