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The Manchester Guardian and the Irish Question: Evolution of Newspaper and Nation

Kathy Davies explores the Guardian’s reporting on the complex subject of Irish home rule in the early part of the 20th Century.

A guest post from Kathy Davies, an historian of modern Britain and empire, interested in national and imperial politics and the role of the British newspaper press. Kathy is currently completing her PhD on the Manchester Guardian and the Irish question at Sheffield Hallam University. She is also a Research Associate working on a project at the John Rylands Research Institute and Library, which uses digital tools to explore and map nineteenth- and twentieth-century Liberal networks and campaigns. Twitter profile: @kathydavies93

The Irish Question in Guardian History

When Prime Minister William Gladstone introduced the First Irish Home Rule Bill to the British Parliament in 1886, which split the Liberal Party in Britain, the Manchester Guardian supported Gladstone.  The Bill proposed to give more political autonomy to Ireland, and hoped to solve ‘the Irish question’, which concerned the increase of Irish nationalism throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Gladstone’s Bill was ultimately defeated, as was the Second Home Rule Bill in 1893. Nevertheless, the Guardian’s support for Irish self-government was pivotal to the political evolution of the newspaper.

Former Chief Reporter, William Haslam Mills, affirmed in the first history of the newspaper published a hundred years ago, that the Home Rule moment of the late 1880s was the liberal awakening of the Guardian and its editor, C. P. Scott. The Guardian’s support for Irish Home Rule helped to establish Scott and his Manchester paper as the voice of English Liberalism.

Scott considered the political liberty of Ireland one of the greatest questions Liberalism must solve, and it was the topic Scott covered most in his editorials throughout his 57-year editorship. This commitment to the Irish question was made especially clear during the Irish War of Independence 1919-1921, a conflict renowned for the violence of the British Crown forces, or, the Black and Tans. The Guardian played an important role in exposing this violence, with its reporting of events such as ‘The Sack of Balbriggan’ in September 1920.

Black and White image of burnt out cottages from a newspaper article in the Manchester Guardian. Ref: THE SACK OF BALBRIGGAN. (1920, Sep 23). The Manchester Guardian (1901-1959) Retrieved from
‘The Sack of Balbriggan’, Manchester Guardian, 23 September 1920. Copyright Guardian News and Media

Irish political liberty, within moderation

Despite a commitment to Irish political liberty however, the Guardian rejected calls for an Irish republic. Scott argued that moderate constitutional change could solve the Irish question, maintain Irish unity, and ensure long-term peace. From the 1880s, this came in the form of Home Rule. After the First World War, in recognition of a radicalisation of Irish public opinion, the Guardian’s solution was Dominion status. Dominion status would dissolve the Union between Britain and Ireland, but keep the Irish within the British Empire.

It needs to be remembered that Scott was no revolutionary, and the Guardian was no revolutionary paper. It was liberal, which meant progress within moderation. Scott believed that Dominion status would give Ireland the right amount of political liberty to satisfy Irish nationalism, while exercising restraint, and working within existing structures of British authority. As stated by Scott in the long editorial published in the Guardian on 9 August 1919, Dominion status allowed Ireland to be ‘as free as it is possible for her to be consistently with maintaining the unity of the realm’.

Traitor Scott!
Yet some considered the Guardian’s stance on Ireland overly radical: it was traitorous, and this anger was made known in hate mail sent to the editor. One anonymous letter, addressed to ‘Traitor Scott’, insisted that the Guardian’s love for ‘the dastardly assassin the Irishman’ had ‘made the name “Manchester” stink in the nostrils of all loyal people’.

Another (pictured below) called Scott a ‘dirty Fenian’, ‘a radical of no importance’ who knew ‘as much about politics as a pig knows about a white shirt’. The letter ended with, ‘to hell with you and your shadows’.

Anonymous letter to C. P. Scott, circa. 1916. GDN/136/477, Copyright Guardian News and Media

The Irish Question Solved

Scott and the Guardian continued with its coverage of Anglo-Irish politics and conflict, and enthusiastically supported the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. This granted Dominion status for Ireland and created the Irish Free State. Northern Ireland was excluded as these north-eastern counties of Ulster were partitioned by the Government of Ireland Act 1920. The Guardian did not support permanent partition. Still, the newspaper saw the Anglo-Irish Treaty as the solution, which granted ‘essential independence’ for nationalist Ireland.

After the Treaty was ratified in 1922, Scott considered the Irish question solved. As such, his personal contributions to the Guardian dramatically decreased. The most important political work of his editorship had been achieved. He even suggested that the resolution of the Irish question was a conclusion of purpose for the British Liberal Party.

A significant connection

The Irish question was significant to the history of the Guardian as the voice of Liberal England. As were the contributions made by the newspaper to ‘solving’ the Irish question. This was recognised by many contemporaries, prominent liberals, and moderate Irish nationalists. Even the first head of the government of the Irish Free State, W. T. Cosgrave, gave his personal thanks to Scott. The letter below was sent upon the editor’s retirement in 1929.

Letter from W. T. Cosgrave to C. P. Scott, 15th July 1929. GDN/135/510, Copyright Guardian News and Media

The Anglo-Irish Treaty did not signify a conclusion of conflict for Ireland, as C. P. Scott had hoped. The Irish Civil War broke out in June 1922 over the terms of the Treaty. Nevertheless, its signing was an extraordinary moment in the evolution of the nations of the former United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and was celebrated as such by the Manchester Guardian.

This year marks the centenary of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, alongside the bicentenary of the founding of the Guardian newspaper in Manchester.

If you wish to find out more about the Guardian Archive, you can access the online version of our bicentenary exhibition ‘Manchester’s Guardian: 200 years of the Guardian newspaper’ here or come and visit the John Rylands Research Institute and Library to see the physical exhibition this summer. Check our events and exhibition page for details on current opening hours.

Further Reading

Joost Augusteijn (ed.) The Irish Revolution 1913-1923 (Basingstoke, 2002).

D. G. Boyce, Englishmen and the Irish Troubles, British Public Opinion and the Making of Irish Policy 1918-22 (London, 1972).

Maurice Walsh, The News from Ireland, Foreign Correspondents and the Irish Revolution (London, 2011).

Mervyn Busteed, The Irish in Manchester c. 1750-1921, Resistance, adaption and identity (Manchester, 2016).

A. P. Wadsworth (ed.), CP Scott, 1846-1932, The Making of the Manchester Guardian (London, 1946).

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