Constitutionalism - eclipsed and reborn


After Independence, the moderate Home Rule party was effectively airbrushed out of official Irish history, but it left its mark on politics – North and South

WHEN THE Third Home Rule Bill was introduced in parliament in April 1912 Irish nationalists were triumphant. The Liberal government could rely on a comfortable majority in the House of Commons and it had recently abolished the veto power of the House of Lords. It seemed that the frustrating decades of waiting would soon come to an end.

The details of the bill were disappointing, and far more powers would be retained by Westminster than had been expected. These included not merely obvious responsibilities such as defence and foreign affairs, but also improbable areas such as lighthouses and trademarks. Nonetheless there was a general confidence that within two or three years a Home Rule parliament and government would meet in Dublin and would then exercise a degree of control over Irish domestic affairs. Both supporters and opponents of the measure believed that over time the powers of the new Irish government would expand.

These hopes were soon disappointed. As the Ulster unionists threatened and planned rebellion, and as their methods forced the Liberals to make one concession after another, constitutional politics and politicians were discredited. Many nationalists decided to follow the unionist example by resorting to paramilitary measures.

At the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 Home Rule was postponed for the duration of the conflict. The Easter Rising undermined moderate nationalists, and the violence that took place between 1916 and 1921 resulted in a far greater degree of independence for most of Ireland than had been envisaged in the 1912 bill. The Home Rule party was annihilated in the 1918 election, and even though it gained nearly 22 per cent of the votes it won only six seats to Sinn Féin’s 73. For many decades afterwards, the party, its aims and its tactics were associated with failure, and they were air-brushed out of the official “memory” of independent Ireland.

The reality was more complex. Home Rule, more or less along the lines that had been envisaged in 1912, was implemented subsequently – but only in the unionist-dominated North-East. It benefited those who had fought passionately against devolution for all Ireland, but who were perfectly happy to accept and operate devolution for an area that they could control. This pattern endured for half a century, until “Stormont” was abolished in 1972.

The Home Rule party of John Redmond survived for almost as long – but again, only in Northern Ireland. For many years it was led by one of Redmond’s chief lieutenants, Joe Devlin, and it remained the principal expression of Northern Irish nationalists until it was replaced by the SDLP in 1970.

However the Home Rule legacy also persisted in what became the Free State and the Republic, although in a very different form. Over several decades, Parnell and his successors had accustomed most Irish nationalists to the principles and practices of democracy. Electors came to take for granted that they could achieve results through the speeches and votes of their MPs, they became acquainted with parliamentary procedures, and in some respects (but not in others) they developed a sophisticated political culture.

This was a paradoxical development. In terms of electoral politics most of Ireland consisted of two rival one-party “nations”. Many constituencies were so firmly dominated by nationalists or unionists that each party respected the other’s territory and refrained from engaging in hopeless contests. On both sides, candidates were usually returned unopposed. For example, in the 1906 general election 82 of the 103 Irish MPs faced no challenger, and once they had been nominated they were returned automatically to parliament. In this sense Irish democracy was more theoretical than real.

In another important respect Ireland was not a normal democracy. Since the 1870s a large majority had voted in favour of Home Rule, yet until Redmond succeeded in holding the balance of power in Westminster in 1910 their cause had made virtually no progress. The wishes of the Irish electorate were consistently ignored.

Despite these limitations, Ireland shared in the gradual democratisation of the United Kingdom, and it was clear that in many areas politics could and did achieve results. The Land Acts, which brought about an Irish social revolution, were influenced by pressure from Home Rulers – as well as by several other factors. London governments and Dublin Castle administrators responded to the demands of Irish pressure groups. The Local Government Act of 1898 gave a generation of Irish nationalists experience in local politics and administration.

In the short term the Home Rule crisis of 1912-14 radicalised Irish nationalists and undermined those who believed in constitutionalism, but before the Easter Rising few Irish people (apart from Ulster unionists) were committed to extreme aims or methods. The new Sinn Féin party that emerged in 1917 was heavily influenced by its Home Rule predecessor and by British democratic values. Inevitably, and perhaps almost unconsciously, Sinn Féiners adopted and adapted the tactics of their Home Rule enemies – who provided the only available model.

They soon beat the Redmondites at their own game. Many of the former rebels had despised politics, but their electoral victories converted most of the sceptics to this unexpectedly successful manner of advancing their aims. They soon came to represent and cherish old customs associated with the Home Rule party, such as localism and patronage. Not only were the habits and skills of the Home Rulers absorbed by Sinn Féin, but ultimately they were passed on in turn to its successors, Cumann na nGaedheal/Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

Similarly, when the First Dáil met in 1919 it followed British conventions; Irish republican MPs might have abstained from Westminster but they nonetheless imitated the familiar procedures of “the mother of parliaments”. Once more, it was the obvious model to adopt. (Even the system of proportional representation that has been used in all Dáil elections since 1921 was introduced by the British, as a cynical and unsuccessful attempt to limit the success of the Sinn Féin party.) Crucially, the Dáil government retained theoretical control over its army, and it was a civilian rather than a military delegation that negotiated the Treaty in 1921.

When Michael Collins took control of Dublin Castle he did so as the head of a government that enjoyed vastly greater powers than would have been available under the Home Rule bill. Violence had worked. But he assumed power not merely as the successor of revolutionaries such as Tom Clarke and PH Pearse. He also embodied a democratic legacy that had been represented by Parnell and Redmond, and that in recent years had been continued by the Dáil and its government. In the Civil War he and his successors soon showed that they were determined to maintain the sovereignty of the people and of parliamentary majorities. To do this they were prepared, in WT Cosgrave’s words, to meet terror with terror.

Constitutional Irish nationalism was apparently triumphant in 1912, it seemed to have been destroyed in 1916, but it revived and – ironically – was consolidated under the leadership of former republican rebels who had rejected moderate political methods only a few years earlier. The Home Rule bill of 1912 was not simply a dead end; it also formed part of a democratic tradition that prevailed a decade later, and that since then has dominated Irish public life for almost a century.