The nationalist community, mainly Catholic in religion, had just witnessed the successful outcome of the forty-year struggle for Home Rule, the goal that had eluded Isaac Butt and Charles Stewart Parnell. The Third Home Rule Bill, having traversed three successive parliamentary sessions since its introduction in 1912, passed its final stages on May 25th. The Liberal government of HH Asquith, in alliance with the Irish Parliamentary Party led by John Redmond, guided the bill to victory. It provided for an autonomous parliament in Dublin, with a responsible executive, to govern all internal Irish affairs under the supremacy of the Westminster parliament. It now awaits only the king’s signature to become law.
The Irish Party’s newspaper, the Freeman’s Journal, greeted the event as “Ireland’s Day of Triumph”; hundreds of messages of congratulation poured in from every part of Ireland and from the Irish diaspora in the US, Australia and New Zealand.
However, a serious flaw nestled at the heart of this achievement, deriving from the attitude of Ireland’s second community. The expressed will of Ulster’s mainly Protestant unionists, concentrated in the northeast of that province, was to resist the imposition of Home Rule under a Dublin parliament dominated by Catholic nationalists. Such anti-Home Rule sentiment had the political support of Britain’s Conservative (Tory) Party, currently in opposition.
Despite the signing by half a million men and women in September 1912 of the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant, a massive peaceful demonstration of unionist resolve not to accept Dublin rule, Asquith expressed his government’s determination to press ahead with the legislation for all-Ireland Home Rule. Unionists responded with threats to resist, by force if necessary, any attempt to impose it on them.
From early 1913, units of a new force, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), began to appear in towns and rural communities across Ulster, drawing recruits from all social classes. As enrolment grew, Sir Edward Carson, leader of Ireland’s Unionist Party and local unionist leaders addressed mass rallies. The UVF had been drilled to a high level of proficiency, but its parades with mock weapons excited the scorn of nationalists, who dismissed them as toy soldiers. The nationalist press professed to regard the unionist campaign as an elaborate bluff. The Freeman’s Journal coined the term “Ulsteria”.
In the autumn of 1913, leading Liberals and some Tories began to discuss the possibility of compromise over Ulster. In secret talks with Asquith, Carson and the Tory leader Andrew Bonar Law demanded the exclusion of an (as yet undefined) area comprising “unionist Ulster” in return for their consent to Home Rule for nationalist Ireland. In early March, responding to the “prospect of acute dissension and even of civil strife” in Ulster, Asquith announced a concession: to allow each Ulster county to decide by plebiscite whether to exclude itself from Home Rule, such exclusion to be for six years, at the end of which time it would automatically “come in” to Home Rule. The proposal was immediately rejected by Carson and his colleagues. Carson called it “a sentence of death with a six-year stay of execution”.
Since the March proposal, two events served to greatly strengthen the hand of the Ulster unionists. First, British army officers stationed at the Curragh made clear their willingness to resign their commissions should they be ordered to march on Ulster to put down resistance to Home Rule. Second, the UVF armed itself. In late 1913, although it had almost 80,000 members, it did not possess significant arms. In late April, despite a legal prohibition since December on the importation of arms into Ireland, a shipment of 35,000 modern rifles and associated ammunition was landed by UVF gun-runners at Larne and two other Ulster ports under cover of darkness, and distributed to its units around the province. The combined effect was to make the enforcement of all-Ireland Home Rule impossible without serious armed conflict. Talk of impending “civil war” increased.
Civil war would involve a military clash between the forces of the British state and the UVF. Meanwhile, the presence in Ireland of a third armed force, the Irish National Volunteers (INV), founded in Dublin in November 1913, could add an inter-communal dimension to such a conflict. Behind its formation were members of the secret revolutionary Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), an organisation dedicated to staging an armed revolt against British rule at an appropriate opportunity. Thirteen of the thirty members of the founding “provisional committee” of the new Volunteers were members of the IRB, and several others would soon join. However, the Volunteer manifesto stressed that its programme was defensive in nature, and a non-IRB member, the Ulster Catholic Gaelic scholar and language revivalist Professor Eoin MacNeill, was chosen as chairman and respectable face of the movement.
The motive of most recruits to the INV movement was to strengthen Redmond’s hand, to lend muscle to the Irish Party as it faced the anti-Home Rule campaign. However, the Volunteer leadership denied that it saw itself in direct opposition to the Ulster Volunteers. There was an air of unreality about these statements. Some, elated at the sight of (unionist) Irishmen brandishing arms in the face of a British government, embrace the fantasy that the two volunteer forces might make common cause against the British. One of the founders, Patrick Pearse, in a November 1913 article, “The Coming Revolution”, rejoiced “that the Orangemen have armed, for it is a goodly thing to see arms in Irish hands” and expressed relish at the prospect of armed conflict: “bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing …”
Enrolment in the INV was slow in its early months. The Irish Party leaders tended towards hostility and took little notice of it (though many of its rank and file joined). However, spurred by the Curragh and Larne events, membership grew exponentially during May and June. By the end of June, total enrolment stood at about 250,000. Small-scale landings of arms took place at ports around the Irish coast. Redmond decided that he must act to bring the movement under the democratic control of the people’s elected representatives, the Irish Party. After some sparring with MacNeill, he issued an ultimatum through the press on June 9th, demanding that the provisional committee co-opt twenty-five nominees of the Irish Party.
July: the crisis matures
Under the rules governing the passage of the Home Rule Bill, any changes affecting its application to Ulster would have had to be incorporated in a separate Amending Bill. Under strong pressure from Redmond, Asquith promised that the Amending Bill would embody only the March proposals (county plebiscites and six-year exclusion – what Redmond has called “the very extremest limit of concession”) but Carson and Bonar Law rejected such a Bill out of hand.
As July began, the Amending Bill containing the promised provisions had been with the House of Lords for a week. The peers would soon discuss and vote on making changes to it. In the meantime, efforts went on behind the scenes to probe for possible agreement. In late June, Asquith allowed the Master of Elibank (Lord Murray) to talk to prominent protagonists on each side. Murray called on Redmond on June 30th, having already met Carson and Bonar Law. He told him that the two Unionists were anxious for a settlement, saw Home Rule as inevitable and even saw the inclusion of Ulster as inevitable “in a comparatively short time”. Murray handed him a document indicating possible lines of compromise. This called for the exclusion of a bloc area comprising about five Ulster counties, with statutory polls every six years. Redmond told Murray that his position was unchanged on either time limit or area but, if he were made “a firm offer”, he would consider it.
Murray called again on July 1st and 2nd. He had met Carson and Bonar Law again, who stated emphatically that, if a settlement were reached, they would ensure that the Tory press would give “absolute fair play and every chance” to the new Irish Parliament. The only point of “absolute deadlock” was the question of the largest county, Tyrone, which had a small nationalist majority. Later on July 2nd, Redmond met Murray in the company of Lord Rothermere (brother of Lord Northcliffe, proprietor of The Times). Rothermere told him that the exact Unionist proposal was to take a bloc plebiscite of counties Antrim, Down (possibly with nationalist south Down omitted), Londonderry and Tyrone, plus north and mid-Armagh, north Fermanagh and Derry City, and leave this area to decide when it would “come in” to Home Rule. Redmond told the two peers that these suggestions were “quite impossible”.
This was an opening bid to make partition conform to demographic realities, leaving as many nationalists as possible within, and unionists outside, the Home Rule area. A second proposal came from Thomas Shillington, a prominent Ulster Liberal. This involved exclusion of all nine counties for an indefinite time with strong financial inducements to “come in” quickly. Redmond, in a note to Asquith on July 9th, described the proposal as “utterly impossible for us even to consider … the very mention of [it] would raise a storm in Ireland, inside and outside of Ulster alike … [which] would instantly wreck everything, and, if listened to for a moment by us, would at a blow destroy our power and our party”.
Redmond and his deputy, John Dillon, met chancellor of the exchequer Lloyd George early in July. On July 10th, TP O’Connor (Irish Party MP for a Liverpool constituency, a journalist and confidant of some leading Liberals) wrote to tell Redmond that Lloyd George had confirmed the territorial concessions being offered by the Tories: “while demanding all Tyrone, [they] were ready to give half Fermanagh and south Down. He knew nothing of an offer as to south Armagh …”
Redmond’s problem with accepting these suggestions reflected the tight position in which he found himself as a nationalist leader who only nine months earlier had denounced any suggestion of partition as a “mutilation of the Irish nation”. Writing to Asquith in autumn 1913 he stressed that any proposal for an agreed settlement must come from the other side, and, because of the delicacy of his position, could only be accepted at the moment of nationalist victory, as a gesture of magnanimity for the sake of peace. For Redmond, that critical “last moment” had not yet come: he agreed with Dillon that, if the Unionists rejected the original Amending Bill, the Home Rule Bill should be put on the statute book, and only then would they be, in Dillon’s words, “approachable with a reasonable settlement”.
On July 13th, with Chief Secretary Birrell also present, Asquith tried without success to get the two Irishmen to consider changes to the excluded area. The following day, the Lords sent their amended version of the Amending Bill back to the Commons. They had changed it out of all recognition: it now provided for the permanent exclusion of all nine Ulster counties. There was now deadlock between the two Houses, reflecting the wider deadlock between Irish nationalists and Ulster unionists.
On July 6th, Redmond and Dillon met again with Asquith and Birrell. Asquith told them that Murray hadd failed to elicit any more flexibility from Carson or Bonar Law. Redmond warned Asquith that he must not even hint at further concession when the Amending Bill came up in the House of Commons, otherwise the Irish Party would have to vote against it and Redmond would be forced to renounce any concessions whatever, even those to which they might consent as part of an agreed settlement. This meant outright rejection of the Lords’ amendments and the pushing through of the original Amending Bill.
While these events proceeded in private, tensions increased on the streets. On July 6th, companies of the UVF marched with rifles and bayonets for the first time in Belfast. Large musters of the INV took place throughout Ireland each weekend. A large consignment of arms was on its way to them from Hamburg, smuggled on the yacht Asgard, captained by Erskine Childers. On July 7th, the INV provisional committee discussed the co-option of Redmond’s twenty-five nominees to its membership.
On July 10th, the members of the Ulster “provisional government” met. Unionists had threatened to establish this the moment Home Rule was passed. Captain James Craig said the situation was “as black as can be” and promised a “momentous statement”. In the event, nothing happened. Carson presented colours to three UVF battalions at Larne, telling them that, while he was praying fervently for peace, “if we cannot have peace with honour it must be war with honour”. Against all expectations, the Twelfth passed off quietly in Belfast. In the House of Lords, Lord Londonderry lamented that the Government’s policy had divided Ireland into two armed camps.
The dilemma facing the government was acute. Having offered exclusion in principle to the Ulster unionists, it could not drop the Amending Bill and enact the Home Rule Bill alone. On the other hand, if Asquith presented the Lords’ reconstructed Amending Bill to the Commons on July 20th, when it was scheduled for consideration, the Irish Party would vote against it, making a general election likely. Direct negotiation now seemed the only way out of the impasse.
King George has previously pressed Asquith to bring Redmond and Carson together, but the prime minister had stalled him, thinking it too early. Asquith now wrote suggesting Buckingham Palace as the venue for a conference between the parties. The king eagerly agreed and suggested that Speaker Lowther should preside. In response to the royal invitation, Redmond, Dillon, Asquith and Lloyd George met Carson, Captain James Craig, Bonar Law and Lord Lansdowne at the palace on Tuesday, July 21st. The king began the proceedings by expressing his feelings of attachment to Ireland and her people, and declared it unthinkable that his Irish subjects should be brought to the brink of fratricidal strife on “issues apparently so capable of adjustment”. Praying for God’s help in their deliberations, he concluded: “Your responsibilities are indeed great. The time is short …”
All participants agreed that no official record be kept. The account we have of the conference is that written by Redmond. Carson and his fellow-unionists argued for the time limit to be discussed first. Redmond and Dillon insisted that the area question must be dealt with first, since a decision on that might influence their views on the time limit. The conference agreed to discuss area first. Carson made “an elaborate argument” for the exclusion of the whole of Ulster, stressing that this would favour the earliest possible unification of Ireland. Redmond, in reply, said it was impossible for him and Dillon, under any circumstances, to agree to this.
The next day, Redmond wanted the March county option proposal discussed, but the unionists would not discuss it. Asquith was anxious to move the discussion beyond the parameters of county boundaries, and suggested a division of Ulster based on local government boundaries. The leaders pored over a large relief map showing the distribution of religious affiliations in the various Poor Law Unions. It is soon apparent, according to Redmond’s account, that no arrangement satisfactory to both sides could be devised: “Any such scheme would involve a system of what might be called swapping districts in different parts of Ulster, which was universally agreed to be an impossible thing.” Carson was averse to the inclusion of any part of Tyrone under Home Rule; Redmond equally adamant against the exclusion of any part of the county. Carson then substituted for his original demand the exclusion of a bloc of six counties to vote as one unit. Redmond said he could not consider this any more seriously than exclusion of the whole province. A deadlock had arisen but all agreed to the Speaker’s suggestion of another meeting.
That evening, Asquith wrote of the standoff to his confidante Venetia Stanley. Every discussion of maps and figures had come back to “that most damnable creation of the perverted ingenuity of man – the County of Tyrone. The extraordinary feature of the discussion was the complete agreement (in principle) of Redmond and Carson. Each said ‘I must have the whole of Tyrone, or die; but I quite understand why you say the same’. The Speaker, who incarnates bluff unimaginative English sense, of course cut in: ‘When each of two people say they must have the whole, why not cut it in half?’ They wd. neither of them look at such a suggestion … Nothing could have been more amicable in tone or more desperately fruitless in result … I have rarely felt more hopeless … an impasse, with unspeakable consequences, upon a matter which to English eyes seems inconceivably small, & to Irish eyes immeasurably big. Isn’t it a real tragedy?”
On the third morning, Carson renewed his demand for the “clean cut”, either of the whole province, or at least of the six “plantation” counties. This failing to win agreement, Asquith makes another suggestion – to divide Ulster according to its parliamentary constituencies, except that nationalist West Belfast and Derry City would be in the excluded area. This would leave all county Antrim, all of Belfast, North, East and West Down, North and Mid-Armagh, all of Londonderry and Derry City, South Tyrone and North Fermanagh excluded. This area could vote by plebiscite either en bloc or by constituency, with periodic later plebiscites.
However, for Carson, the loss of three-quarters of Tyrone was more than he could accept. Here, as in his demand for the “clean cut” as a whole, Carson denied to nationalist local majorities the right he claimed for unionist local majorities to be exempted from a rule they rejected. His excuse was that, while unionists lacked a majority in Co Tyrone, they held the “preponderating power” in wealth and administration.
Redmond would consider any scheme based on the principle of allowing predominantly unionist districts to vote themselves out of Home Rule, but emphatically rejected a bloc vote for a large area that forced exclusion of nationalist districts, especially if there was to be no time limit.
Asquith had a last suggestion: if agreement could be reached on everything else, to select an “impartial authority” to divide Tyrone fairly. This being rejected, the Speaker made his final attempt: if all issues except Tyrone could be agreed, exclude Tyrone for a very short period at the start, say, for twelve to eighteen months, then allow it to hold a plebiscite on joining the Irish Parliament. This would allow each side to claim partial victory. However, Carson rejected the time limit while Redmond thought the idea impracticable.
Redmond pleaded for consideration of options other than exclusion, offering to make “very large concessions” to Ulster within Home Rule. This was ruled out by Carson. The last meeting was devoted to discussing the Speaker’s statement that would announce the failure of the conference. This was duly adopted, the members agreeing “to preserve an honourable secrecy as to what had transpired”.
Redmond later told Asquith that when he and Carson said goodbye, the latter was in tears, and that Captain Craig, who had never spoken to Dillon in his life, came up to him and said: “Mr Dillon, will you shake my hand? I should be glad to think that I had been able to give as many years to Ulster as you have to the service of Ireland.” Carson, after Redmond’s death, would recall that Redmond, as they parted at the palace, asked him “to have a good shake-hands for the sake of the old days together on circuit”. Immediately afterwards, the king asked for a private audience with each of the leaders. Redmond was impressed by the sympathy and goodwill shown by the monarch, who told him that the conference was bound to do good, and was delighted to hear of the “amicable and conciliatory manner” in which Redmond and Carson had met one another.
Later, at Downing Street, Asquith told Redmond and Dillon that he must now go on with the Amending Bill – but without the time limit. This brought “a good deal of demur”, but they agreed reluctantly to try to win the assent of their party. Asquith then announced the failure of the conference to the House of Commons, a lost opportunity, not to avert partition, but to give it at least an amicable beginning. Not until 1973, at Sunningdale, will elected leaders of nationalism, unionism and the British government again sit down in the same room to discuss the future governance of the island. However, the participants could not know that this would be their last chance to meet face to face before cataclysmic events overtake them.
Redmond prepared his speech for the next Commons debate on the Amending Bill, due for July 28th. He would stress that his party had been prepared from the start to make “enormous sacrifices to enable Home Rule to come into being in peace, to avoid strife with our fellow-countrymen”, and that he would make “every possible concession to the pride, prejudice and fears of fellow Irishmen today separated from us”. He would describe exclusion as “at best … a hateful expedient”, having no friends on its own merits (underlinings in Redmond’s notes). He would dig in his heels in rejecting the Carson “clean cut” six-county demand because of its injustice to the nationalist majorities of Tyrone and Fermanagh.
However, he planned to balance this by supporting the government’s abandonment of the time limit on exclusion. The Unionists had objected that this merely postponed coercion and left the question an unsettled one in British politics. Very well, the new proposal “would leave to Ulstermen themselves the decision when they would come in … Under this proposal there can be no coercion of any Ulster county.”
He believed that “no settlement is possible until [the Home Rule] Bill is actually on the statute book”; after that, “men will realize the true situation and both sides will find it easier to agree”. In pitching his offer thus, he would stretch the loyalty of his nationalist constituency to its limit while trying to increase his leverage with Ulster unionists. There was no guarantee that he would succeed. If he failed, war must surely follow.
The reception of this speech will never be known. The Amending Bill debate was postponed until July 30th. By that date, the cabinet was engrossed in an entirely different matter, arising from an incident in Sarajevo a month earlier in which the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary was assassinated by a Serb extremist. Austria-Hungary had just declared war on Serbia. The ramifications were continent-wide. Redmond’s speech was never delivered. The march towards war in Ireland was suddenly arrested by an immeasurably greater catastrophe.
The onset of the Great War froze all further discussion of the Ulster difficulty. When the king signed the Home Rule Act onto the statute book on September 18th, the Amending Bill question was still unresolved. The implementation of the act was suspended for the duration of the war, which all expected to be short.
The war introduced a new dynamic into the three-way relationship between Irish nationalists, Ulster unionists and the British government. With the postwar settlement in mind, there was now a competition between the first two to demonstrate loyalty to Britain. Having pledged nationalist support for the war at its onset, Redmond after September 18th would encourage enlistment in Irish regiments of the British army, partly in repayment of the “debt of honour” he felt was owed to Britain over Home Rule, partly to ensure that future British opinion would support his policy on Ulster and ensure a “good” Amending Bill. He also nourished a hope that the shared experience of unionist and nationalist soldiers in fighting the common enemy on the continent would forge a new identity between them that would make partition unnecessary.
Whenever the war happened to end, an Ulster settlement would be the obstacle standing between nationalist Ireland and the implementation of self-government. Tragically, there would never again be as propitious a time as July 1914 for Redmond to try to win the support of his followers for an agreed partition settlement.
The prolongation of the war into 1916 would allow a tiny band of Fenian conspirators to do something unforeseen by almost all – stage an armed insurrection in Dublin. The polarising emotions aroused by the executions of its leaders and subsequent repression would create, for Redmond, an atmosphere far less conducive to conciliation of unionism. The consequences would spell the ruin of his political career and the demise of the Irish Party within four years. For Ireland, they would bring disaster. The violence that seemed about to break out in July 1914 would erupt in several new, diverse and destructive forms. More than six thousand Irish people would have perished from it by the spring of 1923.
Dermot Meleady is the author of a two-volume biography of John Redmond, Redmond: The Parnellite (Cork University Press, 2008) and John Redmond: The National Leader (Merrion, 2013).