On the 11 April 1912, 100 years ago, the Third Home Rule Bill was presented, for the first time, to the House of Commons. Under it a united Ireland of 32 counties would have enjoyed a devolution of the powers of legislation and domestic administration, but without control over foreign and military affairs and without control of customs duties. Any exclusion of Ulster counties was to be purely temporary.
In an editorial on 11 April 2012, the Irish Times newspaper described the introduction of the Bill as “moment of triumph “ for John Redmond, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party. But it then went on to condemn John Redmond for “a disastrous miscalculation “ in asking, three years later, for Irish men to join the Army to fight against German aggression against neutral Belgium. The Irish Times claimed that “a generation of young Irishmen paid a terrible price” for this supposed “miscalculation”.
In this, the Irish Times both underestimates what Redmond achieved, and grossly overstates his responsibility for the Irish casualties in the Great War.
WHAT JOHN REDMOND ACHIEVED
His achievement was enormous. Relying on wholly constitutional and parliamentary methods, Redmond had succeeded where O Connell, Butt and Parnell had all failed. He actually got Home Rule onto the Statute Book .
After an intense political struggle, in face of vetoes by the House of Lords, threats of mutiny within the military, and threats of physical violence by the Ulster Volunteers, the Home Rule Bill was finally passed into law on 18 September 1914.
This was a month after the war had broken out with Imperial Germany. When the War first broke out in August 1914, the Asquith led Liberal Government initially wanted to postpone the final passage of the Home Rule Bill, which was still strongly opposed by the Conservative party, as part of a wartime political truce, which was, in Asquith’s words, to be “without prejudice to the domestic and political positions of any party”.
But John Redmond insisted that Home Rule be brought into law. He got his way. The law was passed, and assented to by the King, but its operation was suspended for twelve months, or until the end of the war, whichever was to come later. This postponement was seen as reasonable in the circumstances. It allowed the energies of all concerned to be concentrated on winning what was expected to be a short War.
THE TIMING OF REDMONDS WOODENBRIDGE SPEECH....TWO DAYS AFTER SIGNATURE OF HOME RULE INTO LAW
It was as a direct response to the success of his tactic in forcing the Liberal Government to put Home Rule on the statute book on 18 September, that , just two days later, on 20 September 1914, John Redmond called at Woodenbridge Co Wicklow on members of the Irish Volunteers to freely join the Army to fight to defend France and Belgium. This is what the “Irish Times” now condemns.
I believe the newspaper is unfair, and mistaken.
REDMOND WAS RIGHT ON THE ISSUES AT STAKE IN THE WAR.......
The German invasion of neutral Belgium the previous month was entirely unprovoked.
Germany found itself facing a war with Russia. It was worried that France might go to war support Russia. But France had not yet done that. Imperial Germany it did not wait. It decided to attack France first, hoping it could quickly knock out France like it had done in 1870. And the best route by which to attack France was through Belgium. Belgian neutrality was to be treated as an irrelevance.
The Irish Times seems to believe that ,as an Irish Leader, John Redmond was wrong to takes sides in such a war to defend the territorial integrity of a neutral state. This is a strange position to take, given that we make so much of our own neutrality today. Or perhaps the view is that only our own neutrality is important, and other people’s neutrality does not matter. That is hardly a sustainable position in international relations.
AND THOSE WHO ALLIED THEMSELVED WITH THE CENTRAL POWERS WERE WRONG
Redmond’s position was much more responsible than that of the rebels of Easter Week 1916, who explicitly stated, in their Proclamation , that they were allied with what they described as their “gallant allies” in Europe. These “allies” were Imperial Germany, the Austro Hungarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. The morality of this “alliance” has never been seriously questioned or debated in Ireland in the past century, and perhaps it is time that it was.
UNITY BY CONSENT WAS HIS GOAL
Leaving morality aside, was Redmond tactically foolish to call for Irish men to join the Army in September 1914?
This question has to be judged by what Redmond was trying to achieve at the time. He was trying to persuade Ulster Unionists to voluntarily come in under a Home Rule Government in Dublin.
All the concessions he made, including accepting Home Rule as a final settlement and accepting a reduction in Irish representation in the House of Commons , were made to achieve that goal, free acceptance of Home Rule by Unionists, or ” unity by consent”.
Redmond believed it was attainable, but only if he could demonstrate to Ulster Unionists that Home Rule did not mean abandoning their British loyalty. Redmond believed that one way of making Ulster Unionists see Irish Nationalism in a different light, would be if Irish Nationalists stood shoulder to shoulder with them in a common endeavour to defend Belgian neutrality, and the rights of small nations. Rather than being opponents, as they had been in the previous four years of bitter domestic political struggle, they would thus be on the same side.
Redmond knew he was taking a risk in his call at Woodenbridge. But it was a calculated risk. He took the risk in an attempt to achieve genuine Irish unity by consent.
THE METHODS TO ACHIEVE UNITY USED BY REDMONDS CRITICS FAILED OVER AND OVER AGAIN
Given that all subsequent attempts, including terror, boycotting Northern goods, and demanding that the British deploy the threat of coercing Unionist into a united Ireland, have failed to achieve voluntary (or any other kind of ) unity, one should be slow to criticise Redmond, unless one has, or had, a better plan.
Of course, if a united Ireland by consent was never a serious goal, was more of a necessary piety, and if maximum separation of just 26 or 28 counties from Britain was the real goal, one could take a different view. But that was not John Redmond’s position. He believed he could win over Unionists, but he did not believe that was possible, if he stood aside from a conflict that Unionists regarded as existential, and he could show was inherently just on its merits anyway.
WAR WAS LONGER THAN ANYONE PREDICTED
One might accuse Redmond of making a miscalculation because he did not foresee that the war would go on so long, that there would be so many casualties, and that it would bring down the Liberal Government whose dependence on Irish party parliamentary support after the 1910 election support had made Home Rule possible in the first place.
At the time most people, including most military experts , expected that this war, like most of the wars of the nineteenth century, would be over within a year or so. Unfortunately they were wrong. Improved defensive military technology, like the machine gun, which made it harder to advance, and easier to defend ground, meant that the war dragged on for four and a quarter awful years.
IRISH WOULD HAVE JOINED ARMY ANY WAY
It is wrong to make Redmond responsible for the terrible price that was paid in the trenches. Large numbers of Irish men would have joined up anyway, especially now that Home Rule was passed, whatever Redmond said or did not say at Woodenbridge. All the historical evidence suggests points in this direction.
After all, just fourteen years after the passage of the hated Act of Union, 40% of Wellngton’s army at Waterloo was Irish. Large number of Irish fought in the Crimean War. In his book on that war, Olando Figes states that in the parishes of Whitegate and Aghada in East Cork, almost one third of the male population died fighting in the British Army in the Crimea.
So to say that Redmond’s stance is responsible for the “terrible price” that a generation of young Irish men paid in the trenches is unhistorical .
The only way Redmond could have affected the issue would have been if he had campaigned for Irish men NOT to join up. But if he had done that, he would have been saying goodbye to Irish unity, and would have run the risk that the Home Rule Act, he had worked so hard to pass, would have been repealed ,on the ground that Home Rule, in those circumstances, would have been a threat to British security.
The Irish Times is right to editorially commemorate the introduction of the Home Rule Bill 100 years ago. But introducing the Bill was one thing, passing it ,and implementing it on an all Ireland basis was another. That was what Redmond worked for, which subsequent generations have yet to achieve.