What will the British do?

Very few writers have given the Irish home rule crisis sufficient attention as one of the factors that enabled the outbreak of war in the summer of 1914, and yet there can be little doubt about it

Wed, May 14, 2014, 01:00

On August 2nd, Grey told an equally dismayed French ambassador that the sending of the BEF was not possible right now. But later in the day, the British cabinet at last decided that if Germany violated Belgium, then the United Kingdom would declare war.

On August 3rd, Grey addressed a packed and tense House of Commons. He explained that the violation of Belgium’s neutrality and the crushing of France would not be tolerated. He then suddenly said: “One thing I would say: the one bright spot in the very dreadful situation is Ireland. The position in Ireland –-and this I should like to be clearly understood abroad – is not a consideration among the things we have to take into account now.” This confirmed that the British government believed, or knew, that Berlin was relying on the paralysing Irish factor hobbling the United Kingdom’s foreign policy.

In Vienna, General Conrad wrote in his diary on the same day: “England’s attitude proves to be unfriendly and doubtful. To [our] Military Attaché [in London], it seems, however, that there is no desire for war for the time being, taking into account the Ulster crisis and the civil war.” To point out that there was no civil war in Ireland is to miss the point. What is important here is the interpretation. Surely, the British could not enter the war. It was a wrong assessment.

That there was no civil war was largely due to John Redmond’s speech, just after Grey’s. Before speaking, Redmond told his colleagues that he would suggest that the Irish Volunteers and the UVF should together defend the country against a foreign, ie German, invasion. One of his MPs agreed, another demurred, deeming that the Bachelors’ Walk massacre was too fresh in people’s minds. Moreover, only a few days beforehand Redmond had received a letter from the inspector-general of the Irish Volunteers who argued that Irish reservists ought to be instructed not to join the army unless Home Rule was immediately implemented.

Redmond chose to go ahead with his speech. The House was stunned and then erupted into a tremendous ovation. At 7pm, Germany declared war on France.

On August 4th at 8am, the German army invaded Belgium. At 11 pm, after an ultimatum had expired, a united United Kingdom declared war on Germany. On August 5th, the decision was taken to send the BEF to France. On August 12th, the British were at war with Austria-Hungary.

ATQ Stewart’s remark on German policy and the Irish crisis was vindicated. It is that crisis – and also the divisions inside Asquith’s cabinet – that explains why it took the British so long to commit themselves to support the French and the Russians. If Asquith had been at the head of a united United Kingdom from the start of the July Crisis, would he have been in a position to make a strong statement that might have impressed Berlin and Vienna and persuade them to adopt another policy? There will never be a definitive answer to this question of course.

In another counterfactual scenario, if Redmond had instead insisted on the immediate implementation of Home Rule for the whole of Ireland and fighting had been the result, would the miracle of the Marne, stopping the Germans near Paris, have happened?

General Alexander von Kluck claimed that his 1st army failed to take the French capital because of the stubborn resistance of the BEF. What if the BEF had been in Ireland, fighting against the Irish Volunteers and the UVF? After all General Sir Henry Wilson had threatened Asquith that this might well happen.

British historians have generally described Grey’s speech as brilliant. It might well have been brilliant, but the most momentous, and ultimately the most important speech was Redmond’s. How could Grey possibly speak of Ireland as a “one bright spot” after the Bachelors’ Walk Massacre? That no fighting erupted was nothing short of a miracle. Redmond’s selfless intervention had a soothing effect.

In the words of the famed British historian George Dangerfield: “Ireland’s leader, the successor of Parnell, had just rendered an enormous service to the British Empire and ruined his own career.” The nationalist leader had also rendered an enormous service to the Triple Entente.

The Irish crisis does not help in answering the question if the first World War was the product of a long process of deterioration, or if Germany was responsible for the war. Surviving archives do not reveal that German and Austro-Hungarian subversive actions took place in Ireland although it was clear that Berlin had reached the conclusion that the Irish factor was able to hamper British foreign policy. It may also have been a serious case of wishful-thinking in Berlin and Vienna.

And yet what can definitively be stated is that the Home Rule crisis played an important part in the chain of events that began in Sarajevo and led to the outbreak of war.

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