The centenary of the introduction of the Government of Ireland Act, better known in Irish history as the Third Home Rule Bill, has passed without a great deal of notice in the Irish community, even though it essentially marks the beginning of a coming decade of similar centenaries emerging from the revolutionary period.
The Third Home Rule Bill, for the uninitiated, was the third attempt by a liberal British government to introduce self-governance to Ireland. It followed two failures in 1886 and 1893, when conservative elements of the British establishment, especially in the House of Lords, put paid to them. The third bill, introduced into the Commons on April 11th 1912, marked not only a critical moment in Ireland, but for the British legislature system.
The very introduction of the law was, at the time, a gigantic victory for the Home Rule movement, through its principle agents in the Irish Parliamentary Party, under John Redmond. It is easily forgotten, today, how popular such a limited solution to the “Irish problem” – partial self-government for the island – was with the Irish people, who voted wholesale for the IPP in 1910 (except for the north obviously). The Bill, and the support it received, was evidence of an unstoppable course in the state of affairs in Ireland, and it was being done without violence and uprising.
For the British Parliament though, the Bill was something else entirely. For one thing, it was not an idea that had the wholesale support of the Liberal Party. No, for Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, Home Rule was the price he had to pay for gaining support to form a government with himself and his party in the lead. The previous election had left the IPP with the balance of power in a deadlocked Parliament, and Redmond’s asking price for the use of that power was Home Rule. While Asquith may have personally been happy with the Home Rule suggested, we should not be deluded into thinking that he implemented it with a great degree of gusto. Home Rule III was the result of a political compromise, and Asquith got something out of it as well.
Home Rule and the debate over it was also at the core of a great change in the way the legislature worked, with the Parliament Act of 1911, which severely curtailed the power of the House of Lords to veto bills. This was passed, with the heavy support of Irish nationalists, with the very direct aim of stopping the conservative upper house from continuing to stop the Home Rule movement. In so doing, Asquith was able to utilise the support of the IPP as a means of undermining the House of Lords.
And it was a slow moving process. We mark the centenary of the Bill with its introduction, but it took a very long time for it to make to a vote. It was not until January 1913 that the Lords were able to have a say, and they voted it down as expected. Cue another long wait as it was introduced again, defeated again, introduced again and finally passed. The Bill was a saga unto itself, and one overshadowed by events in the very island it was attempting to change.
The Third Home Rule Bill was an imperfect solution to the Irish problem, one whose implementation as it stood in 1912 would have resulted in something akin to civil war in Ireland, or at least the necessity of a British military intervention in order to stop bloodshed. Very little thought, in 1912 anyway, appears to have gone into dealing with the issue of Unionists opposed to the Bill, not just politically, but willing to stand against it through force of arms. In failing to deal with this problem, which had no quick fix bar exemption from the Bill’s authority – partition – those who introduced the Home Rule Bill allowed an atmosphere of political militancy and rising sectarian tension between north and south, nationalist and unionist, Catholic and Protestant to take hold of Ireland. That in turn played a part in the rise of a dissatisfied minority with grander republican aims.
Late attempts to solve this problem, some of them just weeks before World War One intervened, were sloppy and indicative of the lack of thought put into the whole thing. Proponents seriously underestimated the extent and commitment of Unionist opposition and were at a loss to create a viable compromise that did not cripple the idea behind the Bill altogether. Such desperateness to secure the support of the IPP in 1910 led to the scenario, where two armed groups were maybe just months away from shooting at each other in Ireland in the form of the Ulster and Irish Volunteers.
Was there a solution to be found? Today, the majority of us can look at Northern Ireland as a separate nation. It could not have been so easy to see it like that in 1912. In the end, Home Rule without bloodshed (or a British military presence at the very least) could only have occurred if some portion of Ulster was excused from its effects. Whether that portion was four counties or six is debatable to a further extent.
What is not debateable was the seriousness of Unionist resolve to resist Home Rule. They had the men and they had the guns to make implementation a very bloody affair. Can we really assume that, if World War One had been delayed and the bluff called, the Unionists would have laid down arms and accepted it? Has there ever been any indication, then or since, that the Unionist movement accepts such laws?
I think not. World War One stopped a very messy conflict in Ireland. With hindsight we can see that violence in Ireland was delayed, but it cannot seriously have been in the minds of Redmond and Asquith that a fringe group of revolutionaries would attempt a militarily suicidal rebellion just a few years later.
The Easter Rising and its aftermath, especially in terms of political support for Sinn Fein, completely altered the Irish problem and set the island on a path where Home Rule, the dream for so many decades, was forsaken. This probably explains why it has been so ignored, relatively speaking, in the popular perception of the revolutionary period as a whole. The Third Home Rule Bill was the failed solution by those who did not aspire to complete Irish freedom, undone by aggressive, uncompromising Unionist opposition and a war on the European continent of much greater scope then events in Ireland. The IPP was weak in the aftermath of its introduction, and began to fade from view once the signatories of the proclamation were lined up against a wall.
Perhaps we would do better to try and implement a better remembrance of these men. They tried to gain more independence for Ireland by working within the system, even if that system was slow doing it. Can we blame them for rejecting the possibility of armed insurrection, after the failures 1798, 1848 and 1867? Like Michael Collins, they may well have believed in the “stepping stones” idea. That is not so terrible, especially since they were working within a framework that would have carried out such political change without resort to violence.
And while they may only have approached the problem out of a need for Parliamentary numbers, the attitude of the Liberals in the Commons is telling as well. They were willing to let Ireland walk its own way to a crucial extent, which indicates just why they were willing to sit down and talk with the IRA/First Dail in 1921. The fighting of 1919-1921 got Ireland more, and faster, but did so at a cost, in lives and in the political fracturing of the newly created state, expressed through the fighting of the Civil War (not to mention partition, the spectre of which the IPP fought against for far longer then any of the Anglo-Irish Treaty delegation did).
I suppose Home Rule will remain as one of Ireland’s great historical “What If?” scenarios. While we celebrate the lives of many great men and women over the following decade, we should spare a thought for those who tried to get Ireland away from the imperialist yolk peaceably, but failed largely due to events outside of their direct control. Redmond, the IPP and the Asquith Liberal government are mere background to the large scope of the Irish revolutionary period, but their impact should be neither relegated nor ignored over that of those who came later.