The First Shadow of Partition

The first emergence in the Home Rule debates of Partition—or "Exclusion," as the gods called it in those days—as an alternative policy was made on January 1, 1913, when Sir E. Carson moved as an amendment on the Report stage that the province of Ulster be excluded from the operation of the Bill. The Hibernian Party and the more unreflecting of their Radical and Labour allies were still in the heyday of their confidence that the opposition in Ulster was matter for laughter rather than for graver treatment. They had just been spending the last days in Committee in boisterous merriment at the expense of "the bluffers" and "the wooden gunmen." It was about as statesmanlike a proceeding as Mr. Winston Churchill's abortive torchlight procession in Belfast. When the Ulster leader rose to move his amendment, they were ready with a new outburst of somewhat rowdyish horseplay. Sir E. Carson began his speech with a remarkable success in putting their merriment to shame. "I hope," he said, "we may dispense with the holiday hilarity with which our proceedings have been carried on. I have no wish to offend these gentlemen, but I really think they do not yet understand the seriousness with which Ulster Unionists regard these matters. If they stood in my place they would resent as much and a great deal more the kind of treatment my friends and myself have been receiving for the last two days from gentlemen who think they can turn these discussions into a joke." Things had not yet reached the stage at which he could commit himself to the precise form the resistance of the Covenanters would take, or even pledge himself very definitely to take part in it in person. The omission gave point to his complaint that "no attempt had been made to conciliate them or to avert the greatest constitutional disaster that ever threatened this House." In other words, the time for some rational compromise was not even yet overpassed, and it was remarked that his speech contained scarcely a reference to the exclusion of the province of Ulster as his last word in the way of accommodation. But, with the cold solemnity with which he might pronounce a sentence of death, he left no doubt as to his own conviction that the Ulster Unionists would be right in their resistance, and that in that resistance "they would have the Unionists of Great Britain at their back." From the Unionist benches there came an underswell of deep assent more impressive than if they had got on their feet to yell, and the rest of the House was quelled into a hush in which the most thoughtless recognized almost with awe that a solemn thing had been spoken. There was no longer a mouse stirring on the Hibernian or Radical benches. Sir E. Carson in his blunt-headed way improved the impression by challenging the Chief Secretary from his own sources of information to deny the magnitude of the preparations that were being made for resistance. The blameless Birrell, like Brer Rabbit (in those days much quoted), "lay low and said nuffin." Then he tackled the Prime Minister with a question which again had an awful ring in the hushed House "whether he and his colleagues would go out through England and explain this Bill and would announce that if Ulster refused to accept it and claimed to remain as she was her resistance would be put down by force?" The speaker, whose usual contempt for perorations equalled that of a pork-butcher for poetry, nevertheless stumbled upon a most dramatic peroration on this occasion, without seeming to know it. He wound up with a passage from the American Declaration of Independence making a last appeal against their ill-treatment by the Home Government. He suddenly stopped short where the colonists announced their decision to take up arms, and with the words: "I will read no further so long as there is yet time to avert a similar disaster," he sat down.

Mr. Asquith, always keenly—perhaps too keenly—responsive to any electric influence in his environment, and always ready with noble words to voice the emotions of the House in its finer moods, began with a tribute of subdued homage to the gravity of the occasion, which must have wounded the giddy scoffers and jeerers of an hour before in his own ranks more deeply than Carson's sharpest stings had done. He bowed down before "the spirit of seriousness so admirably exhibited" by the leader of the Covenanters, and "neither sought to ignore nor to minimise the magnitude of the danger" about which the merriment of the statesmen of the Board of Erin had hardly died away. Better than that, he seemed to counter Sir E. Carson's challenge with one that sounded more boldly still. He demanded "whether if the Bill was submitted to the British electorate, and approved, Ulster would still resist and whether the Unionist Party would be still behind them?" and intimated that he "would not be afraid to submit that issue to the British people." But what issue? If his proposal was to go to the country on a Bill containing generous concessions to Ulster—such as afterwards would have been offered on bended knees—nothing could have been wiser statesmanship or even safer tactics. But his speech contained no hint of a single definite satisfaction to Ulster feeling: the Bill was at its last stage, and unless altered now must remain unalterable or be lost. Mr. Asquith was still thinking only of a party issue, and not of a national settlement by consent. And his weakness was that, upon the unamended Bill, he knew his Party managers shrank from appealing to the British electorate, and had no intention of doing so.

That weakness Mr. Bonar Law was not slow to fasten upon. He made a clever answer to Mr. Asquith's challenge, but one vitiated by the fact that it was no less a party answer. By all means, let the Government submit the Bill to the country: he could not speak for Ulster; but so far as his own attitude was concerned, as leader of the Opposition, it would make all the difference. If it were done and the country approved, the Unionist Party "would not in any shape or form encourage the resistance of Ulster." The pledge was a complete response to the Government's ostensible offer to go to the country; for it was the support of the Unionist Party which was the breath of life of the Ulster resistance, and, that support once withdrawn, nobody suggested that the threats of armed rebellion would any longer be persisted in anywhere outside the least responsible Orange taprooms. The trick was that he knew the Government were not going to amend the Bill, and that on a Bill offering no concessions to Ulster the Government were bound to be beaten, and would therefore not face the electorate. A poor party game of shuttlecock on both sides, and one in which the Government fared the worst, for the General Election which would have been expediency as well as statesmanship with a Bill bravely amended would have spelled sure defeat with the unamended one, and no more was heard from the Treasury Bench of Mr. Asquith's incautious challenge. Instead, the irruption of Mr. Winston Churchill, not yet weaned from the Belfast torchlight procession spirit as the cure for Irish ills, brought the debate back from one of grave reasonableness to the old scenes of disorder, recriminations and provocations. One momentous avowal of the Opposition leader, indeed, deserved the worst that could be said of it, and was destined to bear a bloodstained responsibility for its share in screwing up the courage of the German Kaiser to the World-War.

"It is a fact," coolly observed Mr. Bonar Law, "which I do not think anyone who knows anything about Ireland will deny, that these people in the North-East of Ireland, from old prejudices, perhaps, more than from anything else, would prefer, I believe, to accept the government of a foreign country rather than submit to be governed by hon. members below the gangway."

Mr. Churchil was justified in noticing, as the Kaiser, we may be sure, did not fail to notice, this extraordinary statement of the Unionist leader "that the loyalists of Ulster would rather be annexed to a foreign country than continue their allegiance to the Crown," dotting the i's by adding: "This, then, is the latest Tory threat, that the loyalists of Ulster would prefer to be annexed to Germany than accept the constitution under the British Crown which this Bill would give them." It was a palpable hit—so palpable that he was not permitted to finish another sentence on the subject in the roar of blind fury that overswept the Opposition benches. There, however, was the astounding fact, and it was not explained away, but aggravated, by Mr. Bonar Law's sorry distinguo that he "had quoted what he believed to be a fact, without either approval or disapproval." The honest Tory squires might bellow till they cracked their cheeks: the avowal stood on everlasting record, as a test of the worth of Ulster's "loyalty," and of the scruples of Unionist politicians, to be treasured in Baron von Kühlman's note-book and laid up in the young hearts professing no allegiance to any but Ireland, who were already dreaming of improving upon the Ulster example in the ranks of the Irish Republican Army.

It was the last discussion of any practical value before the Bill received its Third Reading early in 1913 in its unchanged, and consequently unchangeable, original form. Far from making any advance towards reconciliation with Ulster, the final debate made two disclosures of sinister import for the Irish Cause. Mr. Asquith revealed that a General Election there would have to be, in any event, before the Act could be put in operation, thereby cruelly putting an end to the delusion under which the Hibernian leaders had enabled the Government to pass the Parliament Act—viz., that its passing would dispose of the last obstacle to Home Rule. Also, in the course of his shillelagh practice on the heads of the Opposition, Mr. Winston Churchill dropped a hint that there would be no objection to "the four Orange counties" voting themselves out of the Bill. It was the first official intimation of the Home Rule Government's change of front from National Unity to the "exclusion" of "the four Orange counties" which was to become the basis of the Buckingham Palace Conference. Although Mr. Churchill still indulged in the fearful joy of belabouring the effigy of "Carson, King of the Bluffers," after the manner of the Falls Road, it was evident enough that the process of giving up the Policy of Derision for the Policy of Pusillanimity was already beginning to work in Ministerial minds.

It was one of the phenomena of those days that the programme of Conference, Conciliation, and Consent, laughed out of court in the democratic House of Commons, found refuge and a far-sighted appreciation in the House of Lords. The debates on the Bill when it reached the Lords will be found full of the sober statesmanship—of the recognition that Home Rule in some shape there must ineluctably be, and that the core of the problem was how to dissipate the forebodings of the Protestant Minority—which all men now see to be elementary wisdom, but which was sadly missing amidst the flippancy and superficiality of the House of Commons' treatment of the subject. It was not for nothing the languid Upper House resolved for once to throw off its languor and to meet an hour before its usual custom and prolong its crowded sittings up to midnight. A strong current of opinion favouring a settlement by friendly Conference set in from the start in the memorable speeches of Earl Grey, the Archbishop of York, the Marquis of Lansdowne, the Earl of Loreburn, and others. Even Lord Curzon, who was then supposed to be the mirror of all that was most supercilious and overbearing in the "superior person," astonished his peers with a speech such as might effect miracles of conciliation at a Round Table. The bulk of the Irish peers, too, were full of the new spirit. The speech of Lord Londonderry was the only one that defaced the debates with any trace of the reckless pugnacity of the Orange symposia, and of the House of Commons. Lord Crewe, the Liberal leader of the House, was not empowered to answer all these very genuine yearnings for a Settlement by Consent with anything more hopeful than the demand of a sweet-spoken, but unshakeable, Shylock for his pound of flesh! The John Morley of old did, indeed, for a moment flicker up when, Lord Dunraven having asked why on earth the Government should not attempt a settlement by consent, he interjected: "Yes, a settlement by consent, but on the lines suggested by Mr. William O'Brien." But Viscount Morley's own speech was all but inaudible, his spirit had burnt almost as low as his voice.

In Ireland, as well, the Hibernian Press, far from letting the country know that "the last obstacle" delusion was at an end, and the Partition of the country not obscurely hinted as the future Liberal substitute for National Unity, only hailed the astonishing turn of the tide towards Home Rule in the House of Lords with a shout of exultation as proof that the Peers were beaten to the ropes, as they had predicted. When Lord Dunraven in the course of a weighty speech at a National Conference of the All-for-Ireland League on March 3, which will still repay perusal by every student of history, proposed a resolution inviting the Government to take the initiative in summoning a Conference representative of all parties and denominations as the best means of realizing the growing hopes of a Settlement by Consent, his proposal was received with howls of "Factionist!" and "No Compromise!" from the Board of Erin mobs and newspapers and the local All-for-Irelanders for barely tolerating the idea were held up to execration by one vigorous Canon of the Church as "a pack of scamps and scoundrels." Professor Kettle, who combined an epigrammatic brilliancy with a plentiful lack of sense, was not to be outdone by his Hibernian patrons. He laughed any fears of Ulster out of court. At Skibbereen, he demanded that "the Imperial forces and the police force of the nation should be drawn aside and that Ireland should be left to fight it out with North-East Ulster," and at Kildare the following Sunday the "Professor of National Economics" prescribed without any appearance of a joke for such of the Orange dogs as might survive the riot that "they should be shot or hanged or sent to penal servitude." The reign of unreason was as yet not to be disturbed.

None the less, when on June 10, 1913, the Bill presented itself for Second Reading in its Second Session, our small band made a fresh effort to give concrete effect to the eagerness for a friendly inter-party consultation before it was too late which was possessing the best minds in all parties. It was the day on which the news of George Wyndham's tragic death had reached the House, and the passing of that bright spirit brought the whole House into a hushed accord, while I suggested that "his work in Ireland would live as an immortal monument," and might even yet suggest to the rashest of those who had guiltily marred that work, when it was but half completed, that the methods by which Wyndham had victoriously overcome the age-long Agrarian difficulty offered a no less precious precedent in the present crisis. Mr. Asquith and Mr. Balfour lavishly praised, but did not imitate, and no word of reparation was heard from the Hibernian benches. The Prime Minister's courtesy towards Ulster was as faultless as usual, but he evaded every approach to any definite concession on the Government's own part by blandly referring to the "suggestion stage" at which conciliatory proposals might be sympathetically entertained. There was little difficulty in showing during my own observations, that this was to put the car before the horse since, if the Government meant concessions seriously their first duty ought to be by a confidential preliminary consultation to enlist the assent and authority of all sides when they came to be laid before the House, while if the Government shirked the duty of taking the initiative, proposals of irresponsible individuals at "the suggestion stage" would cast the whole question back into the cauldron of party politics, and would be foredoomed to failure. I hurry on from my own arguments and appeals to both sides to their effect upon the influential personages in the debate.

The intoxication of the recent defeats of the Government at the Newmarket and Altrincham elections was in Sir E. Carson's blood and he contemptuously treated the formal submission of the Bill for its second session as a farcical way of marking time until the Government should muster up courage enough either to come up against the resistance of Ulster or meet their fate at the hands of the British electorate. But there was one passage which proved that his attitude towards any overtures of the Government less obviously futile than the suave invitation for proposals on "the suggestion stage," might even still have been very different:

"I will frankly admit the speech of the Hon. Member for Cork was the speech of a man who wants to bring about peace, but he knows perfectly well the penalties that have fallen upon himself because he has tried to win Ulster. . . . I will say this that if ever you are to bring about a United Ireland—if ever you are going to bring the Ulster portion of the community into line, you will never do it by any means except persuasion."

Mr. Bonar Law, speaking later, made a significant observation in the same direction: "I say further that if it was possible that anything on the lines of the speech of the Member for Cork could be evolved—if he could succeed in persuading the rest of Ireland in favour of that course—if he could come to us and say 'what we propose is not utterly detested by one third of the people of Ireland, but there is a general consent in its favour'—we should all rejoice and welcome any settlement that was arrived at upon such lines." Who will say now that declarations like these, before Ulster was armed and finally estranged, were not worth solemn attention?

The attention they received from the Chief Secretary who wound up the debate was a stream of sparkling Birrellisms, which kept the Ministerialists in roars of laughter. Discussing the religious difficulty—the sorest of all difficulties—in Ulster, he revelled and rolled over in badinage of this kind:

"He had his own views of ecclesiastics of all kinds (laughter). He had curious experiences of them at the Board of Education and in Ireland (laughter). He had enjoyed personal contact—he would not say collision—with Cardinals and Archbishops and he commended them generally to God. (Prolonged laughter)."

Magnificent perhaps as fooling, but not the wisest way of soothing lacerated feelings, and not much improved by his following it up with the assurance that "he quite recognised the grave and serious state of things in Ulster," for Marc Antony too "quite recognised" that "Brutus was an honourable man." But even Mr. Birrell was a bit staggered by the tone of the Unionist leader's reception of the Conference, Conciliation and Consent proposal.

"A great many compliments have been paid to the speech of the Hon. Member for Cork—I don't quarrel with them," he precipitately added to restrain the jeers of his Hibernian admirers, who supposed he had not yet ceased joking. "Let me express my own willingness to sit in conference with the Hon. Member for Cork, who is, I hope, a friend of mine and I can assure him that my breast entertains no sort of animosity against him and never has done. ... I quite agree with the Hon. Member that we should settle this by agreement and that it is our bounden duty if we can."

"Why did you not try?" was the dry interrogatory of the member for Cork. "I am willing to try" was the best answer the readiest of the wits could devise. But seeing Mr. Dillon's reproachful eye turned upon him, the luckless Chief Secretary hastened to appease that statesman with a suggestion which he was not slow to appropriate as his own, that however "willing to try," a Conference there could only be on condition of Sir E. Carson pinning himself first to an Irish Parliament and an Irish Executive before being admitted to the Conference room.

It was the first debate for a long time in which the tongues of all the men of mark in the Irish Party were set loose. But with what effect upon the fortunes of a settlement by consent may be inferred from the briefest summary of their speeches. Mr. Dillon added to his laurels as a prophet by the brilliant prediction that it would turn out the next year that "all this talk of civil war in Ulster was bluff and would end in nothing," as truly it did end five years later in worse than nothing—for the prophet and his true believers. By one of those rare lapses to which one of the most genial of Irishmen was subject, Mr. T. P. O'Connor's contribution to the love-feast was one which horrified the Unionist orator who followed him (Mr. Locker Lampson) into a lament over "the poisonous stream of provocative bitterness which had emanated from the Hon. Member for the Scotland Division," and Mr. (afterwards Lord Cave) one of the calmest of judicial men exclaimed: "If Mr. T. P. O'Connor represents truly the ferocity of the dominant party in Ireland, God help the Protestant Party!" Mr. Devlin was even more unfortunate in what he seriously conceived to be a speech of conciliation than in the most blood-thirsty of his platform vows to "stand up to Ulster." "When the Hon. Member for West Belfast," was the comment of one of Sir E. Carson's chief lieutenants, Mr. Ronald McNeill, "talks conciliation to us in this House, his face always reminds me of some wild animal that is going to bite somebody." And the biter was apt to get bitten, as when, to one of his amiable overtures, Sir E. Carson brutally retorted: "The observation of the Hon. Member is an infamous lie and he knows it." Against coadjutors such as these all Mr. Redmond's magnanimity and urbanity struggled in vain. He did not suffer his gentlemen gladly, but what was to be done? His profession of love for his Protestant countrymen and of readiness to heap every possible favour upon them was perfectly genuine; his secret judgment as to the best road to Irish peace had never wavered since the Land Conference; but his conciliatory generalisations were too notoriously in conflict with the dominant doctrines of the Board of Erin to have any more healing effect upon Ulster than Mr. Devlin's about-to-bite expression of countenance. He hazarded not a solitary practical suggestion to give effect to his swelling periods of tolerant and far-sighted patriotism, and a speech of glowing eloquence, once its resounding echoes died away, did little to remove the point of the sarcasm that "no man ever talked nonsense more majestically than John Redmond." The country was allowed to drift balmily on to the "next year's" millennium predicted by the prophet Dillon.

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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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