Home Rule Movement and the Irish Parliamentary Party: 1891 to 1918

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Home Rule Movement and the Irish Parliamentary Party: 1891 to 1918

Between 1890 and 1891, a large majority of Charles Stewart Parnell's colleagues (forty-five out of seventythree) sacrificed their leader in an effort to preserve his policy of an alliance with Gladstone's Liberal Party, a move known as the Parnell split. The result shattered the Irish Parliamentary Party. The willingness of the Irish MPs to do so has been seen as base ingratitude and as subservience to the demands of British politicians. It has also been seen as a backhanded compliment to the party's maturity and as proof that it had transcended its earlier role of a support group for one dominant individual. Under Parnell's leadership the Irish party had been characterized by unity and discipline, but for the next quarter century it would be marked by feuds and factionalism.

In three bitter by-elections that followed the split, almost two-thirds of the electors voted against Parnell's candidates. The dispute was not ended by his early death in October 1891, and rival nationalists contested the following general election with an exceptional degree of bitterness. Nine Parnellites and seventy-one anti-Parnellites were elected. Despite the disarray among his Irish allies, Gladstone introduced a new Home Rule bill in 1893. This measure passed the House of Commons, but its rejection by the Lords effectively ended prospects of Home Rule for the foreseeable future.

The party remained divided for nearly ten years, and the dominant anti-Parnellite faction was in turn weakened by disagreements over policies and personalities. In particular, John Dillon adhered to the Liberal alliance and urged centralized control of the movement, while Tim Healy believed in independent opposition and a policy of decentralization.

In 1900 the party was reunited under the chairmanship of John Redmond, the leader of the minority Parnellite group, but new divisions soon emerged. Two of the leading Home Rulers soon quarreled with the leadership of Redmond and Dillon, his long-serving deputy; Healy and his followers were expelled in 1900, and William O'Brien resigned three years later. They would later join forces with other, more radical critics of the party.

A One-Party Nation

Yet until after the outbreak of the World War I the squabbling elements of the Home Rule movement encountered no serious opposition in nationalist Ireland. New ideas flourished and new movements gained widespread support, among them the Gaelic Athletic Association, the Gaelic League, and the Transport Workers' Union. Such groups displayed the vigor and inspired the commitment that had been associated with Parnellism in its prime. But in political terms nationalist Ireland remained a one-party nation, and most parliamentary candidates were returned unopposed. On rare occasions Home Rulers fought battles with unionists, above all in marginal Ulster constituencies, but the relations between the two parties more often took the form of a cold war in which each side recognized the other's sphere of influence. From time to time dissident nationalists challenged the party's official leadership, but with the exception of O'Brien's following in County Cork they posed no serious threat.

This enduring ascendancy was made possible by the party's strengths, in particular by one basic fact: in many respects it reflected accurately the dominant elements and interests in nationalist Ireland. Its MPs tended to come from a lower social class than their British counterparts, the party paid close attention to local needs and demands, it was intimately involved in agrarian matters, and it displayed a formidable ability to infiltrate—and sometimes absorb—other bodies that might have endangered its position. This pattern was displayed with particular clarity after O'Brien formed the United Irish League in 1898. The menace that was posed by this new grouping provided a stimulus to the reunification of the Home Rule movement in 1900, and within a few years the party had taken over the league.

Redmond was forced to modify his personal taste for a policy of conciliation with British governments and Irish unionists, and Dillon's views proved to be more influential. He feared that Home Rule might be killed by kindness, as Conservative politicians hoped, and he believed that the party should distrust measures that could distract attention from the ultimate objective of a Dublin parliament. Home Rulers tended to be wary of reforms by Conservative governments, such as the Local Government Act of 1898 and the Wyndham Land Act of 1903. Even Liberal measures, such as old age pensions, could breed a dangerous degree of contentment as well as risk posing financial problems for a future Home Rule administration.

A change of government made relatively little difference to the party's general strategy; in the 1906 general election the Liberals won a massive overall majority and consequently were independent of Irish support. Many Liberals saw Irish Home Rule as a liability, associating it with the failures of Gladstone's last governments, and preferred to concentrate on other problems. An Irish council bill was proposed as a halfway house to Home Rule, but the measure was rejected by a convention of the United Irish League. Gradually nationalists became disillusioned with the party's failure to achieve Home Rule, and the alliance with the Liberals seemed to have brought a Dublin parliament no nearer. Two MPs resigned their seats, and one of them ran unsuccessfully for reelection in 1908 as a Sinn Féin candidate.

The party's fortunes were transformed by the political crisis of 1909 to 1911. The radical "People's Budget" was deeply unpopular in Ireland, but it opened new opportunities by provoking a conflict between the House of Commons and the Lords. Two general elections were held in 1910, and both of them resulted in deadlock between the main British political parties. Redmond made the most of his strong position, first assisting Asquith's government to break the power of the House of Lords and then prevailing on it to introduce a third Home Rule bill—which would not be subject to a veto by the Lords. There was widespread dissatisfaction at the inadequacy of the powers that would be devolved to Dublin under this scheme, but at least most Irish nationalists were confident that Home Rule was now unstoppable and that it would become law in a few years' time. The Parliamentary Party regained, briefly, its lost support.

Rival Factions

Deprived of their protection from the House of Lords, the Ulster unionists felt desperate and resorted to radical measures; if necessary they would abandon political and parliamentary methods and fight to avert the threat of Home Rule. Ultimately they formed a paramilitary force, the Ulster Volunteers, and threatened rebellion if Home Rule were to be implemented. They were supported and incited by the Conservative Party, whose frustration in opposition was reinforced by outrage at what it regarded as a corrupt deal between Liberals and Home Rulers.

With victory in sight Redmond's main task was to prevent his allies from diluting their Home Rule proposals even further. Most nationalists were dismayed by the unionists' recourse to military measures, fearing that decades of Irish constitutional activity would be undone and that the scorn that radicals felt for "Home Rule tactics" might be vindicated. Such views formed the background to the formation of the Irish Volunteers, a paramilitary force that was modeled on the unionists' rival private army. Nominally under the leadership of Eoin MacNeill, this body was from the outset influenced by the revolutionary Irish Republican Brotherhood.

As both British parties inched their way toward a compromise settlement in 1913 and 1914, Redmond yielded to government insistence that he should agree to some form of partition. This would grant Home Rule to "nationalist Ireland" but would exclude the largely unionist areas in northeast Ulster for a fixed number of years. However, no agreement was reached on the area to be excluded (what was "Ulster"?) or on how long such exclusion should last. Negotiations in Buckingham Palace between the party leaders failed to break the deadlock, and only with the outbreak of the First World War did British and Irish politicians escape an impasse that might have resulted in rebellion or civil war.

The End of the Home Rule Movement

Redmond pledged his support to the British war effort, but he also continued his efforts to ensure that Home Rule would become law. This was achieved in September 1914, although with the crucial qualifications that the act would come into effect only when the war ended and when amending legislation had been passed to deal with Ulster.

Nationalist Ireland celebrated its historic victory, but the events of August through September 1914 marked the beginning of the end of the Home Rule movement. Redmond soon went beyond his assurance that Irish forces could defend the island against German attack, and he urged members of the Irish Volunteers to join the British army and fight abroad. This action provoked a split with the original founders of the force, and the strength of his position was revealed when over 90 percent of the Volunteers followed the party leadership rather than side with its radical critics.

But the war became unpopular as the stalemate continued, month after month, year after year, and as the death toll rose steadily. Fears grew that conscription would be imposed on Ireland, particularly after January 1916 when it came into effect in Britain. One result of a ban on emigration was that large numbers of unemployed or underemployed young people were obliged to remain in the country, and many of them became restive. The unionist leader Edward Carson joined a coalition government in London while Redmond, perhaps unwisely, chose not to do so. And as Home Rule seemed to be no nearer, despite the famous victory of September 1914, fears of deception and betrayal became more widespread.

The Easter Rising of 1916, although aimed at the British, was also a devastating blow to the Irish Parliamentary Party; Redmond's claim to represent Irish nationalists now seemed less plausible. Republicans had seized the initiative, and despite the failure of their rebellion, their courage commanded the respect of enemies such as John Dillon. The insurrection was followed rapidly by new Home Rule negotiations—a halfhearted attempt to achieve a wartime settlement. Redmond felt obliged to make a new concession: the surrender of two counties with nationalist majorities, Fermanagh and Tyrone, to enlarge the excluded area of four unionist counties. This provoked much heart-searching among Home Rulers and precipitated revolt and defections by some of the party's followers in Ulster. A convention of northern nationalists supported Redmond's proposals, but he was soon faced with yet further demands and the collapse of the negotiations. It seemed to many people as if republican rebels had provided moderate politicians with one last chance to achieve Home Rule and that this opportunity had been squandered. The party's morale never recovered from the failure of the 1916 negotiations.

In the course of the following year the Redmondites began to encounter serious opposition from more radical nationalists. A motley coalition of Volunteers, Sinn Féiners, and others contested a by-election in North Roscommon and won a decisive victory. This triggered the emergence of a relatively united mass republican party, Sinn Féin, which defeated Home Rulers in a series of byelections, spread rapidly throughout most of the country, and totally outclassed the battered Parliamentary Party. The Redmondites had been unchallenged for decades throughout much of the country, and their party machinery had fallen into disuse; they proved to be an easy target when at last they encountered a formidable opponent.

Sinn FÉin

Except for its leaders, the new party was comprised overwhelmingly of converts from the Home Rule cause, and one natural consequence was that many of the political skills it revealed were acquired from its opponents. Despite its republican program, Sinn Féin embodied some of the qualities of the old Parnellite movement—in particular an ability to associate with violent men while engaging in political measures. This had been a feature of Parnell's early career and also of the last year of his life, but it was a pattern that the party had abandoned in recent decades.

Redmond's death in March 1918 seemed to symbolize the collapse of the movement that he had served and led for so long. The party succeeded in winning three by-elections in the early months of the year, but it was once more caught off balance when a new crisis erupted. The British government's decision to impose conscription on Ireland provoked immediate and widespread indignation among all Irish nationalists, together with a willingness to resist this threat by force. Sinn Féin and the Irish Volunteers seized the opportunity that had been presented to them, claiming that only they could provide the radical response that was needed. The Parliamentary Party was reduced to implementing Sinn Féin tactics and withdrawing its members from Westminster as a protest against the conscription act. Republican leaders were arrested shortly afterward, whereas their Home Rule allies in the fight against conscription were left unscathed. This appeared to vindicate its opponents' taunt that the party was superfluous; its members were no longer sufficiently menacing to be worth putting in jail.

When a general election was held in December 1918, at the end of the war, the party was disorganized and defeatist. Its demand for Home Rule no longer satisfied a newly radicalized nationalist electorate, yet the British government made it clear that, in the circumstances of the time, there could be no question of implementing devolved government as laid down by the 1914 act. The party had nothing to show for the nominal achievement of Home Rule and had little or nothing left to fight for. It could do no more than look back to its past achievements and warn that its opponents' policies would lead to disaster.

In the election campaign the Home Rulers were outclassed by Sinn Féin supporters' displays of discipline, enthusiasm, personation, and intimidation—all qualities the Parliamentary Party had revealed frequently in the past. Its disarray was revealed by the abandonment of twenty-five safe nationalist constituencies, which Sinn Féin won without a contest. Only in Ulster did Home Rulers perform respectably—because only there had they faced serious, sustained opposition, and only there had they needed to be efficient in amassing votes. The overall result was that Sinn Féin won seventy-three seats, the unionists twenty-six, and the recently dominant Home Rule party a mere six. Four of these were secured as the result of an antiunionist voting pact with Sinn Féin.

Nationalist Party

Under the new name the Nationalist Party, the Irish Parliamentary Party of Parnell and Redmond survived in Northern Ireland for another fifty years. In the rest of the country it died in December 1918 and—except by historians—was soon virtually forgotten. Such neglect is unfair. Over decades the party displayed skill, patience, and resilience; it built on the politicization of Irish nationalist society, which Daniel O'Connell had begun in the 1820s; and it helped to secure fundamental changes in landholding, housing, education, and other areas. It also helped to consolidate democratic values and habits, transmitting them to a new generation of politicians who simultaneously repudiated and emulated many qualities of their defeated opponent.

SEE ALSO Congested Districts Board; Davitt, Michael; Electoral Politics from 1800 to 1921; Great War; Griffith, Arthur; Parnell, Charles Stewart; Pearse, Patrick; Plunkett, Sir Horace Curzon; Politics: 1800 to 1921—Challenges to the Union; Protestant Ascendancy: Decline, 1800 to 1930; Redmond, John; Sinn Féin Movement and Party to 1922; Struggle for Independence from 1916 to 1921; United Irish League Campaigns


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Michael Laffan

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Home Rule Movement and the Irish Parliamentary Party: 1891 to 1918

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