Home Rule and the Edinburgh agreement

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, General, Home Rule, Issue 1(Jan/Feb 2013), Letters, Volume 21

Sir,—In your editorial (HI 20.6, Nov./Dec. 2012) on the Cameron–Salmond agreement at Edinburgh to clarify in advance the legal aspects of a referendum on Scottish independence, you state that Ireland at the time of the 1912–14 Home Rule crisis was ‘not so lucky’, in that a ‘sizeable section of the British establishment’ refused to recognise the will of their own parliament after the third Home Rule bill had passed through all its legislative stages by supporting the Ulster Volunteers’ threat to use all means necessary to defeat Home Rule.


The reality was more complicated. It is true that, in the first year of the bill’s three-session passage through parliament, Andrew Bonar Law declared his Conservative Party’s intent to refuse acceptance of a parliamentary passage of the bill by supporting the Ulster Unionist campaign to resist it (his words at Blenheim were: ‘There are things stronger than parliamentary majorities . . . I can imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster will go which I shall not be ready to support’).

In 1912, each side played for an all-or-nothing outcome: Redmond’s parliamentary party assumed a Home Rule act that would apply to all of Ireland, while Conservatives and Unionists expected a successful Ulster resistance to make Home Rule impossible in toto. It is important, however, to take account of the evolution of the crisis after the bill had passed through its first parliamentary circuit, particularly after the intervention of Lord Loreburn in September 1913 calling for a conference of all parties. From that point on, the inexorable progress of the bill, crashing against the inflexible resolve and increasing military organisation of Ulster unionist resistance, caused the option of partition, previously rejected by all the main protagonists, to loom out of the rhetorical mist as a conceivable compromise.

Correspondence in late 1913 between Carson, Bonar Law, Lord Lansdowne and other leading Tories reveals a common acceptance that the passage of Home Rule was inevitable, equalled by a determination that unionist ‘Ulster’—however that entity might be defined—must be excluded from its provisions. They were all, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, discussing partition as the only means of avoiding ‘civil war’. At a meeting with Asquith on 15 October, Bonar Law confirmed Asquith’s understanding of his position as ‘Subject to the agreement of your colleagues whose concurrence is essential to you, if there were not a general outcry against you [among unionists] in the south and west of Ireland, if Ulster (which we can at present call X) were left out of the bill, then you would not feel bound to prevent the granting of Home Rule to the rest of Ireland’.

This evolution of attitudes happened before the Home Rule bill had jumped through all the necessary legislative hoops. By the time the bill had passed its final stage in May 1914, the Conservatives had dropped their opposition in principle to Home Rule for nationalist Ireland. The unresolved issues—the size of ‘Ulster’ and the terms of its exclusion—arose from the failure to reconcile Redmond’s maximum concession of exclusion by county plebiscite under a six-year time limit with Carson’s minimum demand of a six-county bloc with no time limit on exclusion. These issues were hived off into a separate amending bill, which had not been agreed by 3 August when the Great War began.

Even in the changed atmosphere of June–July 1916, senior Unionists such as Carson, Bonar Law and Balfour were still willing to put Home Rule into immediate effect if the six-county Ulster bloc was excluded indefinitely. After the failure of these negotiations, Redmond and his party colleagues, in the post-Rising atmosphere and under the pressure of a powerful anti-partition campaign by the Irish Independent, retreated into a policy of interpreting Home Rule without ‘Ulster’ as Home Rule denied altogether. The pity was that the injustice of excluding Tyrone and Fermanagh, both with nationalist majorities, could not be addressed in the absence of an acceptance of the principle of partition.

A century after this sterile Irish Parliamentary Party policy denied nationalist Ireland the chance for self-government that was there for the taking, peacefully, in 1916–17, we can afford to take a less constrained view than that which circumstances forced on its leaders.—Yours etc.,


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