On the night of May 18th, 1915, the Irish nationalist leader John Redmond was staying at the south Dublin home of his daughter Johanna and her husband Max Green, the chairman of the Irish Prisons Board.
Redmond was not at home, then, to hear a late-night knock on the door of his house at Aughavanagh, an old military barracks in the Wicklow Mountains previously used as a shooting lodge by Charles Stewart Parnell. The caller was not to be deterred, however. He was bearing an urgent message from British prime minister Herbert Asquith and it was imperative that he get it to Redmond, regardless of the lateness of the hour.
On arrival at the correct address at 3am, the messenger was at first turned away by the suspicious housekeeper, before Redmond was eventually roused from his sleep to be presented with an invitation to join the British cabinet.
The first World War was by now into its 10th month and Asquith, facing a crisis over press revelations of a shortage of shells for soldiers fighting in France, as well as the disastrous prosecution of the Gallipoli campaign, had decided to bring all of the main parties – including the Irish nationalists – into the government.
There were strong reasons for Redmond to accept the prime minister’s invitation. For some time he had been frustrated by the British government’s failure to deliver on a promise to establish a separate Irish army corps to fight in the war, or indeed to take on board any of Redmond’s advice on recruitment policies in Ireland. A position in the cabinet would give the nationalist leader a direct say in these matters for the first time.
Of even more importance, perhaps, was the intimation given by Asquith in his early hours message to Redmond that Edward Carson might also be invited to join the government. By this stage Redmond and the Irish Party he led had secured the passage of legislation establishing a home rule parliament in Ireland. The Government of Ireland Act – providing for this – was now on the statute book.
Implementation of the act had been suspended, however, because of the outbreak of the war. Of further concern to the nationalists was the government's commitment to bring in an amending bill ensuring the exclusion from home rule of a number of Ulster counties. There was much still to play for, then, and Carson had already signalled his determination to resume resistance to home rule as soon as the war was over. By joining the government, Redmond could ensure he was on hand to thwart any efforts by Carson or his fellow unionists to obstruct the nationalist cause.
It was also an unusually propitious time for an Irish nationalist leader to consider joining the British government. The offer to Redmond came at a moment of unprecedented anti-German sentiment in Ireland and elsewhere. Just 12 days earlier, the sinking, by a German u-boat, of the Lusitania passenger ship off the Old Head of Kinsale, with the loss of almost 2,000 lives, had provoked worldwide indignation.
Cognisant of all of these factors, Redmond gave an instant response to the prime minister’s invitation: it was a no.
Later that morning, following a meeting with the Irish Party's deputy leader John Dillon, Redmond wrote to Asquith setting out his reasons: "While thanking you, I feel sure you will understand when I say the principles and history of the party I represent make the acceptance of your offer impossible.
“From the commencement of the War the Irish Party and myself have been anxious to do, and have done, all in our power to aid your government in the successful prosecution of the War, and in the future you can fully rely on us for all the help in our power to give; but, even if I were free to accept your offer, I am convinced my doing so would not increase my power to be of service.”
The prospect of Carson’s inclusion in the cabinet, however, weighed on Redmond’s mind, and later in the day he sent a further message to Asquith: “In view of the fact that it is impossible for me to join I think most strongly Carson should not be included. From Irish point of view inclusion would do infinite harm, and make our efforts to help far more difficult.”
Asquith made at least two subsequent attempts to persuade Redmond to come on board, but to no avail. While resisting the prime minister’s entreaties, the nationalist leader continued to press the case for Carson’s exclusion from the new administration: “For the Irish people,” he told Asquith in a letter, “it will mean installed in power the leader of the Ulster revolters who, the other day, was threatening hostilities to the forces of the Crown and the decision of Parliament. It will arouse grave suspicion and will certainly enormously increase the difficulties of my friends and myself.”
The sudden change in the make-up of the government left Redmond and his party in an extremely vulnerable position. For the previous five years it had held the balance of power in the House of Commons, and its close alliance with the ruling Liberal Party had brought it to the brink of its long-prized goal: the establishment of an Irish parliament to deal with exclusively Irish affairs.
Now the Conservative and Unionist Party was back in office – albeit as a coalition partner of the Liberals – after a nine-year absence, and in a position to directly influence policy on Ireland.
Redmond's protestations over Carson fell on deaf ears, and the Ulster unionist leader joined the cabinet as attorney general. Making matters worse for the nationalists, Asquith moved to appoint Carson's fellow Unionist MP for Trinity College, James Campbell, as lord chancellor for Ireland. In a remarkable twist, Campbell would go on to become the first chairman of the Free State Seanad, but at this time he was a hate figure in nationalist Ireland, having just months earlier urged Ulster loyalists that it was their "duty" to take part in a civil war to prevent the introduction of home rule.
Word of Campbell’s imminent appointment triggered outrage in the nationalist press, and forced Redmond to fire off an uncharacteristically hot-tempered letter to Asquith. “I protest most vigorously . . . that one of the most powerful positions in the Executive Government of Ireland should be handed over, not merely to a Unionist, but to a Unionist with Mr Campbell’s record,” he wrote. “There is a limit to our patience. We cannot, and we will not, agree to this.”
Redmond eventually succeeded in having Campbell’s appointment overturned, but the episode underlined the extent to which the Irish Party’s influence over the government had diminished. In tandem with that came a slow-burning loss of faith on the part of the nationalist electorate in the party’s ability to deliver.
A letter to Redmond from the bishop of Killaloe, Michael Fogarty, underscored the change in mood. “Home Rule is dead and buried and Ireland is without a national party or a national Press,” the bishop lamented. “What the future has in store for us God knows. I suppose conscription, with a bloody feud between people and soldiers. I never thought that Asquith would consent to this humiliation and ruin of Irish feeling.”
Indications that the party's hold over nationalist public opinion was slipping began to appear from all sorts of quarters. The Irish Independent, Ireland's biggest selling nationalist daily, began a series of vituperative attacks on the party and its leader for a variety of perceived failures.
Typical was an editorial in its edition of July 15th, lamenting that a “bad” Government of Ireland Act would be “mutilated” by the promised amending bill to deal with Ulster. “Through Liberal weakness and Irish supineness we may be given only a parody of a Constitution.”
Redmond shrugged off the denunciations, but he knew that further criticism was inevitable as the first anniversary of the Suspensory Act – under which the implementation of home rule had been delayed by a year or until the end of the war – approached. In mid-July the members of Dublin Corporation debated a motion calling for home rule to be put into effect for the whole of Ireland immediately once the Suspensory Act expired on September 17th.
The motion was defeated after an amendment – expressing confidence in the ability of Redmond and his party to adopt the best and speediest means of bringing home rule into operation – was passed by 30 votes to 22. But the debate was a heated one and the narrowness of the margin was evidence of the extent to which increasing numbers of nationalists were prepared to openly question Redmond’s judgment.
Opponents of the constitutional movement then scored a propaganda coup on August 1st when thousands lined the streets for the funeral procession of Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa, the veteran Fenian leader who had died in early July in the United States. The graveside oration by Patrick Pearse – with its concluding words, "The fools, the fools, the fools! They have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace" – pointed to the turbulent times ahead.
By now another potential menace to the Irish Party’s standing was coming over the horizon – the threat of conscription to boost the rapidly-deleting ranks of the British army, which was suffering enormous casualties in the war. The introduction of compulsory military service, Redmond told the House of Commons on November 2nd, would be a “folly and crime”.
He believed the best way of fending off conscription in Ireland was to ensure voluntary recruiting was kept up, and actively supported the campaign for recruits. But he still took the precaution of writing to Asquith to warn him that the introduction of conscription in Ireland would “alienate public opinion” and was “an impossibility”.
The intervention was successful and, when the government brought forward a Military Service Bill in early 1916, introducing conscription for unmarried men and widowers aged between 19 and 41, Ireland was excluded from its terms. Redmond received little credit, however, for behind-the-scenes successes of that kind.
By now, all that was visible to an increasingly impatient nationalist public was a continuing delay in implementing home rule. Frustration was compounded by the actions of a distrustful British government that seemed unwilling to give Ireland its due over its contribution to the war, through either the establishment of an Irish army corps or even proper recognition of the sacrifices made by Irish soldiers on the battlefields, which seemed always to be slow in coming. The delay in issuing an official dispatch about the Suvla Bay massacre, in which the 10th (Irish) Division suffered terrible losses, was a particular bone of contention and was raised by Redmond – with the support of Carson – in the Commons.
All of these factors were having a detrimental impact – from Redmond's perspective – on Irish public opinion. On December 19th, he received a disturbing assessment from Irish chief secretary Augustine Birrell of the growing strength of the Irish Volunteers and other dissident elements.
The volunteer movement in the south, set up as a rival armed body to the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force, had split into pro- and anti-Redmond factions at the outset of the war.
The vast majority had supported Redmond’s call to back the British war effort and joined his breakaway National Volunteers, but now Birrell warned that the rival Irish Volunteers were increasing in number month by month.
"I am afraid it is no exaggeration to say that there are now nearer 14,000 than 13,000 of these Volunteers, and though many of them are men of straw and wind, still wherever there is an organisation it is a centre of sedition, both to Dublin Castle and the Government, and the revolutionary propaganda grows in strength and, I think in sincerity of purpose."
Redmond didn't take the warning seriously – or at least seriously enough. Indeed, he was at this time pushing the idea that the Royal Irish Constabulary was an untapped resource of potential recruits for the war, an idea with which Birrell disagreed: "I don't think . . . this is the time to underrate the services of the police," he wrote, "or to draw a rosy, however truthtful, picture of the crimelessness of Ireland."
Within a matter of months Birrell was to be proved right: there was a lot more work for the police in Ireland than Redmond – or even Birrell – realised. The Easter Rising came as a rude awakening to both men; it cost Birrell his job and Redmond, ultimately, his reputation.
Chris Dooley's Redmond – A Life Undone is published by Gill & Macmillan