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John Bruton: Why the 1916 Rising was unnecessary


A re-enactment of the Proclamation reading outside the GPO.

A re-enactment of the Proclamation reading outside the GPO.

A re-enactment of the Proclamation reading outside the GPO.

History: The Home Rule Crisis 1912-14 edited by Gabriel Doherty. Mercier Press, pbk, €19.99

One hundred years ago this week, on September 18, 1914 and as the outcome of the crisis described in this collection of essays, Home Rule for Ireland became the law on the land. It was the successful outcome of a parliamentary struggle that had lasted 40 years.

Two previous attempts to obtain Home Rule had failed, one defeated in the House of Commons and another vetoed in the House of Lords, where a majority was permanently opposed to it.

To get Home Rule on to the statute book in 1914, the Irish Parliamentary leaders, John Redmond and John Dillon, had to get the Liberal Party to recommit itself to Home Rule, a policy it had abandoned after the death of Gladstone. After that, they had to get a majority for Home Rule in the House of Commons, as well as getting the British constitution changed to remove the House of Lords veto. The veto could only be removed with the consent of the House of Lords itself.

By use of parliamentary leverage and constructive opportunism, Redmond and Dillon achieved all these goals, within a short period of five years.

They withheld support from 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 in the House of Commons, but one whose votes were needed if the Liberal government were to avoid a general election, which it feared it might lose. On the other side of the House, the Irish Party faced a Conservative Party that was so determined to force a general election they were prepared to incite Ulster unionists to military insurrection and to connive with elements in the British military to ensure that the insurrection would not be prevented.

In Britain itself, Home Rulers had to overcome deep anti-Irish, and anti-Catholic, sentiment in some sections of opinion.

Financial gaps also had to be bridged. Unlike Scotland today, Ireland in 1914 had no oil. Between 1896 and 1911, British government expenditure in Ireland (including recently introduced old age pensions) had increased by 91pc, whereas revenue raised in Ireland had risen by only 28pc. That enduring gap between spending commitments and revenue explains why the Irish Free State had to take a shilling off the old age pension in the 1920s.

In the face of all these difficulties, getting Home Rule on to the statute book, without the loss of a single life, was a remarkable achievement.

Brinkmanship was needed because if there had been an election and the Liberals had lost, the cause of Irish legislative independence would have been put back for a generation, if not longer.

The central question in the crisis was whether Home Rule would apply to the whole of Ireland, or whether some parts of Ulster would be excluded from it and remain under direct rule from London. In the first reading of the Home Rule Bill in 1912, a Liberal backbencher had proposed that Antrim, Down, Armagh and Derry would be excluded, because he said he had never "heard that orange bitters will mix with Irish whiskey".

The Irish Party and the Liberal government rejected this proposal. But when there was a threat of armed uprising in 1914, Redmond felt himself forced to accept temporary exclusion of some Ulster counties in order to get Home Rule for the rest of Ireland through.

This concession has, of course, been criticised by those who came after him, but none of their methods (from the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence, through Collins' 'invasion' of the North in 1922, to the IRA campaign of 1968 to 1998) could achieve a United Ireland either, although much blood has been shed learning that hard, yet obvious, lesson.

This collection of essays, based on papers written by a number of historians of differing views for a symposium on Home Rule in UCC, brings out some of the reasons for the intensity of Ulster unionist objection to rule from Dublin.

There was a deep fear of a Catholic takeover, fuelled by the Vatican's promulgation in 1907 of the Ne Temere decree. This decree said that a Catholic could not marry validly unless the marriage was witnessed by a priest. This priestly 'veto' on valid Catholic marriages left it open to priests to impose conditions, such as that all the children of a mixed marriage be brought up as Catholics. The timing of this decree could not have been worse for the Home Rule cause. Before Ne Temere, 30pc of Presbyterian ministers in Ireland had favoured Home Rule, after it only 4pc did so.

Along with other Irish nationalists up to this day, Redmond can be criticised for not taking the depth of Ulster unionist resistance seriously enough, or soon enough. Indeed he probably could have had Home Rule earlier, and with much greater powers, if he had accepted some form of Ulster exclusion.

This was politically impossible for him because of the unexamined ideological and geographical assumption on which Irish nationalism is based. This assumption is that one island equals one nation and any exception to that rule that might be found elsewhere in the world, should be ignored. Practicalities do not matter in face of what became, and for some remains, a religious dogma. John Redmond himself rejected the 'two nation theory', but he did say he would not accept any Ulster county being coerced into coming under Home Rule.

John Dillon deplored it in 1914, but admitted that "the overwhelming majority of Protestants of Ulster are bitterly hostile to Home Rule". These were very uncomfortable thoughts for an Irish nationalist to admit. But thinking uncomfortable thoughts, in sufficient time, can save thousands of lives.

The unstated assumption of some of the critics of Redmond and Dillon seems to have been that they should have insisted that the British army force unionists into a United Home Rule Ireland! Where would that have led?

Looking forward into the 21st century, one wonders who would do that job of forcing unionists into a United Ireland, if, under a poll envisaged by the Good Friday Agreement, there is at some time in the future a 51pc majority in favour of it and a 49pc minority resolutely opposed. I fear that the practical security matters and financial requirements that would then arise will be ignored until it is too late, just as Ulster unionists' objections to Home Rule were ignored until it was too late in 1914.

War should be a last resort, and fought for an attainable object. The 32 county Republic, declared in the GPO in 1916, was an undefined, catch-all and limitless aspiration. It was a matter of political theology, rather than political science. Explaining what it would mean in practice, or getting people's consent to it, were matters for another day. The declaration itself was deemed to be enough.

So, inevitably, when an attempt had to be made later on to define a practical system of government for Ireland, in the Treaty of 1921, a bitter Civil War broke out in which thousands died.

If the rebel leaders of 1916 had more patience, had thought honestly about the Ulster problem, had channelled their idealism into ballots rather than barricades and had given Home Rule a chance, we could have avoided all of that.

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