Lecture: The Third Home Rule Bill
Ashbourne Historical Society, Tuesday 15 January 2013
On Sunday, 31 March 1912, O’Connell St. in Dublin was the scene of a huge demonstration of Irish nationalists. The crowd overflowed from the seven-and-a-half-acre main street into every side street. Sixty-four special trains had brought people from all parts of Ireland. Nine of Ireland’s 11 corporations were represented, as were the majority of elected local bodies, the GAA, the Gaelic League, the Hibernians and National Foresters, student groups and members of the Universities. Four platforms rose at different points over the vast sea of people. The leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party John Redmond (1), his deputy John Dillon (2) and the leader of Ulster’s nationalists Joe Devlin (3) spoke from different platforms, and on the fourth (the ‘students’ platform’) stood Dr. Coffey of University College Dublin with T.M. Kettle, J.J. Clancy and other MPs.
The occasion was the imminent introduction of the Third Home Rule Bill in the British House of Commons by Prime Minister Herbert Asquith (4), the head of the Liberal government. Redmond, speaking from platform No. 1 in front of the Parnell monument that he had unveiled only the previous October, declared:
“This gathering – its vastness, its good order, its enthusiasm and its unity – is unparalleled in the modern history of Ireland… it recalls the monster meetings of O’Connell, but never at the best of his days did he assemble a gathering so representative of all Ireland (cheers). Every city, every county, I think I can also truly say every parish in Ireland, is represented in the capital of Ireland today… It is no exaggeration to say that this meeting is Ireland.”
“In this hour of triumph for Ireland a nation,” he declared, “we have not one word of reproach or one word of bitter feeling (cheers)…[but] one feeling only – an earnest longing for the arrival of the day of reconciliation… To those who may repudiate Ireland, Ireland will never repudiate them.” He ended with the prediction
“Believe me… we will have a Parliament sitting in College Green sooner than the most sanguine and enthusiastic man in this crowd believes… Go back after this meeting to your homes with high and confident hearts.”
Down the street at platform No. 2, Dillon, always known for a less conciliatory tone than Redmond, lived up to his reputation. He elicited laughter and cheers from the crowd as he poured what the Freeman’s Journal called ‘scorn and contempt’ on the threats to resist Home Rule coming from the Ulster Unionists. On platform No. 3 at Abbey St. corner, a little-known poet and Gaelic League activist named Patrick Pearse made his oration in Gaelic, saying
“…There are some here who are happy to stay under the rule of a foreign king if they are given freedom to rule in their own area. There are others who will never bow their head or bend their knee to a foreign king. I belong to the second group… Let us work together… [But] … Let the foreigner understand, if we are betrayed again, there will be bloody war all through Ireland.”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
This great demonstration was a landmark event in Irish history, the culmination of a constitutional and non-violent struggle for self-government that had begun 40 years previously.
Let’s backtrack to look at that 40-year struggle in summary. In 1870 Isaac Butt (5) had founded the Home Government Association to push the demand for an Irish parliament to administer Ireland’s domestic affairs. The attempted Fenian uprising of 1867 had ended in fiasco. Butt and others saw an autonomous Irish parliament as an alternative to the cycle of incompetent British administrations and failed violent rebellions. Such a Parliament would be federal, i.e. subordinate to the UK Parliament, would be loyal to the Crown and would be concerned with purely internal Irish affairs. The first Irish MP to be elected to the Westminster Parliament on this platform was the father of John Redmond, William Archer Redmond, in a Wexford by-election in 1872. The following year, Butt and Redmond organized a well-attended Home Rule Conference at the Rotunda in Dublin. Out of this came the Home Rule League which put up candidates in the 1874 general election; 59 of these were elected and sat at Westminster as the Irish Parliamentary Party with Butt as leader.
Butt’s party was a loose gathering of propertied men (‘Whigs’) with close ties to the British Liberal Party, and their practical commitment to winning Home Rule was lukewarm. In 1875, however, Charles Stewart Parnell (6) was elected MP for Meath and was soon casting a cold eye on the gentlemanly methods of the Whigs. In co-operation with others, he adopted more aggressive parliamentary methods to focus British attention on the Home Rule demand. Parnell also edged out the Whig MPs and brought a set of younger and more radical candidates into the party. He threw his support behind the ‘land war’ campaign of the Land League, agitating for rent reform and fixity of tenure for tenant farmers. These tactics won him the practical support of both Fenians and agrarian campaigners in the informal coalition known as the ‘New Departure’.
By 1880, Parnell had replaced Butt as leader. Over the following 5 years, Parnell turned the Irish Parliamentary Party into a disciplined instrument that used a variety of constitutional and semi-constitutional methods for the attainment of Irish self-government. The land question made the Home Rule movement more popular. From then until 1918, Irish nationalist MPs would hold at least 80 seats in the UK Parliament.
In 1886, Parnell allied with the Liberal Party leader William Ewart Gladstone (7), who brought in the first Home Rule Bill. The Bill led to a split in Gladstone’s own party and was defeated in the British House of Commons.
In late 1890, Parnell became embroiled in the O’Shea divorce scandal. The Home Rule Party was split between Parnellites and anti-Parnellites when Gladstone said he could no longer work with Parnell and the Irish Catholic hierarchy denounced him. The Parnellite minority was led by John Redmond while the anti-Parnellite majority was led first by Justin McCarthy, later by John Dillon.
In 1893, Gladstone brought in the Second Home Rule Bill. This passed the House of Commons but was defeated in the House of Lords.
In 1900, the Irish Party was re-united under the leadership of John Redmond. While its MPs sat at Westminster, its grassroots organization in Ireland was the United Irish League, later to be overtaken by the Ancient Order of Hibernians. In 1900, the Tories were in power and there was no prospect of Home Rule legislation. That changed in 1906 when the Liberals returned to power with a landslide majority. However, due to the circumstances in which the new government was formed, it was impossible for Redmond to get a commitment from the Liberals to bring in Home Rule Bill in the lifetime of the new Parliament of 1906.
It was in these years (1904-1908) that the tiny Sinn Fein group, recently founded by Arthur Griffith (8), set out its separatist programme for a more radical form of independence than Home Rule, and its tactic of abstention of Irish MPs from Westminster. Griffith criticized Redmond and the Parliamentary Party mercilessly for their failure to deliver Home Rule and for allegedly being tied to the coat-tails of the Liberals in encouraging Irish voters in Britain to support pro-Home Rule Liberal candidates. Sinn Fein had some success in winning council seats in local elections, but the Parliamentary Party continued to dominate nationalist Ireland.
In 1909, Redmond’s opportunity finally came. The Liberals’ Budget of that year was designed to increase Government spending very significantly to finance the new Old Age Pensions and other welfare legislation. The House of Lords saw this as dangerous socialism and used its veto on the Budget Bill. Prime Minister Asquith faced the challenge of the Lords and called a general election, promising to get rid of the Lords’ veto. Knowing he might need the support of the Irish Nationalists, he also committed his party to introduce a Home Rule Bill if re-elected. Redmond responded by calling on Irish voters in the UK to support the Liberals.
There were two general elections in 1910. In each, the Irish Party won the balance of power by having just enough seats to keep the Liberals in power. This recreated (to some extent) the situation in which Parnell had found himself in 1886, with enough leverage to keep the Liberals to their word. Redmond’s popularity as national leader rose to new heights; Sinn Fein sank into insignificance. It was a nice irony for him that, only a few years after Sinn Fein had portrayed him as a poodle of the Liberal Party, Tory cartoonists (9) were now portraying the Liberals as his poodles!
Asquith appointed the veteran Liberal Home Ruler Augustine Birrell (10) as Irish Chief Secretary. But before they could introduce the Home Rule Bill, there was one job to be done: the government had to ‘clip the wings’ of the House of Lords by abolishing its veto. This task took up much of the 1911 parliamentary session. The final outcome was the Parliament Act – an arrangement whereby, if the House of Commons passed a Bill in one session, and passed it again, unaltered, in two further consecutive sessions, the opposition of the Lords could not prevent its becoming law. According to this, the 3rd Home Rule Bill should finally become law during 1914. This was the scenario facing the political world of Britain and Ireland when Asquith brought in the Third Home Bill 11 days after the great demonstration in O’Connell St.
|Feature||3rd Home Rule Bill 1912||Anglo-Irish Treaty 1921|
|Description||Federal (subordinate) status||Free State (Dominion status in British Commonwealth)|
|Parliament||2 Houses: Commons of 164 + Senate of 40 members||2 Houses: Dail + Seanad|
|Executive||Responsible to Parliament||Responsible to Parliament|
|Head of Executive||Prime Minister||Pres of Executive Council|
|Head of State||British monarch, represented by Lord Lieutenant with power to veto/postpone Bills||British monarch, represented by Governor General|
|Relation to Westminster Parl||Imperial Parl could annul or amend any Act of Irish Parl; 42 Irish MPs to attend W’min||Independent|
|Powers||All Irish affairs except:The CrownPeace or warDefence forcesTreatiesTreason, naturalization etc.
Titles of honour
Establishment or endowment of any religion, restriction on free exercise of any religion, preferential or discriminatory treatment on account of religious belief, interference with non-denominational constitution of national schools, making religious belief a condition of the validity of any marriage.
|All Irish affairs except:The CrownNaval defence of the island
Establishment or endowment of any religion, restriction on free exercise of any religion, preferential or discriminatory treatment on account of religious belief, interference with non-denominational constitution of national schools.
The Third Home Rule Bill (11) proposed to establish a House of Commons of 164 elected members and a nominated upper House, the Senate, with 40 members. The Executive would have powers co-extensive with those of the Parliament. Excluded from those powers were matters affecting the Crown, peace and war, the Army and Navy, treaties, treason etc. Other matters reserved to the Imperial Parliament were the administration of the Land Purchase Acts, the police, old age pensions and national insurance. Of these, control of the Royal Irish Constabulary would be transferred to Dublin 6 years after the coming into being of the Parliament. The Irish representation at Westminster was to be reduced from 103 to 42 members.
As with the two previous Home Rule Bills, Imperial supremacy was doubly guaranteed. The head of the Irish Executive would continue to be the Lord Lieutenant, who would be advised by it but would have power, on the advice of the Imperial Executive, to veto or postpone assent to Bills passed by the Parliament. Secondly, the Imperial Parliament could at any time nullify, amend or alter any Act of the Irish Parliament. The Parliament was forbidden to legislate ‘to establish or endow’ any religion. With two recent Vatican decrees in mind, one of them governing the highly controversial question of mixed marriages, this was extended to prohibit it from giving an advantage or disadvantage ‘on account of religious belief or religious or ecclesiastical status’ or making any religious belief a condition of the validity of any marriage.
The financial scheme (12) outlined by Asquith is shown here.
Financial Powers of Home Rule Parliament 1912
|Currency||UK Pound sterling|
|Interest rate||Set by Bank of England|
|Irish Post Office||Revenue to Irish Parliament|
|New taxes||Unlimited power to set|
|Excise duties||Unlimited power to lower or raise|
|Customs duties||Unlimited power to lower but can raise only to max 10% except no limit for beers & spirits.No power to impose new duties on goods not already dutiable in UK|
|Stamp Duties||No power to change|
|Deficit (excess of expenditure on all Irish services over all Irish revenue i.e. net inflow of UK funds to Ireland)||Estimated at £2 million in 1912-13|
|Post Office revenue + ‘Transferred Sum’ (£6.35 million) from London||To cover all Irish Parliament services & leave surplus = 0.5 million|
|Irish revenue||(Expected to rise under Home Rule). All except Post Office revenue to go to Imperial Exchequer until Irish revenue > expenditure on Irish services & deficit becomes surplus. When surplus exists for 3 consecutive years, Transferred Sum ends & revenue is collected by Irish Parliament thereafter.|
The Post Office was to be left completely in Irish hands. At the start, all other revenue raised in Ireland was to be collected by the Imperial Parliament and to go to the Imperial Exchequer. As for the contentious fiscal powers, the Irish Parliament was given the power to institute new taxes, to reduce income tax and death duties without limit and to raise them by a maximum of 10% additional yield. It was given full power to raise or lower Excise duties, and Customs duties on beer and spirits; as for other Customs duties, it could reduce them at will but could only raise them by a maximum 10% additional yield. It could not impose Customs duties on goods not already dutiable at U.K. Customs. Neither could it change existing Stamp Duties.
In 1886 and 1893, there had been a net outflow of funds from Ireland to the UK Exchequer. That had changed by 1912 due to the Old Age Pensions and National Insurance legislation of the Liberals. Britain was now spending more on Ireland than she was getting from it in revenue. The British government wanted to eliminate this deficit and hoped that their Home Rule scheme would bring this about. The Westminster Parliament would pay to Dublin a lump ‘Transferred Sum’ which, together with Post Office takings, would cover the cost of all the Irish services administered by the Irish Parliament, and leave a surplus of, initially, £500,000. (The Transferred Sum was estimated at £6,350,000 if the Home Rule Parliament were to begin operation in the financial year 1912-13.) Overall, the scheme left the existing deficit (excess of expenditure on all Irish services over all Irish revenue, forecast to be nearly £2 million in 1912-13) unchanged, but it was expected that Irish revenue would rise under Home Rule and gradually reduce the deficit, ultimately turning it into a surplus. When a surplus had existed for at least three consecutive years, the Irish Parliament could then begin to collect the revenue.
Now we come to the events of the three crucial years 1912 to 1914, the years of the passage of the Home Rule Bill and of the deep political crisis into which it plunged both Ireland and Great Britain.
Three days after Asquith introduced the Bill came the news that the Titanic, built at the Belfast Harland and Wolff shipyard, had sunk in the Atlantic. If Redmond felt this to be an ill omen, he did not show it. He spoke as if supremely confident about the future. Yet there is a hint of nervousness in his prediction a year later that
‘Barring some unforeseen disaster as unexpected as the loss of the Titanic one bright night in a calm sea, the Home Rule Bill will be law early next year.’
The fact was, disaster really was looming, and if it was unforeseen to Redmond and his colleagues, that only goes to show how much they had deluded themselves about the opposition to the Home Rule project coming from the north-east of Ulster. This area was the only industrialised part of the island, with a million-strong community different in religion, culture and national feeling from the majority nationalist community. In 1911, as the prospect of Home Rule had drawn nearer, Ulster unionists had become louder in their objections and in their threats to resist the imposition of Home Rule. The Unionist leaders Sir Edward Carson (13) from Dublin and Sir James Craig (14) from Belfast spoke at several big rallies across the province. The nationalist response was to dismiss such talk as bluff and bluster while reassuring unionists that their fears about Home Rule were groundless.
Ulster Unionism’s answer to O’Connell St. was staged two days before the introduction of the Home Rule Bill, when about 100,000 people marched from Belfast with banners and bands to the Balmoral show-grounds. Carson introduced the British Conservative leader Andrew Bonar Law (15) to the crowd. The latter told them he was convinced by what he had seen that day ‘that the resolution of Ulster was unshakeable and must prove irresistible’.
‘…Unionists ask what grounds have they to believe that such a [Home Rule] Parliament will be always friendly… In case of a great war, England’s difficulty will, as always, be Ireland’s opportunity… [There is no ill-will towards our Nationalist fellow-subjects. No privilege is claimed which is not shared by them. They have no grievance which the British people have not been ready to redress… today there is no part of the United Kingdom… in which the improvement of social conditions has been so great as in Ireland during the last twenty years (great cheering).’]
Carson forecast that many army officers would resign if asked to quell a revolt in Ulster. At a huge rally of all UK Unionist associations at Blenheim in July 1912, Bonar Law stated that there was ‘no length of resistance’ to which Ulster could go which he would not be ready to support. Redmond professed to see nothing new in such threats, and no reason to make concessions.
*** Some examples of pro- and anti-Home Rule posters (16, 17, 18, 19)
In September 1912, the Ulster Unionist Council organised the signing of the Solemn League and Covenant (20) by more than 200,000 men pledging them to resist Home Rule. A similar number of women signed an equivalent document.
Now, in 1912, Carson’s arguments were aimed against the Bill in toto as bad for all of Ireland. The Ulster issue was only one weapon in his armoury to defeat it. He was anxious to keep the Ulster unionists and the thinly spread unionists of the south and west in the same political camp. This attitude would gradually change over the following year.
By January 1913, the Home Rule Bill, with some amendments, had passed its first circuit through the Houses of Commons. That same month, the Ulster Volunteer Force was set up and began drilling, though with few weapons as yet. Nationalist organs ridiculed such displays and dismissed threats of armed resistance as bluff. The UVF, however, began to smuggle in consignments of guns and ammunition. During the summer, Carson carried out daily inspections of UVF units across Ulster. And in September 1913, the Ulster Unionist Council set up an Ulster provisional ‘government-in-waiting’ with Carson as its chairman. No attempt was made to prosecute the leaders for all this illegality, nor were Redmond or Dillon inclined to call for prosecutions.
By now, the situation looked far more serious than in 1912 and talk of civil war was intensifying. Carson had privately come to accept that Home Rule for Ireland as a whole could not be stopped and that a separate deal had to be made for Ulster. During the summer, Bonar Law had clarified his position to indicate that unconstitutional means would be used, not to oppose Home Rule as such, but only in the event of its forcible imposition on Ulster. There were calls for a conference of all parties to agree a compromise. Talk among unionists and Conservatives now focused on the idea of leaving Ulster out of a Home Rule settlement while allowing the Bill to pass for the rest of Ireland as the only way to avoid serious bloodshed. Two members of Asquith’s cabinet, Winston Churchill (21) and David Lloyd George (22) had advocated this in the cabinet in 1912, and now Churchill, in a major speech at Dundee, went public with the idea.
This line of talk demanded an answer from Redmond. At Cahirciveen in September and at Limerick in October 1913, Redmond condemned threats of Ulster violence as mere bombast and ruled out categorically the exclusion of any part of Ulster from Home Rule, saying that nationalists could never accept the ‘mutilation’ of the Irish nation and that the two nations theory was ‘an abomination and a blasphemy’. However, he allowed the possibility of generous concessions and hinted at ‘Home Rule within Home Rule’. In November 1913, Asquith held exploratory talks with Bonar Law and Carson; they told him that an agreed settlement was possible based only on the total and permanent exclusion of Ulster (that entity to be defined by agreement). Asquith relayed this to Redmond but did not pressurize him at this stage.
November 1913 also saw the formation in Dublin of the Irish National Volunteers, formed ostensibly in response to the UVF in order to safeguard Home Rule. Its founders included both genuine supporters of the Irish Party and extreme separatists who rejected Home Rule and waited for an opportunity to stage a violent revolt. From this point on, there were two forces of armed men on the island, both growing in membership and in weaponry.
In January 1914, Asquith told Redmond of his failure to reach agreement over Home Rule with Carson and Bonar Law. He also told him King George V (23) was seriously worried about the possible outbreak of civil war among his Irish subjects. Asquith stressed that he needed to offer something to Ulster unionists when the Bill began its final course through the Commons. In February 1914, in this atmosphere of extreme pressure, Redmond and Dillon reluctantly agreed to accept a scheme to allow for temporary exclusion from Home Rule based on plebiscites in Ulster counties (to include Belfast and Derry City as counties) with a time limit of six years. Redmond called it ‘the very extremest limit of concession’. Here is a Punch cartoon showing Redmond’s dilemma (24) at that time…
Nevertheless, the concession was immediately rejected by Bonar Law and Carson, who called it ‘a death sentence with a stay of execution for six years’. Senior Cabinet members were angered by the peremptory dismissal of what seemed a reasonable offer. Churchill in particular challenged the threatening language of the Ulster leaders and hinted at using the army to overawe them. However, as the debate continued in March 1914, a group of 60 of 77 army officers stationed at the Curragh declared that they would face dismissal rather than take part in military operations against Ulster. The episode led to a Parliamentary furore in which the War Secretary, Col. Seely, was forced to resign. Nationalist feeling was inevitably roused by this event and recruitment to the Irish National Volunteers accelerated. It was followed in late April 1914 by the successful action of the UVF in running a large consignment of modern guns and ammunition into Larne and Donaghadee. This was a development that turned the Ulster Volunteers into a formidable armed force and gave a new reality to the threats of civil war. Partly due to the influence of Redmond and his colleagues, the Government took no effective action against the organisers of the gun-running, while the Opposition wished to downplay it.
In late May 1914, the Liberals and Nationalists used their majority to pass the original Home Rule Bill through all its final stages in the Commons. It now awaited only the King’s signature to become law. But the issue over which there was still no agreement – Ulster – had been hived off by Asquith into a separate Amending Bill. This was unacceptable to Redmond as it implied that the county option/temporary exclusion offer was open to further amendment. He refused to commit his Party to support such an Amending Bill. In late June 1914, the Amending Bill embodying the March proposal was sent to the House of Lords. The Lords immediately changed county option to a bloc exclusion of six counties and abolished the time limit in favour of permanent exclusion – the changes that Carson had demanded. They then sent the amended Bill back to the Commons on 14 July 1914.
Redmond had been slow to approve of the Irish National Volunteers as he distrusted many of the leadership. But by June 1914, they had become so big that he could ignore them no longer. Now he insisted on bringing them under democratic control by forcing them to take nominees of the Irish Party into their organising committee. This gave him effective control of an organisation enrolling 15,000 recruits each week. Amid an atmosphere of crisis and talk of civil war, as Ulster Volunteers marched with rifles and bayonets in Belfast, the deadlock in Ireland was reflected in deadlock between the two Houses of Parliament.
The King increased his pressure on Asquith to hold direct negotiations between the parties to resolve the crisis, and offered Buckingham Palace for this purpose. The conference between Redmond and Dillon, Carson and Craig, Asquith and Birrell took place at the Palace over three days from 21 to 23 July 1914. It was agreed that the question of territory should be first addressed, leaving the time limit for later. However, Redmond and Carson could not reach agreement on the borders of the area to be excluded, the chief stumbling block being county Tyrone. The conference broke down in a friendly atmosphere but nothing was resolved.
Asquith told Redmond and Dillon that he must now scrap the time limit and alter the Amending Bill. There is evidence that Redmond was preparing himself to go along with this, but felt it would be possible to concede it only it the very last moment. The debate at which this was to be threshed out never happened. Gavrilo Princip, the Serb assassin of the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria at Sarajevo had set off a series of events that by late July had brought Europe to the brink of a catastrophic war. In doing so, he possibly saved Ireland from a smaller war – a war between its two different national communities.
On 3 August 1914 the United Kingdom was at war with Germany. That day in the Commons Redmond pledged the sympathy of the Irish democracy for the British war effort and offered the Volunteers for the defence of Ireland’s coasts. His motivation in doing this was his hope that joint action by nationalist and unionist Volunteers in local defence against a common enemy would damp down the tensions over Home Rule and encourage Irish unity.
Six weeks later, on 18 September 1914, King George signed the Home Rule Act onto the Statute Book, together with a suspensory measure to postpone its actual operation for one year or until the end of the war. (We must recall that there was one part of the original Bill still far from settled, but hived off into the Amending Bill – the issue of how much of Ulster was to be excluded from Home Rule and for how long). Two days later, passing through Woodenbridge, Co. Wicklow, Redmond went further than his 3 August speech when he addressed Volunteers on parade and called on them to enlist and go ‘wherever the firing line extends’.
The result was an immediate split between the 160,000 ‘National’ Volunteers who supported Redmond and the 12,000 ‘Irish’ Volunteers, led by such as Pearse and MacNeill, who opposed his position. The command structure of the dissident Volunteers was heavily infiltrated by members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood who had secretly decided on an insurrection in Ireland during the war and planned to use the Volunteer manpower to that effect.
In the first months of the war, majority nationalist opinion in Ireland was shocked at reports of German atrocities in Catholic Belgium and was strongly supportive of the Allied war effort and Redmond’s policy. Redmond began an intensive recruiting campaign in Ireland that autumn. He was anxious that the Government should sustain Irish enthusiasm by committing itself to turn the Volunteers into a home defence force and by forming an Irish army corps with distinctive badge and insignia. (The UVF had been given its own division, the 36th Ulster). Asquith promised to co-operate. However, Redmond had to lobby strongly against obstruction by Lord Kitchener (25) at the War Office. He did not get his way on the Volunteers issue, but a new British army division for nationalist Irishmen, the 16th (Irish) Division, was set up in 1915.
Here is Redmond reviewing a company of Volunteers in 1915 (26)…
Meanwhile, in the US, sections of Irish-American opinion had come under the influence of the pro-German lobby and were increasingly opposed to the pro-Allies stance of Redmond. Back at home, the Irish Parliamentary Party’s local organization, with little to do except wait for Home Rule to come into effect, began to fall apart.
Redmond’s authority now began to fray at the edges. He had taken a calculated gamble that the war would be short. The possibility that it would drag on beyond 1915 was a factor he had not foreseen. He was now, in theory, the Prime Minister of an Irish government-in-waiting, yet his real power to influence events was no greater than ever. As the war went into its second year, Home Rule, though on the Statute Book, began to seem to many a mirage. Dillon and some other colleagues kept their distance and were less enthusiastic about recruiting.
In May 1915, Asquith formed a National Government by taking Unionists into the Cabinet. Redmond was offered a seat in the new Cabinet but felt obliged to refuse, in line with nationalist tradition. Carson joined the Cabinet as Attorney-General. All of this was seen as a setback for the prospects of Home Rule. During summer 1915, William Martin Murphy’s Irish Independent went on the offensive against the Irish Party and its leadership. A word should be said here about the Irish Independent (27)…
The paper tapped into the sense of unease among nationalists about the timetable for Home Rule. It ran a vigorous editorial campaign (28) attacking what it saw as the financial inadequacies of the Home Rule Act and the likelihood that partition of Ireland would spoil its implementation anyway – and it laid the blame on Redmond, Dillon and their Party for their alleged spinelessness in accepting all this. The vastly greater circulation enjoyed by the paper than by the pro-Party Freeman’s Journal played a significant role in undermining nationalist confidence in Redmond’s leadership. Yet we mustn’t exaggerate the extent of the damage to the Home Rule cause. The Irish Party continued to win by-elections and to enjoy the support of the elected local bodies, and the Party organization was reorganized thanks to a huge effort by Devlin.
Redmond’s efforts for voluntary recruiting continued (29), helped by the publicity given to Irish winners of the Victoria Cross and other decorations for military valour. However, in his view, the two greatest obstacles to recruiting were the Government’s failure to make good its promise to enlist the Volunteers as a home defence force and the military authorities’ failure to give adequate recognition to the bravery of the Irish regiments at the Dardanelles. A meeting with Kitchener in September 1915 addressed the second grievance, but nothing was done with the Volunteers, 25,000 of whom enlisted anyway. Despite these obstacles, and news of the disasters at Gallipoli in April 1915, recruitment went ahead at a rate of about 6,000 per month, aided by news of the Germans’ sinking of the Lusitania. By October 1915, over 80,000 nationalist recruits had responded to Redmond’s call since the start of the war (to add to 50,000 Irishmen already serving or called up as reservists in 1914).
Meanwhile, the activities of the separatists and the republican extremists of the IRB directing the Irish Volunteers increased in boldness. The Dublin funeral of the old Fenian O’Donovan Rossa in August 1915 attracted many thousands and was turned into a massive propaganda display by the IRB, with shots fired over the grave. Drilling and military manoeuvres were carried on openly in the streets. Birrell told Redmond that the Irish Volunteers’ meetings were ‘centres of sedition’, but both men were agreed that the authorities’ response should be restrained to avoid souring the atmosphere for recruiting.
In midsummer 1915, Asquith announced horrific British casualty figures for ten months of war, and pressure began to mount for the introduction of conscription in the UK. Rumours of its likely application to Ireland helped to fuel the propaganda efforts of the extremists, but Redmond and his colleagues insisted that nationalist Ireland’s contribution to the war effort could only be a voluntary one. Unionists on both sides of the water were lobbying that nationalist Ireland was not doing enough, but Redmond by early 1916 had convinced Parliament and the Government that any attempt to apply conscription to Ireland would be disastrous.
In November 1915, Redmond visited the Western Front, where he met most of the Irish regiments engaged there. When he met a battalion of the 36th (Ulster) Division fighting next to a group of Royal Dublin Fusiliers, he took it as a sign that his hopes were being fulfilled.
By April 1916, the eve of the insurrection, there were few political grievances agitating the Irish nationalist community. The Irish Party had succeeded in having war austerity taxes and grant cuts reversed. The threat of conscription was in abeyance. The farmers were prospering from high war prices. It is true that mainstream nationalists were becoming apprehensive about the timetable for Home Rule, yet it would be hard to argue that Ireland was in a revolutionary situation.
Redmond had received warnings that extremist conspirators were planning an imminent insurrection. However, he remained complacent in his belief that any rebellion, if attempted, would be small and easily suppressed by the force of nationalist public opinion. He was in London at Easter 1916 when news came of the insurrection in Dublin, and was shocked at the messages he received from Dillon, who was trapped in his house by the fighting. In the Commons he expressed his ‘feeling of detestation and horror’. The insurrection seemed to him a German plot and ‘treason to the cause of Home Rule’. Following the surrender of the rebels, he accepted the first executions but thereafter urged Asquith repeatedly to exercise leniency. However, the imposition of military rule in Dublin under General Maxwell placed the situation beyond his power to influence. The phasing of the fifteen executions over nine days caused revulsion among a population initially hostile to the insurrection and brought a wave of sympathy for the rebels. Redmond’s role was reduced to behind-the-scenes lobbying of Maxwell for the release of innocent people caught up in the wide-scale arrests that followed the insurrection.
In the aftermath, all sides in Britain saw an opportunity for a fresh effort at reaching agreement on Home Rule, and Asquith asked Lloyd George to initiate separate talks with the Irish Party and the Ulster Unionists. The talks resulted in a set of proposals which involved putting Home Rule into immediate operation with six counties excluded and the full Irish representation being kept on at Westminster. While the talks proceeded, the Irish Independent came back with a vengeance with another campaign (30) aimed at sabotaging the deal. Over 52 issues, it carried 38 hostile editorials, all of them lambasting partition and the Irish Party for being willing to entertain it.
The crucial proposal was the time limit: the provisions would stay in force for the rest of the war and one year afterwards, and thereafter until Parliament made permanent arrangements. Carson and Joe Devlin managed with great difficulties to win acceptance from their respective constituencies. For the nationalists, much depended on the provisional nature of the proposals. However, pressure from southern Unionists in the Cabinet led by Lord Lansdowne forced the Government to make the partition clause permanent. This scuppered the initiative in late July 1916, leaving Redmond angry and bitter. Added to the changed atmosphere in the country after the rebellion and the executions, the affair further damaged and demoralised the Irish Party, and accelerated the decline in Redmond’s authority. The Independent called for his resignation.
Throughout late 1916 the constitutional movement struggled to survive. Redmond announced the Party’s new policy as ‘open and vigorous opposition’ to the Government except on the war issue, and called for the withdrawal of military rule, the treatment of the imprisoned insurrection leaders as political prisoners and the release of the untried internees at Frongoch. In the House of Commons, he indicted the entire policy of the Government since 1914. He lamented that his suggestions to stimulate recruiting had not been followed and declared that he would take no further part in negotiations. Though Irish sentiment was now against the war and enlistment was greatly reduced, he continued to encourage voluntary enlistment. In December, after Lloyd George had replaced Asquith as Prime Minister, Redmond’s efforts to secure amnesty for the internees were successful.
In the first half of 1917, the emerging revived Sinn Fein movement cast its appeal to a younger section of the population that had never previously voted, and capitalised on the change in nationalist sentiment brought about by the 1916 executions. The nationalist press vilified the British Government for allegedly capitulating to unionist pressure to break its word on Home Rule. Many newspapers criticised Redmond for having been duped into consenting to partition. Beset by repeated bouts of illness and by grief over the death of his elder daughter Esther in New York in January, Redmond’s response was weak. This was Redmond in late 1916 (31)…
In early 1917 came the epoch-making speech of US President Woodrow Wilson advocating ‘self-determination’ for small nations after the war. Inspired by this, the Irish Party, in the Parliamentary debate of 7 March 1917, demanded that the Government introduce all-Ireland Home Rule without further negotiation. Lloyd George offered to introduce it immediately for the majority nationalist parts of Ireland but said it could only be imposed on unionist Ulster against its will, and this he was not prepared to do. The Irish Party could thus have Home Rule if it accepted the principle of indefinite partition. Rather than negotiate, the Party chose to take this as a rejection of its demand.
Between February and July 1917, Sinn Fein candidates defeated the Irish Party in four by-elections; the Sinn Fein campaigns were augmented by large influxes of young activists into the constituencies, financed by Irish-American aid. In June, further bereavement struck Redmond with the death of his brother Willie in the Messines Ridge offensive. The election to fill the resulting vacancy in East Clare dealt the Irish Party its most crushing blow yet with the landslide victory of Eamonn de Valera (32), the only 1916 commander not to have been executed, who had just been released, with others, after one year in a British jail.
In May 1917, Lloyd George offered the Irish Party two alternatives: the immediate operation of the Home Rule Act with six Ulster counties permanently excluded, or the convening of an Irish Convention of representatives of all Irish parties and civil society to negotiate a scheme for all-Ireland self-government. Redmond rejected the first out of hand but warmly welcomed the second. After two months of work setting up the Convention, it was late July 1917 before it assembled at Trinity College Dublin.
There were 95 delegates, of whom almost half, at Redmond’s insistence, were unionists, including 19 representing the Ulster case. Dillon refused to attend; Sinn Fein, not yet reorganised into the formidable force it later became, boycotted it. With support draining from the constitutional movement, there was an air of unreality about the proceedings, yet there was widespread respect, even among Sinn Feiners, for its endeavours and many hoped for its success as a last chance for moderation. Redmond showed all his skills as a negotiator but was increasingly hindered by bouts of illness. By late November 1917 it seemed that a breakthrough might be at hand. Lord Midleton (33), a southern unionist Tory peer, proposed a settlement very like the original Home Rule Bill but with fewer fiscal powers. There would be no partition but safeguards for Ulster, but the Irish Government would have no control of customs. Redmond was in favour of accepting this if the Government would promise to implement it, even against Ulster’s wishes. But opposition came, not only from the Ulster unionist delegates, but from a majority of the Nationalists led by Bishop O’Donnell of Raphoe (34), who held out for full fiscal autonomy.
Meanwhile, the triumphant Sinn Fein movement reorganised itself at a Dublin conference in October and elected de Valera as its president in place of Arthur Griffith. It adopted a platform of seeking full independence for Ireland at the coming peace conference.
When the Convention reassembled in early January 1918, Devlin and Bishop O’Donnell told Redmond they could not back his support of the Midleton plan unless the Ulster unionists agreed to accept it also. Redmond, not wanting to split the Nationalists, withdrew his amendment supporting Midleton. In this way the Midleton plan failed to win unanimous support and the Ulstermen reverted to their partition demand. A breakdown was on the cards. Redmond managed in February 1918 to get Prime Minister Lloyd George to meet Convention members face to face to prevent this. But the fiscal autonomists rejected new proposals from Lloyd George based on a modified form of Midleton’s plan.
Redmond’s health continued to fail. In late February, he resigned the party chair. A few days later, he underwent an operation that was successful at first, but complications led to his death on 6 March 1918.
The three great projects of Redmond’s life died almost with him. The last chance for the Home Rule cause effectively died the following month when the Convention failed to produce a unanimous report. The Government then announced conscription for Ireland.
On 21 March 1918, the 16th Irish Division, the chief result of his recruiting endeavours, suffered such losses during the German breakthrough in eastern France as to render it effectively no longer a fighting force.
In December 1918, the Party founded by Butt and led successively by Parnell, Dillon and Redmond was almost wiped out in the general election. Though it obtained 22% of the vote to Sinn Fein’s 47%, it was reduced to a mere six seats, four of them in Ulster. The Redmond legacy lived on only in the Waterford constituency which he had represented. His son, Capt. William Redmond, D.S.O., M.P., T.D., sat in the House of Commons until 1922, and was afterwards repeatedly elected to the Dail for Waterford until his death in 1932, when his widow took over the seat and held it until her own death in 1951.
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6. Some reflections
Many questions and might-have-beens are raised by the :
a. Should Asquith and Redmond have jointly accepted Ulster exclusion early on, in early 1912, as Lloyd George and Churchill argued within the Cabinet?
b. Should R have conceded on the time limit in March 1914, allowing ‘indefinite’ partition? This is what he was preparing to do in July 1914, but if he had done it earlier it might have (i) averted the arms buildup of the UVF and the resultant growth of the Irish National Volunteer movements on both sides, with the resulting tensions and risk of inter-communal war, (ii) shifted much British centre opinion to his side and made it very difficult for Carson to defend his demand for excluding Tyrone and Fermanagh, two nationalist-majority counties, from Home Rule, (iii) ensured that partition, if we accept that it was inevitable in some form, might have had a friendlier start. On the other hand…
c. What if the Great War had started a few weeks later than early August 1914, giving Redmond time to make his intended speech conceding on the time limit? See b. except that now the island was divided into two armed camps and it would have been much harder to defuse tensions.
d. In hindsight it is clear that Redmond became the national scapegoat for partition. None of those who castigated him for his very limited concessions on this – e.g. De Valera in 1917 – had any better plan to avert partition, and none were to emerge over the following century to undo it. The Treaty debates of 1922 made little mention of it. Instead, the issue was evaded by pretending that the British were its primary cause, that it resulted from a British desire to hold on to Irish territory. It is possible to argue that the one approach never tried until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 – “stay out as long as you like, come in when you want” – might have achieved a better result. If it had not brought about Irish unity, it might at least have encouraged a friendlier relationship between North and South, less of the siege mentality among Ulster unionists and consequent better treatment for the nationalist minority. The freezing of the two parts of Ireland into a 70-year polarised confrontation might not have happened.
e. The Home Rule project did not die because the people found it inadequate or because it was postponed too long. It died because it was derailed by a violent revolutionary act and by the British response to that act. Contrary to some misconceptions, the 1916 insurrection was not a response to popular social discontent or to any popular disillusion with Home Rule. It was a conspiracy organized by a tiny group within the IRB who kept their plans secret even from fellow-IRB leaders, never mind from non-IRB Volunteer leaders and from rank-and-file Volunteers. Most of the men who marched out on Easter Monday morning thought that they were going on just another set of manoeuvres.
f. Could Home Rule have evolved into full independence? Was the bloodshed of 1919 1922 worth the extra degree of independence obtained?
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