The durable democrat

John Redmond’s Irish Parliamentary Party still casts a long shadow over the politics of modern Ireland

For 18 years in a row, John Redmond was elected chairman of the Irish Parliamentary Party – from February 1900 until his untimely death in March 1918. This annual reaffirmation of the party's support for the chairman was more than just a formality, it was a remarkable achievement where unity was, as it usually has been, the exception rather than the rule in Irish politics. This was a movement that had been wracked by a decade of division. Redmond had been chosen as a compromise candidate in the first place. Though formulaic, Redmond's re-election constituted the party's seal of approval for a leader who presided over a mass movement that consistently held between 70 and 80 per cent of the Irish seats at Westminster across four general elections.

Unfortunately for the Irish Party, Redmond's death came at a time of deep crisis for the Home Rule project. By 1918, the movement appeared rudderless. Redmond had yoked his legacy and the fate of his party to the successful outcome of the first World War. However, the threat of conscription for Ireland; the decimation of Redmond's beloved Irish Divisions; the 1916 Rising; and the fact that no end to the war appeared to be in sight meant Redmond found himself increasingly out of favour with his electorate and even with elements of his own party on the eve of his death in 1918.

The key to the appeal and electoral dominance of the Irish Party under John Redmond is that, under his chairmanship, the Irish Party managed to be so much more than just Redmondism. Nowadays, the popular image of the Irish Party is inextricably linked with the personal wartime policies of its chairman. In these last years of his life, arguably to appease both Ulster and British critics, Redmond articulated a highly imperialist and militaristic rebranding of traditional Irish nationalism. This comparatively brief but extraordinary phase of the Irish Party’s existence has come to dominate in our understanding of what ‘Redmondism’ meant.

In analysing the decline and fall of the Irish Party, the historian Michael Wheatley has stated that Redmondism "remained a minority taste" in Irish political life. Instead, he argues that nationalist sentiment in provincial Ireland remained steeped in the language of "Catholicity, sense of victimhood, glorification of struggle . . . and antipathy to England". The key to the Irish Party's remarkable success lay in its tactical flexibility, its ideological opacity, and the effective control of a mass grassroots organisation. The more radical sentiments of the grassroots could be placated by local magnates, while a more polished set of front bench MPs managed to speak fluently the more conciliatory language of Westminster. This softened the image of the Irish Party and made it more palatable to its traditional allies: the British Liberal party.


Parliamentary achievement

It is true that the condition of Ireland had improved greatly during the opening decade of the 20th century. What is less clear is to what extent the Irish Party could claim the credit. Some of the greatest Irish reforms were brought in by the arch-enemies of Irish nationalism, the Conservatives – in the spirit of “killing Home Rule with kindness” – between 1895 and 1905. Thereafter, a strong Liberal government began to take the first tentative steps towards building a welfare state, with old-age pensions, national insurance, and the provision of meals for schoolchildren.

These reforms, often UK-wide measures, were nonetheless added to the list of legislative victories secured by the Irish Party in parliament. In a 1910 election speech, leading Home Rule MP Joseph Devlin boasted that his party had presided over "the most fruitful reforms that were ever secured by the people, either through constitutional or revolutionary effort". He claimed that, in "land reform, improved conditions for labourers, the establishment of a university, better houses for workers in towns, [and]the improvement in primary education, the Irish Party in parliament could point to constantly growing monuments to the zeal and self-sacrifice of the Irish representatives and to their splendid utility in every sphere of national activity".

The green umbrella

The complexity of the Irish Party’s appeal is not simply that the leadership was more conciliatory than its more radical voter base. The Irish Party managed to keep often-competing sectional interests together under its green umbrella. The party was vague on its policies outside of two core issues: Home Rule and the land question. By Home Rule, the party meant an extensive provision of devolution rather than a demand for Irish independence. On the land question, it was committed to the furtherance and safeguarding of land transfer from landlords to owner-occupiers. Outside of these two pillar issues, the Irish Parliamentary Party managed to be all things to all men.

Redmond, like Parnell before him, presided over a coalition. This was achieved through individual MPs championing a variety of causes and representing different interest groups. The Irish Parliamentary Party's membership included landlords and agrarian radicals; constitutionalists, neo-Fenians and physical force men; labour supporters and industrialists; suffragists and patriarchs; teetotallers and distillers. For example, in the Clare West constituency, up until 1904 the Irish Party was represented by the maverick Major John Eustace Jameson of the famous whiskey distilling dynasty. Meanwhile, John Redmond's brother Willie, the MP for the neighbouring Clare East, was, to quote his biographer, "an impassioned teetotaller, but a devoted smoker".

Other sectional interests found their champions within the broad church of the Irish Party. JJ Clancy, MP for North County Dublin, campaigned tirelessly for the much-neglected rights of town tenants in parliament. His contribution to the passage of the 1908 Housing of the Working Classes (Ireland) Act remains one of the undeniable legislative achievements of the party before the Home Rule crisis broke in 1912.

In 1904, when the Gaelic League was at the height of its power and influence, the party was cunning enough to offer Douglas Hyde a safe party seat in exchange for his support. This offer was, however, politely declined – leaving a young and energetic body of cultural nationalists to float free of the party in subsequent years.

The issue of religion is one where the Irish Party's ability to maintain a degree of ambiguity was key. Redmond twice led his party to vote against the Liberal Party in defence of Catholic education in England and Wales, first in 1902 and again in 1906. Conversely, Redmond did not wish to anger a strong Liberal government in 1907 and politely declined to intercede on behalf of Bishop Richard A Sheehan of Waterford and Lismore when he asked the Irish Party to lobby for an exemption from inspection for convent laundries under the newly drafted Factories and Workshops Bill. Redmond took a similarly firm yet deferential stance when Cardinal Logue of Armagh requested the insertion of several minor but decidedly pro-Catholic amendments to the 1912 Home Rule Bill.

The labour question

Within the United Kingdom as a whole, the labour question was arguably the most transformative of the early 20th century. Through MPs like Joseph Devlin, representing the West Belfast / Falls Road constituency, the Irish Party was successful in keeping large swathes of Ireland's prospective labour voters within its ranks and away from more radical figures like Larkin and Connolly. Harnessing the power of voteless female textile workers, Devlin played hard to this constituency prior to the January 1910 general election. To a packed assembly of Belfast women working in the linen trade, he declared he "had received no more hearty sympathy and support than from the women workers". Assuring them "they might always count upon him as a friend and an advocate", he pledged his personal support for female suffrage and urged his audience to convince their husbands and sons to vote Devlin.

Redmond has practically admitted that all they care about is the whisky trade, insofar as it affects their prosperity and profit

Even in Britain, the Irish Party managed to retain the loyalty of Irish migrants in one of their centres of highest concentration: Liverpool. The city's 'Scotland Division' returned the Irish nationalist TP O'Connor from 1885 until the MP's death in 1929. In Manchester, while the Irish vote was never sufficiently large or organised to elect an MP, the party successfully unseated the rising star of the Liberal party, Winston Churchill, through the tactical use of its supporters in a landmark 1908 by-election. Historians have traced Churchill's 'conversion' from Liberal imperialism to Home Rule to the aftermath of this defeat.

In general, the Liberal Party's support for Home Rule was neither emotional nor absolute, even in the most intense moments of the Home Rule crisis. Herbert Henry Asquith, prime minister from 1908 until December 1916 was, at best, lukewarm on the issue. The independent nationalist MP Tim Healy once described him as "a cold-blooded Yorkshireman, thoroughly selfish and without a genuine trait".

If Asquith's trustworthiness was questionable, then what of his successor, Lloyd George? Alongside Churchill, Lloyd George was a vocal and public supporter of Home Rule in 1912. However, behind closed doors, the pair were simultaneously pushing for "special consideration" for Ulster in Cabinet. By 1915, outraged by Irish nationalist opposition to wartime restrictions on the sale of alcohol, an exasperated Lloyd George is reported to have vented about the "utter disgusting selfishness" of the Irish Party. Privately, to his then mistress Frances Stevenson, he claimed that "Redmond has practically admitted that all they care about is the whisky trade, insofar as it affects their prosperity and profit". In her diary, Stevenson recorded how the soon-to-be prime minister declared "If the question of Home Rule ever comes up again . . . he for one will not give the Irish his support".

Ideology and the Irish Party

The Irish Party did not invent the concept of machine politics. However, they pioneered and perfected it at Westminster from the 1880s up to 1918. With Westminster’s first salaried MPs, a firm whip, effective filibustering techniques, not to mention an unrivalled constituency organisation with a truly global footprint, the Home Rule movement resembled a modern political machine in an era when the gentlemanly practices of the 19th century still persisted in the old and established parties of the British system. The question that arises is whether the Irish Party actually had any ideological stances outside of issues of devolved governance and land holding.

In parliament, voting on drink and education legislation underlined the flaws in any Nationalist-Liberal alliance and seemed to corroborate Irish unionist fears that a Dublin parliament would have been socially and fiscally regressive. The irony of Irish history is that the social policies of Ireland’s unionist and nationalist factions in the early 20th century did not gel with those of the parties with which they aligned at Westminster over the more fundamental question of the Act of Union.

Redmond’s party was certainly a disciplined and effective parliamentary machine but, outside of land and Irish votes, its decisions in the division lobbies often had little to do with the issue at hand and everything to do with wider parliamentary tactics. When it boiled down to it, the Irish Party attended Westminster for one reason and one reason only: to secure Home Rule for Ireland. Irish MPs had first made this demand in 1870. Ironically, when it was finally made good upon 50 years later in 1920, it was too little too late for an electorate who had voted overwhelmingly for Sinn Féin.

The party nonetheless used its political power and the time it spent in parliament to fight on behalf of its constituents as well as supporting sectional interests, including brewers and the Catholic Church. In perfecting a system of political brokerage between the people and their government, the party left a legacy to post-independence Ireland where constituents often saw their TD as master-brokers, when in fact much of the time deputies controlled the flow of information rather than the levers of power. In this and so many ways, the Irish Parliamentary Party still casts a long shadow over the politics of modern Ireland.

The death of John Redmond

John Redmond died on March 6th, 1918, at the age of 61. Though he had been ill for some time and had largely disappeared from public life, his death was unexpected and came as a profound shock.

He went for an operation in London on March 5th to unblock an intestinal obstruction, but developed heart failure and died the following morning.

Friends and political foes paid eloquent tribute to the most important Irish politician of the first decade and a half of the 20th century.

Nevertheless, Redmond’s support for the British war effort was increasingly unpopular in Ireland.

The year previously he had been booed and jostled by a hostile crowd as he left the Irish Convention at Trinity College Dublin.

Fearing what his biographer Dennis Gwynn called “disgraceful demonstrations”, Redmond’s friends and family took his body from Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire) Harbour and placed it on a special train bound for his native Wexford town. He was buried in the family crypt in St John’s Cemetery. The mausoleum containing his remains has been recently renovated.

Dr Conor Mulvagh is lecturer in Irish History at the School of History, University College Dublin, and is the author of The Irish Parliamentary Party at Westminster, 1900-18 (Manchester University Press, 2016) and Irish Days, Indian Memories: VV Giri and Indian Law Students at University College Dublin, 1913-1916 (Irish Academic Press, 2016)