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Dr. Katja Fortenbacher-Nagel

  • Dissertation

    „Travelling the same painful road“? Irish-South African independence attempts, their entanglements and their contribution to the transformation of the Empire, 1899–1949

    This project examined to what extent analogies between the dominions Ireland and South Africa existed and which expectations and impacts arose because of these similarities for their respective nationalist movements and for the British Empire. The Irish-South African parallels were examined with regard to language and religion, their constitutional position within the British Empire, their (partially) referential nationalist movements and their experience of violence.

    The analysis of private correspondences, parliamentary debates, speeches, and newspapers came to the conclusion that these categories were frequently used to verify the supposed similarities of the two situations or to justify their right to independence. Furthermore, it was shown when, why and by whom these parallels were used. From the British perspective, Ireland and South Africa were “troublemakers” who jeopardised the Empire’s stability. Due to this, the British media often compared them but also had a strong interest in trying to prevent the Irish uprisings of the 1920s becoming an example for largely cooperative South Africa.

    The extended analysis of South African newspapers in English and Afrikaans supplement the political sources and added the opinion of the populace. From around 1900, it was easy for many Irish to identify with the Boers and so the belief of a shared destiny was widespread. Therefore, the Boer War promoted Irish independence organisations to a large extent.  Because of the alleged similarities, the Irish government sent “special envoys” to South Africa to spread „the truth about Ireland“ and to fight British propaganda. The analysis of the letters to the editor published in South-African newspapers around this time as well as other source material lead to the conclusion that only South African individuals declared themselves in favour of Irish independence. South Africa, in first instance, contributed to Irish independence on an official and political level as Smuts’ mediation or Hertzog’s draft of the Balfour Declaration show.

    Only in the 1930s, however, Boer nationalists referred to Ireland as a role model for a South African republic. Thereby they created the impression that South African sympathy and statements of support were already widespread during the intense 1920s. But the examined sources tell a different story.  The analogies between Ireland and South Africa were constructed and instrumentalized for their intentions for about 40 years by actors in the two countries and Britain. Whereas the Irish hoped to provoke South African support for their cause in the early 1920s, only a few years later building analogies were strongly criticised. In the British-dominated South African press, it was common to present complex circumstances in a simple way by referring to the parallels. So readers were easily influenced to the detriment of Ireland.

    It can be said that South Africa was a crucial factor in Ireland’s nationalist movement, even when South Africa’s contribution was mainly limited to the political level which always fell short of Irish expectations.  The South African populace, including the very heterogeneous Irish diaspora, was in general quite uninterested in the Irish independence struggles. The belief that South Africa was a reliable supporter of Irish interests, with a similar history and background, was more based on wishful thinking than on facts.

    Both Irish and South African politicians were convinced that they changed the Empire significantly. Hertzog saw his input in his draft of the Balfour Declaration as crucial, while in Ireland the Anglo-Irish Treaty was widely seen as the Irish contribution to the transformation of the Empire. This transformation from a hierarchical system towards a commonwealth of equal members was a process driven by various events and actors. But this project showed that Ireland and South Africa took a key position in this process because of their dominion status, their population structure, and their relation to Britain.