Partition was conceded in principle 100 years ago. It was inevitable once the Liberal prime minister, Herbert Asquith, in moving the second reading of the Home Rule Bill for the third time on March 9th, 1914, offered to exclude Ulster for six years. Edward Carson’s contemptuous dismissal of temporary exclusion, wrung by Asquith from John Redmond, overshadowed the larger significance of the unionist leader’s welcome for the partitionist shift in Britain’s Irish policy.
Since Gladstone’s conversion to home rule in 1886 the Tories had played the Orange card cynically. English identification with Ulster Protestant fears provided the ideological dynamic for partition. Catholics were considered unfit to govern the Protestant community. The Liberals’ commitment to home rule did not outlast Gladstone, who uniquely among British statesmen, regarded Irish self-government as an issue of justice. His first Home Rule Bill split the Liberals. He took the second Bill through the Commons in his 84th year. After it was dispatched by the Lords, Asquith, then home secretary, confided to the diarist Elizabeth Mathew “they were now going to get to real work”.
Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, a radical political voice, told her that Lord Rosebery, who succeeded Gladstone as prime minister in 1894, was no friend of Ireland. “I am to impart his views to Mr Dillon,” she wrote. John Dillon (to whom she was married the following year) said “there’s a great deal of truth in Wilfrid’s view, but they are doing all they could under the circumstances”.
By 1914 the Irish Parliamentary Party had to deal with a government of Liberal imperialists. Realpolitik had replaced idealism. The Curragh conspiracy – the threatened mutiny by an elite corps of British army officers – was followed in April by the Larne gun-running: 25,000 rifles were brought in for the UVF without hindrance. (When the Irish Volunteers landed 1,100 rifles at Howth in July, British troops open fire on a Dublin crowd, killing four and wounding 30 people.)
On May 12th Asquith announced an amending bill to the Home Rule Bill. In June the Government of Ireland (Amendment) Bill, providing for temporary exclusion by county option, was introduced in the House of Lords. The Lords amended it to provide for the permanent exclusion of all Ulster. Two days later, on July 10th, a provisional government met in Belfast.
Later that month the Buckingham Palace conference failed to agree on the terms of Ulster’s exclusion. Yet it marked the moment when the leaders of the two major parties in Britain and in Ireland acknowledged that some form of partition was unavoidable.
The constitutional nationalist leaders agreed reluctantly, for the sake of peace, to temporary exclusion by county plebiscites (which would have produced a four-county unionist enclave). Asquith had observed during secret meetings that Carson believed his “more extreme followers” would prefer the exclusion of six counties rather than the whole of Ulster. “They are apparently afraid that a big entire Ulster would gravitate towards a united Ireland.” John Morley, one of the last of the Gladstonian Liberals, informed Dillon: “Carson has won and the sooner the public knew it the better.”
Ronan Fanning writes in his seminal work Fatal Path: "The mere threat of force, sustained and carefully co-ordinated, sufficed to achieve the unionist revolution" (more accurately described as counter-revolution). On September 18th, 1914, the Third Home Rule Bill was enacted, accompanied by a suspensory bill. The outbreak of war enabled Asquith to do what he had always wanted to do about Ireland: nothing. Two days later Redmond urged Irish Volunteers to join the British army. By the time the Suspensory Act ceased to have effect, in 1919, the party of Parnell, Redmond and Dillon had been swept into oblivion.
In vain did the United Irish League of Great Britain issue a cast iron plaque in 1914. Among this diarist’s treasured possessions, it is inscribed with “Éire Aontuighthe” over a bust of Redmond.
In The British Campaign in Ireland, 1919-21, Charles Townshend concludes: "On the British side some form of military struggle was inevitable before Irish demands would be taken seriously." But perhaps, as R Dudley Edwards used to say, nothing is inevitable in history. Initially, John Dillon thought the Anglo-Irish Treaty was "a very good settlement and, if well handled, could be made the basis of a truly united and free Ireland". It was tragically mishandled, particularly by those who tried to overturn it by force.