Saturday, 12 March 2016

The Liberals in power: 4 Ireland

The Ulster Volunteers

Of all the rebellions which presaged the ‘strange death of Liberal England’, that over Home Rule was undoubtedly the most intractable.

The question of Home Rule

The Liberals were committed by their need for Nationalist votes to pass a Home Rule Act, but this had never been approved by the British electorate, and it involved coercing a quarter of the population of the island of Ireland into (as they saw it) giving up their British allegiance.



In the meantime the South African War had radicalized Irish politics, with many Irish Catholics supporting the Boers. In 1905 Arthur Griffith began the process of bringing the various nationalist factions and societies together as Sinn Féin. In its early stages it was a feminist and pacifist organization, but after 1916 it would morph into a very different party.

One pressing problem was over how Irish Home Rule would affect the rest of the United Kingdom. Churchill advocated the division of the UK into ten or twelve separate ‘provinces’, each of which would have its own assembly, but his proposition was greeted with derision: why should Britain be dismembered just to please the ‘disloyal’ Irish? However, Asquith continued to home that Home Rule would be a first step towards a wider devolution.


Unionist opposition

Another problem was what to do about Ulster, a province that, in spite of its large Catholic minority, was fast becoming socially, economically and culturally distinct from the rest of Ireland.


Unionists were not united about how to react to Liberal proposals. Lansdowne, the Conservative leader in the Lords, who had estates in the south, wanted to stop Home Rule altogether, but the party leader,  Bonar Law, whose roots lay in Ulster, was prepared to accept it provided Ulster, suitably defined, was excluded. But there were other reasons for Unionist opposition: a desire to expunge the humiliation suffered over the Lords’ veto and to avoid a fourth successive general election defeat.


Well before the passage of the Parliament Act removed the legal barrier to Home Rule, Ulster was girding its loins to resist. In 1910 the Ulster Unionist Council brought in the charismatic Dublin lawyer, Sir Edward Carson (1854-1935). On 23 September 1911 shortly after the passage of the Act, Carson addressed the first great demonstration on Ulster (100,000 people) held at Craigavon, the home of the Unionist, James Craig (1871-1940):
‘we must be prepared ... the morning Home Rule passes ourselves to become responsible for the government of the Protestant province of Ulster'.
To propitiate the Ulster loyalists, Lloyd George and Churchill proposed in Cabinet on 6 February 1912 that the predominantly Protestant counties should be allowed to opt out of Home Rule, but they were over-ruled, even though a minority of Liberal MPs continued to support the idea of a Protestant opt-out. Arguably, the government was turning down an opportunity to diffuse the issue, but they did not want to alienate the Irish Nationalists, who were set on a united Ireland. They were also mindful of the interests of the Catholic minority in Ulster.

On 9 April 1912, on the eve of the introduction of the Home Rule bill, at a great Unionist demonstration near Belfast, Bonar Law gave a pledge of support to Ulster. He then shook Carson’s hand. At a later gathering of 15,000 Unionist stalwarts at Blenheim on 29 July he pledged the support of the unionists of England:
'if an attempt were made to deprive these men of their birthright - as part of a corrupt Parliamentary bargain ... I can imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster can go in which I should not be prepared to support them, and which, in my belief, they would not be supported by the overwhelming majority of the British people.'
These words, for which he has been much condemned, became known as the ‘Blenheim pledge’. In spite of his inflammatory words, he did not want armed conflict. He wanted to pressurize the cabinet (by frightening the King) into a suicidally premature dissolution.

The Third Home Rule Bill 

This was introduced on 11 April 1912. Although it offered only a mild degree of devolution to the proposed Dublin Parliament, the House had to be adjourned in disorder, amid cries of ‘traitor’ and ‘civil war’. Churchill, taunted with shouts of ‘rat’, waved his handkerchief at the Opposition and had a book thrown at him. The bill completed its passage through the Commons the first time on 16 January 1913. Two weeks later it was rejected by the Lords. The second passage and rejection took place in the short parliamentary session which lasted from March to August 1913.

Meanwhile, on 28 September 1912 (‘Ulster day’) another huge and emotional demonstration led by Carson initiated the signing of a Solemn League and Covenant.

One feature was the high turn-out of women to sign the Declaration - 228,991 women signed in Ulster compared to 218,206 men, and 5,055 women signed elsewhere as against 19,162 men, making a grand total of 471,414. The men and women who eventually signed it (three quarters of all Ulster Protestants over the age of fifteen) pledged themselves to refuse the authority of a Home Rule Parliament if it was forced upon them.

In January 1913 the Ulster Volunteer Force of 90,000 men was embodied. Steps were taken to set up a Provisional Government to take charge after the passing of a Home Rule Bill. Military drill was undertaken by the Orange Lodges and the Unionist Clubs.

In private the party leaders were trying to negotiate. Carson was prepared to accept the exclusion of Ulster but it would have to be the whole 9 county province. This meant that a proposal to exclude Antrim, Armagh, Derry and Down from Home Rule would not be accepted. And John Redmond, the leader of the Irish Nationalists, would not accept any partition.

In the meantime the situation was deteriorating in Ireland. The government was aware that Ulster Volunteers were preparing to import arms. This provoked a counter-move in the south, the formation of the Irish Volunteers. By early 1914 just before the Home Rule Bill was due to go on its third and final tour through Parliament, the possibility of civil war in Ireland was more real then ever. In the Commons Churchill spoke of Carson and his associates as
‘a self-elected body ... engaged in a treasonable conspiracy’.

The Curragh Mutiny 

In March there occurred the Curragh Mutiny. It arose when Brigadier Hubert Gough, an Ulsterman, and 57 of his officers in the 3rd cavalry brigade took the option of dismissal rather than move north to quell any possible rebellion in Ulster. This highlighted the fact that many officers and their commanders were of Anglo-Irish stock and that Bonar Law was kept constantly informed of what was going on. Gough was reinstated and returned to Ireland in triumph. This led to outrage on the Left that the government had condoned the unlawful conduct of army officers.

In April another incident, a gun-running at Larne by Ulster Volunteers, further emphasized the difficulties of controlling Ulster.

On 24 May the Home Rule Bill passed the Commons. In June the Lords amended it, putting in the permanent exclusion of the nine counties of Ulster. On 21 July 1914 a conference was held at Buckingham Palace and the substance of the discussions was the area of Ulster to be excluded (for a period of years) from Home Rule. However the negotiations broke down on what Asquith called
‘that most damnable creation of the perverted ingenuity of man - the County of Tyrone’.
On 26 July Irish Volunteers landed guns at Howth. When the volunteers reached Dublin shooting broke out between a crowd and British troops. Three civilians were killed and 38 injured.


Home Rule postponed 

On 15 September the Home Rule Bill was put on the statute book, with its operation suspended for the duration of the war. The Lords’ exclusion amendment was left in suspension. In a retreat from his previous position, Asquith declared the coercion of Ulster to be
‘an absolutely unthinkable thing’
which he and his colleagues
‘would never countenance or consent to’.
As the Irish historian Roy Foster notes (Modern Ireland, Penguin, 1988, p. 471),
‘Partition had been in principle secured.’

Did the government mishandle Home Rule?
  ‘It is hard to exonerate the government from the charge of letting things drift…Asquith simply failed to understand the passions which were being unleashed in Ireland.…On mainland Britain the Irish Question might have been more easily contained had it not been for the legacy left by the passing of the Parliament Act.…Irish Home Rule was being discussed in an atmosphere of intense bitterness and mutual suspicion. For the first time since the seventeenth century the country genuinely confronted civil war…because the Opposition did not wholeheartedly accept the legitimacy of the institutional arrangements which had emerged during the years of Liberal rule.’ G.R. Searle, A New England? Peace and War 1886-1918, (Oxford, 2004), 434.

The historic nine counties of Ulster,
and the six that were to remain in the UK