Why the Irish State Should Formally Commemorate the Centenary of Home Rule, Part 1

By John Bruton

In 2016, there will be extensive commemoration of the centenary of the Rising in Dublin in 1916.

No comparable commemoration is planned for an earlier centenary, that of 18 September 2014, the 100th anniversary of the passage into law of Home Rule for Ireland.

The events of Easter 1916 inaugurated an armed struggle, with many casualties, which continued until 1923.

In contrast, the enactment of Home Rule was achieved by peaceful parliamentary means, without any casualties.

As it is today, Ireland in 1914 was a divided society, with a majority (mainly of one religious tradition) favouring a large measure of independence, and a strong minority (mainly of another religious tradition) opposing this, and favouring integration in the United Kingdom.

Commemorations should be an opportunity to learn from history, not merely to celebrate one protagonist or another.


Home Rule may have been achieved by exclusively peaceful and constitutional methods, but that does not suggest that those who obtained it, the Irish Parliamentary Party of John Redmond and John Dillon, were mild mannered and non confrontational.

Two previous attempts to obtain Home Rule had failed, one because it was defeated in the House of Commons and another because it was vetoed in the House of Lords.

To get Home Rule onto the statute book, the Irish Parliamentary leaders had to get a majority for Home Rule in the House of Commons, and simultaneously to get the British constitution changed  to remove the House of Lords power of veto.

There was a permanent majority against Home Rule in the House of Lords, and the veto could only be removed with the consent of the House of Lords itself. Furthermore, in the House of Commons, the Liberal party, which had been committed to Home Rule under Gladstone, had moved away from that policy under Lord Rosebery and Herbert Asquith. The Liberal Party had first to be won back to a firm commitment to pass Home Rule.

In a masterly exercise of parliamentary leverage and constructive opportunism, Redmond and Dillon achieved both goals, in a very short space of time.

They withheld support for the radical 1909 Budget, unless and until there was a commitment to remove the Lords veto and introduce Home Rule. They also, in effect exercised pressure on the King, because the Lords eventually only passed the legislation to remove their veto, under the threat of the King swamping the House of Lords with a flood of new Lords.

All this was achieved from the position of being a minority party in the House, albeit a party whose votes were needed to avoid a General Election which the Liberal Government feared they would lose.  Considerable brinksmanship was needed, because, if the Liberals lost the election, the cause of Home Rule would also be lost. Redmond and Dillon did not have all the trump cards. They just played the cards they had very well indeed.

If commemorations are about drawing relevant lessons for today’s generation from the work of past generations, this remarkable exercise of parliamentary leverage, to achieve radical reform against entrenched resistance, has much greater relevance, to today’s generation of democrats, than does the blood sacrifice of Pearse and Connolly.

The subsequent turning away, after 1916, from constitutional methods has obscured the scale of this parliamentary achievement. There may have been a fear that too much praise of the prior constitutional achievement would delegitimate the subsequent  blood sacrifice


I hope the commemorations in Ireland in the period 1914 to 1923 will allow us to honestly address the following related questions......

(Below: Sir Edward Carson, on the left, and F.E. Smith inspect the armed ranks of UVF in Dromore in September 1913.)

+ Does the use of violence help resolve the problems of a divided society?

+ Were the Ulster Unionists right to threaten violence to resist Home Rule?

+ And were the men and women of 1916 right to actually use violence to achieve their goal of a 32 county Republic?

On 1 July this year I took part in a panel discussion with a number of historians, in the Irish Embassy in London, on the topic of the enactment on the Irish Home Rule Bill into law on 18 September 1914. The panel discussion was broadcast on the UK Parliament channel.

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 Butt nor Parnell achieved what Redmond and Dillon achieved.

The Woodenbridge speech of John Redmond on 20 September 1914, urging Irish men to join the Allied cause in the Great War that had broken out six weeks previously, must be seen in the context that Home Rule had been placed on the statute book just two days previously.

Home Rule was law, but the implementation of it was simply postponed until the end of what most people expected would be a short war.

Redmond’s address to the Volunteers at Woodenbridge was not a naive gesture, but reciprocation of the passage of Home Rule. He wanted to show that the passage of Home Rule had inaugurated a new and better relationship between Ireland and its neighbouring island.

Redmond (depicted in a war time poster, right) wanted to show everybody, including Ulster Unionists, that things had changed. Irish men fought in the British Army in the Boer War, notwithstanding Redmond and the Irish Party’s opposition to that war, so those many of those who volunteered to fight in what turned out to be the Great War, would probably have  done so anyway.

Redmond’s Woodenbridge speech was also designed to show  to Ulster Unionists that, in some matters, Unionists and Nationalists were now “on the same side”.

If, Home Rule having been conceded, Redmond had instead still opposed recruitment, he would have handed arguments to those who had opposed Home Rule all along, to the effect that a Dublin Government could not be trusted.

The Woodenbridge speech also stood on its own merits. The unprovoked invasion by Germany of a small neutral country, Belgium,  in order better to be able to attack France, was something that many people at the time, and since, regarded as profoundly wrong and deserving to be opposed.

The case I made in this debate in the Irish Embassy was that Ireland could have achieved better results, for all the people of the island, if it had continued to follow the successful non violent parliamentary Home Rule path, and had not embarked on the path of physical violence, initiated by the IRB and the Irish Citizen Army in Easter Week of 1916.


The use of physical force by the IRB and the Irish Citizen Army in 1916 was not without context.

In their resistance to Home Rule in the 1911 to 1914 period, Ulster Unionists, with the connivance of the Conservative Party, had armed themselves, and  threatened  to use force to resist  Home Rule from Dublin. Parts of the officer corps of the British Army, and in particular General Sir Henry Wilson, cooperated surreptitiously on the Home Rule issue with the Conservative opposition, against the duly elected Government, something that goes against all democratic and constitutional norms.

But bad example by ones opponents does not make a bad decision a good one.

Furthermore, when the decision was made to go ahead with the armed rebellion, Home Rule was already law. It’s implementation was postponed for the duration of the war, but there was no doubt but that it would come into effect once the war was over, either for the whole of Ireland, or, more likely, for 26 or 28 counties.

The irreversibility of Home Rule is well illustrated by a comment that had been made by one of its staunchest opponents, the Conservative leader, Andrew Bonar Law.  He had admitted

“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. The Lloyd George Coalition Government’s  re election manifesto  in the December 1918 Election stated bluntly “Home Rule is upon the statute book”. There was no going back on it.  My belief  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.

Another important context in which the 1916 decision  must be judged is the Great War,  which was then in progress, in which thousands of Irish soldiers were fighting on the Allied side when the GPO was occupied by force. By occupying the GPO the 1916 leaders took the opposite side in this war to their fellow Irishmen in the trenches.

In proclaiming the Republic, the 1916 leaders spoke of their “gallant allies in Europe”. These allies were the German Empire, the Ottoman Empire and the Austrian Empire.  Although their immediate target was Britain, those, against whom the Irish Republicans went to war ,  included the French Republic, whose territory had been premptively invaded, and occupied by force, by Germany. The1916 leaders were not neutral. They were taking the side of Germany , Turkey and Austria and said so in their own Proclamation.

I argued, in the panel discussion in the Irish Embassy, that, in all these circumstances, this decision by the IRB and the Citizen army to use violence in 1916 was a bad decision.

I said it would have been wiser to have had patience, and adhered to the Home Rule policy, and to constitutional methods.

Read Part 2

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.

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Tags: History of Ireland, Irish Freedom Struggle

Comment by Neil F. Cosgrove on August 20, 2014 at 3:53pm

It is amazing to me how quickly the writer tiptoed through the constitution crises created by Edward Carson, where in one of the great oxymorons of history Carson and his followers  attempted to prove their loyalty to their constitutionally elected government by arming themselves and threatening rebellion to the enactment of a constitutionally passed law that they objected to.  Funny how the British government had a long history of suppressing Irishmen who engaged in such activity on a smaller scale, but now suddenly lost their nerve when confronted with Carson and the UVF.  We see this same Government back down to threats of insurrection (on the eve of WW I) by their own Army during the Curragh incident.  Then, this same government turned a "Blind Eye" to the Larne Gun Running.  Oh, by the way where did the weapons from the Larne Gun Running come from Mr. Burton?  Hamburg was it not?  And this in an operation coordinated by member of the British Military (former and active) hand in glove with the same Germany that they knew they would eventually be fighting?  I think anyone who questions Irishmen taking aid from "Gallant Allies in the field" has to first explain away the King’s men organizing Gun running operations to support opponents of the Government they were sworn to protect and  taking weapons from the Kaiser.  Sadly the British Government was not as hands off at Howth and Bachelors Walk.

This is far more than "bad example by ones opponents does not make a bad decision a good one", importing arms and forming a private Army is more than “bad manners" and the fact that the British government did not use the same devices that it had so often employed with enthusiasm against Irishmen seeking Independence is ample reason to doubt the British Government’s commitment to Irish Home Rule.  There was no indication that the British Government had any will to follow through on Home Rule,  in fact every bit of empirical evidence at that time showed quite the opposite; a litany of broken promises and double standards.  To speculate that somehow  "it would all work out over time" is just that, speculation,  and I would argue that there was far more evidence to suggest  and pragmatic reason to believe that a war weary British government would be even more loathed to act on the challenges to enforce home rule against a well organized and armed Carson/Craig opposition post WW I.   


Finally, I would point Mr. Burton to the following analysis of the Easter Rising by the Glasgow Observer (a paper not known for Irish Sympathies) of April 29, 1916:

"No Irish Nationalist should grovel to his British neighbour over what happened in Dublin on Monday. It was simply the consequences of what happened earlier at Larne when the associates and followers of Sir Edward Carson flouted and defied the law of the land, held up it legal guardians and engaged in military operations.... Larne begat Dublin


Comment by Patdee Mullarkey on August 22, 2014 at 12:38pm

I am insulted by Mr. Burton's suggestion to "honor" the Home Rule "effort." My father, born 1902, in County Mayo, fought for independence from Britain. As a teen, he was taken and put in a British prison camp to almost die of starvation. He told me many stories about the brutally of the Black and Tans, and poverty and misuse at the hands of the British. Why should the Irish trust the British? Mr. Burton compares other countries, such as New Zealand, Canada, etc., to Ireland. There is no comparison. England tried genocide against the Irish, starved them, brutalized them, took their lands unfairly. We all know the history between England and Ireland and it is no way like the other countries he mentions. He admits to being an Orange man, with his sympathies to the marchers. I noticed he wrote a book about Paisley, too, a hateful man who I can only imagine Burton's take on him. For Burton to say it would have saved lives is a joke! The Black and Tans were continually taking lives and Britain's treatment of the Irish caused thousands more deaths through poverty than Burton claims would have been saved! By far! His bias is blatant. He backhandedly says my father, and others who fought against the travesties of the English against the Irish, caused deaths and that could have been avoided! I won't even go down that road because I am so disgusted by his distorted viewpoint. Honoring the "Home Rule" effort is an insult to all those brave Irish who took back their country. 

Comment by Gerry Regan on October 2, 2014 at 11:29am
Comment by Neil F. Cosgrove on October 2, 2014 at 11:58am
Gerry unfortunately this is not a "new development", rather it is the same sad development that politicians for their own agendas are attempting to rewrite history and in the process sully the reputation of men far greater than them for their own agendas. Home Rule did not as the article you cite states " set Ireland on the path to devolved self-government – until fate intervened in the shape of the First World War". Home Rule was derailed by Carson, Bonar Law, the Establishment of the UVF, the Cuuragh Incident and the Larne Gun running.

Ireland went to the ballot box first, won and then England changed the rules. They turned a blind eye to the oxymoron of loyalists threatening revolt and there is very little to believe that she would change if she in a Post WW I Ulster had to deal with a battle harden UVF


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