1912: Home rule and Ulster's resistance - an introduction

The drama of the Home Rule Bill was to be an extraordinary curtain raiser to a decade that changed the face of modern Ireland

Naval and ambulance corps cheer at an Anti-Home Rule demonstration at Portadown, County Armagh. Photograph: Getty

Naval and ambulance corps cheer at an Anti-Home Rule demonstration at Portadown, County Armagh. Photograph: Getty

 

When the third Home Rule Bill was introduced to the Commons 100 years ago in April 1912 it seemed a triumphant vindication of the tradition of parliamentary constitutional nationalism. Parliamentary arithmetic gave Home Rule supporters the casting whip hand over Asquith’s Liberal government – the price, Home Rule.

“If I may say so reverently, I personally thank God that I have lived to see this day,” John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party told fellow MPs. Within grasp, the dream . . .

But on the streets of Belfast and Dublin another story was being written that would eclipse democratic politics at its moment of supposed triumph. Carson rallied Ulster; it marched, protested, swore solemn oaths of defiance, and eventually armed itself to the teeth.

And in the founding of the Ulster Volunteers nationalists would see an excuse and legitimisation – though few doubt they would have done it anyway – for their own army, the Irish Volunteers.

In the Commons, debate would become a mere cipher, an echo, of the new contending forces on the ground in Ireland. The King became embroiled. The army mutinied. The Bill would eventually be passed, but its implementation be suspended because of world war and a rising that would change the whole picture. Home Rule would come, but, ironically only to part of Ulster; independence, to the rest of th country.

The drama of the Home Rule Bill was to be an extraordinary curtain raiser to a decade that changed the face of modern Ireland, ushering in new forces to the stage of Irish history, a new caste of characters, villains and heroes, while eclipsing old with all the tragic finality of Greek drama.

This supplement, with recent coverage in The Irish Times of the Titanic centenary, is an attempt to recapture the context and sweep of that drama, and its several conflicting narratives, an essential moment of our collective history. They are the first of many reports over a decade that will be brought together on a planned website, “Century”, with the contributions of many other groups, official and unofficial, North and South, to national commemorations.