Irish Liberty, British Democracy: A book on the history of Home Rule… but not as we know it

John Bruton says a new book challenges much of the recent historical assessment of the 1910-14 crisis and draws analogies to the recent politics of Brexit

Anyone who has been following the politics of Brexit in Westminster, and in Northern Ireland, for the last three years will find much that is familiar in this book. As I read it, I kept seeing analogies with events of the last six months.

The author, who is American, minutely analyses how the UK political system coped with similarly intractable difficulties more than 100 years ago. In doing so, he draws on his recent doctoral thesis on relations between the Herbert Asquith-led Liberal government and the Irish Party.

He contends that Lloyd George, and some in the Liberal leadership, were surreptitiously contemplating doing business with the Tories as early as 1910, specifically to avoid having to rely on the Irish Party and to introduce Home Rule.

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He says Irish Party leader John Redmond successfully thwarted this possibility because of the influence he had built up with Liberal and Labour backbenchers. He had won their support because he was able to identify the cause of Home Rule for Ireland, with the wider cause of British democracy. He insisted on the supremacy of the elected House of Commons over the unelected House of Lords. Keir Hardie, the veteran Labour leader, said Redmond was “fighting the battle of British Radicalism as well as of Irish Nationalism”.

Home Rule for Ireland had only been forced on to the Westminster agenda in 1910 because there was a hung parliament, in which the Liberal Party could not pass their radical redistributive budget without the support of the Irish MPs.

The Irish Party insisted, in return for its support, on the abolition of the House of Lords veto on legislation. It knew the Tory majority in the House of Lords would veto Home Rule. As with Brexit in 2019, packing the Lords with newly appointed peers, and the prorogation of parliament, were both contemplated in the 1911/ 1914 period.

Doherty shows that removing the House of Lords veto cleared the way for other democratic reforms, like the granting of votes to all men without property qualification, votes to women over 30, and the abolition of “plural voting”, whereby property owners could vote in several constituencies in the same election. The latter was worth 15 to 20 extra seats to the Tories.

In pressing for parliamentary reform, the Irish Party was following the path of Daniel O’Connell, who had been a major protagonist in the Reform of the House of Commons in the 1830s.

Doherty also contends that the permanent partition of Ireland was not inevitable. He shows that Irish Unionist leader Edward Carson himself did not believe in partition, and would have preferred Irish unity on a basis that protected Irish unionists, north and south.

Doherty argues that more assertive policing could have contained Ulster Unionist resistance. The Larne gun running in 1914 and the threat by Carson and James Craig to set up a provisional government in Belfast to resist Home Rule, was not met with resolution by the authorities.

This Ulster resistance could have run out of steam. A collapse of credit in Ulster was already in prospect because of political uncertainty and there were real doubts about whether an illegal provisional “Ulster” government would have had the administrative capacity to erect barriers against the rest of Ireland. But all this is impossible to prove.

In any event, Redmond wanted consent, not coercion. And getting Home Rule into operation first, even with limitations, was his overriding priority. In his endeavour to win consent, he was prepared to accept the initial exclusion of some parts of Ulster from Home Rule, but on a temporary basis, and with plebiscites in each county.

In county plebiscites, it was assumed that Catholic majority counties of Tyrone and Fermanagh would have opted into Home Rule immediately. That would have left only four counties temporarily excluded. Four counties might not have made a viable unit, and their accession to Home Rule might have come about gradually.

While Redmond did not properly prepare public opinion in the rest of Ireland for the compromises he needed to make with Ulster Unionism, his successors ignored the problem altogether.

In his reaction to the political emergency created by the unexpected outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, Redmond’s priority was to get Home Rule on to the statute book and leave the exclusion of possibly four or six counties to be dealt with later.

That is why he agreed to the operation of Home Rule being suspended for a short year or more because he wanted more time and space to persuade Ulster Unionists to accept and opt into it. That is also why he publicly called on Irish Volunteers to join the British army. Carson had already called for it on September 3, 1914. Redmond did so on September 20 in his speech at Woodenbridge.

The author shows that this speech was a carefully planned move, not something spontaneous. It was designed to persuade Ulster Unionists that Nationalist Ireland was not their antagonist, and could be trusted.

The prolongation of the war, the refusal of Redmond’s request for a distinct Irish Division in the British army, the 1916 Rebellion, and the rise in support for Sinn Féin and for outright separatism, all combined to destroy the sort of compromise Redmond had in mind.

This is a rewarding book and is full of new material.

The material is assembled around different themes rather than chronologically. It challenges much of the recent historical assessments of the 1910 to 1914 period.

It deserves to be read widely and argued over because many of the issues with which it deals remain unresolved to this day.

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