To stand with the Empire

John Redmond’s eve of war speech in the House of Commons turned into a gamble gone wrong, rather than a masterstroke


‘The life of a politician, especially of an Irish politician,” a weary and disheartened John Redmond reflected as his life was drawing to a close, “is one long series of postponements and compromises and disappointments and disillusions.”

Never was this better exemplified for Redmond than in the official response to the defining act of his political career: the impromptu speech he made in the House of Commons on the eve of Britain’s declaration of war against Germany in August 1914.

What initially seemed a political masterstroke by the Irish Parliamentary Party leader soon took on the appearance of a gamble that had gone wrong, resulting in his authority in Ireland being undermined – in the long run, fatally – by the actions of both the War Office in London and his supposed allies, the Liberal Party government.

Redmond hadn’t intended to speak in response to the sombre announcement on August 3rd by foreign secretary Edward Grey to the effect that Britain was mobilising for war. But something Grey said in the course of his hour-long speech – that the “one bright spot in the very dreadful situation is Ireland”, though in reality, the home rule crisis in Ireland was far from resolved – moved him to respond.

Redmond told the government it could safely take its troops out of Ireland for the duration of the war, and the Irish Volunteers in the South would “join arms” with their Ulster counterparts to defend the coasts of Ireland. “Is it too much to hope that out of this situation there may spring a result which will be good not merely for the Empire, but good for the future welfare and integrity of the Irish nation?” he asked in conclusion, to prolonged cheers from all sides of the house.

It was an astonishingly daring intervention by Redmond, given that anti-British sentiment in Ireland had been roused to its highest level in many years by events arising from the Howth gun-running incident of eight days previous, which had culminated in soldiers from the King’s Own Scottish Borderers shooting dead three civilians and injuring 38 others on Bachelor’s Walk.

Redmond was unsure what the reaction would be at home, but in the event, his intervention was warmly welcomed in the following day’s nationalist press. By acting so swiftly and decisively, he was seen to have boldly retaken the initiative from Edward Carson and the Ulster unionists, whose opposition to the planned introduction of home rule had brought the country to the brink of civil war.

But the benefits from his triumph were short-lived, and over the following weeks and months, the failure of the Liberal government, and in particular prime minister Herbert Asquith, to match his gesture, and to deliver on specific commitments, left the Irish leader cruelly exposed.

The unspoken quid pro quo in Redmond’s offer was that the government would immediately enact the Home Rule Bill, which had passed all stages but remained off the statute book because of the unresolved “Ulster question”.

The second part of the bargain that Redmond sought to obtain from his grand gesture of support for Britain, was official recognition of and support for the Irish Volunteers. He had the rather optimistic idea that if the Volunteers could be established on a formal footing to work in common cause for the duration of the war with the Ulster Volunteer Force, which had been established to resist home rule by force, then the two factions would never turn their guns on each other at war’s end. Not only that, but the makings of a united, all-Ireland army would by then be in place.

Disagreement within the cabinet

By the end of August, Asquith, who had other matters on his mind with Britain now at war, was thoroughly fed up with the home rule controversy. In a letter to his young confidante, Venetia Stanley, on August 31st, he wrote: “The Irish (both sets) are giving me a lot of trouble, just at a difficult moment. I sometimes wish we could submerge the whole lot of them, & their island, for say 10 years, under the waves of the Atlantic …”

A commentary in the Westmeath Examiner of September 4th summed up the general discontent at the delay: “The long drawn-out agony of waiting, to which the Irish people have been subjected over the enactment of the Bill, has done incalculable harm. It seems that Home Rule is to follow every other measure of justice for which Ireland has had to contend, in that its final concession will have been made in such a fashion as to rob it of all grace, and to evoke no feeling of gratitude or enthusiasm.”

Emotional scenes

The frustrations experienced by Redmond in getting the Home Rule Bill made law were compounded by the at-times farcical obstacles put in his way in securing official support for the Irish Volunteers. Redmond believed that if the Volunteers were to be organised and equipped as a defence force for Ireland, this would provoke “a wave of enthusiasm” among Irishmen in support of the British war effort.

With the Home Rule Act finally secured, he felt able to go further than the offer to defend Ireland’s shores that he had made in his August 3rd speech, and promote all-out Irish support for what he believed to be just war “for the defence and sacred rights and liberties of small nations”.

In a manifesto issued on September 15th, he said Ireland had a right “to claim that Irish recruits for the Expeditionary Force should be kept together as a unit, officered as far as possible by Irishmen, composed, if possible, by county battalions, to form, in fact, an ‘Irish Brigade’, so that Ireland may gain national credit for her deeds, and feel, like other communities of the Empire, that she too has contributed an army bearing her name in this historic struggle”.

The unionist-dominated British War Office, however, was wholly uninterested in helping the Irish nationalist leader realise his vision of an Irish brigade fighting for the honour and glory of their country, regardless of how much it might have boosted the recruitment effort in Ireland.

Its refusal to entertain Redmond’s proposals was shown in its true light when Edward Carson announced that approval had been granted for the establishment of an Ulster Division made up entirely of the Ulster volunteers.

Rather than being discouraged by this development, Redmond believed it strengthened the case for similar treatment for the volunteers from the South. After the Irish Volunteers split over his support for the war – with the vast majority of the 170,000-odd movement backing Redmond – he secured the support of Asquith for his campaign for the establishment of an Irish formation.

In a speech on September 25th in the Mansion House in Dublin, met by prolonged cheers from an enthusiastic audience, the prime minister said: “I should like to see, and we all want to see, an Irish brigade – or better still, an Irish army corps.” Five days later, he turned this aspiration into a commitment, in a letter to Redmond in which he said: “I have spoken to [secretary of state for war] Lord Kitchener on the subject of your letter, and he will have the announcement made that the War Office has sanctioned the formation of an Irish Army Corps.” With this explicit undertaking secured, Redmond stepped up his efforts in support of recruitment. But the promised announcement never came.

Breakthrough arrived

Sir Lawrence Parsons

Parsons wrote that the 16th was composed of three essentially Irish brigades and that almost all of its officers were Irishmen, and he hoped it was deemed “worthy of acknowledgement as the ‘Irish Division’”, though of course the 10th (Irish) and 36th (Ulster) divisions had also been formed to fight in the war.

Redmond was greatly encouraged by this development, but – as related in detail in Denis Gwynn’s The Life of John Redmond – it proved to be the beginning of a deeply frustrating and at times absurd series of exchanges between the two men. Parsons, it transpired, had an opposing view to that of Redmond on almost every matter the nationalist leader raised with him. He consistently rejected candidates recommended by Redmond for a commission, and when it was suggested to him that thousands of Irishmen in Britain were anxious to join the division, he said he did not want to fill his ranks “with Liverpool, and Glasgow, and Cardiff Irish, who are slum-birds that we don’t want”.

While this correspondence was taking place, Redmond felt forced to publicly reject suggestions that Ireland was not “doing its bit” in providing recruits for the war effort. But he believed enthusiasm would be greater if the War Office acted on his advice to establish a distinctive Irish division, with its own colours and badge. In a memorandum to the government in November and a follow-on meeting with the War Office, he also pressed the case for an increase in Catholic chaplains and for Irishmen who had enlisted in Britain to be allowed to transfer to the 16th Division.

His subsequent correspondence with Parsons on the badge issue alone epitomised his difficulties. Redmond had secured approval from the War Office for the men of the 16th to wear a distinctively Irish badge on their caps; his suggestion was a harp.

Parsons wrote, however, to say he was opposed to any special badge for the regiments of his division. “That the Ulster Division has a special badge is no reason that we should have one, as I think it was wrong to give them one, as it was wrong to form that division at all,” he said with typical forthrightness. And if the division must have a badge, he added, “I would not recommend a harp … I would prefer a plain sprig of shamrock on an Irish cross”.

The correspondence between the two men on the badge continued into the new year. Parsons held to his position but he reluctantly agreed to allow a committee to draw up a design for the badge for consideration by the War Office. Its suggestion of an emblem incorporating the four Irish provinces, however, was rejected by Kitchener, who considered it too complicated, and sent word back to Redmond that he would prefer something simple, such as a shamrock – or a harp!

Perhaps most exasperating of all for Redmond was a comment made by Parsons in one letter in which he said he did not mind seeing Irish soldiers dispersed to regiments in England, Scotland and Wales. “They act as leaven on dough,” he said. “In my 30 years’ regimental service I always had the leavened dough in my battery and it was very good.” This comment more than any other demonstrated to Redmond the extent to which the two men had been at cross purposes from the very beginning.

Difficulties cost political capital

To what extent this contributed to his ultimate downfall, when the Irish Parliamentary Party was swept from power by the revolutionary Sinn Féin movement, is open to question. The Liberals’ former Irish secretary Augustine Birrell, however, certainly considered it significant.

In an appreciation published in the London Times after Redmond’s death, Birrell wrote: “He felt to the very end, bitterly and intensely, the stupidity of the War Office. Had he been allowed to deflect the routine indifference and suspicion of the War Office from its old ruts into the deep-cut channels of Irish feelings and sentiments, he might have carried his countrymen with him, but he jumped first and tried to make his bargain afterwards and failed accordingly.”