Tory ruthlessness: Ronan McGreevy on Andrew Bonar Law

Conspired with Sir James Craig and Edward Carson to defeat the Home Rule Bill

Andrew Bonar Law is best remembered in Ireland, if he is remembered at all, as one of the most unscrupulous opponents of Home Rule and supporter of militarised unionism.

Bonar Law was the leader of the Conservative party when the Home Rule Bill was first introduced into the UK parliament in March 1912. The Liberal Party, supported by the Irish Parliamentary Party, which held the balance of power in Westminster, had decided on a modest measure of self-rule for the whole of Ireland.

It was government policy. Moreover, it could no longer be vetoed by the House of Lords as the Parliament Act of 1911 ensured peers could only delay the passage of legislation by two years, not veto it.

Faced with a fait accompli, Bonar Law conspired with Sir James Craig and Edward Carson to defeat the Bill. In a notorious act of sedition in a democracy, Bonar Law declared in 1912: “I can imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster will go which I shall not be ready to support.”


In July 1914, as the leaders of Irish nationalism and unionism met at Buckingham Palace in a failed attempt to resolve their differences, he believed the Liberal government had acted in an unconstitutional way “and they cannot be prevented from succeeding unless action is taken by us which goes much beyond ordinary Parliamentary opposition”.

Bonar Law’s was a unionist out of conviction and also for ruthless electoral purposes. His father James was a Free Church of Scotland minister from Portrush who emigrated to New Brunswick in Canada, where Bonar Law was born in 1858.

He inherited from his father’s family a fierce unionism which saw him oppose Home Rule. There were other considerations too when Bonar Law took over as Conservative leader in 1911.

The party had lost three general elections in a row. The People’s Budget of 1909, which introduced the UK’s first comprehensive social security system, was understandably popular in the country. Bonar Law needed an issue to unite his Tory party and to force a general election on the issue.

He declared privately: “After all it is not about Ireland which we hope to influence but England and Scotland. The one fact which tells most in our favour is the proposal that nationalists should not only govern themselves but government the great community like that around Belfast . . . it is simply a question of the best way in which to win the fight.”

The consequences of his opposition to Home Rule are well known. The Home Rule Act was put on the statute books in September 1914, but suspended for the duration of the war on the assumption that the war would be a short one. The Easter Rising intervened and nationalist Ireland took a decisive turn away from Home Rule and towards separatism.

During that war, Bonar Law served in a wartime coalition government as chancellor of the exchequer with Lloyd George as prime minister.

He could have become prime minister himself in December 1916 after Herbert Asquith resigned but deferred to Lloyd George instead.

Bonar Law was noted as a competent chancellor and a team player, but the war brought him terrible personal grief.

His son Charlie died during the Battle of Gaza in April 1917. Cruelly his father had been told by the Vatican that his son was in a Turkish prisoner of war camp. The word “not” had been omitted from the telegram. Six months later another son James was shot down and killed over Arras while serving with the Royal Flying Corps.

For a time Bonar Law was paralysed by grief. He sat in the cockpit of a plane like the one his son flew in and cried for two hours. Yet he returned to his duties as chancellor.

Bonar Law remained as Conservative leader until March 1921 when he stepped down because of ill-health. Fortunately he was not around for the Treaty negotiations. He supported the Treaty retrospectively on the basis that the establishment of Northern Ireland had safeguarded the unionist majority in the northeast.

He made an unexpected return to frontline politics in October 1922. At the infamous meeting in the Carlton Club on October 19th of that year Conservative MPs voted to end the coalition with the Liberal Democrats which stretched back to 1915.

Party leader Austen Chamberlain, who was in favour of its continuation, resigned and Bonar Law resumed the leadership and became prime minister on October 23rd, 1922.

In the subsequent general election campaign of November 1922, Bonar Law stood on a “tranquillity” platform, promising to bring an end to the tumult and scandals of the Lloyd George era. The Tories won an overall majority, though with only 38.5 per cent of the vote.

Bonar Law had finally ascended in his own right to the highest office in the land, but he was soon diagnosed with terminal throat cancer. He resigned on May 20th, 1923. His 225 days make him the shortest-serving prime minister of the 20th century.

He died on October 30th, 1923. He was buried in Westminster Abbey next to the Unknown Soldier. “The unknown prime minister next to the unknown soldier,” Asquith remarked. The moniker stuck in Britain, but in nationalist Ireland Bonar Law is remembered for reasons most people would prefer to forget.