The Death of Mr. Redmond

None the less, the joint Convention of the Hibernians and Covenanters assembled in Dublin on July 25th, amidst decorative surroundings that might well give a good-natured people like the Irish the impression that some great work of peace was on foot. The Convention held its sittings within the historic walls of Trinity College amidst the finest stage scenery the genial Provost, Dr. Mahaffy, could provide; a President of respectable neutrality was found in Sir Horace Plunkett; not a few single-minded Irishmen, with a nobler gift for peace and goodwill than for the mean realities of politics, were induced to join in attempting to elevate the assembly above the normal manoeuvres of the politicians; for months the country was permitted to hear of nothing but patriotic junketings and speeches, "passed by the Censor," overflowing with the raptures of "the Black Northerns" at the discovery of the charms of "the Sunny South," and corresponding responses from the Sunny South to the advances of the dour men of the Black North—all purely for exportation to "the U. S." As a precaution against any premature disclosure of the truth, the business meetings of the Convention were held in private, and any report of their secret sittings, any comment or even any "reference" to them in speech or newspaper was declared a crime under the Defence of the Realm Act. The impatience of the country was sought to be allayed by not over-candid assurances from Sir Horace Plunkett in his banquetting speeches from time to time that all was going well. "The U. S." had to be kept amused by such romantic scene-painting and by the band for many months before the curtain could finally be lifted and then only to exhibit the actors scurrying off the stage, like as many poor ghosts at cockcrow. The realities of the drama were going on in America itself, where England was playing for the soul of President Wilson. In the Ireland of real life the Volunteers were silently arming and drilling their battalions, paying but a contemptuous attention to the love-feasts of the politicians in Mr. Lloyd George's "Irish Convention."

Those who may have the curiosity to dip into the musty volumes of shorthand notes of the secret sittings will find that week after week, and month after month passed without any attempt to grapple with the real problem, which was to win over Ulster without Partition. Plenty of patriotic platitudes and overflowing, but the most studious determination on both sides not to come to business. It is one of the curious ironies of history that almost every speech at these secret sessions was one that might have been delivered from an All-for-Ireland platform any time for the five previous years. They were speeches of eager longing for the co-operation of Irishmen of every class, creed and racial origin; no longer a whisper of those exhortations to give "a dose of the old medicine" to "our hereditary enemies," the "rotten Protestants," and "the blackblooded Cromwellians" with which Hibernian oratory had for melancholy years resounded, Ah! welladay! had all these tardy speeches of abashed Hibernians and patriotic Southern Unionists of the Lord Midleton stamp only been delivered in the light of day and a few years before, how differently contemporary Irish history might have been written!

The explanation of the amorphous condition of the Convention was only too simple. A Partition Agreement could have been at any moment struck up by an overwhelming majority if the Hibernians could have plucked up courage to hark back to their Party's surrender of the Six Counties more than a year before. But the mobbing of Mr. Redmond outside Trinity College on the opening day, and the mobbing of Mr. Redmond and Mr. Devlin again in Cork (which was the only notice the young men deigned to take of their proceedings)—above all the recollection of the message of doom from East Clare, kept alive by the hints the unrepresentative majority were receiving every day of their lives of the indignation and contempt of their constituents—completely daunted the mass of the County Councillors and Town Councillors from following their Parliamentary leaders an inch further on the road to Partition.

When after five months' barren deliberations, the word was passed, now that "the U. S." was squared, that the Convention must somehow finish up, they found their heads bumped against a stone-wall, and could discover no way through it or over it except one which strikingly confirmed those who had urged a small Conference of Notables as the only practical means of working out a Settlement by Consent. What happened deserves to be recalled from the oblivion to which the rest of the proceedings of the Convention were deservedly condemned. The only approach to business of any kind they found practicable was to suspend the operations of the Convention proper altogether and to delegate their powers to a "Committee of Nine." It was excellent, or rather it would once have been. They forgot that their Committee of Nine was subject to two disabilities from which our Conference of ten or a dozen notables would have been free. They sat without any representative of Sinn Féin—that is to say of the only organisation which could speak for five-sixths of the Nationalists of the country; and the representatives of Ulster on the Committee of Nine were not free agents, but the nominees of an outside Orange tribunal, the Ulster Unionist Council, without whose imprimatur any agreement of theirs must be valueless. The practicability of the one plan, and the impracticability of the other were demonstrated in a still more remarkable manner. Two of the three representatives of Ulster on the Committee of Nine—Lord Londonderry and Mr. Hugh Barrie, M.P.—were actually two of those I had suggested as fit and proper persons in my Memo, to the Chief Secretary. They justified the confidence in their conciliatory temper and large-mindedness so well that, whenever the secrets of the council-chamber come to be revealed, I have the best reason to know it will be found that the three representatives of Ulster (the third being a lawyer of enormous influence in the North, Mr. McDowell) so long as they were left free to act on their own judgment, collaborated cordially with the remainder of the Committee of Nine in formulating an agreement which under happier stars might have developed into a benign National Settlement. But under the constitution of Mr. Lloyd George's Convention, the three Ulster representatives were made cyphers in their own province. No sooner had they submitted their conditional agreement to Sir E. Carson's occult Vigilance Committee, who were the real masters of the Convention, than their partiality for any agreement other than Partition was pitilessly snubbed, and the Committee of Nine was doomed to barrenness and failure as had been the plenary Convention.[41]

A rebuff like this ought in all honesty to have been the signal for the dissolution of the Convention; but they "kept on talking" for other weeks and months to come, until America was duly afloat for the scene of war, and a number of worthy men who had been formed into Sub-Committees gravely pursued their investigations into the Land Purchase question, and the Irish Mines and Minerals question, and administered good cheer to weak minds by propounding a pious opinion against Conscription. The only affectation of real life left to the Convention was the attempt of Mr. William Martin Murphy, after the Committee of Nine had been reduced to nothingness, to wind up the Convention to a declaration for Dominion Home Rule. Quite a hopeless enterprise, it is true, and one, curiously enough, in which he was obstructed with persistency by the Chairman, Sir Horace Plunkett, who later on was to found a Dominion Home Rule League all his own, as though he were the original patentee of the specific, but who now (as Mr. Murphy more than once confided to me) engineered the latter out of every endeavour to submit the subject squarely to the Convention. The iron will of Mr. Murphy, which did not bend before "Jim Larkin" when his tyranny was at its height, was not to be easily broken. Standing alone in the beginning in an assembly which did not love him, his stubbornness was not long in securing the adhesion of the two most formidable men in Mr. Redmond's Hibernian majority. The time had come when no Hibernian durst whisper "Partition" above his breath. Mr. Devlin must have become sensible already that he had got down at the wrong side of the fence. He never afterwards quite forgave Mr. Dillon for the unlucky lead which induced the Hibernian Grand Master to stake his future as the prime mover of the Belfast Convention at which he had succeeded in thrusting the Partition agreement down the throats of the Nationalists of the Six Counties. He now made a desperate attempt to refill the sails of his popularity by joining Mr. Murphy and proclaiming himself for nothing short of Dominion Home Rule. His example was imitated, or more likely dictated, by Dr. O'Donnell, the Bishop of Raphoe, who had long been the most ambitious politician in the ranks of the Hierarchy. It was he whose patronage gave the Board of Erin wing of the Ancient Order of Hibernians its first foothold in Ireland, and he, too, who took a principal part in establishing its supremacy as the real governing power in Ireland. His Lordship had realized earlier than some of his venerable Brethren that Partition was no longer a viable policy, at least in the North. During the last months of the Convention he, like Mr. Devlin, transferred his allegiance to the Dominion Home Rule programme of Mr. William Martin Murphy, and left Mr. Redmond in a state of tragic isolation.

The story is a pitiful one of desertion by the Hibernians and a fresh act of faithlessness by Mr. Lloyd George. He had already been guilty of one breach of faith with the Convention. He pledged himself at the outset to carry into law any decision which might secure a "substantial agreement" among its members. He afterwards sat dumbly by while Mr. Bonar Law in his name cancelled that pledge by announcing that any "substantial agreement" must include the Ulster group to be of any avail. The Prime Minister was now to commit a still more impudent breach of the undertaking on which the Convention was brought together. The Government, he stated in the House of Commons, proposed to summon the Convention "to submit to the British Government a Constitution for the future government of Ireland within the Empire." No sooner was it reported to him that Mr. Murphy's push for Dominion Home Rule was making formidable progress among Mr. Redmond's Hibernians than on February 25th, 1918, he wrote a public letter addressed to Sir Horace Plunkett, repudiating the freedom of the Convention to frame what Constitution it pleased "within the Empire," and declaring categorically that the British Government must in any event reserve Customs and Excise, which was the quintessence of the fiscal freedom of the Dominions.

The blow was well calculated to break up the last hope of uniting even Mr. Redmond's majority in any National Agreement worth the cost of printing it. A majority for Dominion Home Rule would have been a purely platonic performance in any case, since "substantial agreement" even of the friendly Southern Unionists, not to speak of the Northerns, was out of the question; Mr. Lloyd George's new breach of faith, ruling Customs and Excise out of the discussion, shattered the Hibernian block itself into smithereens, between those who adhered to Mr. Redmond, and those who deserted to Mr. William Martin Murphy. Lord Midleton and his Southern Unionists were willing to join Mr. Redmond in a compromise by which Excise would be conceded at once to the Irish Parliament and Customs would be temporarily reserved—a compromise which Mr. Lloyd George would, no doubt, have gratefully closed with.[42] Mr. Redmond's conclusion would seem to have been that a division in which the Southern Unionists and the Nationalists of every hue would be found voting together for a large measure of freedom for an undivided Ireland would at least be a more creditable end for a Convention in any event doomed to be an abortive one, than a catchpenny minority vote for a full Dominion Home Rule, rejected beforehand by the Prime Minister and frankly despised by the country. The resolution, in which his final effort for a united decision was to be made, substantially asked the country to go back to the Policy of Conciliation from which he had been driven, sorely against his own balanced judgment, by the revolt of Mr. Dillon and the Freeman's Journal against the Land Conference Settlement. But the union of Irishmen of all schools and classes which would have been the most practicable of practical politics then was by this time fatally forbidden by the uprise of the Hibernian ascendancy and by the alarms of an armed Ulster whose worst passions that ascendancy had kindled from ashes into a blaze. Moreover, the moderate terms of settlement which nearly all Irish Nationalists would have welcomed with sincerity then, as containing the germs of Freedom in its happiest efflorescence, had now become irretrievably out of date in the eyes of a young generation who had experienced little but impotence from Irish politicians and deception from British ones, in the interval. The unkindest stab of all was that, in his last stand, and in a state of health when Death was visibly overshadowing him, the Irish leader found himself deserted by the self-same men who had goaded him into forsaking the Policy of 1903, and were striving desperately now to atone for the consequences of Hibernianism by opening a fresh chapter of deceit as converts to a Dominion Home Rule declared by their old idol, Mr. Lloyd George, to be a phantom. Captain Stephen Gwynn in his book John Redmond's last years gives a moving picture of the final scene. So does Mr. Ronald McNeill in his Ulster's Stand for the Union. As the description of the official historiographers on both sides are in pretty nearly identical terms, their narratives may henceforth be accepted as settled history, and can be studied with profit side by side.

Captain Gwynn's version.

"I met Redmond on the night of January 14th. He had seen no one in these ten days. He told me that he was still uncertain what would happen, but asked me to get one of the leading Co. Councillors to second his motion. Next morning I came in half an hour before the meeting to find the man I wanted. When I met him he was full of excitement and said: 'Something has gone wrong; the men are all saying they must vote against Redmond.' Then it was evident that propaganda had been busy to some purpose.

"When Redmond came into his place I said: 'It's all right, Martin McDonagh will second your motion.' He answered with a characteristic brusqueness: 'He needn't trouble; I am not going to move it, Devlin and the Bishops are voting against me.'

"He rose immediately the chairman was in his place. 'The amendment which I have on the paper,' he said, 'embodies the deliberate advice I give to the Convention. I consulted no one, and could not do so, being ill. It stands on record on my sole responsibility. Since entering the building I have heard that some very important Nationalist representatives are against this course—the Catholic Bishops, Mr. Devlin and others. I must face the situation, at which I am surprised, and I regret it. If I proceeded I should probably carry my point on a division, but the Nationalists would be divided. Such a division would not carry out the objects I have in view, therefore, I must avoid pressing my motion. But I leave it standing upon the paper. Others will give their advice. I feel that I can be of no further service to the Convention and will, therefore, not move.'

"There was a pause of consternation. The Chairman intervened and the debate proceeded and was carried on through the week. . . . No one can overstate the effect of this episode. Redmond's personal ascendancy in the Convention had become very great. . . . The Ulstermen had more than once expressed their view that if Home Rule were sure to mean Redmond's rule, their objection to it would be materially lessened. Now they saw Redmond thrown over, and by a combination in which the Clerical ascendancy, so much distrusted by them, was paramount."

Mr. Ronald M'Neill's Version.

"For some time Mr. Redmond had given the impression of being a tired man who had lost his wonted driving-force. He took little or no part in the lobbying and canvassing that was constantly going on behind the scenes in the Convention; he appeared to be losing grip as a leader. But he cannot be blamed for his anxiety to come to terms with Lord Midleton; and when he found, no doubt greatly to his surprise, that a Unionist leader was ready to abandon Unionist principle and to accept Dominion Home Rule for Ireland, subject to a single reservation on the subject of Customs, he naturally jumped at it and assumed that his followers would do the same.

"But while Mr. Redmond had been losing ground, the influence of the Catholic Bishop of Raphoe had been on the increase, and that able and astute prelate was entirely opposed to the compromise on which Mr. Redmond and Lord Midleton were agreed. On the evening of the 14th of January it came to the knowledge of Mr. Redmond that when the question came up for discussion next day, he would find Mr. Devlin, his principal lieutenant, in league with the ecclesiastics against him. . . . There was an atmosphere of suppressed excitement when the Chairman took his seat on the 15th. Mr. Redmond entered a few seconds later and took his usual place without betraying the slightest sign of disturbed equanimity. The Bishop of Raphoe strode past him, casting to left and right swift challenging glances. Mr. Devlin slipped quietly into his seat beside the leader he had thrown over, without a word or gesture of greeting. . . A minute or so of tense pause ensued. Then Mr. Redmond rose, and in a perfectly even voice and his usual measured diction, stated that he was aware that his proposal was repudiated by many of his usual followers, that the Bishops were against him and some leading Nationalists, including Mr. Devlin; that while he believed if he persisted he would have a majority, the result would be to split his party, a thing he wished to avoid; and that he had therefore decided not to proceed with his amendment and under these circumstances felt he could be of no further use to the Convention in the matter. For a minute or two the assembly could not grasp the full significance of what had happened. Then it broke upon them that this was the fall of a notable leader. . . . Mr. Redmond took no further part in the work of the Convention; his health was failing and the members were startled by the news of his death on the 6th of March."

John Redmond did, indeed, quit the Convention Hall never to return. He had been suffering from an inward disease against which, in any case, he could not have struggled much longer. But if ever an Irish leader died of a broken heart (as, woful to confess, is the normal penalty attached to the distinction), it may with truth be said that John Redmond died of Mr. Lloyd George's "Irish Convention," composed in the main of his own partisans, and that the tragedy is the only practical result—so far as Ireland is concerned—for which that ill-omened body will be remembered. The ghastly attempt to prolong the sittings for some weeks after his death, and to juggle with the figures of the divisions so as to represent that something like a sub-majority vote of the majority had been engineered, fell absolutely flat in a country where the Convention only escaped aversion by perishing of contempt. "Ulster" stood precisely where she did, on the rock of a Partition sanctioned by Ireland's own "Nationalist" representatives, and these worthies, split up between those who would have clung to Mr. Redmond, and those who dismissed him to his deathbed, were united only in the destruction which overtook the entire body of 70 members of the Convention (with one solitary exception) as soon as their constituencies got the opportunity of settling accounts with them at the General Elections, Parliamentary and Local. Mr. Dillon, who had been all along the masked leader, now became the responsible leader of "The Party," but it was only to officiate as chief mourner at its funeral.

For Mr. Lloyd George the Convention was not so barren of results. "Ireland might starve but great George weighed twenty stone." Ireland was duped, and John Redmond in his grave, but Great Britain was throbbing with the sight of the United States despatching her soldiers in millions to the rescue of England. The Prime Minister had one other memorable satisfaction. On April 9th, 1918, the day on which the "Report" of the Convention was submitted to the Cabinet, and without (as he confessed) doing the unfortunate document the courtesy of reading it, he announced that his word to Ireland was to be broken again, and that Conscription was to be imposed upon Ireland in violation of his solemn promise to the contrary.

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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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