What If . . . We'd spared the Volunteers

Dublin, 1916. After seven days of savage fighting and at a cost of almost 200 lives, the Easter Rising is over. As the captured Volunteers are marched through the streets towards Dublin Castle, past buildings shattered by bullets, crowds gather to boo and hiss. Some of the onlookers are so angry at the attack on their city that British troops have to restrain them from physically abusing their captives, and many Volunteers are shocked to be pelted with rotten fruit and vegetables. "I hope they'll all be hanged," one Irish Parliamentary Party member says bitterly. "Shooting's too good for them. Trying to stir up trouble for us all," says another.

If the new British commander in Ireland, John Maxwell, had had his way, the rebels certainly would have been hanged. In the days after the rising, Maxwell even drew up plans to have thousands arrested and tried by court martial. But, in London, David Lloyd George, then minister of munitions but already with his eyes on the premiership, made a decisive intervention. Repression would only alienate the Irish public, he told cabinet, and a message was sent to Maxwell vetoing his plans for a punitive settlement.

Instead of being executed, most of the rebel leaders were moved to England and sentenced to life imprisonment. By the end of the year, the crisis seemed over.

Had Maxwell had his way, the recent history of Anglo-Irish relations might never have been so peaceful. As it was, popular opinion remained set against the rebels. A second rising in Easter 1917 failed to have anything like the impact of the first and, in the general election of December 1918, the moderate Irish Parliamentary Party easily held off the challenge by Sinn Fein.

Two years later, the Fourth Home Rule Act granted self-government to two new autonomous entities - Northern and Southern Ireland, both of which remained part of the UK.

In June 1921, the veteran Irish Home Ruler John Dillon was formally appointed the first prime minister of Southern Ireland.

That both Irish entities are still part of the UK to this day is something of a minor miracle. Southern Ireland came close to secession twice - during the Second World War, when the 1940 rising provoked a brief British military occupation, and during the late 1970s, when a referendum on independence foundered amid the chaos of the Winter of Discontent.

Yet relations between Dublin and London have often been surprisingly good: Margaret Thatcher invited Charles Haughey to join her cabinet as defence secretary in 1986 after the Westland affair, while Bertie Ahern moved seamlessly from running Southern Ireland to the post of Tony Blair's foreign secretary. It is odd to think that, had Lloyd George not been on the ball, things might have been so different.

Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and author. His books include Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles and White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties. He writes the What If... column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, War on WikiLeaks