'The Irish Times' and Home Rule

Wed, Apr 25, 2012, 01:00

THE IRISH Times contemplated the introduction of a third Home Rule Bill in early 1912 with apprehension. “Home Rule is again disturbing the country, throwing Irishmen, who generally live together in harmony, into opposite political camps,” the newspaper commented editorially on the first day of a fateful year.

It was especially bitter against the Liberal Party under the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, which had pledged never to accept a position dependent on the Irish nationalist votes. Now Asquith was promising Home Rule to the nationalists on whom he depended for a parliamentary majority. This was “a conspiracy to interrupt and destroy the peace and prosperity of Ireland”, The Irish Times complained.

For a newspaper which largely represented the views of Protestants in southern Ireland, the prospect of Home Rule was an appalling vista. From being a privileged part of a majority in a United Kingdom, these unionists would become a minority in a Catholic-dominated local parliament which would be influenced by the powerful Catholic Church. There was still hope, however, that Ulster intransigence would halt the Home Rule bandwagon now rolling under the joint management of Asquith and John Redmond, leader of the Irish nationalist MPs in Westminster.

“The Unionist party which will fight it tooth and nail in the House of Commons has great allies . . . We believe the Unionist party to be on the eve of a great and fruitful victory,” the paper predicted. But by April, there was a less optimistic note. “We are on the eve of a prolonged and probably bitter conflict during which we will be fighting for the essential things of life and citizenship.” Irish unionists desire “to live in peace and harmony with their Nationalist fellow countrymen. But they will not shirk the challenge . . . They will go into the fight with the grim resolution of quiet men who have been wantonly assailed”.

The Irish Times had at this stage no time for a two-nation Ireland. “We do not agree with some leaders of English Unionist opinion that there are two nations in Ireland. There is only one Irish nation: Ulster and the other three provinces contribute everyone its own qualities, good or bad, its own achievements, great or small, to the sum of nationality. But on the question of Home Rule the nation is divided against itself.”

Reluctantly, the newspaper and its readers were being forced to envisage a split in the “one Irish nation” under the pressure of the Home Rule Bill. As published, there was no provision for a let-out for Ulster, but special treatment was now a feature of the debate. In June, an amendment was tabled by a Liberal MP, T G Agar-Robartes, to exclude “four Protestant counties”, Antrim, Armagh, Down and Londonderry.

The newspaper saw this move as “a trap designed to secure an admission that Northern Unionists were willing to abandon the Unionists of the rest of Ireland to their fate”. The fact that the amendment was later to be supported by both the Ulster Unionist leader, Sir Edward Carson, and the Conservative party leader, Andrew Bonar Law, posed problems for the newspaper’s leader writer, but he found a way around them. He approved Law’s principle that, while he hated the Bill, he would support in committee stage any amendment which seemed likely to make it less bad. “This is a sane and sensible intention,” commented the editorial.

Carson explained that although he voted for the amendment, “we do not accept it as a compromise on the Bill. There is no compromise possible”.

John Redmond seized on what he saw as the inconsistencies in the editorial squirming of The Irish Times which, he explained to the Commons, was “the organ of the Unionists of the South and West of Ireland”.

This was a reference to the newspaper denouncing the idea of “separate treatment for Ulster”, which Carson had raised in a speech in Belfast the day before.

The newspaper was trying hard to keep up with the twists and turns of “separate treatment for Ulster”. It clearly approved of the position of “the average Unionist elector of Great Britain . . . strong in the assurance that a hated form of government cannot be thrust by force upon more than a million of the Irish people”. This rather weakened the “one nation” argument.

The average British Unionist, the newspaper cited approvingly, is convinced “that even if the Home Rule Bill becomes law, it will shatter itself on the rock of Ulster”. But the editorial went on to insist that it is the duty of Unionists to make the Bill “less bad” by amendments while “refusing to accept it in any shape or form”.

The Irish Times was in a difficult position as were its southern Unionist readers. The Home Rule Bill seemed likely to become law after approval by the Commons and the two-year delay by the House of Lords. A special deal for Ulster, if accepted by the Northern unionists, could be seen as a betrayal of their southern brethren, but for the moment the newspaper continued to assert with Carson that Ulster resistance would mean no Home Rule for the whole of Ireland.

As Ulster unionists moved towards a mass signing of a Covenant to resist an Irish parliament “using all means which may be found necessary”, the newspaper also moved to support them. “There is not the slightest doubt that Ulster will resist the attempt by force of arms. We need not discuss the wisdom or legality of this attitude – it would be a mere waste of time”, an editorial on June 19th asserted.

“No moralising can get rid of the fact that Ulster’s last doubt as to the justice of overt resistance has been removed by the Government’s refusal to submit the Home Rule issue to the electors of the United Kingdom.”

At the signing of the Covenant by hundreds of thousands of Unionist men and women, including some in southern Ireland, the newspaper editorialised that Ulster was not fighting her own battle alone, but “she is saving Nationalist Ireland from the criminal folly of its leaders”. It concluded on an apocalyptic note: “The Government and its allies dare not admit what they know to be true – that the Home Rule Bill can only be imposed on Ulster at the cost of civil war and that the Bill therefore is already dead.”

In fact, the Bill was finally declared law just two years later on September 18th, 1914, but suspended until the end of the second World War. And there could be special provision for Ulster which was not spelled out.