HOME RULE WOULD HAVE BEEN A BETTER DEAL FOR NORTHERN NATIONALISTS
I started by conceding that I did not believe that the Home Rule policy would have led to a United Ireland.
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. The leader of the Irish Party, John Redmond, 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.
John Redmond’s policy was one of attempting to persuade Unionist to accept a United Ireland, and his support for recruitment to the British army in 1914 was part of a (probably naive) attempt to persuade Unionists that they would not be sacrificing all their loyalties by taking part in Home Rule.
But, under the Home Rule arrangement, if Ulster counties opted out, they would have continued under direct rule from Westminster.
There would have been no Stormont Parliament, no “Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people”, no B Specials, no gerrymandering of local government. Stormont was not part of the Home Rule arrangement and it came about because of the threat posed by the nationalist violence of the 1919 to 1921 period, and because the abstention of Sinn Fein from the Irish Convention, and of its MPs from parliament after the 1918 election created an opening for it.
Under Home Rule, there would have been continued, but reduced, Irish representation at Westminster, so any attempts to discriminate against the minority in the excluded area of Ulster would have been preventable in a way that they were not prevented Stormont was left to its own devices after 1921.
The constitutional Home Rule policy would thus have been much better for Northern Nationalists than the policy of violent separatism was to prove to be. Northern Nationalists probably sensed this; for , while the rest of Ireland was plumping for Sinn Fein in the election of December 1918, the electors of West Belfast chose Joe Devlin of the Irish Party to represent them in preference to Eamon de Valera of Sinn Fein.
(Right: Sackville St. following the Easter Rising.)
The Home Rule path would also have been better because it would have saved many lives throughout Ireland. People who died between 1916 and 1923 would have survived and would instead have contributed to Irish life, rather than to Irish martyrology.
All things being equal, in my opinion, living for Ireland is better than dying (or killing) for Ireland.
I would emphasise that the waste of these lost lives needs to be weighed, and weighed heavily, in the balance against any supposed advantages secured by the use of force.
Consider the dead for a moment.
256 Irish civilians died during the 1916 rebellion, some at the hands of the rebels and many as a result of British artillery designed to expel the rebels from the positions they had occupied.
These civilians did not have any say in the IRB/Citizen Army action and would all have lived if that action had not take place. We know of the rebels who died, and their deaths have been commemorated repeatedly by the Irish State. Each year the Irish army has a Mass to pray for the souls of those who “died for Ireland “ in 1916. It is unclear to me whether this formula includes the civilians who did not decide to put their lives at risk “for Ireland”, but who were killed anyway because they were in the wrong place.
153 soldiers in UK Army uniforms were killed. Of these, 52 of the dead were Irish. (Below: a group of British officers pose on Sackville St. with the flag that flew over the GPO.)
These Irish men were acting on the orders of a duly constituted Government, elected by a Parliament, which had already granted Home Rule to Ireland, and to which Ireland had democratically elected its own MP’s. Did these men “ die for Ireland”? I would contend that they did. But their sacrifice is not commemorated, nor are their souls prayed for, in official remembrances by the Irish state.
Consider also the dead of the War of 1919 to 1921, and the dead of the civil war of 1922 to 1923.
1200 were killed in the war of 1919 to 1921. Many of these were civilians who had not chosen the path of war. Others were policemen, who had chosen that vocation as a service to their people, and not to become participants in a war. Yet others were supposed or actual informers on behalf of either side.
If, in response to the appeal of the “blood sacrifice” of the 1916 leaders, the Home Rule party had not been rejected by the electorate in the General Election of 1918 in favour of a policy of abstention and separatism, Home Rule would have come into effect, and all those people would have lived.
Many families of minority religions were made to feel unwelcome in Ireland as a result of the violence, and some left. Southern Ireland became a less diverse society as a result of the policy of violence initiated by IRB and the Citizen Army at Easter of 1916.
Around 4000 Irish people were killed in the Civil War. Like those who were killed in the 1916 to 1921 period, many of these were amongst the brightest talents of their generation. Ireland would have been a better place if the policy of violence had not caused their deaths.
Violence breeds violence. Sacrifice breeds intransigence. The dead exert an unhealthy power over the living, persuading the living to hold out for the impossible, so that the sacrifice of the dead is not perceived to have been in vain.
(Above Left: An Irish Volunteer postcard commemorating the Easter Rising.)
In that sense, the policy of violence, initiated in April 1916, led to the Civil War of 1922/3. The earlier deaths of those who occupied the General Post Office in 1916, seeking to achieve a 32 county Republic, made it harder for those, who occupied the Four courts in 1922, to accept anything less than a 32 County Republic.
Betrayal of the sacrifices of the dead is one of the most emotionally powerful, and destructive, accusations within the canon of romantic nationalism. It exercised its baleful influence in recent times in delaying the abandonment by the IRA of its failed and futile campaign to coerce and bomb Unionists into a United Ireland.
HOME RULE WOULD HAVE LED TO DOMINION STATUS, AND TO THE SORT OF INDEPENDENCE NOW ENJOYED BY CANADA, AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND
I believe Ireland would have reached the position it is in today, an independent nation of 26 or 28 counties, if it had stuck with the Home Rule policy and if the 1916 rebellion had not taken place.
Like all counter factual historical arguments, this proposition is impossible to prove.
(Below: 1918 campaign poster for Sein Fein's Arthur Griffth.)
But, once the Ulster question had been resolved by some form of exclusion, the path towards greater independence was open. The policy of the Irish Party in the 1918 Election was Dominion Status and I believe they would have achieved that. Perhaps they would not have achieved it by 1921, as was achieved in the Treaty of that year, but it would probably have been achieved by the end of the 1920’s, probably from a Labour Government whose policy already envisaged dominion status for Ireland.
Once Ireland had its own legislature in Dublin , it would have been able to avail of the progressive loosening of ties within the Empire, in the same way as the Irish Free State was able to do , for example through the Statute of Westminster of 1931.
Some might argue that security and defence considerations would have made this unlikely. I doubt that.
If a Conservative dominated Government was willing, in 1938, to hand over the Treaty ports to Eamonn de Valera who, 22 years previously had been an enemy of Britain and declared ally of Germany, it would surely have been willing to place as much trust in a Home Rule Government in Dublin, whose political antecedents had stood with Britain in its moment of greatest threat in 1914.
To say that a decision was a mistake is not to deny the heroism or sincerity of those who made the mistake. Hindsight enables one to see possibilities that were not visible at the time. But the reality is that, in 1916, Home Rule was on the statute book and was not about to be reversed.
The “Irish Independent”, usually a severe critic of the Irish Parliamentary Party, was unfair when it described the rebellion at the time as “criminal madness”, but if the 1916 leaders had more patience, a lot of destruction could have been avoided, on the road to the same destination, at which we eventually arrived anyway.
Counterpoint: To Commemorate or Not, by Mike McCormack
Home Rule, by Patrick Bonar
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.