What if Ireland was still British? A bloody civil war was fought for the freedom of Ireland. But today the country is little more than an outpost of Britain and the US. So was the struggle worth it? By Maurice Walsh

The Irish War of Independence

Michael Hopkinson <em>Gill & Macmillan, 274pp, £20</em>

ISBN 07171

Last May, the Irish Times published an article on its comment pages that began with the question: "What if Ireland was British?" It was the kind of heretical, counter-intuitive speculation that even the Times - the voice of Irish pluralist dissent - might once have expected its contributors to have left behind in university debating chambers. The writer contrasted the decorum of the Queen Mother's funeral with "an almost ritual process of degradation" unfolding in Irish public life. If Ireland was still British, he argued, not only would there have been no partition, no IRA campaign in the North and no Protestant exodus from the south, but Irish people would also have escaped domination by the Catholic Church, avoided stultifying censorship and, an added bonus, enjoyed regular visits by royalty. But the most provocative of his conclusions was that "the end of British rule may have given the most squalid elements in the Irish soul free rein to wreak havoc at every level of society", a panorama of abuse that would seem to embrace regular convictions of priests for child molestation, highly publicised in recent years, along with the well of political and financial corruption currently being exposed daily by tribunals of inquiry in Dublin.

The context for such sentiment is that the energy that brought self-rule to both parts of Ireland more than 80 years ago has finally dissipated. Despite spectacular growth rates and membership of the European Union, the cultural and spiritual demeanour of modern Ireland is not one that would have pleased the sponsors of that revolution. Where once British newspapers replaced sex and scandal in their Irish editions with stories of miracles at Lourdes, tabloid culture in Ireland is now pretty much the same as in Britain. Gone is that overwhelming sense of a peculiar national culture being defended from Anglo-Saxon life. For the purposes of popular culture and entertainment, Dublin feels like another provincial outpost of Anglo-American culture, with cable television as the modern version of the stagecoach.

Whatever else the Irish war of independence was about, it was clearly and fundamentally a rejection of Britain. For decades afterwards, it was written up as a clear-cut revolution against the colonial power. Observers from Britain and elsewhere regarded Ireland as the first loosened brick in the edifice of empire. Lenin, praising the Easter Rebellion in Dublin in 1916 - arguably the beginning of the revolutionary period in Ireland - declared that "a blow against the British imperialist bourgeoisie in Ireland has a hundred times more political significance than a blow of equal weight would have in Africa and Asia".

Yet over the past quarter-century, historians of Ireland have begun dismantling these generalisations. They have pulled apart the idea of a unified nationalist revolutionary movement, illuminating the tensions between politicians and militarists, and stressing continuities between the apparent revolutionaries and the more moderate nationalists whom they eclipsed. As Peter Hart - one of the historians who has contributed to this revision - points out in his contribution to the excellent and stimulating collection of essays The Irish Revolution, there was no theory or textbook of guerrilla struggle, which meant "the honour of inventing modern revolutionary warfare goes to Lenin and Mao, not to Michael Collins and de Valera".

What is remarkable about Michael Hopkinson's The Irish War of Independence is the way he shows how random and circumstantial the revolutionary strategy became. Volunteers in rural areas improvised military campaigns often sanctioned retrospectively by their leaders in Dublin. Only occasionally did they benefit from the guidance and instruction of a figure such as Ernie O'Malley - an Irish Che Guevara with a mission to turn farmers into guerrillas and, later, the most reflective memoirist of the struggle. The revolutionaries hit upon their strategy of ambushes, raids on police barracks and the establishment of an unofficial government and courts network that, in many areas, displaced the Crown bureaucracy. Momentum was all. The Sinn Fein writer Darrell Figgis recalled that wherever one travelled in Ireland after Easter 1920, one saw the roofless walls of burnt-out police stations, sandbags still piled in the windows. By August that year, a military intelligence officer wrote to his superiors that "Anyone passing a police barrack with its locked doors, and seeing the constables looking out through barred windows, will at once realise that no body of men could preserve its morale under such conditions."

To stiffen the crumbling resolve of the Royal Irish Constabulary, Lloyd George ordered the recruitment of a new gendarmerie from the ranks of the demobilised soldiery of the Great War, the so-called Black and Tans. Winston Churchill tried to suggest that the new recruits were an elite, chosen "from a great press of applicants on account of their intelligence, their character, and their records in the war". The officer corps were paid a pound a day - at the time, the highest wages of any police force in the world. But the indiscipline of the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries, when confronted by the IRA's guerrilla tactics, became the leitmotif of the war. This was partly the result of skilful propaganda, but also of the most searching debate among British liberals about the morality of the war in Ireland, a debate nourished by relentless accounts of atrocities by correspondents who toured the country. One of these was H W Nevinson, the veteran of the siege of Ladysmith. After a visit to America in 1921, he wrote: "It is a terrible thing to feel ashamed of the country one loves. It is like coming home and finding one's mother drunk upon the floor." Hopkinson quotes Lady Violet Bonham Carter in her pity for the Black and Tans, not the Irish: "They are risking their lives every day . . . and losing their souls in carrying out duties which no Englishman should have been asked to perform."

Hopkinson blames Lloyd George for unleashing a policy of coercion and for his failure to grasp opportunities for peace. Lloyd George had told his colleagues that he had been reliably informed by Irish nationalists that the Irish understood reprisals and would thus be cowed by them. His insouciance did not escape the notice of the head of the British civil service, Warren Fisher, who greeted the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty with the observation: "Better late than never, but I can't get out of mind the unnecessary number of graves."

Death haunted the minds of the revolutionaries as well. A few months into the civil war that followed the signing of the treaty, the popular historian Alice Stopford Green, who had moved from London to Dublin to support the nationalist cause, wrote despairingly to a friend: "We have had so much violence here that I no longer believe in it as a way of rectifying any misfortunes . . . I don't much care for the gun and the revolver. It is certainly far easier and gayer for young people to go out shooting and bombing than to read and think and try to get their intelligence to work. I am very near turning a pacifist and believing the methods of a tiger are meant for a tiger and not for a human being."

Like all upheavals, the Irish revolution produced consequences unforeseen by its sponsors; but there was something paralysingly traumatic about the truncated ideals of Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera: in place of a united nation, there was partition; in place of a clear-cut anti-colonial struggle, there was sectarian warfare and bitterness.

The Free State that followed the revolution is a story of conservatism, dearth and balanced budgets - dominated by an official mentality that, in Seamus Deane's words, "relished limitation". Even the apparently radical figure of Sean MacBride supported bishops who wanted to ban women under the age of 21 from emigrating to Britain. He feared that they would be morally corrupted.

Henry Patterson's book, an elegant survey of Irish history after the Second World War, is especially good at comparing the symbiotic development of the two states in the first decades after partition. In the North, the unionists were imprisoned by a sectarian populism defined by the reference by the prime minister, Sir Basil Brooke, in 1939 to "the minority in our midst". In the south, despite a rhetorical obsession with reunification, de Valera devoted himself to consolidating the state he was left with and the hold that his party, Fianna Fail, had over it. By the 1950s, while Home Office officials feared that high unemployment could provoke civil war in the North, the Irish Times in Dublin was proclaiming that if emigration continued, "Ireland will die".

Ireland did not die. The Republic of Ireland is more prosperous today than ever before, with standards of living surpassing those of Britain. The Good Friday Agreement has given Northern Ireland what Patterson calls "the possibility of becoming a fully legitimate entity". But the price of this achievement has been the relinquishing of the fantasy that the revolution was full of unrealised possibilities waiting to be set in motion again. Much of whatever glamour the IRA possessed during the past 30 years derived from the idea that the war of independence was a thwarted social revolution, with the potential to be reinvigorated in a new anti-colonial war that would confront not only discrimination in the North, but stasis and conservatism in the republic. In truth, as Richard English writes, in one of the most perceptive contributions to The Irish Revolution, "the revolutionary years demonstrated the degree to which sectarian self-definitions gave meaning to Irish people's lives".

A phrase recurs several times in Patterson's book: the declining Protestant population of the mid-20th-century republic is described as enduring "a low-intensity unhappiness", and he identifies how the violence in the North, during the 1970s, made the desire for unity in the south "a low-intensity aspiration".

After the momentous changes of the past decade, with the bravado of prosperity and the desire to become more European, it is possible to detect in Ireland a new low-intensity anxiety about national identity. It is from this place that questions such as "Would Ireland have been better off being British?" begin.

Maurice Walsh is a BBC journalist. He is working on a study of foreign correspondents who reported on the Irish revolution