Why the Irish State Should Formally Commemorate the Centenary of Home Rule, Part 2 of 2

By John Bruton

Read Part One


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.


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.

Related Reading

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.

Views: 996

Tags: 20th Century Ireland, Events, Irish Freedom Struggle, News, Opinion

Comment by James O'Brien on August 27, 2014 at 9:12pm

Home Rule: What is there to commemorate?

The renowned Irish artist Jack Butler Yeats was once asked why he had never painted a certain well-known celebrity. He replied, ‘What is there to paint?’

The same answer may well indeed be given to those who would have us commemorate, next month, the centenary of the enactment of Home Rule. What is there to commemorate in the passing of a Bill that was never allowed to be implemented?

To look at the question we must take three issues into consideration. The first of these being the intransigence of the conservative British establishment and aristocracy to any question of granting home rule to Ireland.

The second issue we must look at is the political mood that existed in Ireland with the background of World War I and the influence that war had on the leaders of the Rising of 1916.

The third issue we must consider are the values that were enshrined in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic on that fateful Easter Monday


Conservative Opposition.

Conservative politicians, the aristocracy and the top echelons of the British military had always been appalled at any idea of home rule for Ireland. As far back as 1886 Lord Randolph Churchill, was the first to realise the ‘Orange card was the card to play’. The Liberal Party that had supported Home Rule under Gladstone moved away from that policy under Asquith. But the Conservative and the Liberal parties always operated in the interests of British politics, and never in the interests of Ireland.

In their resistance to home rule, elements in the British army and the Conservative establishment were prepared to fraternise with Germany in order to obtain illegal weapons for Carson’s rebels at a time when they were well aware that they were likely to be at war with Germany sooner rather than later.  A fraternisation for which Roger Casement would be charged with treason and later hanged.


The Easter Rising

It must be remembered that the Easter Rising did not occur in isolation; it took place in the middle of World War I. The leaders had watched thousands of young men being sacrificed on the battlefields of Europe, ostensibly for the ‘freedom of small nations’, and had decided that it was ‘better to die ‘neath an Irish sky’ in a fight for their own ‘small nation’. And yes they were pragmatic enough to realise they would need arms and support from ‘allies in Europe’ those same sources that had supplied arms to Carson’s Ulster rebels; an action to which Britain had turned a blind eye.

When he addressed his court martial accusers’, Pearce said, ‘Germany means no more to me than England does’. Connolly had displayed a banner across the front of Liberty Hall, which read. We Serve Neither King Nor Kaiser. These were hardly the actions of men who were in the pay of or had been duped by Germany. As the Proclamation stated they relied first on their ‘own strength’. At his court martial Connolly said ‘We believe the call we made was in a holier cause than any call made during this war’.

John Redmond, in his address to the Irish Volunteers at Woodenbridge (Aug 1914), had sent thousands of Irishman to their deaths in the interests of conflicting empires. This he did without any consultation with his own party. Such were the times and the deeds that convinced thinking men and women to abandon Home Rule, the Monarchy and the rule of Westminster and declare an Irish Republic; where they would be citizens and not subjects.

The claim that many families ‘of minority religions were made to feel unwelcome in Ireland and some left as Ireland became a less diverse society’ is true. The first ten years of independence saw Ireland run by ‘a native gombeen ascendency buttressed by the Roman Catholic Church’. Later there was De Valera’s Roman Catholic fiefdom and a ‘privileged position’ for that religion as part of the state apparatus. A situation that was not helped by the inconsiderate pronouncement of Cardinal McRory, that soon there would not be Protestant left in the country. None of which can be sheeted home to the men of 1916.


Values enshrined in the Proclamation

The declared aims of the Proclamation of the Republic were stated thus: ‘The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens…. cherishing all the children of the nation equally’. This was again ratified by the first Dail in 1919 in The Democratic Programme:


….we declare that the Nation’s sovereignty extends not only to all men and women of the Nation, but to all its material possessions, the Nation’s soil and all its resources, all the wealth and all the wealth-producing processes within the Nation…. It shall be our duty to promote the development of the Nation’s resources, to increase the productivity of its soil, to exploit its mineral deposits, peat bogs, and fisheries, its waterways and harbours, in the interests and for the benefit of the Irish people.


For over ninety years since independence these aims and ideals have been neglected by successive governments in the southern Irish state. Had they been adhered to perhaps the Ulster unionists may have found less reason to resist a unified country. Instead there has been a move away from the principles of the Republic and a concerted effort in support of revisionism; with every excuse being used to rewrite history rather than to accept that the ideals of Easter Week and later the Democratic Programme and the War of Independence, have never been achieved.

In this era of globalisation, and the demise of the nation state, one may ask why it is essential at all to answer or even discuss the questions of events that occurred a hundred years ago. And the answer must surely be that the values of the Irish Republic have been enshrined in the hearts of Irishmen and Irishwomen wherever green is worn. As Thomas McDonagh said of the Proclamation ‘It lives. It lives. From minds alive with Ireland's brilliant intellect it sprang…. Such documents do not die’.

No, ‘the same destination, at which we eventually arrived anyway’ is not the last stop on the road for the many that believe in the aims of a true Republic as outlined above.


Rather than commemorate the centenary of a failed Home Rule Bill, it may be more appropriate to declare a National Day of Mourning for a failed Republic.


Comment by Niamh Ultaigh on August 30, 2014 at 7:03pm
Hindisight is a powerful tool, isn’t it? Why don’t we commemorate all who love(d) Ireland by celebrating their triumphs and forgiving them their trespasses as we move forward towards the best future for a united Ireland? Keep your eye on the prize!!!


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