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How Britain failed to moderate Irish nationalism – and the lessons for today

British politicians need to be careful not to again fracture the trust of moderate Irish politicians – as the story of nationalist leader John Redmond, who died a hundred years ago today, makes clear.

Image: John Redmond, who died 100 years ago today. National Library of Ireland.

John Redmond, the early twentieth century Irish nationalist leader, the centenary of whose death occurs on 6 March, deserves to be better remembered in this country than he is. No Irish nationalist leader was ever so committed to reconciliation with Britain. None so impressed the House of Commons and the British public nor made such a useful contribution to British democracy.

The failure of British leaders to reciprocate his support in the First World War led to more extreme elements seizing the leadership of Irish nationalism and embittered British-Irish relations for the rest of the twentieth century.

As leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party after 1900, Redmond’s ground-breaking achievement had been to win a large section of the British electorate over to Home Rule, which had previously been a hopeless vote loser.

Typically, when he had carried a motion in favour of it at the Oxford Union in 1907, a local newspaper remarked: “It is doubtful if the Union has ever heard or will ever hear again a speech that will have such influence on its hearers.”

In the wake of the two general elections held in 1910, Redmond’s Irish Party held the balance of power. They provided the support that enabled Asquith’s Liberal government to curb the power of the House of Lords to veto legislation and to get its radical programme enacted.

 The Home Rule Bill followed in 1912. Conservative leaders joined Ulster unionists in threatening violence if the bill were enacted. The Lords veto held it up for two years.

 By 1914 the only issue between the parties was whether Home Rule would extend to those parts of Ulster that had a unionist majority.

When the First World War broke out in August 1914, the government long-fingered the issue by enacting the Home Rule Bill into law but suspending its operation until the end of the war, which few then expected to last more than a year.

Redmond reciprocated by committing nationalist Ireland to support Britain’s war effort, so fulfilling his promise that a self-governing Ireland would be “Britain’s friend and helpmate, the brightest jewel in the crown of Empire.”

Tens of thousands of nationalist Irish answered Redmond’s call to join up, believing that by so doing they would secure the Home Rule settlement. They were also enthused by the prospect of defending Belgium, another small Catholic nation, against German aggression and its attendant atrocities that included the rape of nuns in convents. Redmond was to lose his only brother, a fifty-six-year-old MP, in the war while his only son was recommended for the Victoria Cross.

On Easter Monday 1916 a small group from among the more extreme nationalists, who had broken with Redmond when he supported the war effort, seized major buildings in Dublin and declared an Irish republic. Their eloquent proclamation mentioned their gallant allies in Europe, meaning the Kaiser’s Germany, from whom they had sought assistance. The rebellion was put down in a week but not before hundreds of soldiers and even more civilians had been killed.

Redmond joined with other leaders of nationalist opinion, including the bishops, in condemning the rebellion for which there was, to all appearances, minimal public support. Despite Redmond’s pleas for leniency fifteen of the leaders were executed. That, and the internment of others suspected, often incorrectly, of being complicit with the rebels, transformed opinion in nationalist Ireland.

Realising, albeit too late, how Redmond had been undermined, Prime Minister Asquith moved to bring Home Rule into effect immediately. Lloyd George, who conducted the negotiations, got Redmond to agree to the temporary exclusion from Home Rule of the present six counties of Northern Ireland. Some hard-line conservatives, alarmed at the prospect of delivering any part of Ireland into the hands of nationalists while war raged, threatened resignation. The project was abandoned, but not before the acceptance of partition, even on a temporary basis, had undermined support for Redmond and raised doubts as to whether Home Rule would ever come about.

By-elections were lost to Sinn Fein, who championed the Easter Week rebels. Many of the clergy shifted allegiance to them. Redmond was dubbed an imperialist for supporting the war effort and berated for getting nothing in return for that support and the Irish lives sacrificed. No longer able to deliver nationalist Ireland to any compromise solution, he died in 1918, in his own words, a broken-hearted man.

The legacy of the rejection of Redmond and his party was further violence. The Sinn Fein Party, having won almost all the seats outside Ulster at the 1918 General Election, endorsed the 1916 proclamation of an all-Ireland republic.  

A campaign of assassinating policemen, most of them Irish Catholics of nationalist outlook, led to the recruitment from Britain of the notorious Black and Tans to restore order. They disgraced themselves and Britain by a policy of reprisals terrorising the whole population, so fanning the flames of Irish Anglophobia for generations.

In the end both sides compromised with bad grace. The area of the present republic got dominion status in the British empire, which was greater independence than Home Rule but involved allegiance to the King; this led to civil war. Northern Ireland was handed over to the Ulster unionists to run it as they wished. In 1937 an Irish constitution was adopted claiming sovereignty over Northern Ireland. Successive Irish governments blamed Britain for the partition of the island and called upon them to bring it to an end.

Irish neutrality in the Second World War and its departure from the Commonwealth, as well as the violence in Northern Ireland after 1969, were consequences of the 1921 settlement, the violence that preceded it and the long stand-off that followed it. The belief that a gullible John Redmond had been betrayed by the British-made Irish leaders made the Irish reluctant ever again to trust their British counterparts. Relations between Britain and the United States, with its influential Irish lobbies, also suffered.

Only in recent decades, with the Irish government accepting Northern Ireland’s right to self-determination and the British government insisting on fair play for nationalists in the province, has the stand-off in British-Irish relations been ended.

British ministers pursuing Brexit need to be careful not to fracture the hard-won trust that has been established and undo all that has now been achieved.    


About the author
Charles Lysaght is an Irish lawyer, biographer,and occasional columnist. He is the foremost writer of obituaries in Ireland and has written and edited several books including "Great Irish Lives" (Harper Collins, 2016)

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