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The Irish Question was a phrase used mainly by members of the British ruling classes from the early 19th century until the 1920s. It was used to describe Irish nationalism and the calls for Irish independence.
The phrase came to prominence as a result of the 1800 Act of Union which forced the parliament of Ireland into a single governing body with the parliament of Great Britain, based in Westminster, with its usage persisting until the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921, which partitioned the island into two territories: a state now called Ireland (which was originally called the Irish Free State), and Northern Ireland, which remains part of the United Kingdom.
In 1844, a future British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, defined the Irish Question:
A dense population, in extreme distress, inhabit an island where there is an Established Church, which is not their Church, and a territorial aristocracy the richest of whom live in foreign capitals. Thus you have a starving population, an absentee aristocracy, and an alien Church; and in addition the weakest executive in the world. That is the Irish Question.'— Hansard
In 1886, with the introduction of the first Home Rule Bill in the House of Commons, the term 'the Anglo-Irish Quarrel' gained favour and became more acceptable than the implied condescension of 'the Irish Question'.
The Irish question affected British politics much the way that the nationalities problem affected Austria. Normal British domestic issues could not be adequately addressed because of the political divisions created by the oppression of Ireland. The split of the Liberal Party hurt the cause of further social and political reform. The people who could agree about reforms could not agree on Ireland, and Ireland seemed more important. Because the two traditional parties failed to deal with the social questions, by the turn of the 20th century a newly organised Labour Party began to fill the vacuum.
- The State of Ireland, Hansard, 16 February 1844
- The Anglo-Irish Quarrel: A Plea for Peace, John O'Connor Power, London, 1886
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