A Peace Offer that was Spurned

We have now seen the two successive modes of aggression upon Sinn Féin—that of pinpricks under Mr. Shortt and Mr. Macpherson, and that of uncontrolled ferocity under Sir Hamar Greenwood—in operation. While his faith in the virtues of the Black and Tans was still strong, Mr. Lloyd George resolved to extract one permanent result from the White Terror, and to make his old project for the division of Ireland into two provinces an accomplished fact. This he achieved by his Government of Ireland Act of 1920. It was carried without the support of a single vote from any section of representatives of the country of which it was to be the Act of Liberation stipulated for in President Wilson's Fourteen Points. The Act was equally detestable to North and South and was imposed upon both by main force. But to Sir Edward Carson it gave the satisfaction of a legislative acknowledgment once for all of the Two-Nations theory and to the Parliamentarians of the old Hibernian school it was enough to answer that the Act did precisely what they had themselves covenanted to do by their Headings of Agreement in 1916—namely, to separate the Six Counties from Nationalist Ireland.

The six Hibernian members of Parliament saved by the Northern Bishops from the wreckage of the General Election did everything that feeble inefficiency could do in the new Parliament to justify the Irish revolt against Parliamentary action. Their first master-stroke, having just been ruined by their enslavement to one English Party, was formally to enslave themselves to another—the English Labour Party, and to throw over the remnant of the unfortunate Liberals, because they were only a remnant. But under a leader of capacity, they might still have mustered a formidable opposition of Labourites, "Wee Frees," gallant democratic friends of freedom like Commander Kenworthy and Captain Wedgwood Benn, and young Conservatives such as Lord George Bentinck, Mr. Aubrey Herbert, Mr. Moseley, and in a growing degree Lord Robert Cecil, who might have kept the House of Commons ringing with the atrocities in Ireland and obstructed, if not finally baffled, the Bill for the Partition of their nation. Parnell did such things as one of a group as small and without the support of half a dozen Englishmen. It was not merely that a Parnell of the first rate or of the fifth rate was missing. The trouble was that the sins of their days of power were haunting the Hibernians. What was Mr. Devlin to say in serious protest against a Bill which enacted that very surrender of the Six Counties to which his Party had solemnly consented, and which he in person, at the Belfast Convention, had thrust down the throats of the hypnotised Nationalists of the Six Counties themselves? That feat of inconsistency, however, would not have in itself overtasked his powers. He took a course in reference to the Bill as fatal to his reputation as a tactician as to his loyalty to principle. He withdrew himself and his Labour and Liberal friends from the Committee stage of the Bill, where they might have had their best chance of thwarting it, and only returned for the harmless formality of the Third Reading to declare in a speech of threadbare high heroics—he, the high priest of the Belfast Convention—that "they were face to face with a grave attempt to destroy the unity of their motherland, but they would meet that danger with courage and with incomparable resolution. They stood for freedom for Ireland, undivided and indivisible." "Partition," he finally described as "midsummer madness—rotten before it was born." In the meantime he was to find that in his absence and that of his friends, the more terre à terre Covenanters to whom he had handed over the Six Counties, had in Committee gerrymandered the constituencies of North East Ulster to their sweet will, and added two Orange Wards to his own constituency of the Falls Road, thereby ensuring his ejection from the Imperial Parliament at the General Election. In the last stage of his decadence the paladin, who had once summoned the police and military to make a ring for him in Belfast for a fight to a finish with the Orangemen, quitted Belfast as soon as he was taken at his word, and his constituents were falling by the hundred under the bullets of the unloosed Orangemen, and he subsided thenceforth into the poor role of "asking questions," feebler and ever feebler at Westminster. The only personage of any consequence in the group, Mr. T. P. O'Connor, confined his attention to the atrocities of the Black-and-Tans of Turkey in Armenia and with tears in his voice gave to that interesting people the eloquence he would once have devoted to the Bashi-bazouks of Sir Hamar Greenwood.

We may be fairly challenged to name our own exploits in the emergency. Frankly, they were none. Unlike the Hibernian leaders who on the morrow of their overthrow at the polls predicted that "before six months" there would come a Reaction which would re-establish their power, the All-for-Ireland League, as a corporate power, had definitely ceased to exist before the General Election. For fifteen years, we had fought the losing battle against the ever growing power of a corrupt Hibernian ascendancy to prevent the majority of our countrymen from hearing anything except the most fantastic misrepresentations of our views and actions. We had an unshaken conviction that time was bound to vindicate, as the only stable basis of a benign National settlement, an agreement by consent of every element of strength, Gaelic or Norman or British, Catholic or Protestant, Democratic or Conservative, which constituted the actual Irish nation, such as History had bequeathed it to us, as opposed to the destructive programme of everlasting enmity towards "our hereditary enemies," "the black-blooded Cromwellians," "the Orange dogs," and "the rotten Protestants," in pursuance of which a majority of the constituencies tragically ignorant of what they were being led to do, had repulsed every conciliatory advance from far-sighted Protestant Irishmen and forced a million of their countrymen to hail Sir E. Carson as their deliverer. The vindication of our measures for allaying the fears of the Protestant minority and our unconquerable aversion to Partition had, indeed, come already, and was to be within a few years acknowledged by every school and section of Irish Nationalists, including our most bitter maligners and by every English Party as well, who eventually found salvation around the conference-table of which we had set them the example fifteen years before at the Land Conference. We had lived to receive the admission of the Prime Minister that we were "fundamentally right," and were presently to hear the head of the new Revolutionary movement, Mr. De Valera, protest as passionately as ourselves his devotion to the rights of "our hereditary enemies" who had given us our Grattans and Wolfe Tones and Emmets, and to find the President of the new "Irish Free State," Mr. Arthur Griffith, in his first proclamation, publish our doctrines of unwearying conciliation of the Protestant minority as the foundation-stone of his Government. We were to have the consolation such as it was of finding the Irish Hierarchy publishing in 1922 (eight years too late, alas!) their solemn judgment that "the deadly effect of Partition has been to ruin Ireland"—the Partition which was unanimously consented to by the Hibernian Parliamentary Party, and for making the sole protest against which (while there was still time to avert the catastrophe) we were anathematised as traitors.

But we had no longer any power to hasten the consummation of the enlightened principles soon to be crowned with universal assent. Nay, it was certain that our disappearance would be the surest means of removing the last obstacle to their triumph, by removing all pretext for the old jealousies, and leaving the new generation unfettered to follow up the good work in the plenitude of their fresh energies and springtime hopes. Sic vos non vobis seems to pronounce irrevocably the fate of the pioneers and we cheerfully bowed to the decree. On the other hand, even if our collaboration had been invited (and it never was) we should have shrunk from the responsibility of flinging our young countrymen all but weaponless, against the colossal armaments of England under conditions of which we knew nothing. All the more, that we were still persuaded, Parliamentary methods had proved ineffective, not because they were the Parliamentary methods of Parnell, but because they were not, but were the methods of corrupt bargain and sale which had sacrificed the interests of the nation to those of an English Party. But the new men were the solitary hope of redeeming the country from a state of political rottenness which moved Mr. T. P. O'Connor himself to cry out that the place-hunting members of Parliament "were making a commonage" of Mr. Birrell's room in the House of Commons, and if they were to be trusted at all must be armed with all the undivided strength the nation could give them. To the new men, consequently, it became our cardinal principle to secure the same generous mandate which had been given to Parnell against the less degenerate followers of Butt and under no circumstances to say or do aught that could enfeeble their arm.

On two occasions only, up to the date of the Truce, was our silence broken. The first was when a protest in the Times was wrung from me by the devastation of our own little town of Mallow. In the rage of the Crown forces under a defeat which was a perfectly legitimate act of war, they turned a place which had been a sylvan Arcadia of peace and mutual tolerance into a furnace of vengeful passions on both sides in which the nights grew horrid around us with the rattle of gunfire, the crash of bridges blown into the air and the glare of burning mansions and of burning cabins. My only other intervention was one that seemed to be forced upon me as an elementary duty of humanity as well as patriotism. While the war was already furiously raging and spreading, but before it had yet nearly reached its climax, I received a communication from one of Mr. De Valera's most intimate confidants—although not, so far as I know at his desire, or, perhaps, even with his knowledge—which could leave no room for doubt that peace might at that moment be had on terms which would have spared the country two years of appalling bloodshed and sufferings and which Mr. Lloyd George would have paid a kingdom's ransom two years later if he could go back to. The substance of that communication I took the responsibility of communicating to the Prime Minister in a correspondence which will speak for itself, and which there is no longer any reason for withholding:

Confidential and Secret.

July 5, 1919.

Dear Mr. Loyd George,—

Enclosed extract may be relied upon as indicating what the attitude of Sinn Féin will be towards any definite offer of Dominion Home Rule. For that reason, and because I can guarantee the writer's good faith and very special sources of information, I consider it a duty to send it to you. From his report it may be deduced with certainty that Sinn Féin will not block the way of any offer of New Zealand or Newfoundland Home Rule provided (1) that it comes from the Government itself, (2) with a guarantee that if accepted by an Irish Referendum it will be put into operation and (3) that neither the Times nor Sir H. Plunkett is allowed to exploit the concession to the prejudice of the elected representatives of Ireland, whose concurrence (tacit if not active) will be essential if any practicable settlement is to be effected within my time or even within yours. I will not waste your time adding another pebble to your mountain of glory: there is only one triumph more amazing and more blessed you could have and it would be in Ireland.

Sincerely yours,

William O'Brien.

The Rt. Hon. D. Lloyd George, M.P.,

Prime Minister.

(Enclosed Extract).

Confidential and Secret.

"I have had an opportunity of seeing ———, who is a really fast friend of ours and is the right-hand man of Mr. De V. I have also met a large number of leading people in Dublin and the country and I'm quite convinced that 99 per cent. of the Sinn Féin body would gladly accept Dominion Home Rule as a settlement, but will have nothing to do with Plunkett's scheme or with any other scheme of the same nature until such time as the Government place all their cards on the table.

"I am agreeably surprised at the good sense displayed by the people, and the most determined of the young men as well as the more experienced. There is more common sense and more resolution than was ever before known in our history. Every person I met was willing to close with an honest Dominion Settlement, including all but a handful of the extremist Volunteers, but all are determined not to give way one inch until something concrete is before the country.

"There was near being a serious split in the S.F. camp a few weeks ago. It was learned that the Government intended to suppress by force any meeting of the Sinn Féin M.P.s The leaders agreed to abandon any public meeting for the present. To this the Volunteers strongly objected, stating their men were prepared to make any sacrifice in defence of the right of the Dáil to meet in public. However the matter was got over through the influence of Mr. De Valera with the extreme men.

"I asked would the Volunteers give the same trouble if Mr. De Valera accepted Dominion Home Rule. He assured me they most certainly would not, but on the contrary would be perfectly reasonable. But they must first be sure the Government mean business and that there would be no more foolery either at home or in America. Failing that confidence they are ready for anything and so is the country. Dillon and his crowd are dead and gone.

"If the country had only shown the same sense a few years ago, all would have been so different. However, it is a consolation to know they have at long last learned a sound lesson in the school of experience. If they are honestly dealt with, all will be well, but God help the Government that will try any further tricks on them."

Private and Confidential.


14th July, 1919.

Dear Mr. O'Brien,—

I thank you for sending me the interesting extract on the attitude of Sinn Féin towards Dominion Home Rule. There is nothing I would like better than to carry through any measure which would terminate the long, dreary and baffling feud between Britain and Ireland. Frankly, I am not in a very hopeful mood. I have made two or three attempts, and when they seemed to be on the point of success—accomplishment eluded one. That seems to me to have been the experience of almost every man who has striven to settle the Irish question. I think you were fundamentally right when you sought an agreement amongst all sections, creeds and classes of Irishmen. I am afraid settlement is impossible until that has been achieved. All parties in Britain, Liberal, Unionist, Labour, are equally pledged through their leaders not to coerce Ulster into the acceptance of any measure of autonomy which would have to be forced on the population of that Province. On the other hand, Irish Nationalists are equally pledged not to accept any settlement which would not put Ulster into the same position as Munster or Connaught. How are you to reconcile these inconsistent positions? Home Rule is within the reach of Nationalist Ireland the moment it extends its hand, but if Nationalist Ireland says she will not have Home Rule unless she can have Ulster, with or without her will, then I am afraid a settlement is remote.

The Sinn Féin attitude during the war has not made matters easier. No British Statesman could coerce Ulster in order to place it forcibly under the control of De Valera and the men who were undoubtedly intriguing with the Germans to stab Britain in the back at the very moment when Germany was making a special effort to overwhelm her armies in France. I very much regret having to say this for I have always been a consistent supporter of every Home Rule Bill introduced into the House of Commons during the past 30 years. But it is no use ignoring facts. I know you to be a man of supreme courage and therefore prepared to face unpalatable truths.

Ever sincerely,

Lloyd George.

William O'Brien, Esq.

"If they are honestly dealt with, all will be well, but God help the Government that will try any further tricks on them!" It was the complete manual of wisdom in the matter, but the manual was placed under the eyes of the blind. Plainly, it was the incorrigible British fault all over again: Mr. Lloyd George read the first hint of good will on Mr. De Valera's part as a sign that he was a beaten man. As likely as not, he concluded that he had caught Mr. De Valera and myself in a conspiracy to balk him of the victory already in the hands of the Black and Tans. Here was the small smartness which so often marred his imaginative greatness as a statesman. Had he at that time honestly opened negotiations for peace, he would have avoided most of the difficulties which were later to imperil everything when the Irish Republic had to be dealt with as an accomplished fact. The Dáil had not yet been formally called together: its members had not yet sworn the solemn oath of allegiance to the Irish Republic which it thenceforth became the principal difficulty of delicate minds to recall. It seems certain that Mr. De Valera's scruples about arranging the terms of an "external association" with the Empire would never have assumed their subsequent seriousness, and that the vast bulk of the nation would have welcomed peace in ecstacy. Nevertheless, in the very letter in which he acknowledges that I was "fundamentally right" (and consequently he himself fundamentally wrong) in the advice I had for years been tendering, the Prime Minister once more rejects my counsels, will talk of nothing except the old bitterness of Easter Week, and the failure of his own precious specific of "The Irish Convention," and obviously dismisses the subject with the comfortable feeling that his own policy of the Black Hand was winning.

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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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