THE “DISLIKE” of Redmond for the Volunteers can easily be understood. With a family tradition of Parliamentarianism he had entered the House of Commons in January, 1881 at the time of the New Departure. He had seen a British Government converted to Home Rule and introducing a bill to that effect. That bill had been defeated in the Commons, but seven years later he had seen it passed by the Commons though then rejected by the Lords. Now, having seen great progress by the Nationalist take-over of the local government in 1898, the Land Act of 1903, the establishment of the National University in 1908, and—crowning victory—the vanquishing of the power of the House of Lords by the Parliament Act of 1910, here was the Liberal Government engaged in actually putting through a Home Rule Bill which was so reasonably certain of enactment that an approximate date for the opening of a Parliament in Dublin could be fixed. Throughout all this time the mere prospect of challenging a decision of the Mother of Parliaments ruling the greatest Empire the world had ever seen was simply unthinkable.
During those years he had endured criticism from within and without the Irish Party, the rivalry of the All For Ireland League, the challenge of Sinn Fein, and the “daily nagging of the Irish Independent newspaper”. He had survived all, and his careful patience now appeared to be vindicated as Home Rule marched steadily—well, fairly steadily—forward.
Into this situation had suddenly come an incredible challenge. Carson and his Orange men and women had loudly proclaimed that not only would they offer armed resistance to any attempt to apply the Home Rule Act to Ulster, but they would organise an Orange government independent of any British or Irish government, complete with Army, Civil Service, etc., etc.
And moreover supporting them they had the whole powerful Conservative Party of Great Britain, and the tentative backing of the German Kaiser whom Carson had visited and lunched with in August, 1913.
This new explosive situation required the most careful handling. Redmond was now the great constitutionalist; the Conservatives, the Orangemen, the Presbyterian Church, the (Protestant) Church of Ireland, the dukes and duchesses, they were the rebels. Surely the British Constitution was supreme? This display of physical force—whether mock or serious— could be disregarded. Just allow the law to take its course.
But, probably even more unexpected than the Orange movement, suddenly arose another physical force movement. It had started very quietly, its avowed aim was broad and vague, several of his supporters were among its leaders, there was nothing very spectacular about its progress, and few persons of prominence were lending their names. But it was a physical force movement, it was making good progress; though its aims were vague and its leadership middle and lower class it was of course recruiting the separatists, the many people who distrusted England, all who felt that they could not stand by and risk their brethren in Ulster being massacred, and the many who always only wanted a chance of striking a blow for freedom. All this was clearly detracting from his leadership. Obviously even from a practical point of view he must do something about it.
Redmond was not a separatist. Whatever about his Parnellite days he was now convinced that Ireland’s interests lay in being a self-governing state of the Empire or Commonwealth similar to Australia. His first wife was an Australian, his second wife an Englishwoman. Of necessity he lived a good deal in England, and while, of course, he observed the Party rule against entertainment by British political circles he had no doubt become affected by English life and he was somewhat out of touch with the Irish renaissance. His position as The Irish Leader was however unquestioned, and he felt no doubt that if the heads of the new movement did not accede to his demands he was in a position to effectively compel them.
Moreover he had to take into account the effect on England and on English political parties of this latest development. The avowed object of the Irish Volunteers “to secure and maintain the rights and liberties common to all the people of Ireland” could mean anything. It could mean that despite Redmond’s own declaration accepting the Home Rule Bill (for all Ireland) as a final settlement his Nationalist supporters were really aiming at Separation; and make him seem insincere. In 1913 the Liberal majority in Parliament over the Conservatives had vanished,—and this despite the tremendous social legislation of the Old Age Pensions and Health Insurance Acts. The enactment of Home Rule depended on the Liberal Government. With or without pressure from that Government he must show publicly that he was The Leader. Otherwise, on the plea that they had introduced it as a final settlement the Government could with justification drop it. And if this chance of Home Rule were lost when would another come? And in those days of the Empire’s greatness what real alternative was there to Parliamentarianism?
Whatever about his inclinations, position, or prestige, Redmond’s responsibilities were in fact, heavy. MacNeill, no doubt, saw the situation which was developing, and endeavoured to anticipate it by bringing in Redmond on his (MacNeill’s) terms. Redmond refused, and having failed to get privately the arrangement he wanted he issued his public statement which was, in effect, a challenge.
What is important, however, is to note that his policy about the Irish Volunteers during the first two months of World War I has been misunderstood and misrepresented.
His speech in the House of Commons on 3 August, 1914, did not in fact declare that Ireland should fight England’s battles on foreign fields. He clearly invited England to withdraw her troops from Ireland, and leave the defence of the country to Irishmen. In this he had the support not merely of the Home Rulers but of the separatists. It is significant, though now forgotten, that the Irish Volunteers immediately endorsed this proposal. His attitude remained unchanged for some weeks. It is unquestioned that by September, 1914, Redmond was so swept away by English enthusiasm for the war that he allowed himself to stump the country as a national recruiting sergeant for the British Army.
But an illuminating article by Colonel Lewis Comyn in this volume reveals that Redmond, far from being an enthusiast in early August, 1914, for Irish participation in the war, informed Lord Kitchener through General Bryan Mahon that he would co-operate with the War Office on condition that (a) the Volunteers would be exempted from taking an oath of allegiance to the English king, (b) they would not be bound to serve overseas.
All this is now forgotten, and it is assumed that Redmond’s later policy, as expressed in his extraordinary speech at Woodenbridge on 20 September, 1914, was his attitude from the beginning. This is to read history backwards.