100 Years Ago ... The Lost Opportunity of a Peaceful Path to Irish Independence

A response to some critics of a commemoration of the centenary of the Home Rule act

By John Bruton

Ronan Fanning (Irish Times 16 August) is right to say we should not propagate a “bland, bowdlerised and inaccurate hybrid of history”. I agree.

But commemorating the 1916 Rising, as we do every year and are about to do on a grand scale in two years time, and simultaneously refusing to commemorate the enactment of Home Rule 100 years ago next month would be to present an unbalanced version of history.  It  would be to celebrate violent struggle and, by omission, denigrate  peaceful  parliamentary struggle.

That would be a distortion and would be wrong.

Ronan Fanning argues that there should be no commemoration of Home Rule because , as well as passing Home Rule into law, there was also an Amending Act prepared, which would provide for the possible exclusion of some Ulster counties. In other words, his complaint is that the Home Rule package did not guarantee a United Ireland.

But, as he should remember from the event we both attended in the Irish Embassy in London in July, I said clearly that I did not make such a claim.

I am realist enough to know that Home Rule would not have extended to more than 28 counties. I said so in my submission to the Government seeking a commemoration next month. But , on its own merits, the enactment of Home Rule on that basis  is still an Irish parliamentary achievement well worth commemorating.

When the Home Rule Bill received the royal assent on 18 September 1914, it was the first time that a Bill granting Ireland Home rule had EVER passed into law.

The struggle to achieve such an outcome had gone on since the 1830’s. Neither O Connell,  Butt, nor Parnell achieved what Redmond and Dillon achieved. O Connell did not achieve Repeal, and  Parnell did not get Home Rule passed. Yet they are rightly commemorated .

As I said in my submission, the opposition to being under a Dublin Home Rule Parliament was so strong among Unionists in Ulster that, no matter how hard the Home Rulers might have tried to persuade them, at least four Ulster counties would have stayed out of the Dublin Parliament.

John Redmond, himself told the House of Commons that “no coercion shall be applied to any single county in Ireland to force them against their will to come into the Irish Government”.

This was a sensible policy.

Attempts to coerce Northern Ireland into a United Ireland, whether by the attempted incursions across the border in 1922, by the propaganda campaign in the late 1940s, or by IRA killing campaigns in the 1950’s, and from 1969 to 1998, have all failed miserably, because they were based on a faulty analysis of reality

Ronan Fanning may regard Asquith’s refusal to coerce Ulster as “explicitly partitionist”, but , if so,  we are all “partitionists” now.

To win Home Rule the Irish Party had to accomplish three things:

* Get the House of Lords veto abolished.
* Have the Home Rule Bill passed three years in a row, in the House of Commons, in accordance with the Parliament Act.
* Have Home Rule signed into law on 18 September 1914.

All that was done by tough parliamentary tactics, including:

* Declining to support the 1909 budget unless there was  a Parliament Act abolishing of the House of Lords veto ( a huge achievement when one considers how little House of Lords reform there has been since).
* Holding the threat of an election over the head of the Liberal Government unless  Home Rule was passed three times to comply with that Act.

Under the Home Rule arrangement, any excluded parts of Ulster would have been under direct rule from Westminster. There would have been no Stormont.

And, at least for the initial period, there would have been continuing southern Irish representation in the House of Commons. These two safeguards would have ensured that there would have been none of the discrimination that Northern Nationalists suffered from 1921 to 1966.

The irreversibility of Home Rule is well illustrated by a comment , quoted by Ronan Fanning in his excellent book “Fatal Path”(p 68),  of one of its staunchest opponents, the Conservative leader, Andrew Bonar Law who said

“If Ulster, or rather any county, had the right to remain outside the Irish Parliament, for my part my objection would be met”.

The implementation of the Home Rule Act was irreversible politically and would have come into effect if the violence and abstentionism of the 1919 to 1921 period had not made it impossible.

As Ronan Fanning points out in “Fatal Path” (p.189),he Lloyd George Coalition Government’s  re election manifesto  in the December 1918 Election stated bluntly “Home Rule is upon the statute book”. There was thus no going back on it.

My argument   is that , at that time, instead of launching a policy of abstention from Parliament and a guerrilla war, Sinn Fein and the IRA should have used the Home Rule Act as a peaceful  stepping stone to dominion status and full independence, in the same way as Treaty of 1921 was so used, but only after so much blood had been shed.

Eamon O Cuiv (Irish Times 7 August) does not agree with me on this.  He believes Home Rule would not have been a stepping stone to greater independence, as the Treaty proved to be in the  hands of successive Irish Governments from 1922 up to 1949. 

I think he is mistaken because I believe Irish politics under Home Rule would have evolved quickly  once the Great War was over. Ireland would have benefitted from the loosening of ties as Canada, Australia and the rest did. In the absence of violence, relations between Dublin and the counties in Ulster not under Home Rule, would have been less fraught than North/South relations were from 1922 to 1998.

Sinn Fein and the Irish Labour Party, or a combination of the two, could easily have won a majority in the Home Rule Parliament in the 1920’s, and would certainly have pressed for Dominion status or more. They would have had support from the British Labour party and the Asquith Liberals who had, I believe, already espoused Dominion status for Ireland as early as the 1918 Election.

If Eamon O Cuiv wants an example of what a determined Dublin Government can negotiate  even from A Conservative Government, he can look at the successful handing over of the ports in 1938.

This is counterfactual history and unprovable. But so also is Eamon O Cuiv’s pessimistic view. What is provable is that,  100 years ago next month, against huge pressure and prejudice, Irish parliamentarians, unpaid and far from home,  by sheer  persistence were able to force A British Parliament to put Irish legislative independence on the statute book, without firing a shot.

It is worth commemorating.

John Bruton, a former Teachta Dála in Ireland’s Dáil Éireann, served as the nation’s Taoiseach (Prime Minister) from 1994 to 1997, and as Ambassador of the European Union to the United States from 2004 to 2007.  He is currently President of IFSC Ireland.  A graduate of University College Dublin, with degrees in economics and law, he is a passionate student of history.  John has graciously agreed to write book reviews on occasion for The Wild Geese. You can get more of John's perspectives on Irish -- and world -- affairs at www.JohnBruton.com.

Views: 1534

Tags: 20th Century Ireland, Home Rule, Irish Freedom Struggle, Opinion

Comment by Bit Devine on August 28, 2014 at 12:37pm

Well said, John... In this new age of cyber media, it is becoming harder to gloss over, if you will, certain aspects of history... hence the resurgence of references to An Gort Mor instead of "famine" ...

It would seem, to those who value all historic points, that this is indeed as important a date to be commemorated as the 1916 uprising...

As we witness through media today, Violence seems to be the best attention grabber.. and perhaps that is why the Uprising has more of a commemorative appeal..

Comment by Mike McCormack on August 30, 2014 at 10:53am

Respectfully, Mr Bruton's argument is so full of "would have happened", Could have happened, and "should have happened" that it flies in the face of history.  When it came to Ireland, the duplicity of 'Perfidious Albion' is well documented.  The patriots of 1916 knew that well for, as Pearse warned, "if we are tricked once more, there will be red war in Ireland!" and we should never label the heroes of Easter Week as wrongly motivated or their actions unjustified. They heeded the old Irish triad that the three things to fear most are the horn of a bull, the bark of a dog and the word of an Englishman!

Comment by DJ Kelly on August 31, 2014 at 11:47am

Mr Bruton's argument is spot on. It is disappointing to hear a deluded minority still bleating about 'Perfidious Albion' and demanding blood sacrifice. Perhaps the ill-fated and ill-supported 1916 uprising had a parallel in the hunger strikers of the more recent troubles, six of whom, it is alleged, need not have died:



Comment by Bob Nagle on September 1, 2014 at 1:38am

Thanks for those reflections Mr. Bruton. It can also be noted that in just the first six months of World War 1 some 50,000 Irishmen volunteered to join with the British, many of them believing that since Home Rule was not long delayed they would also be fighting for Irish liberty as a new European state. It is only in recent decades that their sacrifice and patriotism have been re-evaluated in Eire. A great many of them can be said to have given their lives for the Home Rule Bill.

Comment by Mike McCormack on September 4, 2014 at 6:58am

  This will be my last word on the topic, for I cannot sink to name-calling as DJ Kelly does since it is the lowest form of debate.  However I will defend my honor by saying that I am not part of a ‘deluded minority’ and my offerings on this site are not ‘bleating’ as my past writings will confirm. Rather, I will lament that DJ Kelly does not know the history of the proud Kelly name from Kelly, the Boy from Killan, who fought the Crown in 1798, to Sean T. O’Kelly, who entered Dail Eireann in 1918 to oppose Home Rule and became the second President of Ireland, to today’s Gerry Kelly of Sinn Fein, who continues to confront the British over living up to the terms of Good Friday Agreement.  Of course, the Kelly name may be his/hers by marriage, but they should still honor its proud heritage.  I am profoundly aware, Mr Nagle, that those who followed Redmond’s call to don a British uniform in WWI were doing so as patriots, believing that they were doing it for Ireland and all that Home Rule promised.  However the 3 Home Rule Bills submitted and the 2 that passed promised a separate parliament for all Ireland.  It was British duplicity that reneged on the accepted legislation, divided the country and partitioned Ireland.  The Home Rule Bill as passed was never implemented and all Ireland – not just a few ‘ill-fated and ill-supported’ engaged in the War of Independence as a result.  Further, I am not the author of the term ‘Perfidious Albion’.  According to Wikopedia, the term often refers to the English reneging on the Treaty of Limerick of 1691, whose terms were repudiated by the Penal Laws of 1695 (look it up).  You should also know that it was that treaty that is the source of the term ‘The Wild Geese’, the society to which we all belong and I submit that to commemorate the Home Rule Bill would be the same as commemorating the Treaty of Limerick!

Comment by DJ Kelly on September 9, 2014 at 1:54am

Wikopedia? Is that perhaps the Irish version of Wikipedia?

Surely, no self respecting 'historian' should be quoting Wikipedia as a source?

The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, and other more reliable sources, record the first use of the phrase 'la perfide Albion' as being in the 1793 poem 'L'Ere des Francais' (apologies that this format does not allow the inclusion of accents) by French author and poet Augustin Louis de Ximenes, who urged 'Attaquons dans ces eaux la perfide Albion'.

This post dates the Treaty of Limerick but has been much misquoted since by commentators who draw parallels between the French Revolution and the actions of the United Irishmen. However, de Ximenes was not referring to nationalist revolution but to Napoleonic naval battles against the English fleet.

'Albion' refers to England, by the way, not Britain. 'Perfidious' might also be used to describe those Dubliners who resisted the 1916 Uprising and defended their places of employment against what they saw as an 'ill-fated and ill-supported' rabble.  

As for the history of the Kellys, well, my own Kelly ancestors were the original Britons - named by visiting Ancient Greeks as the 'Pretani', from which name the people and the islands drew their name. The Kellys were living throughout these islands for millennia before the invasions by the Romans, the Anglo-Saxon ancestors of the English and the Normans. Remember the Normans? - those guys who were invited to Ireland by the warring Earls, and stayed. Perhaps the Earls should have drawn up a treaty ...

Comment by Neil F. Cosgrove on September 10, 2014 at 5:12pm
  • If we are going to  get pedantic  the Merriam Webster Dictionary list as the first (and therefore preferred) definition of "Albion" as "Great Britain"  the Oxford Dictionary (and who should now better?) defines Albion as "A poetic or literary term for Britain or England ".  The term Albion more properly refers to the land mass of Island of Britain, not the nations that sit upon it.
  • Also, the term "perfidious Albion" dates back to the 13th Century when France and England were in a state of perpetual war on the continent.  It was resurrected in the late 18th Century by the French Directory and later Napoleon to tie their current struggles into the greater narrative of the fight against the old enemy.  
  • As to the Treaty of Limerick connection I believe this may be getting confused with the Battle Cry of the Irish Brigade at Fontenoy "Cuimhnigidh ar Luimnech agus feall na Sassonach!" which is usually  translated as "Remember Limerick and Saxon perfidy"  and was a refrence to the English betrayal of the terms negotiated with Sarsfield to secure the city of Limerick 

All these pedantic points aside, it does seem that a case can be made for a pattern of behavior

Comment by DJ Kelly on September 11, 2014 at 1:37am

Neil, you'll never stop overseas Irish from having a pop at Britain. Those of us Irish raised here, and our cousins still living in Ireland but working in England, have a different perspective on our relationships and are glad that our taxes have brought Ireland back from the brink of ruin. As events of the 20th century have shown, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. I'd be interested to know your source for the 13th century use of the phrase 'perfidious Albion'. Thanks.

Comment by P.J. Francis on September 14, 2014 at 2:01am

It is wonderful to have John Bruton writing in The Wild Geese. One of the things that keeps me reading the content of The Wild Geese is the big picture of Irish history it contains. I do not subscribe to any of the Irish-American papers because of their narrow view on history. In fact, I found that expressing views such as one finds here would result in one receiving a serious telephone call.

Comment by Des Donnelly on September 23, 2014 at 1:55pm

Poem - The Assassination Of John Bruton

I imagined the assassination of John Bruton
and having to explain it
I couldn't find anything written
about what he had achieved for Ireland.
I must have been away at the toilet
when he did that something anything nothing.
He was another gutless Freestater
in a long line of them stretching back
content enough to snipe at Patriots
from the comfort of his nice pensions
and popular retirement
pontificating about 1916
when he never did anything
for the cause of Irish Freedom
for those who have died
their people their memory
or the forgotten victims in the North
he is a victim now himself..
he’ll soon be forgotten

Des Donnelly Poet, Co Tyrone, North Ireland


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