Schools Beyond Regions and Borders
Struggles for independence and/or autonomy
Autonomy and its Many Faces: the Irish Case since 1898
Prof. William Murphy

This paper will introduce the many faces of Irish autonomy – imagined and real. It will chart the story of Ireland’s political evolution – north and south – from integral part of the United Kingdom during its imperial age to Brexit.


During the last decade, as the United Kingdom engaged in a series of debates about its future relationship with the European Union, one of the most effective slogans adopted by Brexiteers was ‘take back control’. Though the Republic of Ireland, often referred to as ‘the south’ and the UK’s nearest neighbour, joined the European Economic Community at the same time as the UK in 1973, and though they shared many interests, such a slogan would make little sense in an Irish context. In Britain, for many, membership of the EU became a story about the loss of autonomy. While the sharing of sovereignty necessitated by membership of the EU has been, and can be, controversial in the Republic of Ireland, the experience has, more often, appeared to affirm the independence of the Irish state. Membership of the EU has constituted a stage in the evolution of southern Ireland away from a dependent relationship with Britain. Since 1898 that evolution has developed through the expansion of local government, the demand for ‘Home Rule’ within the UK, the achievement of ‘dominion status’ within the British Empire, the assertion of statehood, and the departure from that Empire.


The change described above involved conflict with Britain and within Ireland, leading to a partition of the island. Partition created religious/political minorities within each of the new political entities on the island of Ireland – southern Ireland (under its various names) and Northern Ireland. As southern Ireland struck out toward separation, Northern Ireland remained a part of the United Kingdom. Yet, the story of that political entity presents us with other versions of Irish autonomy as the ‘Unionists’ who dominated that political unit have sought to balance their commitment to a British identity with a desire to control their own destiny.