Starting out on the road to partition

The introduction by Prime Minister Herbert Asquith of a third effort to grant Home Rule led to a increasingly bitter debate in the House of Commons, with the Unionist politicians hell bent on scuppering the proposal.

On April 11th, 1912, the House of Commons dealt briefly with the arrest of the Chief of Hoti, Khan Bahadur Khawaja Mohamed Khan, and his appearance before a court in Bombay.

However, on that day MPs had their eyes turned to an older part of empire: Ireland and the presentation by Prime Minister Herbert Asquith of a third effort to introduce Home Rule.

Rising, according to Hansard, at five minutes after three o’clock, Asquith, a Liberal politician who often preferred delay to decision, hasty or otherwise, offered the Government of Ireland Bill.

“It is 19 years since Mr Gladstone, in a memorable speech which is still fresh in the recollection of most of us who heard it, at this table moved for leave to introduce the second and last of his measures to provide for the better Government of Ireland.”


Under Gladstone, the Liberals, or most of them, had been enthusiastic about greater self-government for the Irish. Now, their actions were guided by the need to command a Commons majority.

In 1909, the so-called People’s Budget from Liberal chancellor, David Lloyd George, had faced implacable opposition from the House of Lords, whose interests would have been hurt by it.

In 1910, voters went twice to the polls. In January, the Liberals, with 274 seats, had two seats more than the Conservatives. In December, the gap was just one. Neither could command a majority.

For John Redmond, the leader of the 84-seat Irish Parliamentary Party, the hour had come to deliver a lifetime’s ambition. For the Liberals, the House of Lords’ power had to be reduced. Redmond agreed to support a Parliament Act, in return for the Liberals moving on Home Rule.

In 1886, Gladstone had pleaded with MPs to agree in honour to Home Rule, rather than find themselves one day compelled to grant something more. Then, it was defeated in the Commons by a majority. In 1893, he tried once more, passing the Commons’ hurdle, but failing in the House of Lords.

Asquith – uninterested in, if not hostile to – Home Rule, and Redmond reached a deal. Asquith would bring forward a third Bill if the Irish leader backed the Parliament Act 1911 and the Liberals’ budget.

Redmond kept his end of the bargain. Reform of the House of Lords was passed, leaving peers with no powers over finance bills, while their unlimited veto over other legislation was curbed.

Just like Gladstone’s 1893 effort, the Third Home Rule Bill continued to insist upon the supremacy of the Westminster parliament, but it allowed for only 42 Irish Westminster MPs, not 80. A bi-cameral chamber would be created in Dublin – a Senate with 40 members and a House of Commons with 164, while ministers in Dublin would have to be members of one or other chamber. The Lord Lieutenant would remain, but now he would not only have the power to approve, or veto legislation, but also the authority to delay action of any kind.

Some matters would not be in Dublin’s gift to debate: the Crown, the making of peace or war, the military, foreign affairs, the law of treason, and foreign trade and navigation. Some issues were to be kept out of Dublin’s hands for a time – tax collection, old age pensions, land purchase, national insurance, and even the post office.

It was intended to transfer most of these to Irish control after three years, though authority over the Royal Irish Constabulary would not happen for six, and only then if a deal was struck with London.

Given Unionist fears about “Rome Rule”, not just Home Rule, the legislation included controls to prevent Dublin from discriminating in favour of, or against, any religion.

In a departure from 1893, a Dublin parliament would be barred from legislating “to make any religious belief or religious ceremony a condition of the validity of any marriage” – a direct response to the Pope’s Ne Temere decree.

Because Ireland cost the British exchequer more than was raised in local taxes, the legislation provided that £6m would be transferred annually from London.

Under earlier legislation, Irish tenants had been given loans to buy their own land, but London wanted to make sure that the annuities due continued to be paid. Arrears of such payments were to be deducted from the £6m grant, leaving Redmond to complain that “the whole revenue of Ireland is to be held in pawn” as security for land loans.

Introducing the legislation, Asquith told MPs: “These are the lines upon which we ask Parliament to proceed in taking the first, the most urgent and the most momentous, step towards the settlement of the controversy which, as between ourselves and Ireland, has lasted for more than a century.”

If passed, he said, such “power carries with it a sense of responsibility that will give to the Irish people a free and ample field for the development of their own national life and, at the same time, bind them to us and the Empire by a sense of voluntary cooperation, and, as I believe, in sincere and loyal attachment”.

Redmond campaigned strongly for the legislation, rejecting allegations that Irish Home Rule had been “smuggled” in “behind the backs of the British people” as “the most ridiculous of all” charges.

In a pamphlet, one of dozens that were issued, Unionist MP James Campbell complained: “It will actually increase the evils that it is designed to remedy.”

In the Commons on that day in April, 1912, Carson rose quickly to condemn Asquith’s actions, insisting that Home Rule had been twice rejected by the British electorate as a whole.

“The prime minister is angry at being charged with selling us to the Irish party. I ask him this question: is he going to allow this Bill to be submitted to the electorate?” he demanded.

Condemning the actions of Asquith’s predecessor Gladstone, Carson insisted that time had shown that Gladstone had been wrong and that it was his opponents who had been right.

“Our alternative then was to maintain the union and to do justice to Ireland. That has been done with results which, I venture to think, so great have they been in the direction of the prosperity of Ireland, could not have been contemplated by even the most optimistic member of this house of either party,” he declared.

Promising “restraint and good temper” on the part of the Irish Parliamentary Party, John Redmond said: “It may possibly be considered the interest of some people in this house to engender passion in debates and to endeavour to overwhelm the issue by personal attacks and by insulting and irritating references to the nationality and the cherished aspirations of the Irish people.”

Offering optimism that was shown in time to have been misjudged, Labour MP Ramsay MacDonald told the house that he would support the legislation “at every stage”.

“I am profoundly convinced that its effect upon the people of Ireland will be such that safeguards will really become unnecessary, that you will have a people, both in the north and the south, who will know each other so well that social co-operation will become as the very breath of their lives, and that to the differences that now unfortunately lie between them, this Bill will give a final and decisive answer,” he declared.

Viscount Castlereagh was more realistic, telling MacDonald that he had been "endeavouring to infer that there is no real fundamental opposition to the question of Home Rule in Ulster". "I hope he does not hold that opinion, because if he had had the opportunity, as I had of being in Belfast in the course of the last few days, he would have seen clearly and decisively how real, deep, and earnest is the feeling among the population of that city, and he would understand to the utmost their opposition to any attempt of the present Government to make inroads upon the Union which now exists between England and Ireland." From the off, some Liberals, perhaps including Asquith himself, favoured some form of partition for the Protestant-dominated counties in the northeast. Even Winston Churchill was numbered amongst them, though his plan went further, proposing the division of the United Kingdom into 10 territories, each with its own legislature. Chief Secretary for Ireland, Augustine Birrell, often seen as the mouthpiece for Irish nationalists at the British Cabinet table, favoured giving counties the right not to take part. In a letter to Churchill in August, 1911, he argued the case for the so-called "county option", though then he assumed that only Antrim and Down would be likely to take it. The county option was discussed by the Cabinet in February 1912 - before the bill was presented to the Commons, where Asquith tested the mood of his colleagues. In the end, he decided to wait - though not because he favoured a fully-functioning Home Rule, but rather on the grounds of political pragmatism. Concessions would have to be made, but not yet. In a letter to King George V, he outlined his thoughts more clearly, saying that the British government would make amendments if Ulster opposition was so strong that it could not be ignored. "In the meantime," he told the monarch, "careful and confidential inquiry is to be made as to the real extent and character of Ulster resistance." Fanned by the interventions of Conservative Party leader, Andrew Bonar Law, who had family connections in Coleraine, Protestants in Ulster were, however, already in uproar. Unionist leader Edward Carson opposed the county option, describing it as "unworkable, if not ridiculous", believing it would divide Ulster Unionists from those elsewhere in Ireland. The first formal proposal to partition Ireland in the Commons debate on the legislation came not from a Unionist, but from a Cornish MP, Thomas Agar-Robartes (Debate: page 34). He proposed unsuccessfully that four counties be excluded: Antrim, Armagh, Down and Derry. Despite his views, Carson supported it, not because he agreed but because he then hoped that such an amendment would wreck the entire bill. Senior figures in the Irish Parliamentary Party, such as John Dillon and Joseph Devlin, rejected demands for changes, insisting that there would be "no concessions for Ulster, Ulster will have to follow". In the Commons, Asquith condemned Law for alleging in Ulster that the Liberals were acting with base motives, simply to hold onto their majority in the Commons. Outlining the charge against him, Asquith told MPs: "Let us see exactly what it is: it is that I and my colleagues are selling our convictions." Law replied: "You have not got any." Emotions and tempers increased, leading to Ulster Day on September 28th, 1912, when under Carson's leadership more than 500,000 Unionists signed the Ulster Covenant. With time, some nationalists became alarmed at the prospects of division, leading William O'Brien's All-for-Ireland League willing to consider reasonable concessions for Unionists. O'Brien was denounced not just by the Irish Parliamentary Party, but also by the Catholic Church. In the end, he and his eight fellow MPs abstained from voting. Condemning Redmond's "Ulster must follow" strategy two years later, O'Brien proposed concessions in January 1914, declaring his willingness to pay "'any price for an United Ireland, but never partition". The Third Home Rule Bill was finally passed by the Commons, with a majority of 10, but rejected overwhelmingly by the House of Lords by 326 votes to 69. In 1913, it returned to the Commons floor, where it was again passed. But, again, the House of Lords said no, this time by 302 votes to 64. In 1914, it came back to the Commons for a third time, succeeding by a majority of 77. Once more, it was rejected by the peers even though Asquith had by then offered the "temporary exclusion of Ulster", though whether the number was to be six or nine counties was left to another day. This time, the British Government used the powers granted under the Parliament Act - an Act created with the help of Redmond - to override the Lords and sent the Bill to the king for royal assent. The Government of Ireland Act was the first law ever passed by Westminster that proposed the establishment of a devolved government in a part of the United Kingdom. However, its implementation was postponed with the onset of the first World War. The increasing slaughter in the conflict led to further postponements. Eventually, it was superseded by history.

Profile: Andrew Bonar Law When the Conservative Party, then back in opposition, in 1911 elected a compromise candidate to succeed Arthur Balfour as leader, they picked a man who had Ulster in the blood and would be a formidable champion of the Unionist cause both in public mobilisation and in political manoeuvering in the Commons. Andrew Bonar Law (1858-1923 - his family name was Law) though born in New Brunswick and largely educated in Scotland, was the son of an Ulster Presbyterian minister, and knew the province well. His support for Carson and the Unionists, who were part of his party, was unequivocal, swearing with the latter at the great Balmoral meeting in April 1912 that that never under any circumstances will we submit to Home Rule". He had vigorously attacked the Liberals for having failed to make Home Rule a general election issue and at a Blenheim Palace rally in July made a speech widely interpreted as supporting a resort to armed resistance by the Unionists should the Bill go through: I said so to [the Liberals] and I say so now, with the full sense of the responsibility which attaches to my position, that if the attempt be made under present conditions, I can imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster will go, in which I shall not be ready to support them, and in which they will not be supported by the overwhelming majority of the British people He warned repeatedly that the British Army would not enforce Home Rule against a million Protestants, prophetic warnings that some would see as encouragement from the heart of the British establishment to the eventual "Curragh mutiny". During the debate on the Bill he would reluctantly support the exclusion of Ulster from its provisions, to the anger of southern Unionists. When that failed and the Bill passed he continued in 1913 to work against its implementation, successfully pressing King George V ahead of royal assent to suggest compromise, specifically that the issue be tested in a general election, and then that it should require all-party consensus. Asquith demurred and subsequent talks between himself and Law around the latter's demand for exclusion of Ulster failed to produce agreement. By 1914 Law had reverted to outright opposition to the whole Bill. Law would lead the Conservative Party until 1915, serving in the wartime government, and would later be elected Prime Minister in October 1922, serving nly 211 days before retiring because of ill-health. Profile: John Dillon

John Dillon was a key figure in the Irish Party from 1900 until Redmond's death in March, 1918, when he took over the leadership. During the Home Rule crisis he was at Redmond's side for all the critical negotiations with the government and unionist politicians. A much more truculent figure than Redmond, he opposed conciliation with southern unionists. He also rejected the great reform measures that saw most of the land of Ireland transferred to tenant farmers on very favourable terms on the basis that they might "kill Home Rule with kindness". Dillon was born in Blackrock, Co Dublin, in 1851, the son of the Young Ireland leader John Blake Dillon. A radical nationalist in early adulthood, he was characterised by the Chief Supt John Mallon of the Dublin Metropolitan Police in 1880 as "really a cool fenian". He was elected to the Commons for Tipperary in the same year and became heavily involved in the land agitation that followed. Dillon suffered from regular bouts of ill-health. Party colleague TP O'Connor wrote of him: "Tall, thin, fragile, his physique was that of a man who has periodically to seek flight from death in change of scene and air." Dillon carved out a reputation in the Commons as an aggressive performer. On one occasion he was removed from the House for refusing to let prime minister Gladstone speak. He took the anti-Parnell side after the split, and during the 1890s became the chairman of the majority group of nationalist MPs. In 1900, following conflict with some of his own colleagues, he backed the election of Redmond as leader of a united party. From 1907 onwards Dillon and Redmond had a significant say in how Ireland was governed. The achievement of Home Rule brought the two men together, but after the outbreak of the first World War in 1914 Dillon was suspicious of Redmond's enthusiasm for the war effort. After the rising Dillon grew increasingly pessimistic about the prospects of the Irish Party. He took over the reins after Redmond's death but lost his own seat in the 1918 general election. He died in 1927. Dillon's son, James, was elected to the Dáil as an Independent in 1932, and was subsequently minister for agriculture and leader of Fine Gael. Profile: Augustine Birrell

Augustine Birrell the chief secretary for Ireland in 1912, was probably the cabinet minister most sympathetic to the Irish cause ever sent by a British government to administer Ireland. On his arrival in 1907, Birrell fondly imagined that he would go down in history as the last Irish secretary since the Act of Union. He saw his role as presiding over the transfer of power from Westminster to a Home Rule government in Dublin. While he did not realise that objective, he achieved much in Ireland in the fields of housing, agriculture and education. The National University of Ireland would not have been established without his drive and enthusiasm. One of the measures introduced by the reforming Liberal government, of which he was a member, was the old-age pension. With Irish birth records going back only as far as 1864, there was a flood of unsupported applications for the pension. Birrell was besieged as the ultimate arbiter on the issue and he applied a generous leeway in approving supplicants. He recalled later how Conservative opponents in parliament had warned that the state payment would take away from people’s dignity. “That the pension increased enormously the stock of Irish happiness cannot be doubted and I feel sure it degraded nobody, unless indeed it is a degradation to be willing to persuade yourself that you are two years older than you have any reason to believe you are.” Birrell loved travelling around Ireland, particularly the west. “I used to think during my many western tours, an Irish parish in Connaught, supplied with a pious and sensible priest, a devoted and skilled ‘Dudley’ nurse and a sober dispensary doctor, attained as nearly to paradise as it is possible for any place on earth to get. But that complete combination was sometimes hard to find.” Some of his observations may have been a little patronising, but were no less true for all that. “I soon discovered three things: one was that nothing in Ireland was explicable; another was that everything of unimportance was known; and the third was what a small country Ireland is.”