Bruton wrong to claim Ireland could win independence by peaceful means alone
History shows hopes of Home Rule settlement were baseless
John Redmond said Lord Lansdowne’s speech detailing changes to the Home Rule Act “amounts to a declaration of war on the Irish people, and to the announcement of a policy of coercion”
John Bruton, the former taoiseach, speaking in Dublin on September 18th, 2014, the centenary day of the Home Rule Act, declared himself to be a supporter of John Redmond and his policies rather than those of Pearse and his colleagues.
In the autumn 2014 issue of Studies, Bruton gave a statement of his thinking. “Ireland could have achieved better results for all the people of the island if it had continued to follow the successful non-violent, parliamentary path, and had not embarked on the path of physical violence initiated by the IRB and the Irish Citizen Army in Easter Week of 1916. ”
Central to his thesis was the contention that the Home Rule Act, although suspended, was on the statute book, and would, in time, have produced more beneficial results for Ireland than anything achieved by the Rising. “I believe,” said Bruton, “Ireland would have reached the position it is in today, an independent nation of 26 or 28 counties, if it had stuck with the Home Rule policy and if the 1916 rebellion had not taken place.”
In the early months of this year Bruton has continued to advance his campaign for giving more recognition to Redmond.
A new dimension was added to his thinking, when, in the Irish Catholic (January 21st, 2016), he stated “the choice to use force in 1916, and again in 1919, must be subjected to severe reappraisal in light of what we can see might have been achieved, without the loss life”. The extension of Bruton’s argument to 1919 and the War of Irish Independence is significant but largely unrecognised.
One person who has noted the evolution of Bruton’s thinking, and who has approved of it, is Prof Geoffrey Roberts of UCC, who, writing in The Irish Times of January 19th, 2016, stated that “as former taoiseach John Bruton has argued on many occasions the violence of the Rising and the War of Independence was not necessary to achieve Irish independence. There was a non-violent alternative and thousands of lives would have been saved by sticking to constitutional politics.”
Other members of the Reform Group, to which Prof Roberts belongs, have regularly endorsed Bruton’s interpretation of history.
Firstly, the terms of the Home Rule Act of 1914 were so limited that it did not confer any real degree of independence upon Ireland. The Act affirmed the supremacy of the parliament at Westminster and, while creating an Irish House of Commons, it stated that matters pertaining to the crown, peace or war, the army and navy, foreign relations and foreign trade were reserved to the imperial parliament.
Other matters were removed from the power of the Irish parliament for a period of time, for example, the Land Purchase Act, the Old Age Pensions Act, the collection of taxes, the Royal Irish Constabulary and the Post Office Savings Bank. Above all it confirmed the position of a lord lieutenant in Ireland who would have the power to approve, veto or place a reserved judgment on any legislation passed by the Irish House of Commons.
Secondly, Redmond himself rapidly came to the conclusion that British politicians, especially Tory Unionist politicians, were not going to allow the evolution of Irish Home Rule in the manner that he had hoped for and which is now envisaged by Bruton.
Redmond expressed his views on the matter after Lloyd George attempted to amend the Home Rule Act, with provision for the Ulster Unionists, and following the declaration by Lord Lansdowne in the House of Lords, on July 11th 1916, that these structural changes to the Act would be “permanent and enduring” and the exclusion of the six counties would be “permanent”.
Redmond responded, on July 12th, by declaring that Lansdowne’s speech “amounts to a declaration of war on the Irish people, and to the announcement of a policy of coercion”.
Then, following the announcement by Asquith’s government on July 24th, 1916, that it was abandoning its plans to construct a Home Rule settlement, Redmond said “they have entered on a course which is bound to increase Irish suspicion of the good faith of the British government”.
Indeed, Redmond was so frustrated by the policy of the British government that on October 18th, 1916, he moved a vote of censure against it in the Commons. In his speech he asserted that “the system of government at present maintained in Ireland is inconsistent with the principles for which the allies are fighting in Europe”. He had trusted in the promises of Asquith’s government but that trust had been ill-founded.
The British government passed a Conscription Act to apply to Ireland on April 12th, 1918; representatives of all Irish political parties, with Éamon de Valera joining John Dillon, met at the Mansion House on April 18th, 1918, and declared that the Conscription Act “must be regarded as a declaration of war on the Irish nation”; and on May 6th, 1918, Viscount French accepted the position of lord lieutenant of Ireland on the understanding that he would head “a quasi-military government in Ireland with a soldier lieutenant”.
The British decision to govern Ireland by military rule was followed by the political decision to refuse Irish representatives, selected by the first Dáil Éireann, a place at the Paris Peace Conference in January 1919. It was evident that, owing to British diplomatic pressure, President Wilson’s concern for “the rights of small nations” was not to apply to Ireland.
These events confirm that any hopes of a Home Rule settlement were baseless and that peaceful democratic appeals would not secure Irish independence.
Dr Brian P Murphy OSB is a historian. He is author of Patrick Pearse and the Lost Republican Ideal and other books