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It's time to celebrate Home Rule and acknowledge how much was achieved without violence


Photographed is John Redmond (Picture: Mary Browne)

Photographed is John Redmond (Picture: Mary Browne)

Photographed is John Redmond (Picture: Mary Browne)

On this day 100 years ago the Home Rule Act was signed into law by Britain's King George V. Its operation was suspended for the duration of the war in Europe. It was accepted that an amending act making provision for Ulster would be enacted before it came into operation. On that basis John Redmond, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, called on Irishmen to enlist for service in the war.

The enactment of Home Rule was seen at the time as a triumph for Redmond and his party, which had campaigned for 40 years to achieve it.

It never came into effect. In the general election of December 1918, Sinn Fein won a clear majority of Irish seats, rejected the Home Rule Act and confirmed the declaration of an all-island Irish Republic of 1916. The British government rejected this declaration and refused to recognise Sinn Fein. A savage guerrilla war ensued.

The British then replaced the Home Rule Act with the Government of Ireland Act, which created two parliaments, one for the six counties of the North and another for the 26 counties of Southern Ireland. This was unacceptable to Sinn Fein.

In order to bring the armed hostilities to an end the British government agreed with the Sinn Fein representatives in December 1921 that Southern Ireland would become the Irish Free State and enjoy a larger measure of independence than under the Home Rule Act, but remain in the Empire.

On the basis that a larger measure of self-government had been achieved, the founders of the Free State and their successors treated the Home Rule Act as a non-event. The refusal of the present government to mark its centenary is consistent with this. This is to underrate the significance of the Home Rule Act. Although it never came into operation it had an enduring effect in shaping British opinion.

Before its enactment the Conservative party was totally opposed to self-government for any part of Ireland and the Liberal Party was lukewarm in its support. After it all British parties supported some measure of self-government for this part of Ireland.

This provided the platform for those who negotiated the Treaty settlement in 1921. British opinion was crucial then as it has been in recent decades in relation to the North. In 1921 it was not prepared to concede Sinn Fein demands for an all-Ireland republic and, as a result, it did not happen.

It may be true, as Ronan Fanning has argued, that the British government led by Lloyd George would not have conceded the measure of independence they did in 1921 but for the armed action of the IRA. But that they were willing to do so also reflected the reality that it was not seen in Britain as all that different from Home Rule they had accepted in 1914.

On that basis the heirs to the Irish revolution, who made up Irish governments post-independence, could have celebrated the Home Rule Act as a contribution to what was achieved by the armed struggle.

That they never felt able to do so may reflect fears that celebration of the Home Rule Act would give credence to the view that it would have served Irish nationalists better to have accepted and worked it rather than to resort to violence. To have followed the constitutional path would have avoided the corrosive bitterness left by the violence between 1916 and 1923, when Irish people killed their fellow countrymen.

The violence of those years also led British governments to give Ulster unionists a free hand with policing and discrimination.

There is a need to confront with more honesty the high price paid for the violence out of which this State was born. A good start would be to stop downgrading the advances nationalist Ireland achieved without resort to violence, one of which was the Home Rule Act 1914.

Irish Independent