Throughout the nineteenth century until the beginning of the twentieth century, Irish constitutional nationalism developed an ambivalent discourse on the relationship between Ireland and the empire. As proponents of Repeal or Home Rule, Irish leaders repeatedly denounced the political, economic, and cultural domination imposed on Ireland through the union with Great Britain. And yet they avoided defining Ireland as a colony, and rather stressed Ireland's participation in British empire building as one further argument in favor of Irish legislative autonomy. Leading figures like Daniel O'Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell, John Dillon, or John Redmond at times opposed British imperial policy, but they were not committed anti-imperialists. Only a minority of MPs including Frank Hugh O'Donnell, Alfred Webb, and Michael Davitt were more active in denouncing the excesses of British colonialism in India or South Africa. The anti-imperialism of Irish constitutional nationalists was all the more limited as Repeal of Home Rule was not meant to lead to the dismemberment of the empire. On the contrary, leading Irish nationalist MPs were aware that, with the granting of legislative autonomy to colonies like Canada, Australia, or New Zealand, the very nature of the empire was changing and that autonomy and empire were perfectly compatible. Taking the newly autonomous colonies as models to follow, they contemplated the possibility of reorganizing the empire into a federation including Ireland.

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