Bruton on Home Rule

Why we should commemorate the enactment of Home Rule

Opinion: ‘I am realist enough to know that Home Rule would not have extended to more than 28 counties’

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“O’Connell, Butt and Parnell had all failed to achieve what Redmond and Dillon achieved.” Above, John Redmond, along with his wife, attends a Mass held at Westminster Cathedral in London for visiting Irish Guards in March 1916. Photograph: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

John Bruton

Commemorating the 1916 Rising, as we do every year and are about to do on a grand scale in two years’ time, while not commemorating the enactment of Home Rule 100 years ago next month, would present an unbalanced version of history.

It would be to celebrate a violent struggle and, by omission, underplay the value of a successful peaceful parliamentary struggle. That would be a distortion of history and could be used by some to weaken belief in parliamentary methods.

Historian Ronan Fanning’s argument (aired on these pages recently) is that there should be no commemoration of Home Rule because the Home Rule Act which became law in 1914 would not have been implemented without an amending Act to provide for the possible exclusion of some Ulster counties.

But, as I said clearly at an event in the Irish Embassy in London in July, the Home Rule package did not guarantee united Ireland.

I am realist enough to know that Home Rule would not have extended to more than 28 counties. I said so in my submission to the Government seeking a commemoration next month. But, on its own merits, the enactment of Home Rule on that basis is still an Irish parliamentary achievement well worth commemorating.

When the Home Rule Bill received the royal assent on September 18th, 1914, it was the first time that a Bill granting Ireland Home rule had ever passed into law. The struggle to achieve such an outcome had gone on since the 1830s. Daniel O’Connell, Isaac Butt and Charles Stewart Parnell had all failed to achieve what John Redmond and John Dillon achieved. O’Connell did not achieve Repeal, and Parnell did not get Home Rule passed. Yet they are, rightly, commemorated.

As I said in my submission to the Government, the opposition to being under a Dublin Home Rule Parliament was so strong among unionists in Ulster that, no matter how hard the Home Rulers might have tried to persuade them, at least four Ulster counties would have stayed out of the Dublin Parliament. Under Home Rule, the exclusion might have been limited to four – instead of six, as in 1921.

‘No coercion’

Redmond told the House of Commons that “no coercion shall be applied to any single county in Ireland to force them against their will to come into the Irish government”. This was a sensible policy, and the only realistic one he could adopt.
Attempts to coerce Northern Ireland into a United Ireland, whether by the attempted incursions across the Border in 1922, by the propaganda campaign in the late 1940s, or by IRA killing campaigns in the 1950s, and again from 1969 to 1998, have all failed miserably, because they were based on a faulty analysis of reality.

To win Home Rule, the Irish Party had to: get the House of Lords veto abolished; have the Home Rule Bill passed three years in a row, in the House of Commons, in accordance with the Parliament Act; and finally, have Home Rule signed into law on September 18th, 1914.

All that was done by tough parliamentary tactics. These included declining to support the 1909 budget unless there was a Parliament Act; abolishing of the House of Lords veto (a huge achievement when one considers how little House of Lords reform there has been since); and holding the threat of an election over the head of the Liberal government unless Home Rule was passed three times to meet the requirements of that Act.

Under the Home Rule arrangement, any excluded parts of Ulster would have been under direct rule from Westminster. There would have been no Stormont.

And, at least for the initial period, there would have been continuing southern Irish representation in the House of Commons. These two safeguards would have ensured that there would have been none of the discrimination that northern nationalists suffered from 1921 to 1966.

But the important consideration here is Home Rule, admittedly with the exclusion of some Ulster counties, was irreversible politically and would have come into effect at the end of the Great War if the 1916 Rising and the consequent violence and abstentionism of the 1919-1921 period had not made it impossible.

The irreversibility of Home Rule is well-illustrated by a comment, quoted by Fanning in his book Fatal Path, by one of its staunchest opponents, the Conservative leader Andrew Bonar Law. He said: “If Ulster, or rather any county, had the right to remain outside the Irish Parliament, for my part my objection would be met.”

My argument is that, at that time, instead of pursuing a policy of abstention from parliament and a guerrilla war, Sinn Féin and the IRA should have used the Home Rule Act as a peaceful stepping stone to dominion status and full independence, in the same way as the Treaty of 1921 was so used after so much blood had been shed.

I believe Irish politics under Home Rule would have evolved quickly once the Great War was over. The Irish Labour party and Sinn Féin could have gained strength in the new Dublin Parliament. Although Home Rule fell short of dominion status, there would have been incessant pressure for more powers, and Ireland, with its own parliament, would inevitably have benefited from the loosening of ties to London as Canada, Australia and the rest did. A Home Rule Parliament that pressed for dominion status and greater independence would have had the support of the British Labour party and the Asquith Liberals, both of which had, I believe, favoured dominion status for Ireland in the 1918 election.

North/South violence

In the absence of violence, relations between Dublin and the counties in Ulster not under Home Rule would have been less fraught than North/South relations from 1922 to 1998. This is counterfactual history and unprovable. But so also is Éamon Ó Cuív’s more pessimistic view.
What is provable is that 100 years ago next month, against huge pressure and prejudice, Irish parliamentarians, a small minority in Westminster and far from home, by sheer persistence were able to force a British parliament to put Irish legislative independence on the statute book without firing a shot.

It is worth commemorating