Mr. Lloyd George's "Irish Convention" (1917)

Mr. Lloyd George's new expedient for the pacification of Ireland, and his last before he called in "the Black-and-Tans" was marked by his characteristic defects as a statesman. It was improvised, it was uncandid, and it was open to be changed into something quite different at a moment's notice. So open to change, that the new programme which he unfolded in a circular public letter to Mr. Redmond, Sir E. Carson and myself, contained two self-contradictory proposals for a "deal," one of which was dropped without a word of explanation, when the other was first mentioned in the House of Commons:—So sly as to raise the suspicion among plain men that it was not framed for Ireland at all, but as the only means of conquering America's last hesitation about entering actively into the war. For the main achievement for which his "Irish Convention" will be remembered was that the injunction to "go on talking" was elaborately kept up for eight months, until President Wilson made up his mind for his invasion of Europe, and the assembly of talkers was then quietly bundled out of notice.

The chances are that Mr. Lloyd George was neither so good nor so bad as he seemed from opposite angles. A politician whose main business it was to win the war, his first concern was to corral the Americans; but he would doubtless have honestly welcomed an Irish Settlement on its own merits, as a by-product—as, so to say, a Mesopotamian excursion from his Flanders front. The first plan disclosed in his invitation to Mr. Redmond, Sir E. Carson and myself in May, 1917, was frankly a Partitionist one:—it was to revive the old "Headings of Agreement" and to put the Home Rule Act into operation forthwith in 26 counties, on condition of the remaining six being expressly excluded, a "National Council" of derisory powers being added by way of keeping up diplomatic relations between the two rival Irish States, in order to save the face of the Hibernian Partitionists. This scheme, it cannot be doubted, would have been closed with by Mr. Redmond, as he had closed with the "Headings of Agreement," had not the recent progress of Sinn Féin daunted the hearts of his Party. In the February of that year Count Plunkett, father of one of the leaders executed for his part in the Rising of Easter Week, had been returned for North Roscommon by a startling majority. Again a week before Mr. Lloyd George launched his new offer another leader of the Easter Week Rising, then in penal servitude, was returned by a narrow majority for North Longford, up to that time considered an impregnable stronghold of Hibernianism. Had the majority of 37 been turned to the other side, the first offer of the Prime Minister—that of Partition, naked and unashamed—would have been eagerly grasped at by the Hibernians, whose last chance of existence now depended upon getting hold of the power and revenues of their three-quarter Parliament before the rising tide should overwhelm them. But more intimidating than the figures at any individual election was the letter published on the eve of the polling from Dr. Walsh, Archbishop of Dublin—since the death of Dr. Croke, much the most influential Churchman in the political counsels of Irishmen—in which he made the memorable pronouncement that, to his knowledge, "the cause of Ireland had been sold"—a letter which, if it were published in time to reach the mass of the electors must have turned the defeat of the Hibernians into a panic-rout. Mr. Redmond made no disguise of the fact that it was because he knew that "in my opinion it would find no support in Ireland," that he set aside in a sentence the first of Mr. Lloyd George's alternative schemes, and wished with all his heart it could be forgotten.

The second was more plausible and on a first inspection seemed to concede the main points the All-for-Ireland League had long been struggling for. It was that "a Convention of Irishmen of all creeds and parties" should assemble to draft a Constitution for their country, the only limitation imposed upon their powers being that it must be "a Constitution for the better Government of Ireland within the Empire," and the Prime Minister pledged the Government to carry into law any proposals of the Convention which might secure "the substantial agreement" of its members. What could look franker, more generous or more confiding? Many even of the most sober-minded of our own friends were transported with joy. Great was their amazement when, after much pondering, I felt compelled to decline the invitation to participate in a project which seemed to be the official adoption of the solution of the Irish problem by Irishmen themselves, and its enactment by the common consent of every English Party, which we had never ceased to press without giving way before outrage or ridicule. "Is not this the triumph of all you have been contending for?" it was impulsively urged. "What more can you desire?" Sore was the bewilderment when the reply came: "What alone I or you desire is an Irish Conference which shall have a chance of success. Constituted as Mr. Lloyd George proposes to constitute it, this Conference (or as he prefers to call it 'Convention') cannot possibly arrive at any agreement except one for Partition, and consequently what seems nominally a compliance with our programme can lead to nothing except the certainty of defeat for all we have been striving for." The truth was that the apparent contradiction between the Prime Minister's two proposals was only on the surface. He gave up the first—that of undisguised Partition—for Mr. Redmond's brutally opportunist reason, that "the people would not stand it," thus nakedly stated; but he only gave it up to carry it more surely into effect by means of an "Irish Convention," overwhelmingly composed of pledged Partitionist politicians, "Nationalist" and Unionist, which must either agree to Partition, or disagree altogether, and thus throw the blame for a failure upon Ireland herself in the eyes of the Allied Powers.

All this is plain enough now, but was so little understood at the time by a public condemned to a carefully organised ignorance of the truth that it required some strength of mind to resist the temptation of a war-weary country to grasp at peace at almost any price. In the event, it was this Convention which led unavoidably to the Partition Act of 1920, with all the far-reaching calamities that followed it. Its history is therefore as absorbingly interesting as it is up to the present unknown. My own decision was not hastily taken. To Mr. Lloyd George's first invitation I made the following friendly reply:

"London, May 17th, 1917.

"Dear Mr. Lloyd George,—In reply to your letter of yesterday afternoon, I have no difficulty about giving for the information of the Cabinet the view of my friends and myself as to your Irish proposals. I have already repeatedly declared myself unalterably opposed to any scheme of Partition, and therefore need not discuss the suggestion for its revival in a Government Bill. As to the alternative suggestion for a Convention or Conference of Irishmen of all classes and creeds to draft a Constitution for Ireland, my friends and myself are, of course, prepared to give a hearty support to the Government in giving effect to a principle we have so long contended for, subject to the discussion of details on Monday next.

Sincerely yours,

William O'Brien."

"On Monday next" (May 21) when the Prime Minister laid his proposals formally before the House of Commons, he dropped altogether the offer to put the Home Rule Act into operation forthwith in the 26 counties, and he abstained from giving any detailed information as to the constitution of his "Irish Convention." In my remarks, accordingly, I extended a sympathetic, though necessarily guarded, welcome to that portion of his project, but could not avoid pointing out that Partition still lurked ominously in the background and warning the Government against any such composition of the Convention as might give rise to the suspicion that it was to be dominated by the nominees of Parties already committed by their adhesion to the "Headings of Agreement." The warning was made imperative by the speech of the leader of the Ulster Party, Sir John Lonsdale, proclaiming that Partition could be the only basis of the "substantial agreement" to which Mr. Lloyd George pledged himself to give legislative effect, and by the further speech of Mr. Redmond adumbrating a plan (which was subsequently adopted) by which the bulk of the Convention would consist of delegates from the Corporations and County Councils of Ireland—almost all partisans of his own—who had been allowed already, owing to the war, to outstay their mandate from their constituents by two years and who were so notoriously at variance with the new spirit in the country that, as soon as the country was allowed, it swept them bodily into oblivion. In the friendliest spirit, I urged our own conviction that success was to be found, not in any large, unwieldy and unrepresentative assembly of partisans, but in a small group of ten or a dozen Irish notables commanding general respect, and depending for a Democratic sanction to their proceedings upon a proviso that any agreement of theirs must be submitted straightaway to a Referendum of the electorate of all Ireland. My observations wound up with a warning to which the course of subsequent events gave some significance:

"What I want the House to mark is that you have never yet tried either of the measures I have suggested. You have never called the whole electorate of Ireland into consultation upon a definite scheme, agreed to by Irishmen commanding general confidence. You have never offered any concession to Ulster except one which would call upon us with our own hand to take the very life of our motherland as a nation. ... If you break down now—I pray you not to delude yourselves—you will not kill the Irish Cause, but you will kill any reasonable chance for our time of reconstructing the Constitutional Movement upon an honest basis. You will kill all Irish belief in this House or in any Party within it. You will set up the right of Rebellion, whether for the Covenanters or the Sinn Féiners as the only arbiter left in Irish affairs. You will justly make Parliamentary methods even more despised and detested than they are at the present moment by the young men of Ireland."

Once more the Government purchased the support of the Hibernian Party by following their fatal advice. It became known at once that the Convention was to be little better than a mob of Hibernian partisans, and its success—if its success, on any after basis but Partition, had ever really been desired by its projector—was about to be compromised from the start. Upon the following day, while there was still a hope of averting the utterly unconstitutional constitution now designed for the Convention, I willingly acceded to the proposal of the Chief Secretary, Sir Henry Duke, for an interview upon the subject. My note of our conversation, taken down at the time, will best explain what happened between us:

Before we parted, the Chief Secretary asked me to supply him with the names of those likely to be found effective members of the Conference of Irish notables which I contemplated. I sent him the subjoined panel, not as one to be rigidly adhered to, but as including types of the kind of Irishmen, high-minded, tolerant and representative of the finest Irish qualities, whose deliberations were likely to bear fruit:

1. The Lord Mayor of Dublin (Ald. O'Neill).

2 and 3. The Catholic and Protestant Archbishops of Dublin.

4. The Marquess of Londonderry.

5. The Earl of Dunraven.

6. Gen. Sir Hubert Gough.

7. Major William Redmond, M.P.

8. Viscount Northcliffe.

9. Mr. William Martin Murphy.

10. Mr. Arthur Griffith.

11. Mr. Hugh Barrie, M.P.

12. Professor Eoin MacNeill.

The list was drawn up without previous consultation with any of the individuals named, and would have then seemed to the general public a daring one; but the prudence of the choice has so successfully borne the test of time that few would now dispute that had a dozen such men been brought together, when first suggested, several years before, or even then at the half-past eleventh hour, they would not have separated without arriving at a memorable National Agreement. Two of the Northern representatives suggested—Lord Londonderry and Mr. Hugh Barrie—were among the three Ulster representatives named on the Committee of Nine which brought the one gleam of hope that visited the proceedings of the Convention. Lord Northcliffe whom I had never met was at the time Mr. Lloyd George's closest confidant. His great paper was one of the most powerful of the dynamic forces that won the war. That his influence would not have been misused is clear enough from a note of his dated 30th April, 1917, on the occasion of a previous essay of mine in the same direction:

"Dear Mr. O'Brien,—Your letter reached me to-day.

Curiously enough I was discussing this very matter with Sir Edward Carson yesterday afternoon. I do not believe that I should be a welcome member of any such Conference. I have been violently criticised in Ulster. But I do believe that an Irish Conference of strictly Irish people is one of the means towards a settlement. Very few English people understand Irish people. Yours very truly,


Another singular success was the choice of General Hubert Gough. I had never met him or been in communication with him in any way. He was only known in Ireland as the leader of "the Curragh Mutiny," and my suggestion of him as an apostle of National Peace would have been once grasped at by the malicious as an unheard of act of traitorism, and even by the worthiest would have been received with head shaking and silence. All I knew was that he had come of a gallant and genial line of Irish soldiers; that the part he had taken at the Curragh would give him an indisputable title to be heard with respect in Ulster; and that with a no less gallant and no less genial Irish soldier like Major "Willie" Redmond he would have supplied an irresistible soldierly argument for Irish peace. How true was my intuition may be judged by an extract from a letter General Gough wrote me years afterwards (February 13, 1921), when he first heard of the liberty I had taken with his name:

"It was absolute news to me to find that you had mentioned my name as far back as May, 1917, as one of those who might arrive at some sane solution for the government of our unhappy country, and I must say how very broadminded I think it of you to have put forward such an idea. However much I may feel my own incapacity for dealing with such a question, I can at least be confident that I would never have adopted the present bloody and repressive methods which are being so brutally employed in Ireland to-day. However, I do not suppose anything could have been devised to unite all Irishmen more closely and in more real sympathy. The terrible misfortune is that this real sympathy among Irishmen is being brought about by means which can only raise antipathy and hate between Irishmen and Englishmen. I can see no light at present and it is distressing to feel one is deprived of all power to alter things."

Mr. Duke left upon my mind the impression of a man convinced of the unwisdom of the proposed composition of the Convention, but powerless to alter it. One other auspicious opportunity offered of reconsidering the matter before it was too late. No sooner did the Government plans get abroad than the Sinn Féin Executive in Dublin passed a resolution unanimously rejecting Mr. Lloyd George's invitation to be represented by five nominees of Sinn Féin. Perceiving by the wording of the resolution that their decision applied to the outrageously unrepresentative character of the contemplated assemblage, and not to some more broadly conceived Irish settlement by Irishmen in Ireland, I at once telegraphed to Mr. Arthur Griffith, the founder of the Sinn Féin movement, and at that time (owing to the internment of Mr. De Valera and his chief fighting men in English prisons) the virtual leader and director of Sinn Féin affairs in Ireland:

"London, May 23.

"Confidential. May I ask does your objection to a big Convention bound to end in fiasco or Partition extend to a Conference of a dozen genuinely representative Irishmen whose agreement, if any, would be submitted to people of all Ireland by Referendum?"

His reply was:

"Dublin, May 23.

"I should be willing to state my views to a Conference of Irishmen. Absolutely reject Convention."[39]

Taking the offer to be one of moment, I communicated it without an hour's delay to the Chief Secretary, urging that it would ensure the participation in genuine Peace negotiations of the Irish Party of the future and expressing my own confidence that the co-operation of responsible men of the highest intelligence of the stamp of Mr. Griffith and Professor Eoin MacNeill would be found to be of priceless advantage. I did so, although I had just been hearing news which satisfied me that the Cabinet's mind was made up against us:

Hotel Windsor,

May 24, 1917.


Dear Mr. Duke,—From all I hear, it is useless to hope to dissuade your colleagues from the so-called "Irish Convention" they have resolved upon.

I consider it, however, a duty to send you enclosed telegrams which passed between Mr. Griffith and myself yesterday. His reply proves that it would be still possible to secure the co-operation of the immense mass of Irish opinion represented, though very vaguely, by the sentiment of Sinn Féin.

All that, however, seems now given up, and I am afraid the great body of Irish Nationalists will be left no escape from the conclusion that the proposed Convention will be held for Anglo-American war purposes and upon lines which are bound to aggravate instead of composing the present troubles.

I shall be much obliged if you will kindly return me the suggestions as to the personnel and basis of settlement of an Irish Conference on the Land Conference model, which I gave you on Tuesday.

Yours very faithfully,

William O'Brien.

Rt. Hon. H. Duke, M.P.

P.S.—Mr. Healy has a suggestion for a preliminary "Conference" to draw up a programme for the "Convention," if the Government still persists in having one. He, like myself, however, thinks it useless to persist in the face of the attitude of the Government.—W. O'B.

Mr. Duke's only reply—one of pathetic helplessness—was this:

"Irish Office,


"Dear Mr. O'Brien,—I enclose, herewith, the two documents which you kindly entrusted to me.

Yours truly,

H. E. Duke."

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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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