The Home Rule Bill of 1912

Mr. Asquith's Home Rule Bill of 1912 was proclaimed to be "a final settlement," and was so accepted with effusion by the Irish Party. All was staked upon the assurance that it was "a greater measure of Irish freedom than Grattan's or Gladstone's" and that, if it were only accepted by Ireland without debate, its passage into law was (in a favourite figure of speech) "as certain as the rising of to-morrow's sun." In the endeavour to ensure this conspiracy of silence in Ireland, it may with truth be said that what purported to be a Bill to establish her legislative independence, was forced upon Ireland sans phrase by methods as unconstitutional as had ever been resorted to for the imposition of some hideous Coercion Act. The Irish Party itself (which must henceforth be more truthfully described as the Hibernian Party) abdicated all right to discuss or to interfere, even in its private conclaves. So far as the representatives of Ireland exercised any voice in the fate of their nation, it was done by three leaders in a few furtive interviews in Downing St.—not even (unless rumour lied) with the Prime Minister, but with some subordinate like the excellent Mr. Birrell, who was always perfectly accommodating and always cheerfully ineffectual. Mr. Dillon's plea that the Bill was "the best we could get," was a sufficient attestation how poor a part was played in the construction of the Bill by the Irishmen who held the power of life and death over the great folk in Downing St. Any real discussion in Ireland was laid under a stern interdict. The Hibernian National Convention, summoned nominally to debate the merits or demerits of the Bill, were, after the manner of the Baton Convention, bidden by an eminent ecclesiastical ringleader to "keep their amendments in their pockets" and did not, as a matter of fact, suggest the smallest amendment, or perform any other function than that of re-echoing the hi' falutin panegyrics of the Parliamentarians. So a silenced country succeeded a silenced Parliamentary Party. From beginning to end of the debates upon a Bill involving the "final" fate of Ireland in all her most tremendous concerns, her representatives did not suggest a solitary amendment and were not suffered to bear any part in the debates beyond applauding the two or three "safe" leaders who were at very rare intervals put up to speak for them, or savagely resenting any criticism of the Irish finance of Mr. Lloyd George and Mr. Herbert Samuel. They were more like slaves kneeling to kiss hands on their manumission than freemen standing up for the rights of their nation. A Bill which all men now know to be as full of faults as a sieve is of holes passed through Committee without the alteration of a line at the instance of the country it most vitally concerned. So complete was the machinery by which the Irish people were prevented from discussing or even understanding the provisions of the Bill or the ignominious misconduct of their representatives during its passage through Parliament that, when, after four tongue-tied years of humiliation for the country, the Bill was nominally transferred to the Statute Book, an innocent Irish public actually allowed bonfires to be lighted in their name in celebration of the event, without the smallest suspicion that what they were really celebrating was the consent of the representatives of Ireland to the Partition of the country thus mocked with a forged title-deed to freedom. And the Hibernian and Liberal parties to the deceit professed to be surprised beyond measure when the young generation who were all this time meditating in silence these intolerable affronts to the honour and even to the intelligence of their nation, sprang to arms in the Easter Week of 1916, and gave Parliamentarianism its quietus!

It seems scarcely necessary to insist. It was Mr. Redmond's fate, however, to be obliged to go on vociferating that his goose was a swan of the finest down. Even after three years for reflection, in a public letter to the Dublin Corporation (July 20th, 1915), he committed himself to the preposterous boast that:—

"The Home Rule Act of last year is a better Act than the Bill of 1886, which Mr. Parnell accepted as a settlement and is a far better and freer constitution than Grattan and the Volunteers won in 1782."

It was a claim that could only have been made to a public kept in blank ignorance of the provisions of the measure. To the most infatuated of his dupes it would at this time of day sound like a cruel sarcasm. One test—that of Finance—will suffice to expose the absurdity of his representation of a Devolution Bill which in all other respects was on the same level of national dignity as the Parliament of Saskatchewan. Grattan's Parliament had the uncontested power of the purse. England could not levy a shilling in taxation or take a man for her army or navy except with its consent. Under Asquith Home Rule, the power of taxation would have remained absolutely and without limit at Westminster. The unfortunate Dublin Parliament had no appeal from any levies of the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, except to a Joint Exchequer Board of which the British Chancellor would command a majority of the votes. Ireland might, indeed, add to the tremendous burdens laid upon her by the British Budget certain fantastic taxes of her own, but the power was so silly a play-thing that Mr. Herbert Samuel could suggest no other local tax open to the Irish Parliament except a tax upon bicycles or advertisements.

As for the Bill of 1886 (which it was false to suggest Parnell "accepted as a settlement") it was at least a Bill which to begin with separated the Parliament of Ireland altogether from that of Westminster, while the Asquith Act not only retained the connection and the subjection of Ireland in its most humiliating form, but reduced her representation from 103 to 42 in the Parliament where the power of the purse lay. Nor was that all. Parnell had obtained an amendment of the Bill of 1886 limiting for thirty years Ireland's Imperial contribution to £3,132,000, while if the Asquith Act had been in full force the Imperial Parliament would have been as free as it has been without it to raise Ireland's Imperial contribution to the colossal figure of £25,000,000 per annum. Had the Bill of 1886 prevailed, the Imperial Chancellor would have no power to augment Ireland's contribution by a pound during the first three years of the World War, and could only have attempted it even then by calling back Ireland's 103 representatives to Westminster to have their say, while under the slippery finance of Mr. Samuel, England was left free to exact Imperial contributions from Ireland £20,000,000 a year greater than the maximum stipulated for by Parnell. Such was the measure which Mr. Redmond did not hesitate to describe as "the greatest charter of liberty ever offered to Ireland," and for its financial flaws Mr. Devlin, who had perhaps neglected to read the text of the Bill at all split the ears of the groundlings with the cry: "Freedom first, and finance afterwards!" Without adverting to the possibility which everybody now knows to be the truth that the caricature of "Freedom" might be as sorry an imposture as the finances were dishonest.

Were my colleagues and myself wise or unwise in making the best of the Asquith Bill instead of slaying it if it remained unamended? God knoweth! The drastic course would have been the tempting as well as the easy one. It is scarcely too much to say that the unmatched Parliamentary resources of Mr. Tim Healy alone would have sufficed to bring the Bill to certain shipwreck. We had no responsibility for the character of the Bill. One evening at the rising of the House in November, 1911, while there was still ample time for deliberation, I called attention to a forecast of the Bill in the Ministerial organ, the Daily News, in substance foreshadowing the Bill of the next Session in its worst weaknesses, and I appealed to the Government, if the forecast were well founded, to take Ireland into his confidence in good time and give her people some opportunity for friendly remonstrance. My observations were half-drowned by the chorus of offensive interruptions in which the least reputable of the Hibernians were now habitually joined by a knot of newly elected Radicals and Labour men below the Ministerial gangway on the rare occasions when my colleagues and myself sought a hearing, but they were received in a different spirit by the Prime Minister, who assured me nothing had yet been decided upon and made an earnest appeal for the communication to the Ministry of any suggestions of my own. Mr. Healy lost no time in marking the contrast between the grave courtesy of the Prime Minister and the ill-manners of his followers. The invitation was one not to be shirked. In consultation with my colleagues, I drew up a Memorandum, in which we made no disguise of our own conviction that Dominion Home Rule, with unfettered Fiscal Autonomy, would be the safest, as well as boldest, remedy for the quarrel between the two countries, but should this be dismissed, as for the moment impracticable in its fulness, we did not rule out some farseeing experiment in Federation which would in practice gradually conquer the objections to the larger extension of independence. The Memorandum at the same time laid down as essentials two requirements which excited the bitter hostility of the Hibernian Party at the time, but the absence of which from the Bill when it was produced it is evident enough to all men now was the secret of the calamitous breakdown of Asquithian Home Rule—viz., generous concessions such as would have disarmed all rational opposition in Ulster to a National Parliament, and the removal of the last great social stumbling block in the way of an Irish Parliament by the completion of Land Purchase as an Imperial transaction. The following was the reply of the Prime Minister:—


10, Downing St., Whitehall S.W.,

7th Nov., 1911.

Dear Mr. O'Brien,

I am greatly obliged by your letter of the 4th and my colleagues and I will give most careful attention to its contents.

Yours very faithfully,

H. H. Asquith."

"W. O'Brien, Esq., M.P."

This was the only communication vouchsafed to the representatives of at least 500,000 hereditary Nationalists who had been foremost in the fight when fight was the word of order—whose temper of conciliation when conciliation was the truest patriotism English statesmanship would now give freely of its treasures to restore—representatives, moreover, who, it has since been made plain, spoke the secret thoughts of the Irish Unionists of the South and in a surprising degree of the North as well. The explanation is, of course, simple enough. The Memorandum after receiving "the most careful attention" of Mr. Asquith and his colleagues had to be passed along to their Hibernian advisers and was never heard of more. When I had to make up my mind what to say on the First Reading of the Bill, it was under the cruel disadvantage of never having received the smallest hint, oral or written, of what its contents were to be until I heard them disclosed by the lips of the Prime Minister.

Nevertheless, disappointing as was the revelation when it came, I took up without hesitation on that night the attitude of cordial friendliness and helpfulness towards the Bill which my friends and myself never relaxed until, two years afterwards, the Bill was turned into a hideous compact for the Partition of the country. It was impossible to hear the Prime Minister without realizing and saying—"Let there be no mistake about it—the Home Rule of this Bill is not Grattan's Parliament, it is not Repeal of the Union, it is not Colonial Home Rule any more than it is an Irish Republic"—without deploring that the Cabinet had rejected the recommendation of their own Committee of Experts that "the Irish Parliament should be equipped with fiscal independence fully and at once in the raising of their own revenue"—without asking "fair-minded opponents of this Bill to remember that however much we are ready to renounce in our eagerness for a genuine and enduring peace with the people of England and with those who were once called the English Garrison in Ireland, it is a solemn thing for the representatives of an ancient cause to make up their minds to sacrifice so much that entered into the dreams that came as naturally to some of us as the blood in our veins in order to purchase peace between the two countries"; but first and last, I made it clear that: "whatever the ultimate fate of this Bill may be, I cannot conceive of any Nationalist of any type or school who will not approach its consideration with the deepest respect and with an anxious desire to put the most favourable construction upon it," declaring finally my own deep conviction that "the success of an Irish Parliament must depend to a large degree upon its being won by the consent rather than by the compulsion of the Protestant minority and I for one would be prepared to go to any reasonable length, or even to some unreasonable lengths, to secure that co-operation and good-will."

To the attitude thus promptly taken up and never departed from, the reply was the chorus of "factionist" and "traitor" from that moment shouted incessantly into the ears of a people who were denied every chance of reading my words: with how much justice may be inferred from the judgment of two men from opposite standpoints. John Burns, then in the summer of his democratic power, came over to say to me: "That is a speech that does credit to your head and to your heart." The observations of William Moore, afterwards a Justice of the High Court, and then the most characteristic leader of the Orange Party in Ulster were these:

"I believe myself that the hon. member for Cork is perfectly right in the policy he has again and again announced to Ireland; that it is no use talking about Home Rule for all Ireland unless you get the Protestants of Ireland to consent to it. That is absolutely true. If our consent were won, as I said the other day, there would be very little difficulty about the matter. But since the hon. gentleman, the member for Cork, has thrown out a Policy of Conciliation, which means the right hand of fellowship for Protestants, the mere fact of his doing so has brought upon him attacks from the Ancient Order of Hibernians and others."

My first impression without an hour for deliberation proved to be the sound one, as soon as the Bill was in print. The National Conference of the All-for-Ireland League met in Cork on May 25th, 1912, to determine our action on the Second Reading. Nobody who analyses the seven and a half closely printed pages of names will dispute that the assembly contained an overwhelming number of the representative men of the South, with not a few of the men of power from the most distant parts of the country as well.[21] Had such an assembly pronounced against the Bill, or even given an ambiguous verdict, nothing could have saved the Government measure in a country already raging against its insignificance as a national settlement. There was neither a wavering note nor one of false lyricism. The first Clause of the Bill ran: "On and after the appointed day there shall be in Ireland an Irish Parliament consisting of His Majesty the King and two Houses, namely, the Irish Senate and the Irish House of Commons." It was the solemn compact for a United Ireland, ruled by an Irish Parliament, one and indivisible—a compact destined to be afterwards shamefully repudiated and annulled. It was the only Clause savouring of National Independence in the 48 Clauses, but it was enough for those of us who could have forgiven even the Irish Council Bill everything for its being based on an undivided Ireland, and the present compromise, beggarly though it was, was nevertheless like the other "consistent with and leading up to the larger policy." The National Conference not only refused to follow the Hibernian precedent in the case of the Irish Council Bill of first blessing and then rejecting the Bill with a war-whoop, but promised it a wholehearted support subject to three amendments which our critics have since spent bitter years in endeavouring to resuscitate when too late:—viz., a reconstruction of what Mr. Healy compendiously described as the "putrid" finances of the Bill; the completion of the Abolition of Landlordism by Imperial credit; and such concessions to the apprehensions (however imaginary) of "Ulster" as would have delivered the country from any peril of Partition.

One other particularity has to be noted. The pretext for the malignity with which Lord Dunraven and the Irish Unionists who followed him were pursued was that they were really engaged in a conspiracy to make Home Rule impossible. To calumnies like this the pronouncements of the Unionists at the National Conference gave a noble answer. They were all for amending, none for wrecking, and amending in the direction of uniting and enlarging the powers of the Irish Nation. Lord Dunraven, in a letter to myself, touched with a sure hand what might have been and what still easily might be:—

"I pray you to use your best endeavours to secure for our Parliament fairplay and a fair chance and I pray you never cease from striving to make us a nation. Had your National and patriotic policy been carried on during these wasted years since the Land Conference, this outburst of irreconcileable opinion in the North could never have taken place. Differences of opinion there always will be and ought to be, but they ought to be subordinated to a sense of unity—a sense of Nationality, a determination to work together in friendship for our country's good."

Mr. Moreton Frewen, whose brain and winning personality wanted nothing but a dose of the politician's guile to give him a high place among the world's statesmen—who had parted with his estate to his tenants at a most equitable price—who had surrendered his Irish seat in Parliament rather than support a Parliament Bill which, in his eyes, in antagonising a mutilated House of Lords would destroy an unequalled means of reassuring and conciliating Ulster, and was more vilely abused for his chivalry in still indomitably sticking to the All-for-Ireland Cause than he would have been if he had justified his ungenerous assailants by betraying it—Mr. Moreton Frewen made a speech in which he foreshadowed the disaster of Partition as clearsightedly as all the world is discussing it to-day:

"Do let us be careful—I know Mr. O'Brien is as careful as possible—about the susceptibilities of Ulster. We do not want Ireland to be partitioned. We have lost the opportunity of generations. Two years ago the Home Rule atmosphere was clear. We should have gone forward two years ago and got a settlement. The Land Purchase scheme which we owe to Mr. O'Brien and Lord Dunraven was going on magically—so admirably that all the difficulties in this country and in England were enormously relieved. Lord Grey at Ottawa told me we were within arms' length of the settlement of the Irish question by consent. Lord Milner had come into our camp full of anxiety and determination to settle the Home Rule question on Federal lines. Lord Minto and Lord Dudley were of the same mind. Had these four men gone North to the chiefs of Ulster and asked for a conciliatory and friendly settlement of the question, I believe we should have got the whole difficulty well in hand before this time. It is not too late for this yet. These things are still all ahead of us. But if you are going to allow the situation to be controlled by Mr. John Redmond or rather by Dillon and by Devlin, I am quite convinced the danger which sticks out of our present troubles is probably the partition of Ireland. ... I sympathise with Mr. O'Brien in the stand he is making, and am anxious not to say one word that by any possibility would make his task more difficult than it is. There is nothing any man can do that in my humble way I will not do to assist the cause of the All-for-Ireland League."

And to the last hour, while even the smallest strength was left in the arm of the All-for-Ireland League, Mr. Moreton Frewen was true to his word. Every succeeding Unionist speaker—Sir John Keane of Cappoquin, Mr. Villiers Stuart of Dromana, Dr. Thompson of Omagh—showed the same delicate sense of the difficulties, the same eager determination to turn the Bill with all its flaws to the best account as the most fervid of the veteran Nationalists who thronged the platform and whose sons while these pages are being written (1921) are on the hills as soldiers of the Irish Republican Army. The Conference offered one more opportunity for that cooperation of all Irish Parties by which the Bill in Committee might still have been built up into a great measure of national appeasement. It was not on my part, either then or at any critical moment before or after, the first tender of a fraternal hand was missing:

"Every speech that Mr. Redmond now makes in the House of Commons is a glowing tribute to our principles and a crushing condemnation of those of Mr. Dillon and Mr. Devlin. . . . But it is never too late to bury the hatchet. We are quite willing to forgive and forget all past differences, if even now it be made possible for us. We are perfectly willing to suspend all controversy amongst Irish Nationalists until the fate of this Bill is decided one way or the other. If the majority of the representatives of Ireland will even now unite with us in inducing the Government—in forcing the Government as beyond all doubt they have the power to do—in forcing the Government to give the Irish people satisfaction in these three particulars (freedom of taxation, completion of Land Purchase and friendly negotiation to secure the good-will of our Protestant countrymen), I am in my heart convinced that even on the lines of this present Bill and much as we may have to renounce, Ireland may still win a future of solid happiness, prosperity and peace. We for our part will do all that men can do to carry it, and we shall gladly leave it to our countrymen hereafter to say whether it was an unpardonable crime on our part to insist that the national settlement should be won upon conditions that will banish for ever from the face of Ireland the horrors and animosities of agrarian war and that will incorporate once and for all in the blood and bone of our Irish nation a million of the hardy Protestant breed of the Grattans, and the Emmets and the Parnells."

Here was a bid for that joint action in Committee which must in the nature of things have resulted in vast modifications of the Bill, and all of them in directions now recognised to have been vital ameliorations in the interest of Irish freedom. It was the occasion of all others for giving effect to the condition to which the Irish Party had pledged itself in the reunion of 1908 of "cordially welcoming the cooperation of Irishmen of all classes and creeds willing to aid in the attainment of the complete abolition of Landlordism" (among other objects). As a matter of fact, no Irish newspaper except the Cork Free Press gave a serious report of the proceedings of the National Conference—its composition, or its arguments or its proposals. They were never heard of at all in England, where the newspapers derived their Irish information from correspondents in the offices of the Hibernian organs. The Hibernian leaders contemptuously spurned the last chance of establishing an under-standing with Ulster or of obtaining the alleviation or even consideration of the Finance Clauses, and went on their way towards Partition with an uproarious optimism that never deserted them until they toppled over into the abyss and dragged "Constitutional" Home Rule with them.[22]

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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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