How the All-For-Ireland League became a Necessity (1910)

The All-for-Ireland League was founded on March 31, 1910. For seven years after the revolt of Mr. Dillon and the Freeman against the authorized National Policy in 1903 we had struggled on as best we might without any separate national organization of our own and in the face of a hostile Press which prevented the greater part of the country from reading anything except monstrous misrepresentations of our arguments, so far as our words were not suppressed altogether. We did so in the hope that the incapacity of the revolters to produce any practical policy of their own and the amazing progress of the abolition of landlordism in those counties where our advice had been followed would gradually influence "The Party" to return to the Policy of appeasement to which they had, with a single exception, pledged themselves in 1903. Public opinion did, in fact, compel "The Party" to accept, with a few verbal alterations, the conditions which I suggested in a speech in Wexford in 1907 as those on which the Party might be reunited, and these conditions, embodied in a formal Treaty at the Mansion House Conference at which Mr. Redmond and Bishop O'Donnell acted on the one part and Father James Clancy and myself on the other, beyond all question re-pledged the Party "cordially to welcome that co-operation of Irishmen of all classes and creeds" which was the essence of the National Policy of 1903. Had that reunion been followed up in true democratic fashion, by referring the Treaty to a National Convention, for endorsement or otherwise, nobody was in less doubt than Mr. Dillon that the reunion would have become a genuine one from which no factionist would henceforth dare to break away.

His successful opposition to the holding of a National Convention was the first symptom of how he regarded the Treaty to which he submitted without one gracious word. He and his followers next proceeded, at a private meeting of the Party, to violate the Treaty in its essence, by voting down by 42 votes to 15 a proposal to welcome the co-operation of the landlord organization in defeating the Treasury Bill by which the great Act of 1903 was eventually repealed and Land Purchase killed. Once more—his necessities, not his will, consenting—Mr. Redmond sat silent in the chair while the Treaty, to which his was the first signature, was torn to tatters under his eyes. Mr. Dillon's next step, in his new campaign of disruption, was to direct Mr. Asquith and Mr. Birrell—as the most charitable must conclude it was he alone who could have directed them—to refuse upon an infantile pretext to receive the most representative deputation who ever went out of Munster—a deputation representing the united strength of the landlord and tenant class, of the members of Parliament and elective Councils of the South—the very incarnation of that co-operation of Irishmen of all ranks and religious professions which the Treaty of Reunion declared to be the best hope of the nation. Even that elementary constitutional right of remonstrance with the Government who were planning the destruction of Land Purchase must be denied with insult to the representatives of the people by a Home Rule Prime Minister who was at the same moment giving an effusive hearing to a deputation from the Scottish liquor trade on the subject of the whiskey duties. Violation number two of the Treaty of Reunion on which Mr. Healy and myself and five of our colleagues had been fraudulently lured back to the Party.

My growing feeling that it was no longer possible to remain associated with a Party so faithless to the nation and to their colleagues was decided once for all by the infamous extinction of free speech at "The Baton Convention" (February 9, 1909). The question to be debated was nothing less than whether the English Treasury was to be relieved from the most favourable financial bargain ever secured for Ireland, and relieved by the connivance, and even by the votes, of Ireland's own representatives. Upon a question of the first magnitude such as this freedom of speech was crushed with the strong hand by a band of Hibernians, armed with revolvers, who were imported by special train from Belfast, and marched to the Mansion House in military order, where they took possession of every approach to the Convention Hall, while the interior of the Hall was occupied by another force of batonmen, paid 10s. a day for their services, who were armed with boxwood batons of the type used by the police, attached to the wrists of the men who wielded them by leathern thongs. Two-thirds of the assembly even as sifted through the Hibernian turnstiles were honest agriculturists eager to hear both sides of a debate on which the hope of emancipation of hundreds of thousands of their class was hanging. The others were, to put it bluntly, armed ruffians, town-bred and knowing no more of the merits or demerits of the Birrell Repealing Bill under discussion than most of us do of the laws of relativity. Their job was to prevent one connected sentence from any opponent of the Birrell Bill reaching the straining ears of the assembly in general, and this they did by the yells of savages, and where the yells did not suffice, by swinging their batons and producing their revolvers and assaulting everybody "with a Cork accent" who made bold to utter a word of remonstrance. By enlightened methods such as these, they stifled almost every syllable of a speech from myself which, it is quite safe to say, would now be read by all disinterested Irishmen as an argument of common-sense so obvious as to be commonplace and as a forewarning of the national misfortune which has since slain Land Purchase by Irish hands. My amendment was: "That any Bill based on the lines of the Birrell Land Bill of last Session must lead to the stoppage of Land Purchase for an indefinite number of years in the interest of the British Treasury and impose an intolerable yearly penalty upon those tenant-purchasers whose purchase money the Treasury has failed to provide." I wonder if even the rudest of the disturbers at the Baton Convention or of their employers could now read that amendment without a pang of remorse.

My observations pointing out how easily the Treasury Bill might even still be defeated by that "co-operation of Irishmen of all classes and creeds to complete the abolition of Landlordism," which the Party had in solemn words pledged themselves "cordially to welcome" as the condition of the Reunion, were received with still more ferocity when seconded by Father James Clancy, my colleague at the Conference by which the Treaty of Reunion, now cast to the winds, was subscribed by Mr. Redmond and his Party under every condition that could bind men of honour. The arrival of Mr. Healy on the platform was the final signal for closuring instantly, and amidst a scene of deafening confusion a debate in which not a single sentence of protest was suffered to be heard against the English Treasury Bill. Its nominal adoption by the Baton Convention sentenced over a hundred thousand Irish tenants from that day to this to servitude in the toils of landlordism in order to enable the English Treasury to realise a dishonest economy and to gratify the spleen of two or three politicians against the Land Conference and against the Wyndham Act of 1903 which was its fruit.[9] If the Hibernian Party committed no other evil deed against Ireland, students of the record of the Baton Convention will, I think, agree that the foul business was in itself sufficient to make its organizers worthy politically to die the death, and will only wonder how the execution of the sentence could have been so long delayed.

My withdrawal from the Party and from Parliament followed the Baton Convention. My dislike—it might with truth be said aversion—to Parliamentary life went to unreasonable lengths, but it was ineradicable. The feeling was deepened to a point almost beyond bearing by recent contact with the meannesses which, I suppose, infest the underworld of politics in every country. But by a curious turn of destiny, it took me more time and pains to secure my escape for good from the English Parliament than it takes (and legitimately takes) the average British citizen to gain admission to it; and this time again the one thing unforeseeable happened to drag me miserably back. Before retiring in shattered health to Florence, where I spent the next nine months without seeing an Irish paper, I had implored my friends in Cork to put a summary end to all controversy by accepting in my place any candidate the Hibernian Party might please to nominate, and had specially enjoined the fifteen Parliamentary colleagues who shared my views to make no farther protest that could trouble the smooth working of the Party. A very little tact, not to say decent feeling, on the part of the triumphant Party managers, would have delivered them from any further anxiety.

Their notion of tact was to press on the people of Cork the candidate of all others who was most offensive to the majority of them, and because he was the most offensive—Mr. George Crosbie, the owner of the Cork Examiner, who had gone over with his paper to the Hibernians and turned its guns with all the renegade's zeal against the policy and the men he believed in, so far as genuine patriotic belief he had any.[10] It was too severe a trial for poor human nature. The people of Cork insisted on rejecting the renegade and elected Mr. Maurice Healy, a man remarkable for his sobriety of judgment and of first-rate intellectual rank, who had not for years interfered in any public controversy, and had no objection to taking the pledge to act faithfully with the Party. With an insolent folly for which even the Baton Convention had not prepared the public, the Party Managers refused to admit to the Party the elected representative of the people of Cork, and from that day forth addressed themselves with all their might to undermine in their constituencies the members of the Conciliationist Minority, who still remained in the Party, to organize their expulsion from public life at the approaching General Election, and in the meantime to starve them out by cutting off their Parliamentary indemnity from the National Funds—an indemnity to which the humblest member of the Party had, according to the terms on which the Funds had been collected, as just a title as Mr. Redmond or Mr. Devlin. It was not pretended that any one of these men contemplated revolt against the sternest discipline of the Party. They voted steadily with the Hibernian majority for the Birrell Bill, well though they knew the result must be the destruction of Land Purchase, but knew also that it was not they, but the Hibernian majority, who were the violators of the Treaty of Reunion which pledged the entire Party to an opposite course. The Board of Erin used their power without pity, and their victims, as it seemed, had no friends. It was not merely against my more intimate friends their thumbs were turned down; every member of the minority who had voted for the observance of the Treaty of Reunion, even Mr. Tim Harrington, the Lord Mayor of Dublin—one of the foremost of nation-builders all his lifetime, now a stricken veteran in ruined health—was threatened in his own constituency in Dublin, solely because he had declined, as one of the members of the Land Conference, to recant principles to which he had, most inoffensively but steadfastly, held true. The constituencies of all the rest of the minority were flooded with Hibernian organizers, the people plied with calumnious whispers, and with ready-made resolutions of censure, and every appetite of corruption was set on edge for the innumerable jobs and dignities, the disposal of which was the only advantage the Party had been able to gain for Ireland during the first Parliament of the Liberal Ministry.

As the General Election approached, it was the anguish of hearing such news poured into my ears by faithful and self-sacrificing Irishmen, now defenceless, without organization or funds against their cruel enemies, which forced me and alone could have forced me to turn my eyes again to Irish affairs. I pointed out in vain to my correspondents in Ireland that any permanent cure must be a more radical one. The gradual discovery how the people had been tricked into the destruction of Land Purchase—the one sinister legislative achievement of "The Party"—was changing the public feeling from trustfulness to indignation, while the dozens of squalid family quarrels over the seats of the doomed members were spreading demoralization and decay by a process which had only to be allowed to proceed to bring the whole sordid tyranny to its appointed end. My return to the scene would, as had happened before, only give the Board of Erin a further respite by enabling them to turn away the attention of the country from their own dissensions by raising anew their odious sham battle-cries of "Unity!" and "Majority Rule!" The answer was that I alone stood between my friends and annihilation at the polls. To that appeal there could be but one answer. Just as I was struggling to my feet after a wearing illness of many months, my wife and myself left Florence in a train in which we were the only passengers on a forlorn night in December, with the still more forlorn feelings of a pair of escaped slaves recaptured and going back in chains to the Plantation.

What happened after our arrival in Ireland has already been related (An Olive Branch in Ireland, Chapter XXII.), and need not detain us here. Enough that the fourteen men marked down for vengeance were one and all returned to Parliament and the cabal overthrown and disgraced. And to the comic surprise of the statesmen of the Board of Erin, the spirit they had summoned from the dead remained to haunt their banquet-tables and to pursue them to their Dunsinane. All we claimed now, or had claimed all along, was liberty of the platform and of the Press to submit to our countrymen opinions to which the only marvel of Irishmen of intelligence nowadays is how their wisdom could ever have been doubted. But the lesson of the General Election was the utter defencelessness of public liberty without some form of organization for mutual protection. The Hibernian Party thought to avenge their humiliations at the polls by excluding from their ranks the representatives of every constituency which had declined to obey their mandat d'élire and refusing them the Parliamentary indemnity for the payment of which the national funds in their custody had been subscribed. Even unfortunate Mr. Ginnell, who had never failed to follow the Party Whip into the Division lobbies, was by physical violence ejected from their meeting-place for suggesting a public audit of their funds, and a band of stalwarts was organized to give the same shrift to the rest of us, should we present ourselves for admission. But they need not have been perturbed. They had made their company impossible for men of honour. It was resolved to form, under the name of the All-for-Ireland League, a National organization, broad-based enough to embrace men of every denomination and school of Self-Government from the most moderate to the most advanced, for the cultivation of a National Unity higher and more sacred than the trade unity of any Party. The new movement was based upon those principles of "Conference, Conciliation, and Consent," which the Irish Party and the country had made their own in 1903 by every vow that could bind them—which had been re-affirmed by the violated Treaty of Reunion in 1908—and which the reaction against a narrow Party tyranny already beginning to stir the country was bound to restore ultimately as the programme of a united nation. The resolution by which the All-for-Ireland League was established propounded as its primary aim "the union and active co-operation in every department of our national life of all Irishmen and women who believe in the principle of domestic self-government for Ireland," and for the accomplishment of its object declared: "We believe the surest means to be a combination of all the elements of the Irish population in a spirit of mutual tolerance and patriotic good-will such as shall guarantee to the Protestant minority of our fellow-countrymen, inviolable security for all their rights and liberties, and win the friendship, of the people of Great Britain, without distinction of Party."

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The Irish Revolution

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William O'Brien was a County Cork M.P. who participated in the negotiations for Home Rule in Ireland. In this account, first published in 1923, he provides an insight into the politics and politicians of the time - John Redmond, John Dillon, Arthur Griffith, Sir Edward Carson, Bonar Law, Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, etc. - and gives his analysis of the origins of the Easter Rising of 1916 and the subsequent Irish Civil War. From his own perspective, O'Brien was very much anti-Partition, and was evidently frustrated at the failure to give adequate reassurance to the Northern Unionists.

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