A True "National Cabinet"

The resistance to Conscription led to the first and last occasion on which all descriptions of Nationalists&mdash Parliamentary, Republican and Labourite—acted unitedly together. One of the bribes by which Mr. Lloyd George had secured the silence of the Hibernian Party, while "the Home Rule Government," with a sweeping "Home Rule" majority was being transformed into a Coalition dominated by Sir E. Carson, was the promise that Ireland would be exempted from Conscription. The promise was to be impudently broken now when the Hibernian Party had parted with its casting vote. By a grisly coincidence, on the day when the Report of the Irish Convention was submitted to the Cabinet, Mr. Lloyd George rose in the House of Commons to propose that the Conscription Act be extended to Ireland. His announcement wrung from me the exclamation: "That is a declaration of war against Ireland!" It also wrought the rank-and-file of the Hibernian Party into an outburst of real indignation. Mr. Lloyd George had, however, his answer that put to silence the falsetto passion of their leaders. He was ready with quotations from the late Mr. Redmond, in which he said: "Let me state what is my personal view on the question of compulsion. I am prepared to say I will stick at nothing—nothing which is necessary—in order to win this war," and from his successor, Mr. Dillon, who added: "Like Mr. Redmond I view the thing from the point of view of necessity and expediency. I would not hesitate to support Conscription to-morrow, if I thought it was necessary to maintain liberty, and if there was no Conscription we ran the risk of losing the war." The Prime Minister had no difficulty in satisfying the condition of "necessity" by appealing to the desperate emergency of the moment, when "with American aid we can save the war, but even with American help we cannot feel secure." After which he was able to give short shrift to the present blatant indignation of the Hibernian leaders and to the spluttering war-cries of their bemuddled followers.

The fit of hypocritical virtue which always accompanies a breach of faith with Ireland by a sanctified assurance of rewards to come was not missing on the present occasion. Conscription there must be, to be enforced within two or three weeks, but, Mr. Lloyd George sweetly warbled, it was to be washed down with a new Home Rule Bill, which he only vaguely adumbrated as one to be founded on the Majority Report of the Irish Convention; but inasmuch as he casually mentioned that he had not yet read the Majority Report at all, and as the Majority Report turned out to be a make-believe, which was impartially despised on all sides, and was, in fact, never heard of more, the perfidy of breaking the promise Ireland understood to have been plainly given, was only aggravated by the accompanying dose of British hypocrisy. It was too late, however, for the Party who had parted with their Parliamentary power to make any impression in Parliament. Their wry faces made but little impression upon the serried ranks of the Coalition. It was in Ireland, not in Westminster, Conscription had to be encountered, and not with words. It was to gird Ireland up to the terrific trial to which the Conscription Act challenged her that my own protest was principally directed:

"Whether wisely or unwisely, all parties of politicians, both English and Irish, have done their worst to deprive my friends and myself of any effectual power of interfering in Irish affairs, but so long as I retain my seat in this House at all, I shall not shrink from the duty of making my protest, no matter how powerless it may be, against the mad and wicked crime which you are proposing to-night to perpetrate upon Ireland. For forty years now Ireland has been pleading and hungering for peace with England upon the most moderate terms. For the last eight years the representatives of the Irish people have had sovereign power of life and death over this Parliament under two successive Governments and the only fault of the Irish people was that they trusted you too much, and allowed their representatives in this House to use their tremendous powers—the greatest powers that Irishmen ever had over your Parliament—only too feebly and with only too merciful a regard for your interests. Even when this war broke out Ireland could have destroyed you. One of your own statesmen then acknowledged that Ireland was the one bright spot on your horizon. What is Ireland's reward? Now, when in your wild ignorance you have taken it into your heads that the two latest Irish elections of South Armagh and Waterford show [43] that the spirit of Sinn Féin is dying away, you have the country disarmed and are holding it down under Martial Law. You have your jails packed with political prisoners whom you are treating as common felons for the self-same offence of drilling a Volunteer Army, for which two of the most distinguished leaders of the Ulster Volunteers have been promoted to be Cabinet Ministers. We have witnessed to-night another exhibition of the old trick of mixing up the promise of a milk and water Home Rule Bill which you know will come to nothing with a proposal of brutal military coercion by which you ask the Irish people to shed torrents of their blood—I suppose by way of gratitude to the Prime Minister for casting to the winds, as he did to-night, another solemn promise to the Irish nation. ... If you expect co-operation or gratitude all I can tell you is you will receive nothing and deserve nothing but the detestation of a people who only a few months ago were all but on their knees proffering you their friendship and their allegiance. I say all this with bitter regret, because you have compelled me to renounce those dreams of a true and permanent reconciliation between these two countries with which I can truly say my thoughts have been occupied night and day for the past fifteen years. . . . I do not want on an occasion of this kind to accentuate differences amongst Irish Nationalists. You have perhaps by this proposal to-night done something to lessen those differences and to ensure that however serious our differences have been and are, on this question of resistance to Conscription you will find all Irish Nationalists the world over who are worth their salt standing shoulder to shoulder against you. I dare say you have machine guns enough to beat down armed resistance, although you may not find it as easy a job as the Prime Minister imagines, but even if you succeed your troubles with Ireland shall be only beginning. Your own experience ought to have taught you that, in the 800 years you have spent in trying, you have never yet completely conquered Ireland and you never shall. What you will do, I am afraid, will be to drive resistance into other channels with which, with all your military power, you will never be able to deal, and you will be digging a gulf of hatred between the two countries which no living man will see bridged over again. I hate to say it in your present hour of trouble, but in my solemn belief it is the truth. By this Bill, instead of winning soldiers for your army, you are calling down upon your heads the execrations of the entire Irish race in America and Australia and Canada, as well as in every honest Irish home, if not among the five hundred thousand men of Irish blood in your own military camps, and you are driving millions of the best men of our race to turn away their eyes from this Parliament for ever."

Never was perfidy more swiftly punished. To the demand for her best blood, coming from the Government which had just broken its word twice over, by the fraudulent Convention, and by the violation of its pledge to exempt her from Conscription, Ireland made answer that her blood would be spent rather in resisting the decree of her oppressors, and to the world's amaze, it was the all but unarmed "small nationality" that succeeded, and it was the Power counting its soldiers by millions that went down in the encounter. The happy idea of turning that resistance into a heaven-sent bond of National Unity occurred to the Lord Mayor of Dublin (Ald. O'Neill), who can truly be described as the only Irishman of our time, who lived through long years of civil war, and belonged to no Party, but gave noble service to them all. He summoned a Mansion House Conference at which the leaders of all sections met around the same board to organize the resistance. The Conference was so happily constituted as to deserve the description of it given by the official organ of Sinn Féin— The Irish Bulletin—that "it formed a National Cabinet." Its members were—For the Sinn Féin Party, Mr. De Valera and Mr. Arthur Griffith; for the Hibernian Party—Mr. Dillon and Mr. Devlin; for the All-for-Ireland Party, Mr. T. M. Healy and myself; and for the Irish Labour Party, Messrs. Johnston, O'Brien and Egan. The country was fused as it was never fused before by the common danger into a glowing National unity so complete that any order countersigned by "the National Cabinet" would have been obeyed without question by every Nationalist of the race.

Its sittings gave me my first opportunities of getting acquainted with Mr. De Valera. His transparent sincerity, his gentleness and equability captured the hearts of us all. His gaunt frame and sad eyes deeply buried in their sockets had much of the Dantesque suggestion of "the man who had been in hell." His was that subtle blend of virility and emotion which the Americans mean when they speak of "a magnetic man." Even the obstinacy (and it was sometimes trying) with which he would defend a thesis, as though it were a point in pure mathematics, with more than the French bigotry for logic, became tolerable enough when, with a boyish smile, he would say: "You will bear with me, won't you? You know I am an old schoolmaster." On the other hand the Memphis Sphinx could not well have been more mute than was Mr. Arthur Griffith during these consultations, but his silence had something of the placid strength and assuredness of that granitic Egyptian countenance. Nobody acquainted with his abundant and excellent work as a publicist will suspect that he said nothing because he had nothing to say. So long as all went well, he was content to listen. He raised no difficulties. He gave no hint of personal preferences or fads. Throughout our sittings, Mr. Healy was considerate and conciliatory to a degree that took away the breath of Mr. Dillon himself, and he contributed to our proceedings in the form of an Address to President Wilson, a statement of Ireland's historic case which will deserve to live in our National archives as a State paper of classic value. On the day of our first meeting at the Mansion House, the Irish Bishops were meeting also at Maynooth, twelve miles away. It will always be counted among my most consolatory memories that it was my good fortune to frame for submission to the Bishops a resolution outlining the form of National Resistance to be adopted. It was Mr. De Valera who drew up the words of the Anti-Conscription Pledge which we suggested should be solemnly taken in every parish in the country on the following Sunday. It was, indeed, a drastic one, and led to a logomachy between its author and Mr. Dillon so prolonged that I had to appeal to the Lord Mayor to force a decision, or the Bishops would have dispersed and our deputation would arrive too late. The necessity for haste was justified. When the deputation reached Maynooth, the Bishops had concluded their meeting with a resolution energetic enough as a Platonic protest against Conscription but as water unto wine compared with the specific declaration of war of which our deputation were the bearers. Fortunately their Lordships reassembled and adopted with but few changes even of words the substance of our recommendations "solemnly pledging the Nation to resist Conscription by the most effectual means at their disposal," and inaugurating the National resistance by a Mass of Intercession in every church in the island to be followed by the public administration of the Pledge. The Bishops, who have not always been so fortunate in their dealings with Irish political affairs, deserve the lasting gratitude of the nation for the fortitude (and it was greater than persons without intimate secret knowledge could estimate) with which they faced all the perils of saving their race. It was the Bishops' solemn benediction to the resistance "by the most effectual means at the disposal of the Irish people" which killed Conscription.

Next, of course, to the known determination of the youth of the country to be worthy of their lead and to resist unto blood. Even the appalling experiences of the war let loose later on by Sir Hamar Greenwood will scarcely enable posterity to realize in what a perfect ecstacy of self-sacrifice the young men were preparing to meet Conscription foot to foot. The Government on its own side seemed not less resolute. Every regiment that could be spared was hurried over to Ireland, and Field Marshal French, fresh from the horrors of the Flanders battlefields, was sent over as Commander-in-Chief to superintend the operations which were to begin "in a week or two." Early on the morning of the day on which the Mansion House Conference was to hold its first meeting, I was awakened in my bedroom at the Shelbourne Hotel by the noise of a military band escorting Field-Marshal French on his arrival by the morning mail from England. As he stepped out of his motor-car to enter the Hotel, I heard him saluted by waiters, porters and chambermaids from almost every window of the Hotel (once the most aristocratic in the metropolis) with shouts of "Up, Easter Week!" "Up, the rebels!" The outburst so impressed the new Commander-in-Chief that he took his meals in his bedroom, and only from the hands of his orderly. The Head Waiter once entering his room was asked what did the people really mean to do about Conscription. "Well, my lord," was the quiet reply, "we are seventy men in this house. We have all made our peace with God. You may have our dead bodies, but you'll get nothing else." Another experience of mine will help better than any wealth of detail to an understanding of the spirit now enkindled. General Gage, an honest-hearted Englishman, who came over to Ireland for the first time to take command of the Conscription campaign in the South, called upon me to relate with an almost comical surprise what had befallen him the previous day while he was motoring in the neighbourhood of Mitchelstown with the High Sheriff for the County (Mr. Philip Harold Barry) who had himself publicly and with arm uplifted taken the pledge to resist Conscription. They questioned a priest whom they met riding down from the Galtee Mountains as to how feeling ran among the people. "I can't do better," was the reply of the priest, "than tell you what happened up the road there a minute ago. I met old Darby Ryan who complained that the jackdaws had been playing havoc with his field of young corn. 'Father,' he said, 'I went for the ould gun to have a shot at the divvels, but I found I had only five cartridges left, and, Father,' he said, 'I'm going to keep them for the first five sojers that come to take away my boy.'" Such was the spirit, it must with truth be owned, which alone could have brought the Ministers of England to repent their breach of faith on Conscription, but "in a week or two" it decided them to drop a campaign which would assuredly have cost them a dozen casualties in their own ranks at the least for every conscript they could ever succeed in transporting whole to Flanders.

With the success of united action, as against Conscription, came the more and more insistent cry for an extended unity from the crowds that night and day surged around our closed doors at the Mansion House. They could guess but vaguely what was going on within, but Sinn Féin, Labour and ourselves were in an accord that was on no occasion broken. The Labour delegates (two of whom have since become conspicuous figures in the formation of an Irish Labour Party in the Dáil) were helpful in council and fearless in their preparations for resistance. One of our colleagues alone stood coldly aloof. Mr. Dillon did not like the Conference and was with reluctance drawn into it. He regarded every practical line of action suggested with suspicion and alarm. Mr. De Valera's own opinion that the young men would infinitely prefer open fight with arms in their hands to the small torments of passive resistance, he received with a long face which made it clear that the innumerable applications from the country for instructions could only be answered by the leaders of each section for themselves. His only active concern with our affairs was the determination to retain his hold on the administration of the vast funds contributed on our first appeal. He was apparently obsessed with the suspicion that they would be spent on armaments. Even were that not so, he always held to the control of funds as the control of the sinews of war. And as neither Mr. Healy nor I were able to devote the necessary time to the business of the Financial Committee he objected with energy to any representative of the All-for-Ireland League being substituted in our place. Mr. Devlin, while more cautious, imitated the detachment of his principal, if he was, indeed, any longer his principal. Before the National Cabinet was long at work, Field Marshal French, who had by this time become Viceroy, struck a blow which was excessively unworthy of an honest soldier. On the pretence that he had discovered some new and blood-curdling "German Plot," he tore away Mr. De Valera and Mr. Griffith from our Conference table and shut them up with a hundred of their chief lieutenants without any form of trial in English prisons. The "German Plot" was obviously, as it is now universally confessed to have been, a villainous fabrication. When at our next meeting, I proposed a resolution protesting to the world against the foul blow struck at our two colleagues, with the manifest object of breaking up the Mansion House Conference, Mr. Dillon protested hotly: "That is a monstrous Sinn Féin resolution; I will have nothing to do with it. What evidence have we before us?" The "evidence," one might suppose, was rather due from the official concocters of the Plot. It was forthcoming only too promptly for them in the declaration of the retiring Lord Lieutenant, Lord Wimborne, that he had never heard of the famous "New German Plot," and flatly disbelieved the whole story. When long afterwards, Lord French was forced to disgorge his only "evidence," it turned out that "the New German Plot" was a stale rehash of certain communications with Germany prior to the Easter Week Insurrection of more than two years before.

The coup d'état did not break up the National Cabinet. The places of the two abducted Sinn Féin leaders were quietly taken by two of their colleagues—Prof. Eoin MacNeill and Ald. Tom Kelly. But by this time there had occurred a new event which rendered the hopes of any larger National Unity darker and darker. A vacancy having occurred in East Cavan, Mr. Griffith had been put forward as a candidate, and Mr. Dillon started an obscure local Hibernian against him. He did something very much more discreditable; he refused to move the writ, and, under cover of his technical power of obstructing an immediate election, flooded the county with Hibernian organizers of the old truculent type, and proposed to carry on a campaign of bitter personal abuse and violence against Sinn Féin until such time as the organizers should report it safe to issue the writ. Mr. Griffith explained what was happening in a letter written to me a few days before his deportation to England by Field-Marshal French:


6 Harcourt St., Dublin,

May 11th, 1918.

Dear Mr. O'Brien,—As you will have seen from the press Mr. Dillon has refused my offer of a referendum of the people on the election for East Cavan. At the same time he refuses to have the writ moved, but he is pouring into East Cavan all the thugs connected with his organisation. As his speech last Sunday showed, he is determined to make this a bitter election and to prolong it indefinitely.

Such a prolongation will be disastrous to the constituency from the National view-point. If the election be fought now, there will be little bitterness left behind. If it be prolonged, as Dillon seeks to prolong it, there will be feud and faction.

I am advised, as by enclosed from lawyers on our side, that two M.P.s certifying to the Speaker during the recess the death of a fellow member can force the issue of the writ. I would be obliged, therefore, if you would yourself or by two members of your party have the writ issued in this fashion.

I trust Mrs. O'Brien is better.

Yours sincerely,

Arthur Griffith."

We, of course, promptly exercised our power of defeating the Hibernian manoeuvre to prevent an election and were in hopes that the foul play practised against Mr. Griffith by the inventors "of the New German Plot" would avert all danger of the scandal of a contested election at such a moment in Cavan. At the next meeting of the Mansion House Conference I pointed out what a mortal blow would be struck at the resistance to Conscription (as to which the Government was still anxiously calculating the chances) if a Nationalist Constituency were to reject a man who had just been gagged and deported by Dublin Castle for the very reason that he was one of the chief organizers of the resistance, and I appealed to Mr. Dillon in the most conciliatory terms at my command to do a signal service to National Unity, and one that would be remembered to the credit of his Party, by allowing Mr. Griffith to be returned unopposed. The reply was that he had come there on an invitation to discuss the Conscription issue, and that alone, and would withdraw from the Conference if any other topic was introduced. He went off to Cavan to war upon his imprisoned colleague, flushed with the results of the two most recent elections (in South Armagh, the cradle of "the Mollies" and in Waterford where Mr. Redmond's son had been returned in his place through a humane feeling more delicate than he had experienced from his own friends in his last visit to the hall of the "Irish Convention") and full of the fatuous confidence that the triumph was going to be repeated on a more grandiose scale in East Cavan.

Here are the terms in which he saw fit to speak during the electioneering campaign of his deported colleague on the Mansion House Conference:

"The Sinn Féin party have elected to put forward as a candidate for East Cavan the most offensive and scurrilous critic of the Irish Party in their ranks. For a long period Mr. Griffith has poured forth a torrent of the most disgusting and infamous abuse and calumny on the Irish Party as a whole and upon individual members of that party and therefore it would have been impossible to pick out a candidate more calculated to add bitterness to that fight. In addition to that they have started their campaign by raising the most contentious issues that divide the Party from Sinn Féin and by pouring out a flood of misstatements and calumny upon the Party and its policy."

The curious student of Mr. Dillon's speeches will find that this "flood and torrent of disgusting and infamous abuse" constitutes almost word for word his stereotyped defence to specific allegations as to his Party's public actions which he never attempted to answer by going into equally concrete particulars.

The charge of "scurrility" was a specially ludicrous one against Mr. Griffith who, of all the publicists of his time, was distinguished for the measure and dignity of his words. The real point of the Hibernian leader's vituperation was that Mr. Griffith had given to the public in his journal the series of secret telegrams in which the three members for Limerick were caught soliciting a Castle Office for one of their confederates by the most abject methods of the parliamentary place-beggar. Mr. Griffith had committed the still more unforgivable sin of giving publication to a highly confidential letter of Lady Aberdeen to "Dear Mr. Brayden" (the Editor of the Freeman's Journal, thirteen of whose staff had already been rewarded with handsome Government jobs) in which the Lord Lieutenant's wife revealed a spirit of political partisanship so undisguised that its publication necessitated her husband's resignation of the Viceroyalty. Stern methods of political warfare, both of them, no doubt, but both of them referring to concerns of deep public interest, and both of them incontestably true; and assuredly no more deserving the epithets of "scurrility," or of "torrents of the most infamous calumny," than Edmund Burke would have deserved them for his impeachment of Warren Hastings. Above all, the recklessness of such an attitude at such a moment towards a colleague locked up in an English jail on the strength of a truly "infamous calumny" which might have cost him his life!

Where he might have reaped the gratitude of a nation, the new Hibernian leader only earned a just humiliation. Mr. Griffith was elected by an overwhelming majority for East Cavan, or Conscription would have been to a certainty pressed at any cost of bloodshed.

One last effort was made to bend Mr. Dillon. The yearning cry still came from the country: "Why dissolve a National Cabinet, which has begun so well, and whose united lead every parish in the island will follow? Why should not the Mansion House Conference confront English Ministers with a combination of the young men and the old, of the new weapons and the old, in a movement in which all honest men of the race could gladly venture their fortunes and their lives?" It had become an accepted electioneering cry on both sides that there could be only two alternative policies for the country to choose between: what was called "the Constitutional movement" and what was called "the unconstitutional movement." Nothing could be more untrue to the realities of the case. All that had been won for Ireland in our time was won neither by constitutional means nor by unconstitutional means, pure and simple, but by a judicious combination of the two, according to the country's changing circumstances. That, indeed, had been the history of Irish patriotism for ages. The writer laid before the Mansion House Conference a detailed proposal to take advantage of their unexampled opportunity at that moment to find some wider basis of agreement on which all Parties might co-operate in their several ways. "If our Sinn Féin colleagues," it was urged, "can only see their way to even an experimental toleration of true Dominion Independence (which differs little except in name from Sovereign Independence) no substantial divergence would remain between Nationalists of any school, and it could be affirmed, not altogether without knowledge, that, in England's present critical situation, Dominion Independence would become practical politics. Should, however, Dominion Independence by agreement be found impossible during the war, all Nationalists would in that event be in agreement to press for the only remaining alternative—viz., representation for Ireland at the Peace Congress—and would, I take it, be agreed also in breaking off all connection with the Westminister Parliament in the meantime."

Was it still practicable to weld "constitutionalists" and "unconstitutionalists" together in a movement as circumspect as Parnell's and as daring as Easter Week? It was not possible to answer dogmatically in the affirmative. But the omens were almost all auspicious. The representatives of Sinn Féin, although cordially sympathetic, had no authority to bind their body without anxious and complicated consultations. But there were as yet none of the obstacles that proved afterwards all but insurmountable. There were no commitments to an Irish Republic, beyond Mr. De Valera's speeches in Clare; there was no oath to trouble the consciences of the young men. Most of the Sinn Féin leaders were in prison and their newspapers suppressed, and those who remained were face to face with the ruthless military repression just announced by Lord French. Even in the electoral sense, Sinn Féin still only counted as 5 in a Nationalist representation of 81. The representatives of Labour would assuredly have closed with the proposition. The Bishops, fresh from the triumph of their perilous stand against Conscription, were not likely to miss the opportunity of doing another magnificent service to the nation. Mr. Devlin, though he hesitated to separate himself from Mr. Dillon so soon after he had separated himself from Mr. Redmond, was evincing unmistakeable signs of tractability. Only one voice was raised to forbid even a discussion of the project. Mr. Dillon could not find it in the bond. He once more protested that he was brought there on the invitation of the Lord Mayor to discuss one solitary issue—Conscription—and would not stand the introduction of any other proposition; and as it had been the somewhat improvident rule of the Conference to press no decision that was not to be an unanimous one, there was an end.

An end, also, of the last hope of rehabilitating any "constitutional" movement capable of purification or of purchasing Ireland's freedom otherwise than by the shedding of streams of Ireland's best blood. The "National Cabinet," like so many other projects of high promise for the nation, fell to pieces at the touch of one unlucky hand.

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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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