Home Rule of greater significance than 1916 blood lust
Published 05/08/2014 | 02:30
In 2016, there will be extensive commemoration of the centenary of the 1916 Rising.
No comparable commemoration is planned for an earlier centenary, that of 18 September 2014, the 100th anniversary of the passage into law of Home Rule for Ireland.
The events of Easter 1916 inaugurated an armed struggle, with many casualties, which continued until 1923.
In contrast, the enactment of Home Rule was achieved by peaceful parliamentary means, without any casualties.
Winning Home Rule for Ireland involved overcoming huge obstacles and prejudices.
There was deep-seated anti-Catholic prejudice to be overcome in both the Conservative and Liberal Parties in Britain 100 years ago. There was an underlying assumption in some quarters that the Catholic Irish could not be trusted to govern themselves, or to respect the property rights of the Protestant minority in southern Ireland. This prejudice had strong support in the upper reaches of the British Army.
Also ranged against Home Rule were the Ulster Unionists, who had armed themselves in the Ulster Volunteer Force, with little or no interference from the government. Their goal was to prevent Home Rule.
Another obstacle was the House of Lords, which had a veto on all legislation, and where there was an overwhelming majority against Home Rule. This could only be overcome by removing this veto.
In a masterly exercise of parliamentary leverage and constructive opportunism, Irish Parlimentary Party leaders John Redmond and John Dillon overcame all these obstacles in a very short space of time.
They withheld support for the 1909 Budget, unless and until there was a commitment to remove the Lords veto and introduce Home Rule.
All this was achieved by a minority party, albeit a party whose votes were needed to avoid a general election which the Liberal government feared they would lose. Considerable brinksmanship was needed, because, if the Liberals lost the election then the cause of Home Rule would also be lost. Redmond and Dillon played the cards they had very well indeed.
Home Rule became law on 18 September 1914. Its implementation was simply postponed for the duration of World War I, which had broken out a month previously.
There is no doubt but that it would have come into effect once the war was over, either for the whole of Ireland, or, more likely, for 26 or 28 counties, if the Home Rule policy had not been rejected by the Irish electorate in the 1918 election.
The irreversibility of Home Rule, once it was passed in 1914, is well illustrated by a comment that was made by one of its staunchest opponents, the Conservative leader Andrew Bonar Law. He had admitted: "If Ulster, or rather any county, had the right to remain outside the Irish Parliament, for my part my objection would be met".
The Lloyd George Coalition Government's 1918 re-election manifesto stated bluntly: "Home Rule is upon the statute book." There was no going back on it.
This is glossed over by those who supported the use of physical force in 1916.
Instead of launching a policy of abstention from Parliament and a guerrilla war, Sinn Fein and the IRA could have used the Home Rule Act as a peaceful stepping stone to dominion status and full independence, in the same way as Treaty of 1921 was eventually to be used.
Home Rule would also have been a better deal for Northern Nationalists, for two reasons. Any part of Ulster excluded from Home Rule was to have been under direct rule from Westminster, and there would have been some limited continuing Southern representation in the House of Commons. Both of these factors would have ensured that the discriminatory regime that was inaugurated in Stormont would not have been possible.
Commemorations are about drawing relevant lessons for today's generation, from the work of past generations.
The remarkable exercise of parliamentary leverage, to achieve Home Rule against entrenched resistance, has greater relevance to today's generation of democrats, than does the blood sacrifice of later years.
It deserves to be commemorated by all Irish people who believe that exclusively non-violent agitation is the best way to achieve justice in divided societies.
John Bruton is a former Taoiseach and chairman of the IFSC