Saturday 21 September 2019

Dermot McMonagle: 'The Great War had ended but War of Independence had begun'

Britain faltered in the early years of the war and this opened the way for the 1916 Easter Rising, writes Dermot McMonagle

Edward Carson:
Edward Carson:

After the second general elections of 1910, Herbert Asquith and the Liberal Party formed a government with the support of John Redmond's Irish Parliamentary Party.

The Irish Parliamentary Party was to hold the balance of power at Westminster where Home Rule for Ireland and the abolition of the Parliament Act were part of the bargain. The Conservatives and Unionists showed their dislike for Irish Home Rule as a means of gaining political power. Protestant fears in Ireland were founded in the Ne Temere decree from the Vatican in 1908 with the slogan "Home Rule would be Rome Rule".

As the SS Titanic started its maiden voyage from Southampton, Herbert Asquith introduced the Third Home Rule Bill for Ireland on April 11, 1912. The terms of the Bill for a self-ruling Ireland, with Dominion status within the Empire, were limited. Ulster could not be excluded from the Government of Ireland Act, when Asquith said: "They could not admit the right of a relatively small minority in Ulster to veto the verdict of the vast body of people in Ireland."

Militant Unionism against Home Rule had grown in Ulster from 1886 with Gladstone's first Home Rule Bill. Edward Carson led the Ulster Covenant campaign against Home Rule in 1912, followed by the formation of the UVF with Orange influence. The militancy within Ulster and the growth of the UVF was of concern in Dublin which led to the formation of the Irish Volunteers - to counteract the UVF and to protect the third Home Rule Bill.

As Europe was on the cusp of war, Edward Carson would continue the fight for the exclusion of six counties from the Home Rule Bill. Carson as a member of the Privy Council had access to high places. At a meeting on July 2, 1914, he targeted King George V through Lord Stanfordham, the King's personal secretary, to spread the fear of civil war in Ireland.

Lord Stanfordham recorded: "This morning had a one hour conversation with Sir E Carson whom I found depressed by the outlook in Ulster, indeed he regards the situation as very grave. He said he would speak to me perfectly openly and without (?) and begged what he told me might be treated as confidential except, of course, as far as the King was concerned. He was solely of the opinion that within six weeks there would be civil war unless the Amending Bill excluded at least six counties with no time limit - He was by no means certain the Ulstermen would accept this - as to offering less, he told the Prime Minister yesterday… meanwhile there is considerable danger of a spontaneous outbreak..."

He continued: "A few nights ago, in Londonderry, 5,000 Nationalists Volunteers armed with revolvers marched out to seize arms reported to be stored in the neighbourhood. The alarm was given and 2,000 Ulster Volunteers armed with rifles paraded to resist them. Conflict was avoided by 'Jack White', one of the few officers of the Nationalists force, hearing what was threatening, got into his motor and headed off his men."

When Carson's statement was cross-checked against police records, it showed that this incident simply never happened. In spite of this, the King and Asquith believed Carson's story - and so it was now official that there was going to be a civil war in Ireland.

King George V had a genuine interest in Ireland from his time spent here as a young navy officer. He agreed to facilitate his government's sponsored conference in Buckingham Palace to negotiate amendments to the Third Home Rule Bill in July 1914. The King wished to sign the Bill into law to be enacted after a general election. The King and Parliament did not want Britain going to war with a civil war within its confines.

The Buckingham Palace Conference was a non-event and so the Third Home Rule Bill was left on the statute book to be enacted after the war. John Redmond advised the Volunteers to enlist to fight in the war to protect Home Rule.

As Britain's military forces were faltering in the early years of the war, the men of the IRB planned and carried out the 1916 Easter Rising and declared Ireland a Republic. On reflection, the Rising was a greater fiasco for Britain than for nationalist Ireland. Volunteers were rounded up in Ireland and sent to British gaols, in particular Frangoch POW Camp, called the "Sinn Fein university" by the chief constable of Caernarfon.

In December 1916, Herbert Asquith resigned and a new national government was formed in the UK with David Lloyd George as premier. He appointed Edward Carson minister without portfolio to the War Cabinet and made James Craig a minister in the Treasury. John Redmond was offered a post but refused.

As a gesture to the people, Lloyd George released the Irish prisoners from Frangoch and Reading Gaol at Christmas. There was no voice to protect Irish interests as Lloyd George announced in March 1917 that six counties would be exempt from the Home Rule Bill.

From early 1917, Sinn Fein, led by Arthur Griffith, fought and won its first by-election in north Roscommon. This was followed with successes in north Longford, east Clare and Kilkenny. Sinn Fein needed to win in Ulster where east Cavan was the next projected seat. The organisation grew nationally through its discipline and popularity to win 73 seats in the general election in December 1918 - 10 of which were won in Ulster.

Sinn Fein now had a mandate and so the First Dail met in January 1919 with 29 members present. The rest were either confined in HM prisons or "on the run".

The very essence of the political mandate won by Sinn Fein as the First Dail sat was turned on its head when rebels shot two RIC officers escorting explosives to a quarry in Co Tipperary.

The Great War was over. The War of Independence had begun. John Redmond and his Home Rule dreams were dead.

  • Dermot McMonagle is an historian and author

Sunday Independent

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