The General Election and the General Judgment (1918)

The General Election which the war had enabled the Hibernian Party to evade for three years beyond the normal term smote them at last in November, 1918. The determination of my colleagues and myself had been formed as the result of the West Cork election of two years before, and only awaited the approaching Dissolution to be put into execution. Our conclusion was not to allow ourselves to be nominated for reelection to the English Parliament. In the words of my own address to my constituents: "The Irish people in general, in tragic ignorance of what they were being led to do, remained silent while I was being deprived of all power of interfering with effect in Irish affairs. ... So far as the platform and the newspaper press were concerned, my position has long been that of a man buried alive and striving in vain to make his voice reach the ears of his countrymen." In these circumstances, there was nothing for it but frankly to recognize "that our efforts to reform the Parliamentary movement upon an honest basis must—under present conditions, at all events—be abandoned, and that those who have saved (and who alone could have saved) the country from Partition, from Conscription and from political corruption ought now to have a full and sympathetic trial for their own plans for enforcing the Irish nation's right of Self-determination." Mr. T. M. Healy in endorsing this conclusion, quoted: "two sentences in your exposure of the debauchment of the Parliamentary movement which strike me as setting a datum line by which the general body of Nationalists may guide their course. You say: 'We cannot subscribe to a programme of armed resistance in the field, or even of permanent withdrawal from Westminster, but to the spirit of Sinn Féin, as distinct from its abstract programme, the great mass of independent and single-minded Irishmen have been won over.' Of the 'ruined politicians' still clinging to power, and their policies, you foretell that 'their successors cannot by any conceivable possibility do worse.'"

That was why we could not conscientiously throw ourselves into the Sinn Féin ranks. It was not Parliamentary methods, but rotten Parliamentary methods, that had broken down. That was also why we conceived it a duty to remove all obstacle on our part to the mandate of the country, as between the disgraced Hibernians and the only force in the country capable of coping with them, being as decisive as that which in 1884 empowered Parnell to overthrow a Parliamentary majority less baleful. Before the World-War, the rawest schoolboy would have laughed at the suggestion of an armed struggle with the might of England. The Sinn Féin movement, so long as it was directed by Mr. Arthur Griffith, never contemplated a rising in arms. Even its own programme of a pacific withdrawal from Westminster failed to command on its merits the approval of a single constituency. It was Sir E. Carson's example in drilling and arming with impunity a vast Ulster army to resist the law of Parliament which first inspired the young men of the South with the emulation to go and do likewise. But it was President Wilson's promulgation of the doctrine of the sovereign right of the small nationalities to shape their own future on the principle of Self-determination—above all, it was the necessity imposed upon Mr. Lloyd George to welcome that principle with seeming enthusiasm in order to ensure the entrance of the United States into the war—which once for all fixed in the mind of the youth of Ireland the feasibleness as well as the dignity of a demand for liberty arms in hand, in contrast with Parliamentary methods which had become a byword for failure and degradation.

It must be owned that none of us measured truly the growth of the new spirit until the Rising of Easter Week revealed as in a lightning flash how dauntless it was, and how deeply it had entered into possession of the nation's soul. The original literature of Sinn Féin was contributed by half a dozen poets and journalists who readily accepted the description of "intellectuals" accorded to them by admiring English prints. They were not content with contemning the poor work-a-day politicians who transferred the land to the people and three times over forced their way to the very last rampart between Ireland and Home Rule. They went to the ludicrous length of despising because it was "intelligible" the poetry of Thomas Davis, which was so grossly "intelligible" that it has roused the hearts of two generations of Irishmen like a burst of trumpets. They actually proposed the De—Davisisation of Ireland (the phrase is that of the intellectuals) as an adventure of the highest literary distinction. The insincerity of these précieux and consequently their futility may be illustrated by a story of perhaps the most distinguished of their number, the ill-fated poet Synge, as related by another and more delicate dreamer, Mr. W. B. Yeats: "I once asked him: 'Do you write from hatred of Ireland or for love of her?' and he answered: 'That is just what I often ask myself.'"

With the single exception of Mr. Griffith, always a man of sound sense as well as high purpose, the intellectuals were frondeurs who found a superior virtue in disclaiming any part in the hard battles which had restored the ownership of the soil to the people and given them the command of the whole machinery of local government, and which threw open the road to every victory that has followed since.[46] They only succeeded in limiting an influence which might have been widespread to their own small circle in Dublin. They had discredited Sinn Féin in the eyes of common men with such fatal effect that the movement had all but ceased to exist when by a bizarre blunder of English pressmen, it found its name of Sinn Féin transferred to the wholly different armed organization which had its baptism of fire in Easter Week. These distressingly ineffectual writings were not of a kind to dispel the discouraging conviction which was creeping over my once sanguine self that, in the rank demoralization in which the placeman and the place beggar throve apace, there was no longer to be found a body of Irishmen who really thought Ireland worth dying for. To the amaze of the older generation, it turned out that such men were to be counted by the thousand, and of the very flower of the race—men for whom patriotism was a holy religion—who were as eager for death for the "Little Black Rose" in the firing line or on the gallows as were the Christian Martyrs for the embrace of the beasts in the Colosseum. We had not kept pace with the newer school of the Pearses and the O'Rahillys and MacDonaghs who had replaced the dilettanti, and who in half a dozen obscure sheets were inditing a new testament of which self-immolation for Ireland was the chief of the beatitudes, and in the very wilderness where all noble purpose seemed to have perished were raising up a generation whose disinterestedness, whose sobriety of character, whose almost incredible gift for combining action with idealism were to sweeten the air with the efflorescence of a divine springtime of the Gael. Not alone had the coal of fire of the prophet touched their tongues; in the administrative work of the country which, in spite of the brutalities of Martial Law was steadily falling into their hands, they were developing a capacity and an impartiality of outlook which put their elderly critics of the old order to shame.

Aimlessly to stand in the way of such a reformation would have been to dash the country's last hope. Nobody doubted that, had it come to a series of triangular battles, we should have in more than one instance outpaced both the Sinn Féin candidate and the Hibernian, or, indeed, induced the Sinn Féiners to desist from opposition to our re-election; but vainglory apart the only result would have been to confuse the public mind and probably enable the Hibernians to return in numbers that would have paralysed the power of reform for the term of another Parliament. It is not perhaps excessive to claim that it was in a large degree the self-effacement of the All-for-Irelanders which put it in the power of the country, upon the straightest of issues, to return a verdict which was an unmistakeable and an overpowering one. The unopposed return on the first day for nomination of Sinn Féiners for each of the seven Divisions of the vast county of Cork, followed by the defeat, by a majority of more than 13,000, of the Hibernian candidates who were rash enough to await the polling in the City, let loose an avalanche underneath which the whole fabric of the Board of Erin tyranny lay buried when the elections were over. The Party which went to the country 73 strong came back 7, which, by an ironical coincidence, happened to be one less than the number of the All-for-Ireland group they had so often rallied on its littleness. The measure of their defeat did not stop there. Only two of the seven survivors were elected by the free votes of Irish constituencies: Captain Redmond, who was reelected in Waterford as a tribute of respect for his father's memory and Mr. Devlin, whose power in the Hibernian district of West Belfast was still considerable. Of the remaining five, one (Mr. T. P. O'Connor) was elected for an English constituency, and the four others only succeeded in virtue of a compromise insisted upon by the Ulster Bishops by which, in certain doubtful constituencies, there was an exchange of seats between Sinn Féiners and Hibernians in order to avoid the success of the Orangemen in triangular contests.

The completeness of the overthrow was variously accounted for. The Hibernian theory that it was the shooting of twenty of the rebel leaders by Sir John Maxwell that turned over a whole people from fanatical allegiance to the Board of Erin before the Rebellion to fanatical allegiance to Sinn Féin after its defeat was of a piece with the rest of the foolish miscalculations of the doomed Party. The claim of Sinn Féin that the General Election meant a conscious and deliberate establishment of the Irish Republic by the main body of the voters was, I think, a greatly exaggerated one, also. The Sinn Féin candidates put forward no rigid Republican programme—in fact, put forward no programme at all. I can answer for the half-a-million All-for-Irelanders, who turned the scale in the South that the issue for or against a Republic did not even cross their minds as a supreme decision binding them for the future. For the overwhelming mass of Irish opinion it was a choice between a Party corrupted, demoralized and effete, who had misused in the interest of an English Party the most irresistible power ever held by Irish hands—who, for the sake of establishing for themselves a boundless monopoly of patronage in Dublin, had conspired to separate nearly a fourth of the country into an Orange Free State—between a Party who to the cries of "Trust Asquith!" "Trust Redmond!" and "Up, the Mollies!" had for years led the most ignorant and credulous of the masses shamefully astray, and had held the most enlightened part of public opinion powerless to express itself by an unheard of tyranny of violence, bribery and Press manipulation—and on the other hand a band of enthusiasts, young, gallant and clean of heart, of whom all they knew was that whatever mistakes they might make would be those of a too passionate love of Ireland, and who would at the least clear the road of the future by disencumbering it of a Parliamentary imposture which was ending in putrefaction. The country did not opt for any particular form of government, but did unquestionably transfer its confidence to the new men who were to frame it.

"The Party" was as dead as Julius Caesar, but even in their ashes lived their wonted incapacity to understand wholesome Irish feeling. Captain Redmond, intoxicated by his family success in Waterford, blithely undertook from the hustings that he and Mr. Devlin were about to proceed on a pilgrimage from constituency to constituency throughout the island to reclaim the erring ones from their heresy, but no more was heard of the crusade of the twin Peters the Hermits. A defeated candidate in Roscommon—one Mr. Hayden—founded a brand new Home Rule Association of his own with thrilling proclamations through the Freeman that it was about to sweep the country; but after three meetings the Association and the speeches in the Freeman expired. Mr. Dillon had no sooner pulled himself together after his monumental overthrow in East Mayo than the ex-M.P. addressed an encyclical to some ghostly Branch raised from the dead for the occasion predicting that "before six months" the country would have returned to its allegiance to "The Party" and the rightful King would have come by his own again. He ought not indeed to have needed the reminder how sadly his prophetic stock had fallen on the National discount market for he must have received thousands of such reminders from the unpurchased tenants and the beggared shareholders of the Freeman who were beginning to haunt his doorstep. He had foretold that the Purchase Act of 1903 would land the country in bankruptcy and lo! the Freeman office was the only conspicuous venue the bankruptcy messenger had visited, while the tenants he had forbidden to purchase were now putting forth sighs from broken hearts for the opportunity of purchasing which was no longer available.[47] He had predicted that if the Act of 1903 were permitted to work there would be an end of the National movement in six months and behold! among the heroes of the rebellion thirteen years afterwards the sons of the new occupying owners were among the foremost. He now added a new prophecy with the advantage that it was one calculated to fulfil itself. It was that Sinn Féin had destroyed for ever the sympathy of America with Ireland and the shaft was barbed by reference to an incident much paraded in the anti-Irish press, in the course of which some children in a western village wishing to tear down a British flag carried by the children of local British recruits by accident tore down also a Stars and Stripes, whose folds were mingled with those of the Union Jack. The unworthy appeal to American prejudice was so little heeded that American funds poured into the Sinn Féin exchequer in greater volume than had been subscribed in all the years since the Land League put together.

If there was anything wanting to complete the contempt for Parliamentary methods, it was the insignificance of the surviving Seven in the succeeding Parliament, when the Coalition passed Mr. Lloyd George's Partition Act of 1920 formally establishing the two rival Parliaments of "Northern Ireland" and "Southern Ireland." With the whole force of the Labour Party and the remnant of the "Wee Free" Liberal Party saved from the shipwreck at their backs, they might have offered an all but irresistible opposition to that infamous measure, forced upon Ireland without the sanction of a single Irish vote, Northern or Southern. The trouble was that Mr. Devlin denouncing Partition was in the position of Arius denouncing Arianism. If he now affected to hold out for "an undivided Ireland" he was met with the retort that the Partition Act was only the formal enactment of the "Headings of Agreement" he and his late Party and his late Liberal Prime Minister had collectively bargained for; if he protested (as he now plaintively did) his conversion to the doctrine of an Irish settlement by the commingling of Irishmen of all racial and religious origins, he laid himself open to the taunts of the tardiness of his conversion since the days when shouts of "our hereditary enemies!" and "Black-blooded Cromwellians!" were hurled at every Irish Protestant Unionist who extended a fraternal hand, and of his own special recipe of "ordering the police and military to stand aside and make a ring," while he was disposing of the Ulster difficulty in the streets of Belfast. Accordingly he and his Liberal friends could think of nothing better than majestically to withdraw altogether from the Committee stage of the Partition Bill and by that stroke of genius left Sir E. Carson free to gerrymander at his sweet will Mr. Devlin's own constituency of West Belfast, in such a manner that the Nationalist Division of the Falls Road was swamped by the addition of two undiluted Orange Divisions. When he and his brother withdrawers came back to register a last impassioned demand for "an Undivided Ireland" on the Third Reading, it was to find that he had been effectually gerrymandered out of the Imperial Parliament for life, and the last nail driven in the coffin of the Board of Erin Ascendancy.

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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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