The Origin of the Convention.
We ended our “History of the Irish Rebellion of 1916″ with the question—”Would the influence of the Rebellion produce, in spite of the failure of the first impulse in that direction, a secure and lasting Irish settlement? Or else——?” That History was brought to a temporary close with the date of July 28th, 1916, the date on which Mr. Asquith, in the House of Commons, announced the final failure of Mr. Lloyd George’s attempt to negotiate a settlement on the basis of the policy known in Ireland as “Partition”—the exclusion of the six counties of Ulster from the Home Rule Act of 1914. The present book continues the political history of Ireland from that point down to the issue of its report by the Irish Convention entrusted in the summer of 1917 with the task of endeavouring to find an answer to the question with which our earlier volume closed.
Sir Horace Plunkett played so important a part in the main event described in this book that we may suitably begin it by quoting his compact account of the political situation as it existed in the summer of 1916. The future chairman of the Convention had strongly opposed the partition scheme and had proposed as an alternative that the Irish Government should be put “into commission”—its administration to be placed in the hands of an Executive Council, consisting of Irishmen of recognised standing, drawn from different parts of Ireland, and fairly representative of the main interests and currents of opinion in the country, while any Irish legislation which was necessary would remain in the Imperial Parliament, where it would be looked after by the Irish representatives. In urging this proposal, which was not adopted, against the partition scheme, Sir Horace Plunkett wrote in a public letter in June, 1916:—”The present state of the Irish question must make the angels weep, though they may indulge in an occasional laugh at the anomalies with which the tragedy is relieved. The Irish Government has been swept away by a Rebellion made in Germany, with which country Ireland is at war. Downing Street and Dublin Castle were equally surprised by events elaborately planned in New York and Berlin. Home Rule has been placed on the Statute Book to please the “South and West”; its operation was suspended for fear of stirring up trouble in Ulster. The North, where armed opposition to Parliament, one of the chief causes of the Rebellion, originated, remained quiet; in no Southern constituency affected had its representatives in Parliament any knowledge of, or responsibility for, the rising. So, while Home Rule is the law of the land for North and South alike, both are under Martial Law.”
Attempting to set out briefly and clearly the main facts of the situation with which Mr. Lloyd George had to deal, Sir Horace Plunkett proceeded:—”Ireland is quiet at the moment, but the military executions and deportations have widened and deepened the influence of Sinn Fein. A Rebellion, which was condemned at the time of its action, has set in in favour of the promoters of the occurrence by ninety per cent of the Nationalists. The opposition to the Parliamentary Party is increasing steadily in Ireland, and might take the form of a dangerous revolt against Constitutional methods. In the United States, we are told in the Press, the German-Irish alliance is trying to use Irish unrest for the purpose of stopping the export of munitions to the Allies. The enemies both of the British Government and of the Irish Parliamentary Party are proclaiming that Ireland is again going to be tricked out of Home Rule, that the Act on the Statute Book is a mere invoice, and that there is no intention of delivering the goods. And then there is Ulster, where Sir Edward Carson’s followers, who two years ago threatened Civil War rather than submit to the will of Parliament, feel that their attitude has been justified by the Rebellion, and are determined that, at any rate, so far as the six wealthiest and most progressive counties of their province are concerned, the goods .shall not be delivered.” In these circumstances Sir Horace Plunkett described the task with which Mr. Lloyd George found himself confronted as a three-fold task. “He had to dispel once and for all any doubt there may be as to the good faith of the Government in the matter of Home Rule, to put an end to the possibility of Civil War, and to improve the chances of a satisfactory final settlement of the Irish Question after the war.” In that task Mr. Lloyd George failed, and no serious attempt to fulfill it was made for a full year afterwards. Sir Horace Plunkett’s description, however, may be permitted to stand as a tolerably faithful estimate in the political situation in Ireland in the summer of 1916, after the failure of the first attempt at settlement which immediately followed the Rebellion.
Superficially nothing was changed. The form of Castle Government, which Mr. Asquith had described as finally discredited, was completely restored. To general surprise Lord Wimborne had been reappointed Lord Lieutenant. Mr. Birrell was succeeded as Chief Secretary by Mr. Duke, the Unionist member for Exeter, about whom little was known except that his desire for settlement was sincere; and Irish politicians were sympathetic towards him at the outset of his difficult career. The country remained under Martial Law, and the military authority was invested with greater responsibility than the civil. Sir John Maxwell, who had suppressed the Rebellion with an iron hand, was retained as Commander-in-Chief of the Forces in Ireland. A popular demand for his removal had sprung up immediately after the suppression of the Rebellion, and continued in gathering volume. This demand was not met until the following November, when he was succeeded by Sir Bryan Mahon, an Irish General who had commanded the Irish Division in Gallipoli; but as a concession to the Nationalist Party Lord Lansdowne announced in the House of Lords on July 12th that Sir Neville Chamberlain, who had asked to be relieved of his duties, was about to be succeeded as Inspector-General of the Royal Irish Constabulary by “a gallant officer whose record inspires us with confidence, and who will, we believe, be regarded favourably by all political parties in Ireland.” This officer proved to be Brigadier-General John Aloysius Byrne. The duties of administering the restraints imposed under Martial Law devolved, of course, more intimately upon the Constabulary than upon the Military, and the Government apparently imagined that its administration would be less unacceptable in the hands of an Inspector-General who was an Irishman and a Roman Catholic.
By this time, however, public feeling in Nationalist Ireland had passed into a condition in which the question of the personnel of administration was of little practical consequence. In all her history Ireland has seen no more remarkable revulsion of political opinion than that which followed the Rebellion of 1916. The Rebellion occurred at a moment when the first fine careless rapture of Nationalist Ireland’s emotional war interest was wholly spent, and the country was in a state of reaction to war—weariness and disillusion. It was in this atmosphere that the disaffection which issued in the Rebellion came to a head. But, though strategically the Rebellion was serious, politically it was, in itself, trivial. It was not, except indirectly and remotely, a product of the political philosophy known before its occurrence as Sinn Fein. That political philosophy made its limited appeal first to a small company of writers and scholars, and next to some extent to the smaller bourgeoisie of the cities. Sinn Fein nationalism was doctrinaire; it could not acquire the character of agitation. The Rebellion of 1916, on the other hand, had behind it the driving force of economic misery, together with that strong emotional nationalism which has always been a characteristic of the very poor in Irish cities. It was primarily and essentially a revolt of the Dublin slums, using as its military instrument the Citizen Army, founded by James Larkin during the great strike of 1912—a revolt of the Dublin slums in alliance with the neo-Fenianism surviving in the secret society known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and using as its military instrument the Irish Volunteers. The Rebellion, then, was not in any exact definition of the term Sinn Fein, and the political philosophy which bore that name was before it of only moderate consequence in Irish life. The Rebellion failed so completely and so early for the precise reason, very largely, that the great mass of the Irish people did not approve of it, and had not been consulted about it; a majority condemned Pearse and Connolly as impractical visionaries. Nevertheless, a very short time after the outbreak Sinn Fein was a potent force in Ireland, and a very large part, perhaps a majority, of the Irish people gloried in avowing themselves Sinn Fein.
A political phenomenon so remarkable, and destined to exert such a large influence in the development of political events in Ireland, is worthy of something more than superficial study. “The truth is,” wrote Mr. James Stephens on the morrow of the rising, “that Ireland is not cowed. She is excited a little. She is gay a little. She was not with the Rebellion, but in a few weeks she will be, and her heart, which was withering, will be warmed by the knowledge that men have thought her worth dying for. . . . If freedom is to come to Ireland, as I believe it is, then the Easter Insurrection was the only thing which could have happened. I write as an Irishman, and am momentarily leaving out of account every other consideration. If, after all her striving, freedom had come to her as a gift, as a peaceful present such as is sometimes given away with a pound of tea, Ireland would have accepted the gift with shamefacedness, and have felt that her centuries of revolt had ended in something very like ridicule. The blood of brave men had to sanctify such a consummation if the national imagination was to be stirred to the dreadful business which is the organising of freedom. . . . Following on such tameness, failure might have been predicted, or at least feared, and war (let us call it war for the sake of our pride) was due to Ireland before she could enter gallantly into her inheritance. We might have crept into liberty like some domesticated man, whereas now we may be allowed to march into freedom with the honours of war . . . .”
It follows necessarily from her history that the popular historical heroes of Nationalist Ireland after the semi-legendary figures of bardic times, and those first opponents of foreign invasion such as Brian Boroimhe, are the men who have resisted in arms the domination of England—who are, in other words, “rebels.” Art McMurrough Kavanagb, who waged successful war against Richard II.; the long line of Geraldines from Garrett in the time of the Tudors to Lord Edward; the O’Neills and O’Donnells of Ulster, whose century of intermittent rebellion culminated in the flight of the “wild geese” at the beginning of the seventeenth century, to be renewed half a century later; Sarsfield in the war of William and James (who ranks as a “rebel” in English history); Wolfe Tone and the Emmets a hundred years later; Mitchel, Smith O’Brien, Meagher and the other “Young Irelanders” of 1848; James Stephens and the Fenian leaders of 1867—these are the national heroes of Ireland. The more recent change in the political struggle between Ireland and Great Britain from the sphere of physical force to constitutional action had not effected their memory. Nationalist Ireland has never admitted the validity of the claim that, as an essential article of any treaty of political peace with England, as an earnest of her loyalty to the British connexion, she should make, as it were, a formal act of self-humiliation, a formal repudiation of her history of rebellions and of her famous rebels. “She may enter the Council of Empire,” wrote Kettle, “provided that she enters on her knees and leaves her history outside as a shameful burden. This is not a demand that can be conceded, or that men make on men. . . .
In days rougher than ours, when a blind and tyrannous England sought to drown the national faith of Ireland in a sea of blood, there arose among our fathers men who annulled that design. We cannot undertake to cancel the names of these men from our calendar. We are no more ashamed of them than the constitutional England of modern times is ashamed of her Langtons and De Monteforts, her Sydneys and her Hampdens.” With that tradition behind them the men of 1916 must in any case have commanded, whether their action was justified or not justified, approved by the great mass of the Irish people or not approved, a natural place in the popular imagination in the illustrious succession of Ireland’s historic “rebels.” That appeal to tradition, to sentiment, must in any circumstances have been potent.
“Ireland was not with the Rebellion, but in a few weeks she will be.” Mr. James Stephens’s words were written before the immediate sequel to the Rebellion. It was, in fact, a matter not of a few months, but of a few, and a very few, days. The events of those few days made a great part of Nationalist Ireland “with the Rebellion,” with a swiftness, and to a degree, which, before they took place, no man in Ireland could have contemplated. The men of 1916, it has been said, must in any case have taken a natural place in the popular imagination in the illustrious succession of Ireland’s historic “rebels.” The exaction from them of the extreme penalty for their offence at once invoked, and invested their persons with, all the ancient memories for which that succession stood. It replaced in a moment an appeal to reason with an irresistible appeal to sentiment. The justice, or even the expediency, of the execution of the rebel leaders, the sentences of penal servitude, the wholesale arrests and deportations, announced day after day without publication of the evidence which justified the infliction of the capital penalty, from behind the closed doors of Field Courts-Martial, are matters of controversy with which this historical record is not concerned. Their effect on a great mass of Irish opinion, which read of them, as a commentator entirely unsympathetic with the Rebellion wrote at the time, “with something of the feeling of helpless rage with which one would watch a stream of blood dripping from under a closed door,” is a matter of historical fact. To this mass of Irish opinion, as an immediate result of them, the memory of the thousands of Irish soldiers who had died in the face of the enemy in France and Flanders, in Gallipoli and Macedonia, suddenly became less real and vital than the memory of the dozen rebels who died at the hands of British firing parties in the barrack yards of Dublin. From that moment the old and deep but hitherto submerged emotions resumed full sway of the national imagination and jostled out the novel and superficial emotions induced by the war and Ireland’s earlier participation in it. All the past history of Nationalist Ireland recoiled upon her; a large part of her people were suddenly back in the ancient fierce mood of quarrel with England.
Two circumstances tended to confirm this mood induced, by the aftermath of the Rebellion. One was the renewed agitation which sprang up immediately after its suppression for the application of conscription to Ireland. The opposition to conscription, deriving in part from the repugnance of Irishmen to compulsion in any form, in part from the fact that the conception of the war as “Ireland’s war,” as the phrase went, had never struck any deep roots in the country, in part from the view that Ireland with a declining population could not economically afford the drain of manhood involved, but deriving chiefly from the belief that the principle of nationality was vitally involved in the question, and that acceptance of it would fatally compromise the Irish national claim —this opposition was now confirmed by the fact that the Rebellion was partly inspired by the belief that the application of conscription was imminent, so that the memory of the dead remained a continuing inspiration to resist it. The other circumstance was the Nationalist Parliamentary Party’s acceptance of the principle of “partition” in the abortive negotiations for a settlement in the summer of 1916. Sir Horace Plunkett, at this time, expressed himself as fearing, “that the Government, relying on their knowledge of British public opinion and of the Parliamentary situation, would find that they had wholly misjudged the feelings of the Irish people, and that their proposal for setting up a government without consulting the Irish electorate would arouse an opposition which would drive tens of thousands of moderate men into the Sinn Fein camp.”
These considerations serve to explain the extraordinary revulsion of popular feeling which swept over the country after the Rebellion in the early summer of 1916. The fact that, though the Rebellion in its origin was only indirectly and remotely Sinn Fein, this revulsion of feeling associated itself with that political theory is easily intelligible. The actual authors of the Rebellion were dead or imprisoned; the Citizen Army and the Irish Volunteers were disbanded and their organisations suppressed; the moving spirits of the Irish Republican Brotherhood had retired into their mysterious obscurity. These rallying points for the new and vastly swollen disaffection were gone; but the outbreak had become loosely associated in the public mind with Sinn Fein; the Sinn Fein idea was “in the air”; and the revulsion of popular feeling naturally grouped itself about it. From this point then, rather than from anything antecedent to the Rebellion, or even from the Rebellion itself, we may trace the emergence of a new and incalculable factor in the political life of Ireland. In the period immediately after the Rebellion, and during the remainder of the year 1916, Sinn Fein was scarcely more than an emotion, a sentiment, an “atmosphere,” a stream of tendency not yet canalised in a policy. It was a latent potentiality rather than a concrete actuality. One was conscious of a novel presence in Irish thought, oppressive, pervasive, but impalpable.
There was in this period no exact measure of estimation of its influence, or even of its scope, though it was apparent that it was widely diffused. Incidents there were as straws in the wind—most significant, perhaps, the election in August by the Gaelic League, which was in no sense directly implicated in the Rebellion, of its new President in the person of Professor Eoin (John) MacNeill, who was at the time serving a life sentence for alleged complicity in the rising. Of overt “manifestations” of the new spirit of revolt there was none of any consequence. The widespread wearing of Republican badges; a certain, at first discreet, popularity of Sinn Fein songs, an occasional appearance of the tricolour in the streets of Dublin and other towns; a few trivial street disturbances —these were all the indices apparent. More there could not have been. The hand of Sir John Maxwell lay heavy upon the country. The rigours of Martial Law, gradually dwindling later into almost complete disuse, were at first stern and comprehensive. Assembly and procession were forbidden.
Certainly to the close of 1916 Sinn Fein, whatever else it might mean, meant no challenge to the security of the military position from the Government’s point of view. “We shall certainly admit to the full,” said Lord Lansdowne on behalf of the Government in the House of Lords on July 12th, “the obligation which lies upon us to prevent a recurrence of these deplorable incidents, and we shall address ourselves to the task without shrinking from it … Under the system which exists at the moment there ought not to be much fear of the situation in Ireland getting out of hand. We have Sir John Maxwell responsible, with some 40,000 troops to support him, and with the control of the Constabulary in his hands. We have unabated confidence in Sir John Maxwell, and shall give him all the support to which he is entitled. The powers which he is exercising, and which were conferred upon him by the Defence of the Realm Regulations, are powers which we are prepared to extend, if necessary, to meet any emergency which may arise . . . The Prime Minister has already stated that he quite admitted that the present condition of the country requires the utmost vigilance on the part of the Imperial Government. For a time there was a rapid increase in the numbers of the Sinn Fein organisation, but that increase has dwindled of late. Although there have been disquieting symptoms they are less disquieting now, and the reports show that there has been some improvement in that respect. What is noteworthy is that there appears to be hardly any ordinary crime in the country. Lord Peel has suggested that our first duty is to govern Ireland, and to end if we could the mischief that has arisen during the past few years. We have taken some steps already with that object, and we certainly will not hesitate to take further steps if they are necessary for the purpose.”
The Nationalist Parliamentary Party’s position after the abortive negotiations for a settlement was one of great delicacy, difficulty and complexity. On the one hand it was anxious to avoid any extreme policy which would alienate British sympathy. On the other hand, with its position in the country seriously undermined by the aftermath of the Rebellion, it was impelled to adopt a strong policy more or less sympathetic with the Sinn Fein point of view, but with the uneasy knowledge that such a policy, in so far as it contributed towards giving greater freedom to the new movement, was more likely to strengthen the hands of Sinn Fein than to improve its own position in the country. In the House of Commons on July 31st, three days after Mr. Asquith had announced that the Government did not intend to proceed with the abortive “partition” scheme of settlement, Mr. John Dillon moved a resolution to the effect “that, in view of the announcement by the Government that they do not intend to introduce their long-promised Bill to settle the government of Ireland, it is vitally necessary and urgent that the Government should disclose to the House their plans for the future government of Ireland during the continuation of the war.” In the course of his speech Mr. Dillon declared that “it was an absolute fact that Sir John Maxwell and the present system of Government acted as better organisers of disaffection than the organisers of the Sinn Fein movement.” His speech was chiefly notable in that it contained the first hint of the “Peace Conference” policy afterwards adopted by Sinn Fein. Mr. Dillon asked:—”When the Government of this country and their Allies come to consider the settlement of the terms of peace on the principle of justice to all small and oppressed nationalities, how could the claim of Ireland be overlooked?”
In his reply to Mr. Dillon, Mr. Asquith submitted that, despite the failure of the negotiations, “a new situation in the history of the Irish question had been created, a situation which was a milestone on the road, and from which they could never go back to the old positions of irreconcilable hostility and recrimination.” He then, declaring that “from their (the Government’s) point of view the present was a transitional period, of probably short duration, and they did not think it desirable at such a time to make new experiments,” announced the appointment of Mr. Duke as Chief Secretary and of Sir Robert Chalmers as Undersecretary. “They could not leave Ireland without a civil Executive, and he trusted the arrangement he proposed would conduce to the permanent settlement which everybody in Ireland hoped and desired.” Mr. John Redmond, after expressing his feeling that what had happened made a peaceful settlement in the end absolutely certain, denned the Nationalist Party’s attitude. “After a few months of chaos in the Government of Ireland, the right hon. gentleman proposed as a remedy merely the setting up of Dublin Castle again, with the machinery which he himself had said had broken down. To do this was a very serious thing. His proposal for all practical purposes was to set up a Unionist Executive in Ireland. . . . He (Mr. Redmond) must, in1 the name of his colleagues, and in his own name, protest against any such proposal. This was clear—under this proposal the Government were taking on their own shoulders full and open responsibility. Nobody could say that the Nationalists had any responsibility in the matter. It left their hands clear. It was done in spite of their earnest protests, and made it their plain duty, once this Executive was set up, to watch and criticise and oppose the new administration how and when and where they pleased.” In conclusion, Mr. Redmond affirmed that “in the course of this controversy he had not for one moment forgotten the war. Notwithstanding all that had happened, nothing would have the effect of altering his view about the war and Ireland’s duty towards the war. He had declared everywhere in Ireland that this was so.” On the following day, at a meeting at the House of ,Commons, the Nationalist Party passed a resolution to the effect “that we strongly protest against the action of the Government in reviving the discredited system of Dublin Castle rule, already condemned on all sides, and condemned especially by the Hardinge Commission, and by the Prime Minister himself, and that in our opinion the appointment at this moment of a Unionist Executive to carry on this system is an outrage on the feelings of the Irish people.”
During the Parliamentary Recess the chief subject of agitation in Ireland was that of conscription. On September 28th the Freeman’s Journal, the official organ of the Nationalist Party, defined the conditions under which voluntary recruiting could receive another chance in Ireland. They were as follows:—”(1) Conscription must never be introduced in Ireland without Ireland’s consent. (2) The abolition of Martial Law. (3) The dismissal of Sir John Maxwell. (4) The withdrawal of the Coalition System from Ireland. (5) No further ‘harassing’ of Irishmen temporarily resident in England. (6) Resumption of the work of preparing the Orders in Council for bringing the Home Rule Act into operation. (7) No imprisonment of Irishmen without trial. (8) The treatment of Irish Rebellion prisoners as political prisoners. (9) The Home Rule Act must provide for the ‘ultimate integrity’ of Ireland.” The Freeman said that the observance of these conditions by the British Government would revive voluntary recruiting in Ireland. On October 9th, in a speech at a municipal banquet in Dublin, the Lord Lieutenant estimated that the number of men of military service who were eligible arid could be spared was, in round numbers, 150,000. He went on to say that the Irish Divisions needed 40,000 men before Christmas, “and I venture to suggest that there is an immediate duty and obligation which rests upon Ireland with regard to her contribution, which is to keep up the fighting strength of the Divisions which have won such laurels and such fame.” He added that “although I have contemplated, I have never advocated” compulsion in Ireland; that National Service in any community was not practicable without a measure of general assent; that there was no such measure of consent in Ireland at the present time, but that “I see no reason why anybody should despair of bringing home to the Irish democracy the overwhelming logic of the facts which confront us.” Lord Derby subsequently announced in the House of Lords that from the date of the Rebellion to the middle of October eight thousand five hundred men had enlisted in Ireland, of whom three thousand five hundred were Ulstermen.
On October 6th Mr. Redmond, at the Town Hall, Waterford, made his first appearance at a political gathering in Ireland since the Rebellion. There was much speculation as to the nature of his reception and the tone of his speech. His arrival at the hall was preceded by a small disturbance by some Sinn Feiners, but his reception was cordial. The tone of his speech was markedly harsher than that of his earlier utterances in Parliament. He devoted much of it to the conscription question and announced that “on all else besides the war we must go into open and vigorous opposition.” He said that the first fact they must look in the face was that a bad blow was struck at the hopes of Ireland by the rising in Dublin, engineered by men who were enemies of the constitutional movement for Home Rule. The real responsibility rested on the British Government, and it was idle to imagine that the relations between Ireland and the Government could continue as they had been before. Since the war commenced the conduct of the Government towards this country was marked by the most colossal ineptitude, want of sympathy, and stupidity, so much so that their conduct would, he believed, have chilled the confidence of any people, much less a people like Ireland, whose history had taught them how dangerous it was to trust the English statesmen; and finally they suppressed the recent rising with gross and panicky violence, and they closed, he was sorry to say, their ears to the plea for clemency. Now they had reconstituted Dublin Castle. Ireland was living under a Tory Unionist Executive. Dublin Castle was once again a Unionist stronghold, and Martial Law was in existence in every part of the country. “And finally,” continued Mr. Redmond, “let me remind you that every day the Unionist forces in Great Britain and Ireland are observing what is called by a singular irony the political truce by doing all they know, by taunts, incitements and threats of conscription, to revive once more the old racial distrust and passions of the two peoples. With such a Government with such a record the Irish Nationalist representatives can have no relations but those of vigorous opposition.”
Having declared that Ireland’s attitude so far as the war was concerned was unchanged, that the Nationalist Party would “do nothing calculated to postpone by a single instant the victorious end of this conflict,” and that “I do think it would be a disgrace to Ireland if the Irishmen fighting at the front were left in the lurch, and if Ireland did not go to their assistance,” Mr. Redmond proceeded to deal at length with conscription. He refused to believe that “malign though are the influences that are at work, the Government will be insane enough—there is no other phrase which would fit the intention—to challenge a conflict with Ireland on this matter. Conscription in Ireland so far from helping the Army and forwarding the interests of the war, would be the most fatal thing that could happen. It would be resisted in every village in Ireland. The attempted enforcement would be a scandal which would ring round the whole civilised world. It would produce no additional men; in fact, the mere threat of conscription has to a large extent paralysed voluntary recruiting.” Mr. Redmond concluded:—”Now, I say this in all good faith to the Government and the military authorities: the way to continue to get recruits is far different. Appease the inflamed feelings of the Irish people, withdraw Martial Law, make it plain that the Defence of the Realm Act is to be administered in Ireland in the same spirit as it is in Great Britain, treat the prisoners of this unfortunate rising as political prisoners, put a stop to the insults and attacks upon Ireland, and recognise generously and chivalrously all she has done. On these lines the Government will succeed in recruiting even after all that has happened; but as for conscription, that way lies madness, ruin, and disaster.”
The new policy defined by Mr. Redmond at Waterford was at once put into practice in Parliament, where the Nationalist Party gave notice of the following resolution, and asked for the earliest possible day for its discussion:—”That the system of government at present maintained in Ireland is inconsistent with the principles for which the Allies are fighting in Europe, and is, or has been, mainly responsible for the recent unhappy events, and for the present state of feeling in that country.” The meeting also adopted a resolution “that the time has come when all the untried prisoners detained in connection with the Irish Insurrection should be released, and that all the Irish prisoners convicted of complicity in that Insurrection should, in accordance with the modern practice of civilised States, be treated as political prisoners.” The first resolution was moved by Mr. Redmond on October 25th; and Mr. Duke in his reply, declared that anyone who knew the conditions in the West of Ireland must be convinced of the necessity of putting some restraint on sympathisers with the late Rebellion. The obstacle to granting Home Rule, he proceeded, was that Irishmen themselves were not agreed upon it. The difficulty in ending Irish grievances lay in Ireland herself. As soon as it was safely possible, and not till then, restrictive measures would be removed.
An incident which occurred in Dublin about this time was generally associated with the Nationalist Party’s new policy of “open and vigorous opposition” to the Government. An agitation had sprung up in the ranks of the Dublin Metropolitan Police for increased pay and other improvements in their position. On October 31st, in moving the money resolution for a Bill designed to remedy their grievances, Mr. Duke referred to “the conditions which had existed in Dublin during the last few days. Two matters,” he said, “had come into great prominence. One was the holding of meetings of the police, convened by people outside, and directed by people outside, for the purpose of using the condition of the police as an instrument of pressure on the Government. Such meetings are held contrary to the regulations of the force.” The second matter was the enrollment of a considerable body of the police in the Ancient Order of Hibernians—the sectarian and semi-secret “Friendly Society” organised by Mr. Devlin. The police oath forbade membership in any such society, with the exception of the Society of Freemasons. A week later the Chief Secretary, having investigated the situation more fully, said there had been breaches of discipline, but expressed himself as reluctant to believe that any large body of the police had, in fact, joined the Hibernians. The risk, he said, was that a body of men would run away from their discipline, and would have to be displaced. He did not fear that situation was going to arise, unless the Dublin Police were egged on and incited, and provoked to do something which he” did not conceive they had ever entertained. Discipline must be maintained, but the road would be easy for every man who had not committed an offence which it was impossible not to punish to do his duty. Finally disciplinary action was taken against a few of the leaders of the movement in the police; at the same time the oath of service was deprived of its exemption in favour of the Freemasons. The Irish Unionist papers demanded urgently that Mr. Duke should also take action against the civilian agitators who had tampered in war time with the discipline of an armed force in the payment of the State; but nothing more was heard of this aspect of the trouble.
Apart from this incident nothing further of importance occurred until near the end of 1916. The fall of Mr. Asquith’s Cabinet and the formation of Mr. Lloyd George’s Government in December created great excitement in Ireland. The predominance of Unionist Ministers in the new Administration suggested to Nationalists sinister possibilities. Their apprehensions were expressed in a series of resolutions adopted by the Parliamentary Party on December 12th, of which the first declared that “while the policy of this Party in favour of the vigorous and successful prosecution of the war remains unchanged, we await the declaration of the Irish policy of the new Government before deciding on our future attitude towards it,” the second that “so long as Ireland is denied Self-Government, and is held under Martial Law and hundreds of Irishmen are in prison without trial, she must remain a source of weakness and danger, instead of being, as she admittedly would otherwise be, one of the most powerful sources of strength to the Empire in this crisis;” and the third renewed the “warning that any attempt to enforce conscription in Ireland would immediately produce disastrous and far-reaching results, and would, in our judgment, gravely interfere with the successful conduct pf the war,” and that the Party would accordingly resist “by every means in our power” any proposal involving the application of conscription to Ireland. On December 19th, Mr. Lloyd George, in outlining the new Government’s policy, made a brief reference to Ireland.
He said that “while he had not yet been able to devote any time to the Irish problem, he would consider a settlement as a war measure of the first importance and a great victory for the Allied cause.” He added that he “still felt that the solution of the Irish question was largely one of a better understanding,” and concluded by saying that “we shall strive by all means, and at many hazards, to produce that atmosphere; but we ask men of all races and all creeds to help us, not to solve a political question, but to do something that would be a real contribution to the winning of the war.” Mr. Redmond afterwards expressed his deep disappointment with the Prime Minister’s “vague and indefinite” references to Ireland. He asked as a Christmas gift to the Irish people that the Rebellion prisoners should be released, and said that if the Government would take its courage in its hands and make a general jail delivery, it would be doing more to create a better atmosphere and a better feeling than anything else it could do. Mr. Redmond went on to say that if the Government intended to deal with the final reconciliation of Irish opinion by a settlement of the Irish question there were two or three things he would like to say. The first was that time was of the essence of the matter. The worst thing that could happen to the Irish question was that it should be allowed to drift further. His next point was that the Government should deal with the question boldly on its own responsibility and initiative. Mr. Redmond did not think anything was to be gained by contemplating further negotiations. Finally he declared that the Government must not mix up this question with conditions of recruiting or conscription, which must be left to a change of heart in Ireland. In conclusion he appealed to the Prime Minister “in Heaven’s name let him not miss the tide.”
On the following day, December 20th, Mr. Dillon renewed the Nationalist demand for the release of the interned Rebellion prisoners. It had already been widely rumoured in Ireland that the prisoners would be released before Christmas. Some disturbance had meanwhile occurred at the Frongoch Internment Camp, in North Wales, owing, as the Nationalists alleged, to an attempt to make some of the men turn informers, and disciplinary action had been taken by the camp authorities. Mr. Duke, in his reply to Mr. Dillon, explained that there were originally 3,000 arrests, and went on to deplore the shootings and imprisonments under sentences of Courts-Martial. The Chief Secretary proceeded to show that of those arrested who had not been dealt with by Courts-Martial, but merely interned without trial, only 560 remained interned after the sifting of the cases by an Advisory Committee. In the cases of these men, he said, whom the Committee were unable to advise the Government to release, the door was locked on the inside; they refused to give a required undertaking not to engage in sedition during the continuance of the war. Mr. Duke defined his duty in Ireland, as he conceived it, as that of taking care that peace and order and a better atmosphere —without which a settlement in Ireland would be utterly impossible—should not be lightly disturbed by any means against which he could take precautions. After travelling the districts affected some two months before he concluded that the time had not come when these men could be indiscriminately turned loose on the countryside in the West of Ireland with any reasonable expectation that their presence there would be consistent with public safety. During the past two or three months he thought there had been a steady improvement and appeasement in Ireland; but a wholesale order of release, which would be irrevocable, could not be undertaken without making sure of the ground; “it could not be done in this airy way to improve the atmosphere, or to make a pledge of conciliation and peace to Ireland.” After this statement there was some surprise when the prisoners were almost immediately released. They reached Ireland in small parties, most of them on Christmas Eve, and there was little demonstration on their arrival. Among the released prisoners was Mr. Arthur Griffith, the original founder of the Sinn Fein philosophy. Their arrival was followed by an announcement by Mr. John Dillon in the Freeman’s Journal that the Nationalist Party next proposed to demand investigation of the cases of those sentenced to penal servitude by the Courts-Martial, with a view to the revision or annulment of the sentences. Mr. Dillon expressed his hope that the Government “would take the bold and generous step of declaring a general amnesty.”
At the end of 1916, it may be said, the two conflicting tendencies which were to dominate Irish politics during the following year had begun to disclose themselves. On the one hand the release of the interned prisoners, in accordance with the Government’s new policy of creating an “atmosphere” of appeasement, in fact laid the first foundations for the growth of a militant Sinn Fein policy, which was shortly to express itself as irreconcilably opposed to a constitutional settlement. On the other hand, the release of the prisoners was by a few days anticipated by the first suggestion of what, in contrast with the Sinn Fein policy, may be called the Convention policy. Shortly before Christmas there appeared inconspicuously in the Dublin newspapers, and with little more than perfunctory notice in their editorial columns, a circular issued by the “Irish Conference Committee.” In the formation of this body, and the issue of its circular, which was addressed to the Chairmen of the County Councils and other public bodies in Ireland, the idea first took coherent shape of an attempt to solve the problem of Irish government by means of a Conference based on the precedent of those which secured the passage of the Wyndham Land Act, and the establishment of the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction for Ireland.
The circular issued by the Committee was signed by Mr. Dermod O’Brien, President of the Royal Hibernian Academy, and read as follows:—”Believing that all classes in Ireland are sincerely desirous of finding a solution of the problem of Irish government which will go as far as possible in reconciling divergent views, some gentlemen, whose names I give below, have met in Dublin with the object of considering whether a conference could, with advantage, be called into being. These gentlemen have elected me as Chairman, pro tem., and it is in this capacity that I am now addressing you at their desire. Before the recent rising most Irishmen, watching their country’s heroism in the field, and marking the spirit of comradeship which was growing up between the men from Ulster and from the rest of Ireland, had almost come to believe that out of the supreme trials of many stricken fields there would emerge some clue to a political settlement after the war which all Irishmen would accept. Over these prospects the Rebellion and its consequences have thrown a cloud of disappointment. Yet, to many Irishmen, the cloud is not without its silver lining, and we believe there exists throughout Ireland a more widespread desire than ever before to find some means of settling our political differences. In our recent domestic history we have striking examples of the success which Irishmen in conference have achieved, not only in preparing the way for legislation, but in creating such an atmosphere of mutual helpfulness and good-will that difficulties, previously regarded as insoluble, have yielded to the treatment which has led to far-reaching and beneficial results. Indeed, these circumstances appear to us to impose on all leading Irishmen the obligation of coming together and considering in friendly conference what is the best and most generally acceptable means of solving the problem that lies before us. It is in this spirit that we ask youij opinion as to the desirability of holding such a conference. It need hardly be said that there is no-intention of going behind the recognised Parliamentary leaders. It is believed, on the contrary, that such a Conference, if brought together, could not fail to strengthen the hands of those leaders, and might bring about the settlement so universally desired.”
The names appended to the circular were those of Lord Monteagle, Lord MacDonnell, Walter Kavanagh, Sir Algernon Coote, Sir Nugent Everard, Sir Gabriel Stokes, Captain Fitzroy Hemphill, Diarmid Coffey, Major J. Crean, James G. Douglas, Joseph Johnston, F.T.C.D.; T. Kennedy, Edward E. Lysaght, J. Creed Meredith, George Russell (“AE”), W. F. Trench, and H. E. White (Secretary). Several of its signatories were afterwards members of the Convention, or of its secretariat. Despite its cavalier treatment by the Irish Press the circular was, on the whole, well received by the public opinion to which it was addressed. For its generally favourable reception the patient and unobtrusive spadework in the interests of settlement which Mr. Duke had performed during his frequent visits to Ireland was probably in a considerable degree responsible. To that work the Irish Conference Committee lent a continuous assistance. The importance of its influence, beginning with the issue of its circular, in predisposing public opinion to the idea of settlement by consent which was later to fructify in the Convention can scarcely be over-estimated.
It was to be some months, however, before the Convention idea took formal shape. In the meantime the political history of Ireland is largely the history of the growth and development of the opposing Sinn Fein idea, which, by a reflex action, was finally to become the most powerful contributory cause among the influences making for the Convention policy. It soon became apparent after the release of the interned prisoners that what may be described as the sentiment, the emotion, of Sinn Fein was gradually being canalised in a policy. Mr. Arthur Griffith soon resumed the publication of Nationality in advocacy of the practical “Hungarian” plan of abstention from Parliament and passive resistance to Imperial authority in Ireland. Sinn Fein clubs began to appear up and down the country, and there was evidence of widespread propaganda and organisation work, on political as distinct from the military lines on which the Irish Volunteers had proceeded before the Rebellion. The question of recruiting remained in the foreground of Irish affairs during this period. The Irish Unionist Party continued to urge conscription. In January, 1917, the Irish Canadian Rangers (Duchess of Connaught’s Own) Battalion on its way from Canada to the front was brought to Ireland and toured the country in the interests of voluntary recruiting; it was everywhere received, if without great enthusiasm in some places, at least nowhere with overt hostility. The introduction of the (voluntary) National Service Bill, which applied to Ireland despite the protests of the Nationalist Party, was widely regarded as the “thin end of the wedge,” and increased the tension in Ireland over the conscription question.
The first opportunity for Sinn Fein to show its strength came early in 1917. A vacancy occurred in the Parliamentary representation of North Roscommon, and Count Plunkett, father of one of the executed signatories of the Irish Republican Proclamation of Easter, 1916, was put forward as Sinn Fein candidate. His opponents were Mr. T. J. Devine, a well-known local man, who stood as the official Nationalist candidate, and was supported by the Parliamentary Party’s organisations; and Mr. Jasper Tully, a local newspaper owner, who stood as an Independent Nationalist. The result of the poll was declared on February 5th. Count Plunkett headed it with 3,022 votes—a clear majority over both of his opponents, of whom Mr. Devine obtained 1,708 votes and Mr. Tully 687. The result of the election came as z great surprise to the public, but it was not generally accepted as a true test of the strength of Sinn Fein as an active force in Irish politics. The election presented some curious features. It was fought in deep snow, with drifts blocking the roads and preventing the canvassing and polling of many of the voters in the districts where the chief strength of the Parliamentary Party was supposed to lie. It was in this election that Sinn Fein tendencies among the younger Roman Catholic Priesthood first became apparent. The main driving force behind Count Plunkett was the Reverend Michael O’Flanagan, Curate of Crosna. Father O’Flanagan had first come into public notice at the great public funeral given to O’Donovan Rossa, the Fenian, in Dublin, where he delivered the Address. An eye-witness of the election wrote of Father O’Flanagan that “for twelve days and nights he was up and down the constituency, going like a whirlwind and talking in impassioned language to the people at every village and street-corner and cross-roads where he could get people to listen to him.”
Father O’Flanagan was supported by men from Dublin, Cork and Limerick, released only a few weeks before from the internment camps in North Wales. The burden of all his election speeches was the same. He argued that conscription would have been applied to Ireland the year before but for the rising of Easter week. Count Plunkett’s son had been shot as one of the leaders of the Rebellion, and two more of his sons were serving Courts-Martial sentences of penal servitude. By voting for Plunkett the men of North Roscommon would be warding off conscription from Ireland. In these circumstances it was argued that Count Plunkett won North Roscommon on the anti-conscription cry together with his personal appeal to popular sentiment, and that the election could not be regarded as a positive endorsement of Sinn Fein policy. This reading of the event, whatever its validity at the time, and subsequent events seemed largely to disprove it, was widely held immediately after the election. Count Plunkett was given an enthusiastic reception on his return to Dublin after the declaration of the poll, and lost no time in making his position clear. In his speech he declared that Roscommon had struck a blow against the false theory of national liberty, of sending Irish representatives to a foreign Parliament. It would be necessary to carry on a systematic organisation from day to day until the whole of Ireland’s representatives were pledged to remain in Ireland—until Ireland had a body of representatives who were the virtual Parliament of a free people. Count Plunkett, therefore, enjoyed the distinction of being the first chosen representative of the Sinn Fein creed of abstention and passive resistance, which for years before the Rebellion Mr. Arthur Griffith had preached in the wilderness.
The excitement of his election had scarcely died away when an event of a very different character raised it to fever pitch. North Roscommon, whatever else it did not prove, had at least seemed to show that Sinn Fein in its new development was “constitutional,” and that the physical force idea had been discarded. At the end of February, however, a number of arrests were suddenly made in Dublin and throughout the provinces under Regulation 53 of the Defence of the Realm Regulations, which empowered the arrest of any person “whose behaviour is of such a nature as to give reasonable grounds for suspecting that he has acted, or is acting, or about to act in a manner prejudicial to the public safety or to the defence of the realm.” The arrests were ordered by the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief in Ireland, and the persons concerned—twenty-eight in all, some of them lately interned, others hitherto untouched, including some prominent Gaelic Leaguers—were prohibited from residing in Ireland and given free choice of their place of residence in England. The arrests were understood to be related to a renewed attempt to run arms on the West Coast of Ireland, and to effect a test mobilisation of the Irish Volunteers in connection with it. Challenged to justify them in the House of Commons by Mr. Dillon—who suggested that they were a sign of a change of policy in Ireland, and said that for the past year and a half the Government had been manufacturing Sinn Feiners by the ten thousand until it had maddened the country, and the Nationalist Party were between the devil and the deep sea—the Chief Secretary declared that the action of the Executive was taken with regret and was justified by absolute necessity; some of these men were “up to the ears in conspiracy.” Mr. Duke refused to state the facts within the knowledge of the Administration which made the arrests necessary. He went on to say that five-sixths of the men released from Frongoch had gone back to their business and were not engaged in any revolutionary action; but there was a minority—a considerable number—of men who from the day the Christmas holidays were over had devoted themselves to the endeavour to revive and set in motion the conspiracy which had such fatal results in Easter of last year. He finished by declaring that “in face of all the facts and in face of a ruthless, unscrupulous enemy, who thought he had gained a triumph in April, and who would countenance any sinister action, I as Chief Secretary came to the conclusion and decided that in this transaction, although there can be no charge, and although there can be no trial, it was essential for the public well-being that these men should not continue to reside in Ireland while things in Ireland are as they are.”
The arrests apparently precipitated open conflict between the Nationalist Party and the Government. On March 7th Mr. T. P. O’Connor moved a resolution to the effect “that, with a view to strengthening the hands of the Allies in achieving the recognition of the equal rights of small nations and the principle of nationality against the opposite German principle of military domination and government without the consent of the governed, it is essential, without further delay, to confer on Ireland the free institutions long promised to her.” Mr. Lloyd George, in his reply, said “that the dominant consideration in any present settlement must be its effect upon the conduct of the war. There must be no attempt at settlement which would provoke civil disturbance. The Government were prepared to confer Self-Government on those parts of Ireland which unmistakably demanded it; but they were not prepared to coerce the North-East portion of Ireland.” He moved an amendment welcoming any settlement which would conduce to a better understanding between Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, but declaring it impossible to impose by force on any part of Ireland a form of government which had not its consent. Mr. Redmond solemnly protested against the Prime Minister’s statement. He asked whether the Ulster minority were to have power over the majority for ever. The Prime Minister’s statement, he said, would play right into the hands of those who were trying to destroy the Constitutional Movement. He agreed that the condition of Ireland was very serious, that there were able men in Ireland with command of money who were bent on smashing the Constitutional Movement. “If the Constitutional Movement in Ireland disappears,” declared Mr. Redmond, “the Prime Minister will find himself face to face with the Revolutionary Movement, and he will have to govern Ireland with the naked sword.” Finally he called upon his colleagues to withdraw, and the Nationalist Party in a body thereupon marched out of the House.
Subsequently the Party drafted and issued a Manifesto to the United States and the Dominions. It declared that “the action of the British Government since the formation of the Coalition in May, 1915, culminating in the speech of the Prime Minister last night, has made the task of carrying on a Constitutional Movement in Ireland so difficult as to be almost impossible.” It described Mr. Lloyd George’s speech as taking up a position, which, if adhered to, would involve the denial of Self Government to Ireland for ever. It concluded in these words:—”To the men of Irish blood in the Dominions and the United States of America we appeal that they should bring pressure on the British Government to act towards Ireland in accordance with the principles for which they are fighting in Europe, and we specially appeal to the American people to urge upon the British Government the duty of applying the great principles so clearly and splendidly enunciated by President Wilson in his historical Address to the Senate of America.”
The United States were at this time just entering the war, and the Nationalist Party’s strongly worded appeal to Irish-Americans was calculated very gravely to embarrass the action of President Wilson. This was doubtless not the least cogent of the considerations which impelled the Government on March 22nd to announce, through the mouth of Mr. Bonar Law, that it had decided to make, on its own responsibility, another attempt at an Irish settlement. It was apparent that no definite policy to this end had yet been determined. Mr. Bonar Law said that if the attempt again failed the position would be worse than before. “But we have decided that, in spite of the risks, it is worth while for us, on our own responsibility, in some way or other to make another attempt.” He reminded the House of the difficulties, and pleaded “for a little time.”
Almost simultaneously Sinn Fein had made a forward movement. Count Plunkett addressed a circular letter to the public bodies throughout Ireland inviting them to nominate delegates to attend a conference to be held in the Mansion House, Dublin, on April 19th. In this document he stated that he had been returned by North Roscommon to recognise no foreign authority in Ireland, to maintain the right of Ireland to independence, and to initiate Ireland’s work of taking control of her own affairs. To bring that affirmation of the national faith and national will to a practical issue it was necessary to organise the whole country. Ireland should at once establish her own council. The first of its duties would be to address itself to the Peace Conference with a view to obtaining the support of the nations which would be represented there. This assembly would claim the recognition of the sovereign status of Ireland. The circular asked every public body to give its adhesion to the principles and methods of the movement indicated, and to appoint two delegates to take part in the conference. The reception of the letter could give no trustworthy indication of the support which the Sinn Fein policy enjoyed in the country, in view of the fact that, owing to the suspension of elections, the public bodies had largely ceased to be representative. In some places Count Plunkett’s letter was burned; in many it was simply marked “read.” Nevertheless a sufficient number of public bodies appointed delegates to invest the proceedings of the first Sinn Fein Convention with some authority.
It was held some ten days after the Easter Monday which marked the first anniversary of the outbreak of the Rebellion in Dublin. The anniversary was attended by a good deal of excitement in the capital and throughout the country. As a measure of precaution assembly and procession were forbidden in Dublin by the Commander-in-Chief, Sir Bryan Mahon. On the morning of Easter Monday it was observed that some daring spirits during the night had scaled the ruins of the General Post Office in Sackville Street, the Sinn Fein headquarters during the rising, and run up half-mast on the flag-staff the Republican tricolour, which was also displayed from the buildings occupied during the rising. During the afternoon and evening some rioting occurred, though not of a serious character. In Cork and elsewhere demonstrations were attended by some disorder. On April 19th the Sinn Fein Convention met and between five and six hundred delegates assembled from elective bodies, labour organisations, and Sinn Fein clubs, including about a hundred priests. The Convention endorsed the following declarations:—”(1) That we proclaim Ireland to be a separate nation. (2) That we assert Ireland’s right to freedom from all foreign control, denying the authority of any foreign Parliament to make laws for Ireland. (3) That we affirm the right of the Irish people to declare their will as law and enforce their decisions in their own land without let or hindrance from any other country. (4) That, maintaining the status of Ireland, we demand representation at the coming Peace Conference. (5) That it is the duty of the nations taking part in the Peace Conference to guarantee the liberty of the nations calling for their intervention and the releasing of the small nations from control of the greater Powers. (6) That our claim to complete independence is founded on human right and the law of nations. (7) That we declare that Ireland has never yielded to, but has always fought against, foreign rule. (8) That we hereby bind ourselves to use every means in our power to attain complete liberty for our country.” After these declarations steps were taken to effect a national organisation “to unite Irish advanced opinion and provide for action as a result of its conclusion.” An Organising Committee was appointed of nine members, including Count and Countess Plunkett, Mr. Arthur Griffith, Father O’Flanagan, and Mr. William O’Brien, President of the Dublin Trades Council, and the Convention then adjourned to be called together again as occasion might require.
Ireland now awaited the disclosure of the Government’s scheme of settlement. Even Sinn Fein, after the definition of its position at the Convention, contented itself with a waiting attitude. The Government’s statement, despite energetic Nationalist pressure in Parliament, was repeatedly postponed. It was, in fact, not forthcoming until May 16th. Meanwhile rumours as to the Government’s intentions began to circulate in Ireland. As the Government continued its soundings of the situation with the object of framing a policy, it was asserted with ever greater emphasis and particularity that its plan would ultimately take the form of the revival of the discredited “partition” scheme, this time in the shape of a system of county option, which would permit counties to vote themselves out 01 the operation of the Home Rule Act. These were the circumstances in which, early in May, a remarkable document appeared in the Irish Press addressed to the people of Ireland. It was signed by Cardinal Logue and Archbishop Walsh of Dublin, sixteen other Roman Catholic Bishops, and three Protestant Bishops—those of Tuam, Ossory and Killaloe. Such collaboration between the bishops of the two Churches was quite unprecedented in the political history of Ireland. The Bishops’ Manifesto declared that, while of sectional and individual protests against the dismemberment of Ireland there had been an immense volume, “there is still wanting the national muster-roll of adherents to the principle of an Ireland one and undivided.” It proceeded:—”We appeal to the people without distinction, religious or political, and we ask all who are opposed to partition, temporary or permanent, to send their names. . . . Our requisition needs no urging. An appeal to the national conscience on the question of Ireland’s dismemberment should meet with one answer and one answer alone. To Irishmen of every creed and class and party the very thought of our country partitioned and torn, as a new Poland, must be one of heart-rending sorrow. In asking these names we have no ulterior object in view, and we give an assurance that they shall be used only to show to the Government and to the world that the country is unrelentingly opposed to partition.”
The next development was a letter from Archbishop Walsh which appeared in the Nationalist evening papers on May 8th. In it he said that the question might be asked why a number of Irish Bishops, Catholic and Protestant, had thought it worth while to sign a protest against the partition of Ireland. “Has not that miserable policy, condemned as it has been by the all but unanimous voice of Nationalist Ireland, been removed months ago from the sphere of practical politics? Nothing of the kind. Anyone who thinks that partition whether in its naked deformity or under the transparent mask of “County Option,” does not hold a leading place in the practical politics of to-day is simply living in a fool’s paradise.” In a characteristic postscript the Archbishop added:—”I think it a duty to write this, although from information that has just reached me I am fairly satisfied that the mischief has already been done, and that the country is practically sold.”
This letter of the Archbishop’s, with its engaging postscript, acquired a peculiar significance from the fact that it was published on the eve of the polling day in the South Longford election. It was everywhere recognised that this election was of greater importance than the earlier trial of strength between the Nationalist Party and Sinn Fein in North Roscommon. The contest was a straight fight between the two parties; the Nationalists were represented by Mr. Patrick McKenna, while the Sinn Feiners had selected as their candidate Mr. J. P. McGuinness, a local man who was serving a Court-Martial sentence of penal servitude in connection with the Rebellion. The Nationalist strength in the constituency was known to be great, and the Sinn Feiners freely declared that if they could carry South Longford they could carry any seat in Ireland. The Nationalist leaders, Mr. Dillon and Mr. Devlin, intervened in person on behalf of Mr. McKenna, in whose support the whole force of the Nationalist organisation was concentrated in the constituency. The Sinn Feiners received unexpected aid at the last moment from the arrival of four of the men, including Mr. Darrell Figgis, who had been deported some weeks earlier, and had returned to Ireland secretly in defiance of the order prohibiting their presence in the country. Mr. Dillon admitted the gravity of the issue, which he declared was now clear, as it had not been in North Roscommon. “South Longford was faced with a clear political issue of the most far-reaching importance.”
It was doubtful, however, whether the election could in fact be regarded as a clear issue between the Constitutional Movement and the Sinn Fein policy, which, indeed, at the time was still rather a mere assertion of a political principle than a coherent policy. The Sinn Feiners themselves, whose organisation in the constituency was singularly energetic and efficient, did not rely in any considerable degree upon appeals on the academic question of constitutionalism versus republicanism. They fought the contest rather on “live” issues of immediate practical politics. The imprisonment of their candidate was turned to account: “put McGuinness in to get him out,” was the device emblazoned on their numerous motor cars. The conscription cry was used with as good effect as in North Roscommon. Finally, most effective use was made of Archbishop Walsh’s letter with its declaration that the country was “practically sold” into partition, and copies of it were lavishly distributed at every polling booth. The result of the polling, declared on May 10th, showed that the Sinn Fein candidate had won by the narrow majority of thirty-seven votes. The result of the election was, admittedly by both sides, doubtful up to the very last moment. There could be no question that it was decided in Mr. McGuinness’s favour by Archbishop Walsh’s letter. Whatever other moral might be drawn from the election, therefore, it was an unmistakable endorsement of the Bishop’s appeal to the country in their Manifesto to show itself “unrelentingly opposed to partition.” The result of the election determined absolutely the reception which the Government’s plan of settlement, published less than a week later, on May 16th, was bound to meet at the hands of the Nationalist Party.
It was contained in a circular letter addressed by Mr. Lloyd George to Mr. John Redmond, Sir John Lonsdale (Ulster Unionist Party), Mr. William O’Brien (All-for-Ireland Party), and Viscount Midleton (for the Unionists of the South and West). The Prime Minister wrote that the Government approached the subject “with a deep desire to put an end to a state of affairs which is productive of immense evil, not only to Ireland, but to Great Britain and the Empire.” He went on to say that any settlement proposed during the war must be one which would be substantially accepted by both sides, and that therefore “the idea of the Government has been to try to effect an immediate settlement conceding the largest possible measure of Home Rule which can be secured by agreement at this moment, without prejudice to the undertaking by Parliament of a further and final settlement of the questions most in dispute after the war.” The Government’s proposals to this end, which were at once found unacceptable, need not be recorded at length. Briefly, they contemplated the immediate application of the Home Rule Act to Ireland, excluding the six north-eastern counties of Ulster, this arrangement to be subject to reconsideration by Parliament at the end of five years; in the meantime the establishment of a Council of Ireland, composed of the members of Parliament of the excluded area and an equal delegation from the Irish Parliament, with powers to pass legislation affecting the whole of Ireland; and a reconsideration of the financial clauses of the Act.
After setting forth this scheme the Prime Minister, in resort as it were to an expedient almost of desperation, proposed the Convention plan. “There remains an alternative plan which, though it has been sometimes seriously discussed, has never been authoritatively proposed—that of assembling a Convention of Irishmen of all parties for the purpose of providing a scheme of Irish Self-Government. As you will remember, the Constitution of the Union of South Africa was passed, despite most formidable difficulties and obstacles, by a Convention representative of all the interests and parties in the country, and the Government believes that a similar expedient might, in the last resort, be found effectual in Ireland, Would it be too much to hope that Irishmen of all creeds and parties might meet together in a Convention for the purpose of drafting a Constitution for their country which should secure a just balance of all the opposing interests, and finally compose the unhappy discords which have so long disturbed Ireland and impeded its harmonious development? The Government is ready, in default of the adoption of its proposals for Home Rule, to take the necessary steps for the assembling of such a Convention.”
Mr. Redmond, in his reply, at once rejected the Government’s scheme and welcomed the alternative proposal of a Convention. Observing that he could not accept the proposition that the Government was limited to proposing a settlement “which would be substantially accepted by both sides,” he said that he and his Party had carefully considered the two alternative proposals contained in the Prime Minister’s letter, and that “the first proposal would, in their opinion, find no support in Ireland, and they desire me to inform you they are irreconcilably opposed to this scheme, and that any measure based on it will meet with their vigorous opposition.” The alternative of a Convention Mr. Redmond described as having “much to commend it.” “We are prepared to recommend this proposal most earnestly to our countrymen, on condition that the basis on which the Convention is to be called is such as to secure that it will be fully and fairly representative of Irishmen of all creeds, interests, and parties, and, secondly, that the Convention be summoned without delay. If this proposal is put into operation I can assure you that no effort on the part of my colleagues and myself will be spared to realise the high and blessed ideal pointed to in the concluding paragraph of your letter.” Viscount Midleton, on behalf of the Southern Unionists, rejected the partition scheme and undertook to recommend the acceptance of the Convention plan on condition that it was fully representative and that its recommendations were subject to review by Parliament. The Irish Unionist Alliance subsequently ratified his acceptance. Mr. William O’Brien in his reply to Mr. Lloyd George, rejected the partition scheme and welcomed the proposal of a Convention as giving effect to “a principle we have so long contended for.” Subsequently, however, he refused to agree to the constitution of the Convention, and the All-for-Ireland Party took no part in it.
Sir John Lonsdale, on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party, after restating the Ulster Unionist case in his reply, said that his Party would recommend the Government’s proposals for careful consideration to the Ulster Unionist Council. That body did not meet until June 8th, when it was addressed in private by Sir Edward Carson. It then passed a resolution to the effect that “being largely influenced by the representations which have been made to us by the Government that an agreement on the Irish question would materially help in the prosecution of the war to a victorious conclusion, and relying on the assurances of the Government, that every form of proposal will be open for consideration at the Irish Convention, that in the event of no agreement being come to no party will be bound or committed in any way by the proceedings of the Convention, and that no scheme will be forced upon the Ulster Unionists with which their representatives are not in agreement—(we) hereby accede to the Government’s invitation that representatives should be sent to the Convention.” A Committee of the Council was appointed which, besides advising on the selection of representatives and recommending names for the consideration of the Government as “nominated members, was further empowered “from time to time during the holding of the Convention to take counsel with the representatives of the Ulster Party at the Convention.” No such limitation upon the plenipotentiary powers of its representatives was imposed by any other party. All other representatives entered the Convention as free agents; the representatives of the Ulster Unionist Party alone were limited in their freedom of action in the Convention by the condition of having to refer to the Committee of the Ulster Unionist Council.
The attitude of Sinn Fein towards the Convention was semi-officially defined in the first instance by Count Plunkett. He declared that the Convention could not be a free and representative gathering, for, without a new register and a general election, neither the Nationalist Party nor the elected Councils had any claim to speak for the people. Even if a majority of the Convention demanded complete freedom, it would be put out of court, since no scheme would be officially recognised unless it kept Ireland “within the Empire,” and maintained the supremacy of the English Parliament. The Sinn Fein Party would turn to the Peace Conference, and to their own resolves, for liberty. At a meeting of the Executive of the National Council of Sinn Fein, held on May 22nd, it was unanimously resolved that Sinn Fein should decline to participate “in any Convention called by the English Government in Ireland, ostensibly to settle the Irish question, unless (1) The terms of reference to such a Convention left it free to decree the complete independence of Ireland; (2) the English Government publicly pledged itself to the United States and the Powers of Europe to ratify the decision of the majority of the Convention; (3) the Convention consists of none but persons freely elected by adult suffrage in Ireland; (4) prisoners of war treatment was accorded to the Irish prisoners at Lewes and Aylesbury.” At this meeting Mr. Arthur Griffith, President of Sinn Fein, said that by its pledge to the Ulster Unionists not to force them to accept the decision of the majority of their countrymen the failure of the Convention was secured beforehand by the English Government, which would then be enabled to say to the United Statesand to the Powers of Europe that England had left the Irish question to the Irish themselves and that the Irish had failed to find a solution. This was England’s plan to obstruct Ireland’s appeal to the Peace Conference. The Dublin Trades’ Council adopted the same attitude towards the Convention as Sinn Fein.
The Prime Minister, however, had awaited no party’s formal definition of its (attitude before proceeding with the summoning of the Convention. On May 21st he announced that the Government proposed “to summon immediately, on behalf of the Crown, a Convention of representative Irishmen, in Ireland, to submit to the British Government and to the British Parliament a Constitution for the future government of Ireland within the Empire.” He went on to say that the Convention must be representative of all leading interests, classes, creeds and phases of thought in Ireland—not a Convention merely of political parties, though all these must necessarily be represented, including, he hoped, Sinn Fein. “In the main the view of the Government is that it ought to consist of representatives of the local governing bodies, the Churches, the trade unions, the commercial interests, the educated interests—in fact a real representation of Irish life, thought, and activity in all the leading aspects.” So far as possible the Government would invite delegates to be chosen by the bodies whom they represented. Recognising, however, that it would be desirable to have Irish interests represented which might not be chosen by any of these categories, the Government proposed to nominate members to secure that every element of Irish opinion was present. It was suggested that the Chairman should be nominated by the Crown, but this course was afterwards abandoned in favour of that of allowing the Convention to elect its own Chairman. Mr. Lloyd George next made it clear that no proposal on any side for the better government of Ireland could be shut out from discussion, and that no one, by the mere fact of going into the Convention, could be assumed to be pledged to the acceptance or rejection of any particular proposal or method for the government of Ireland. Finally, on behalf of the Government he gave a pledge that “if substantial agreement should be reached as to the character and scope of the Constitution framed by the Convention for the future government of Ireland within the Empire, we will accept the responsibility for taking all the necessary steps to enable the Imperial Parliament to give legislative effect to the proceedings of the Convention.” He added a promise that, so far as the financial aspect was concerned, “should the Convention happily come to an agreement, we will not forget that restitution and reparation should begin at home.”
While negotiations for the constitution of the Convention on the basis thus outlined by the Prime Minister were in progress an unhappy incident occurred in Dublin. A public meeting was called in Beresford Place on Sunday, June 10th, to demand the release of the Rebellion prisoners. The holding of this meeting was prohibited by a Proclamation issued the previous day by Sir Bryan Mahon. Notwithstanding this prohibition a large crowd assembled when Count Plunkett and a companion arrived on a hackney car and attempted to address the audience outside Liberty Hall, sometime the Headquarters of the Citizen Army. The two men were placed under arrest by the police and conveyed to an adjoining police station. On their way the police were hustled by the crowd, and Inspector Mills, in command of the police force, was felled from behind by a hurley stick, and died during the night as a result of his injuries. The vicinity of the meeting remained disturbed for some hours. Subsequently Count Plunkett was removed from police control by the military, and placed in Arbour Hill barracks.
On the day after this affair Mr. Lloyd George announced that the constitution of the Convention had been settled. He explained that the total number of the Convention would be 101—an unwieldy number, he admitted, but it was impossible to have a small body in which all interests would be represented, as it was essential they should be, if an agreement was to secure the adhesion of the country. Fifteen members would be nominated by the Crown; thirty-three would be Chairmen of County Councils, and six Lord Mayors and Mayors of County Boroughs—these, in Mr. Lloyd George’s words, to represent “the everyday life of the country.” In addition the Chairmen of the Urban Councils were to be invited to select two members in each of the four provinces—eight in all. The Churches were to be represented by four of the Roman Catholic Bishops, the Primate and the Archbishop of Dublin for the Church of Ireland, and the Moderator of the General Assembly for the Presbyterian Church. As spokesmen of commerce the Chairmen of the Chambers of Commerce of Dublin, Belfast and Cork were to be invited, and as spokesmen of labour, representatives of the Trade Councils in Dublin and in Cork and of Trades Unions in Belfast—in all five representatives of labour. For the direct representation of organised political opinion the Nationalist Party, the Ulster Unionist Party, and the Irish Unionist Alliance, for the Unionists of Southern Ireland, were to appoint five members each, and Mr. O’Brien’s party and the Irish Representative Peers two each. Five seats were also reserved for Sinn Fein. In accordance with the resolutions passed by the National Executive, Sinn Fein refused the invitation to appoint delegates. The same course was followed by Mr. O’Brien’s All-for-Ireland League, and the Kerry County Council also declined to permit its Chairman to attend. These abstentions reduced the complement of the Convention to ninety-three. Two more labour representatives were added to the original five, so that the Convention, as finally constituted, numbered ninety-five members.
In announcing the constitution of the Convention the Prime Minister referred to the death of Major William Redmond, who a few days before had been killed in action at Messines. “We all remember,” Mr. Lloyd George said, “his last appeal to us, and I think that, now that this Convention is being launched on its career, I cannot do better than read his words:—’ While English and Irish soldiers are dying side by side must the eternal conflict between the two nations go on? In the name of God, we here, who are, perhaps, about to die, ask you to do that which largely induced us to leave our homes; that which our fathers and mothers taught us to long for; that which is all we desire, to make our country happy and contented and enable us when we meet Canadians, Australians, or New Zealanders side by side, to say—Our country, just as your country, is self governing within the Empire.'” The Prime Minister added:—”He was carried tenderly and reverently from the battlefield by Ulster soldiers in an Ulster ambulance. The solemn appeal which I have read comes to us anew from an honoured grave on the frontier of the land he gave his life to liberate.”
The death of Major Redmond, however, was to do something else besides provide an inspiration for the work of the Convention. It was to provide the occasion for the event which, even while the Convention was assembling, was at once to disclose the full strength of Sinn Fein in the country and confirm its hold on the popular imagination—the East Clare ejection. On June 17th, rather more than a month before the first meeting of the Convention, all the Rebellion prisoners serving Court Martial sentences had been unconditionally released. Their release was announced by Mr. Bonar Law in the House of Commons two days earlier. He said that it was “beyond measure desirable that the Convention shall meet in an atmosphere of harmony and good-will in which all parties can unreservedly join. Nothing could be more regrettable than that the work of the Convention should be prejudiced at the outset by embittered associations.” The Government in deciding to release the prisoners in order to remove one of the most serious causes of misunderstanding, had satisfied itself “in the first place that the public security will not be endangered by such an act of grace; and secondly, that in none of the cases concerned is there evidence that participation in the Rebellion was accompanied by individual acts which could render such a display of clemency impossible.” He concluded by saying that the grant of a general amnesty was inspired by the sanguine hope that it “will be welcomed in a spirit of magnanimity, and that the Convention will enter upon its arduous undertaking in circumstances that will constitute a good augury for that reconciliation which is the desire of all parties in all parts of the United Kingdom and the Empire.”
The released prisoners arrived in Dublin on June 20th, having been brought to Pentonville Prison from Parkhurst, Maidstone, Portland and Lewes, and sent off to Ireland by special train, leaving Euston on the previous Sunday evening. Madame Markievicz was not released from Aylesbury prison until Monday evening. They were met on arrival by an enormous crowd and driven through the streets in procession. Throughout the day there was a considerable display of Republican colours in the streets, and there were some disturbances in the town at night, which were renewed three days later when Madame Markievicz arrived and was driven in procession to Liberty Hall. In Dublin, however, though there was much excitement, no serious disorder occurred. In Cork, on the other hand, the return of the prisoners was followed by rioting which the Press described as “the worst seen in Cork for forty years.” Much damage was done to property. Order was not restored until the military were called out, and machine guns mounted in the streets. In the course of the earlier disturbances, when the police made numerous baton charges and revolver shots were freely exchanged, one man was killed and several injured. Everywhere throughout the country as the released men reached their homes they were received with tremendous enthusiasm. Many of them left home again almost immediately to support Mr. de Valera, who had emerged almost immediately as the most prominent of the released prisoners, and had been selected as the Sinn Fein candidate for the vacant seat in East Clare.
During the early part of July public attention was divided between this election and the selection by the various bodies of delegates to the Convention. We deal with the East Clare election in our next chapter. The Convention held its first meeting on July 25th under the shadow of Mr. de Valera’s overwhelming victory. The first meeting was preceded by a picturesque incident—a Service for delegates in St. Andrew’s Church, Suffolk Street, Dublin, which was in former days very closely connected with the Irish House of Commons, whose members assembled there for worship on all great occasions. The Convention met in the Regent House, Trinity College, a commodious block of buildings placed at its disposal by the Provost, and made what was generally regarded as an auspicious beginning by unanimously electing Sir Horace Plunkett as its Chairman.