How Home Rule ended up becoming the first casualty
The Great War changed Irish politics forever, writes Ronan Abayawickrema
By entering one war on August 4, 1914, Britain unwittingly postponed another. For Ireland had almost certainly been heading for a bloody civil conflict before the outbreak of World War I, as nationalists and unionists' positions became increasingly polarised over the impending introduction of Home Rule.
In April 1914, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) had illegally brought in a large cache of rifles and ammunition at Larne, and the Irish Volunteers had smuggled a smaller quantity of arms into Howth the following month.
Moderate nationalist leader John Redmond, of the Irish Parliamentary Party, had all but achieved his dream of Home Rule, using his party's leverage at Westminster to persuade the Liberal government to introduce a bill granting Irish self-government.
But he had been outmanoeuvred on the cusp of his victory by Ulster Unionist Party leader Sir Edward Carson, who, in the UVF, had the backing of a well-armed paramilitary group some 90,000 strong. Redmond, whose influence over the Irish Volunteers fluctuated, did not.
So while Redmond, in a September 1914 speech at Woodenbridge, Co Wicklow, urging nationalists to enlist in the British army, may have believed his claim that, "This war is undertaken in the defence of the highest principles of religion and morality and right," it also made sound political sense to say so. Anything else would have played into Carson's hands.
Yet most of the estimated 40,000 nationalists who joined up in the first year of the war – out of around 80,000 volunteers from Ireland that year – believed they were doing so to advance the cause of Irish self-determination and that, as Redmond said, "The interests of Ireland – of the whole of Ireland – are at stake in this war."
But Redmond's influence was on the wane. He refused a place in Herbert Asquith's war cabinet, while Carson became attorney general. Two days before Redmond's Woodenbridge speech, the Government of Ireland Bill became law but so too did another bill postponing Home Rule until the end of the war.
The aftermath of the Easter Rising of 1916 would ensure that Home Rule would never be implemented. After the IRB's failed rebellion ended on April 29 with much of Dublin in ruins, public opinion was largely against the rebels. Redmond himself saw the Rising as a "German intrigue" but pleaded for lenient treatment of the surviving republicans. Carson saw the rebels as traitors but, perhaps surprisingly, urged caution as the Rising leaders were brought to trial: "Whatever is done, let it be done, not in a moment of temporary excitement, but with due deliberation in regard to the past and to the future".
But he and Redmond were ignored, and the British authorities' execution of Padraig Pearse and several other rebel leaders turned the tide of public opinion from moderate nationalism to republicanism. Survivors of the Rising such as Eamon de Valera, little known before the rebellion, would grow in stature and eclipse Redmond in popularity and influence.
At Westminster, Redmond's party colleague John Dillon eloquently expressed nationalist outrage at Britain's handling of the Rising and its aftermath: "in the whole of modern history ... there has been no rebellion or insurrection put down with so much blood and so much savagery as the recent insurrection in Ireland."
The Irish Parliamentary Party continued to push for the immediate implementation of Home Rule, but to no avail. In a House of Commons debate on March 7, 1917, TP O'Connor, the Westmeath-born nationalist MP for Liverpool, put forward the motion "That, with a view to strengthening the hands of the Allies in achieving the recognition of the equal rights of small nations and the principle of nationality ... it is essential without further delay to confer upon Ireland the free institutions long promised to her." It was seconded by Redmond's brother Willie, MP for East Clare, who would die serving with the British army in Belgium in June of that year.
O'Connor put the Rising in the context of unionist and UVF opposition to Home Rule: "What brought revolutionary feeling back to Ireland was the revolutionary movement in Ulster."
The unionist response to the motion, from Sir John Lonsdale, MP for Mid-Armagh, was robust: "It is surely the duty of the Government to tell the Irish people plainly that they can most effectively assist the Allies by accepting loyally all the obligations, both of service and of sacrifice, which this war has entailed."
Speaking in the House of Commons some time after the November 11, 1918 armistice which had secured the Allied victory, West Belfast MP Joe Devlin argued that many Irishmen had done exactly that: "Nationalists as sound as I am fought with superb courage and in the early parts of the war cast lustre and glory upon Irish chivalry and upon Irish fighting power. You think only now of the worse side of Ireland. Public memories and the memories of politicians are short."
But by then British authority had been further damaged by a disastrous attempt to introduce conscription in Ireland in April 1918, and De Valera, still in prison, had won the West Clare by-election caused by Willie Redmond's death, though he would not take his seat. It was the first step on a political path that would define Ireland for decades to come. Home Rule was dead in the water.
See our dedicated World War 1 section here.
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