The Home Rule Liberal Destroyers of Home Rule

The Home Rule Parliament of 1911 had a power little short of unbounded to make up to Ireland for the loss of the Home Rule understanding with the Unionist Government of 1903 and for the wanton stoppage of Land Purchase, by devising and passing a statesmanlike Home Rule settlement of their own. The Irish Party had it in their power to compel such a settlement, if it were not voluntarily forthcoming. Theirs was session after session a casting vote, such as Ireland had never possessed before and can never possess again in the Imperial Parliament—a casting vote incomparably more continuous and decisive than the few momentary flashes of power which had enabled Parnell in 1885 within six months to bring both British Parties competing to be first in the race for a Home Rule entente. What portion of the blame is to be assigned to the Liberal Government, and what to Ireland's own plenipotentiaries, for the feebleness, or mismanagement, which squandered all these treasures of power to no avail? How are we to measure the responsibility of men, who, not content with failing to pass any measure of national self-government worth Ireland's acceptance, made their Home Rule Bill, such as it was, the means of perpetrating the most intolerable outrage England ever offered to Ireland in the worst ages of her tyranny, by cutting our venerable island into two nations, statutably designed and carved up in order to be hostile ones? Heavy is the account which both Irishmen and Liberals have to answer for. By a miracle of conjoint bungling they turned a country brimming over with friendliness to the English people into an Irish Republic separated from England in everything beyond the gun-range of her armies.

None except the very young or the very thoughtless in Ireland are likely to underprize the dignity imparted to the Irish nation in the world's eyes by the fervour with which Gladstone devoted the close of his stately life to her service. But for many years after his taking off, Gladstone's name was not mentioned in the House of which he had been the glory, and his Irish policy was shunned by the leaders of his party as a topic too ghastly to be recalled. Lord Rosebery, who had won his premiership over the old man's body and did not deserve to hold it long, turned his leisure in Opposition to account by forming his ex-Cabinet into a Liberal League, the principal object of which was to disencumber the Liberal Party from their Home Rule commitments. Mr. Asquith, Sir E. Grey, and Mr. Haldane suffered themselves to be seduced into a recantation which was scarcely honest under a leader who, they soon found out, did not deserve to lead. Mr. Morley, indeed, did not relinquish a certain forlorn allegiance to the Irish Cause to which he owed his all in public life. But it was he, as he reveals in an Autobiography which will leave posterity puzzled as to whether he is to be classed as a Stoic or a Cynic—it was he of all men who made the Parnell Split inevitable. It was he, again on the same amazing authority, who was one of the chief actors in the intrigue by which Gladstone's intrepid resolution to appeal to the country against the House of Lords' rejection of the Home Rule Bill of 1893 was overborne, and by a change as violent as from Augustus to Augustulus, Lord Rosebery was put in the dismissed statesman's place.

The Secret Diaries of Sir Algernon West reveal Gladstone's own judgment both of Rosebery and of Morley. Of Rosebery's "predominant partner" speech, in a passage which is the eternal reproach of Liberal time-serving and the complete justification of the Irish Revolution Gladstone made the remark: "Rosebery's speech about convincing England in connection with Home Rule was most unfortunate and easily answered by Irishmen, who might say (and here he became earnest and very serious), 'How are we to convince you? Is it as we did by the Volunteers, by the Tithe War, when Wellington said it was yielding to Civil War' (or by some third thing I forget) 'which are the only means that ever have convinced England?'" (page 295). Of Morley we are told that Gladstone "deplored John Morley's threat of resignation and want of consideration" at crucial moments, and added "he had tried to persuade John Morley not to return to political life, for which he was not naturally fitted" (page 334).[16]

Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman was, judging by the experience of the present writer, the only Liberal statesman of the first rank, after Gladstone, who never flinched from the Home Rule convictions in which he had "found salvation" even before Gladstone. Epithets like "honest," "straight," "single-hearted," leaped to the lips of all who came into contact with the breezy personality of the man. He possessed also an intellectual grasp and breadth nearer to genius than his unpretending exercise of a commonsense not disdainful of the commonplace might sometimes lead the commonplace to suspect. He had, in addition, that undaunted fighting spirit of the Borders, which was not to be put down by a succession of the bleakest rebuffs in Opposition or of still more disheartening quarrels and calumnies among his chief lieutenants or rivals. We Irish often envied him the imperturbable coolness with which he held his way in the midst of domestic dissensions, far more rancorous, although better concealed from the public, than our own, and even gave them a genial turn out of his abundant stores of the sly humour of his nation. His strength lay in that instinct of the people which values character above intellectual subtlety and in the fidelity to Ireland and to his leadership of a great mass of Liberals of the finest school—"good grey men" of the stamp of Shaw Lefevre, John Ellis, Henry Wilson, William Pollard Byles, Joshua Rowntree, and Jacob Bright—whose memory still smells sweet to Irish nostrils, although the waters of Lethe are already beginning to close softly over their names. When in the fulness of time the sorely-battered Liberal leader emerged victorious from the General Election of 1906, and, as Lord Shaw with a relish relates to us, was in a position to tell Mr. Asquith, Sir E. Grey, and Mr. Haldane to take the offices he assigned to them or go their ways, he had to put up with a Party in which the Rosebery influence was still strong enough to threaten the disruption of the Liberal majority if the Irish policy of Gladstone were revived. The Irish Council Bill was the best he could do in the circumstances of that particular Parliament, but he never made any concealment of the fact that the compromise was only to be thought of as one "consistent with, and leading up to, the larger policy" which it was the supreme glory of his Prime Ministry to have led to triumph in South Africa. Neither did he waver from his profession of faith made so long ago as 1885 that a true Irish settlement must be had by friendly conference among leaders on both sides and by "raising the question out of the arena of party strife." When the astonishing success of the Land Conference made such a combination of parties and classes practical politics, he so far conquered his own aversion to Treasury subsidies to the landlords as to give his hearty adhesion to the Unionist Chief Secretary's proposal to make the Bonus which was of the essence of the Bill of 1903 a free grant out of the Imperial Exchequer; and there can be little risk of wronging his memory in taking it for granted that, if he had continued to be Prime Minister, he would never have been a party to making a Liberal Government responsible for the Act of 1909 which undid the work of conference and conciliation, and once for all flung the cause of Ireland back into "the arena of party strife."

"10 Downing Street,

"July 1, 1907.


"Dear Mr. O'Brien,

"I am much obliged for your letter and for the copy of your article,[17] which has not yet come to hand, but which I shall read with much interest.

"I have shown your letter to Mr. Birrell, who desires me to say that he has the pleasantest recollections of you in the House, and that he will always be glad to receive any suggestions and communications you have to make. We fully share your view that it would be foolish and disastrous to do anything that would injuriously interfere with the progress of Land Purchase and the working of the Act. His views will be fully explained when the expected discussion takes place.

"Believe me,

"Yours very truly,

"H. Campbell-Bannerman."

As much may be affirmed with only less confidence of Mr. Bryce if he had remained Chief Secretary, what with his contempt for partisan intolerance, and his native-born knowledge how much the agrarian settlement had done to mollify Ulster. On this point Mr. Morley, too, had the far-sightedness to go even further than Wyndham, and argued that it would be a cheap bargain for England to be rid of the Land War by all but doubling the amount of the Bonus proposed by the Unionists as a free gift from the Imperial Treasury. He had not farsightedness sufficient to anticipate that he would be himself a member of a Liberal Government which in the Home Rule Bill of 1912 was to be guilty of the unspeakable meanness of saddling the "free Imperial gift" of the Bonus (which Mr. Morley chivalrously doubled) upon the shoulders of Ireland as an Irish debt to be reckoned against Ireland in the Home Rule Act of 1914. Sir E. Grey and Mr. Haldane, likewise, had already so far emancipated themselves from the Rosebery control as to give their cordial support to the new entente cordiale in Ireland in the debate which pledged the Liberal Party to support Wyndham in passing the Purchase Act of 1903 by consent.

From that debate Mr. Asquith and Mr. Lloyd George, the two most powerful men in the Ministry which followed Campbell-Bannerman's death, were conspicuous absentees, et pour cause. They, like all healthy Radicals, always found a peculiar virtue in railing against extending public aid to landlordism in any circumstances, even in the case of Ireland, where the aid was in reality given not for the support of landlordism, but in order to rid Ireland of a feudal tyranny set up by England for her own selfish purposes. They, however, obeyed Campbell-Bannerman's lead in, more or less surlily, letting the Act of 1903 reach the Statute-book as an agreed measure. In the new Parliament of 1911, where the Irish vote was paramount, no Radical in his senses would have dreamed of upsetting that settlement—the happiest in the history of English rule, and happy above all because it was of Irish, not of English, inspiration—if the representatives of Ireland had forbidden the perfidy. When, however, the Liberals found the real leaders of the Irish Party hating the Act of 1903 more ferociously than themselves, and even discovering a perverted patriotism in lauding the Treasury Committee's plans for its destruction, the Asquiths and Lloyd Georges would have been beings of super-politician clay, if they had not gratified at the same time Irish grudges and a penurious Treasury by bidding a practically united Liberal Party cut up the last roots of the settlement of 1903 by their ill-starred Birrell Act of 1909.

And now came the question whether the Asquith Cabinet, having done Ireland the wrong of killing Land Purchase to please the Radical economists and Irish enemies of peace would at least repair the disaster by a courageous measure of Home Rule in which not more than three of their immense party majority had any desire to cross them? The temperament of the new Prime Minister was to be the deciding—or rather indecisive—factor. My first meeting with Mr. Asquith was at the headquarters of the National League in Dublin in 1886, when he sought the aid of Harrington and myself in the investigations by which he was to make up his mind on which side of the fence he was to get down in the Coercion struggle then impending. A sharp-featured, close-shaven lawyer man with the English habit of self-suppression, cultivated to the point of showing no visible trace of human emotion of any kind—an advocate, not an enthusiast, who put his questions and jotted down his facts, not with any pretence of a lyric passion for Irish nationality, but as the materials for a brief which was to decide the side he was to take in the great assize of life. My first impression was all astray. Mr. Asquith seemed to be a harder man, but also a more resolute one, than he subsequently turned out to be. Mr. Haldane, who accompanied him and introduced him, seemed to me then, if he does not seem to me still, the greater man of the two; possibly the favourable first impression was to some extent influenced by the combination of a round chubby face less churlish of presenting its sympathetic side, a voice with something of the fat unction of a Free Church divine, and the intellectual calm of a German philosopher on his dreamy heights. Mr. Haldane himself, whether it be to the credit of his modesty or of his penetration, was quite content to play the second fiddle of the party, and left Harrington and myself in no doubt that he regarded Mr. Asquith as the first figure in the Liberalism of the coming time. Mr. Asquith's researches in Dublin were so little finally conclusive that he still wandered for a good many years in the barren places of Lord Rosebery's Liberal League and out of them like a gentleman in search of his political religion, and had not dogmatically settled his creed even when a by no means enamoured Liberal Party called him to the Prime Ministership. All that was known was that his was a debating sword fit to measure itself on even terms with Chamberlain's own on the rare occasions when his foot was stoutly planted and his fighting blood was up. My first distrust of his icy lawyer ways proved to be quite a mistaken one. He never harboured a thought of betraying Ireland. He came to have a genuine affection for the country and an ever-widening appreciation of her aspirations. That his term of office did end in colossal failure and futility was due not to his want of a warm heart, but to his want of a firm will; to a lack of first-hand knowledge of Ireland which really never until too late went beyond his first experimental trial-trip to the headquarters of the League; above all, to his deficiency of that power of framing a great scheme of policy and standing by it through thick and thin, in which Campbell-Bannerman, vastly his inferior in intellectual equipment, was as decidedly his superior, and these are the things of statesmanship that matter. I am absolutely convinced that Mr. Asquith never really knew what he did, when he destroyed the Policy of Conciliation by the Act of 1909, or when for Home Rule for Ireland he substituted Partition. By a singular stroke of fate, the genial development of character which only success revealed in him, turned out to be rather a decadence than a virtue. The roses of Egypt enervated the resolves even of a Mark Antony hardened in the tragedy of the Roman Forum, and the iron wars that followed. The Mr. Asquith in whom even his own followers dreaded a certain Nonconformist austerity and aloofness ended as a supremely good fellow, whose weakness was to be an only too indolent good nature, and whose worst fault was to be an easy indecision. The day when he called in Mr. Lloyd George to relieve him of the burden of seeking an Irish solution he sealed the fate of Home Rule and his own as well.

It is, perhaps, a melancholy compliment to the politician profession to say so, but if Mr. Lloyd George had been Prime Minister instead of Mr. Asquith with all Mr. Asquith's advantages in the Parliament of 1911, he would have carried Home Rule without flinching and Partition would never have been heard of. It was not that he was as great a statesman, but that he was a more painstaking and fearless one. It is not easy to do justice as between Mr. Lloyd George's imagination in conceiving great designs and his unscrupulousness in realizing them. Were he in the saddle as Prime Minister, with a confident majority at his back and the House of Lords under his feet, or, better still, squared, and an Irish Party resourceful to suggest and resolute to have its way, he would have wheedled through or guillotined through a Home Rule Act worth battling for; he would have had the imagination to understand there was a side of the Protestant minority resistance not to be laughed down as the bluff of "wooden gun-men," or to be disposed of by Mr. Devlin's undertaking to clear the Covenanters out of his path if the police and military would only make a ring and stand aside; but having offered "Ulster" the peace and honour in their own country which Mr. De Valera and Mr. Collins tendered with as lavish a hand in 1921 as we did in 1911, he would have bidden Sir E. Carson, if he still talked of armed resistance, to obey the law like the common citizen of commerce, and we should never have heard of his latter-day "two nations" theory with which he has since lashed a world-wide Irish race into rebellion.

But as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Rule was not Mr. Lloyd George's job; and he was never the man to leave the little wares of his own Department unadvertised—no matter how the market ruled. His first daring coup was to cut off for his own share a year out of the new Parliament's five, and that the first year, when energies are freshest. This appropriation for his National Insurance Bill was an impudent injustice to Ireland, to secure "full self-government" for which was the first task for which the Liberals were elected—a purpose which was only to be effected by passing a Home Rule Bill without alteration through three successive sessions of the five available. His feat could never have been attempted without the complaisance of an indolent Prime Minister and a criminally inefficient Irish Party. As we have seen, he had already hitched their waggon to his fortunes by "the great and good Budget" of 1910. The alliance between them was strengthened when he saw his Irish enthusiasts come back from the General Election in undiminished numbers, in spite of the proofs that his and their engagements that Ireland's burden under the Budget would not exceed £400,000 a year had been already falsified and our own estimate of £2,000,000 substantially realized. It was Ireland's unhappy destiny that the fame of Mr. Lloyd George which was to be the means of subjecting her to many bitter years of betrayal and civil war was mainly of Irish manufacture. The Hibernian stalwarts who raised his "great and good Budget" to the stars, and yelled their delight at every taunt and gibe of his at those of us who strove for the humblest hearing for Ireland's financial claims, now came back to the new Parliament fired with a wilder enthusiasm for Mr. Lloyd George than for any other member of the Home Rule Ministry. Not a protesting voice was raised while the first year of "the Home Rule Parliament" was snatched from Home Rule and devoted to a National Insurance Bill, which Ireland had never demanded—which she even repudiated, through the unanimous voice of the Irish Bishops, as a measure harassing and entirely unsuited to the country. It was Mr. Lloyd George's second playful wrestle with the Irish Party, the Budget of 1910 having been the first. It was also his first trial of strength with his Prime Minister. The result must have been to give him a foretaste of the easy ascendancy over his happy-go-lucky chief, as well as over the Hibernian politicians, which was subsequently to bring the one and the other to their ignominious collapse. The extent of his success can only be measured by imagining his coolly proposing to Gladstone and Parnell to adjourn Home Rule over the first year of a Home Rule Parliament in the interest of a third-rate Departmental Bill!

But the Insurance Bill contained one proviso but for which it is probable the acquiescence of the Irish leaders in Mr. Lloyd George's audacious deal would not have been so tame: it endowed the Board of Erin Hibernians out of public funds with an enormous mass of patronage under a separate Department of their naming, and an organized financial power extending to every parish in the country. The Bill thenceforth made the Lodges of the Order the official source of emolument and honour in the eyes of the whole prolific family of placehunters and toadies. Mr. Lloyd George's next measure struck much more deeply at the independence of the Irish Party. The secret of the strength of Parnell's Party was its direct contact with and dependence on Irish opinion. Being for the most part poor men, its members found no shame in being aided by the subscriptions of their own countrymen to do the country's business. So long as that business was efficiently done, the country gladly contributed their modest allowances and considered themselves the debtors of their representatives rather than their paymasters in the transaction. The essential point was that the people at home were the fly-wheel which kept the Parliamentary machinery in motion, and were in a position instantly to correct any slackness on the part of their delegates at Westminster. All this was now to be suddenly and stealthily changed. By a simple entry on his Estimates, the Chancellor of the Exchequer proposed to turn the House of Commons into a salaried body enjoying a Treasury subsidy of £400 a year, so long as the Chancellor for the time being chose to renew the estimate. However much may be said (and I think all may be said) for the payment of members by a self-governed State, the proposal to make Irish representatives the stipendiaries of a foreign Government, to wrest Self-Government from whom was their first business in Westminster, was to Irish Nationalists a hateful one, and would have been rejected without hesitation by the country, had it been honestly submitted for their judgment at the General Election. So obviously would this have been the verdict of Irish opinion that the Hibernian Party received the first announcement of Mr. Lloyd George's estimate with a self-denying resolution which seemed firmly to wave aside the bribe, and reaffirmed the old sound principle that an Irish Party must be content to depend upon the voluntary contributions of their own countrymen. However, having lulled any uneasiness in Ireland to rest by their virtuous protestation, they proceeded, without any further consultation of Irish opinion, to give a unanimous Party vote—and by their vote alone a majority was secured—for the Chancellor of the Exchequer's estimate, on the pitiful plea that in voting themselves their Treasury salaries, they were only voting like sound democrats in the interest of a poor English Labour Party.

The transaction was hustled out of notice in the Hibernian newspapers as ingeniously as through the House of Commons. Probably not one Irishman in a thousand realized that, by a single vote in Committee, the fundamental principle on which the Irish Party was built up of direct accountability to the Irish people, was once for all demolished. But few will now dispute that from the night they voted themselves into Treasury salaries, and thus deprived their constituents of the power of the purse, as the Hibernian organization had already stripped the people of any real voice in their election, may be dated the decadence which was fated to bring the Parliamentary movement from one stage of deterioration to another to its final extinguishment by the consenting voice of a whole race. It would be unjust to suppose that any outside a very scurvy but very small inner ring of that Party were influenced by any sordid personal interest in their Parliamentary subsidies, still less that they foresaw the door they were opening to more painful fallings-away which were to follow, when swearing that they'd ne'er consent, they consented to eat the Lloyd George forbidden fruit. But it was that very inability to foresee the ultimate—sometimes even the immediate—consequences of their action which stamped the leadership of the National movement in those momentous years with an irredeemable taint of incapacity, and made the Party easy tools of Mr. Lloyd George, in whatever uses he chose to put them to from his first Budget wizardries to his final Partition Act.

The alliance formed between Mr. Lloyd George and Sir Edward Carson completed the supremacy of Mr. Lloyd George and the bedevilment of Home Rule. The event was due to Mr. Asquith's inconceivable weakness in admitting to one of the highest posts in his Cabinet a man whose preparations for civil war in Ulster notoriously incited the Kaiser to precipitate the conflagration that covered the world. More amazingly still, this transformation of the potential rebel into a chief ruler of the Empire passed without a protesting word from the Irish Party, who, without exacting any conditions for the future of Home Rule, either from the Coalition Government or from Sir E. Carson, permitted the Ministry of the Home Rule majority to be dissolved and its place taken by a Coalition Cabinet of which (Mr. Lloyd George being still a dark horse) the two most potent members were the two most potent enemies of Ireland—Sir E. Carson and Mr. Bonar Law. The offer to Mr. Redmond of an insignificant Postmaster-Generalship by way of counterpoise was an almost contemptuous aggravation of the wrong with which the friendliness of Ireland at the outset of the war was repaid, with the connivance of her own representatives. In his new character as Minister of Munitions, Mr. Lloyd George was not long in recognizing in the Ulster and Unionist leaders his most valuable coadjutors in the Coalition Government, and the inevitable result of the combination is told in Col. Repington's Diary, revealing the means and the men by which Mr. Asquith was overthrown in the Cabinet of his own making:

"Sunday. Decr. 3, 1916.—Last Friday began a great internal crisis when L. G. wrote to the P(rime) M(inister) that he could not go on unless our methods of waging war were speeded up. He proposed a War Council of Three, including himself, Bonar Law, and Carson. The two latter are with him, which means the Unionists, too."—( The First World War, Vol. 1, p. 403.)

Mr. Lloyd George came out on top, and he was neither sufficiently stupid, nor sufficiently ungrateful, ever to forget the two men who were the pillars of his greatness. From the new Triple Alliance (once more established in power with the uncomplaining assent of an invertebrate Irish Party) [18] may be dated not merely Sir E. Carson's triumphant escape from his responsibilities for the war in the eyes of the British people, but his henceforth unquestioned mastery of the Irish policy of the Coalition. In the early stages of the Home Rule Bill, so far as Mr. Lloyd George had discovered Ulster at all, it was rather to play up to the delicate Hibernian facetiae at the expense of her wooden guns and her game of bluff and bluster. We may be sure that when the Bill was introduced in 1912, he would as soon have anticipated the day when he would commit the Mabinogion to the flames or denounce Llewellyn as an historic imposture as that he would presently be found denying the very existence of an Irish Nation more bitterly than Sir Edward Carson. Like Lord Randolph Churchill, he only discovered Ulster when it served his politician's purpose, and he not unnaturally placed pretty high Sir Edward Carson's price as an ally in matters that more concerned him. It was Sir Edward Carson and Mr. Bonar Law who had raised him to his dizzy height of power, and it was the cheapest of exchanges to be thenceforth their obedient servant in the affairs of Ireland.

As unscrupulous as you please—although doubtless softened to his conscience by the thought that he was saving the Empire in a great emergency as well as carrying his own ambitions to the stars—but if from that time forth it became certain that a Partition scheme dictated by Sir Edward Carson and Mr. Bonar Law was the only possible settlement to be offered to Ireland—if for years after the Irish Parliamentary Party had passed away, no acceptable terms of truce could be offered to Sinn Féin, until the two countries had been shocked with all the horrors of civil war—it must never be left out of sight that it was only because the indulgent bonhomie of Mr. Asquith had enabled Sir Edward Carson to meet his co-conspirators on an equal footing in his Cabinet, and because the triumph of the conspiracy received the mute assent of an Irish Party, who had already accepted the very Partition scheme which Sir Edward Carson eventually carried into law.

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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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