Chris Dooley: John Redmond’s legacy should be studied not distorted

Those who claim British never intended to introduce home rule are arguing against evidence

‘The life of a politician, especially of an Irish politician,” John Redmond ruefully reflected as his own life was coming to a premature end, “is one long series of postponements and compromises and disappointments and disillusions”.

The death of an Irish politician, he might well have added, is followed by an even longer series of misunderstandings, misrepresentations, distortions and falsifications.

Redmond, the leader of the constitutional nationalist movement that was swept from the stage in the aftermath of the Easter Rising, has been subjected to more distortions and falsifications than most.

Among them is the oft-repeated statement that he offered Irish nationalist support for the British effort in the first World War in the hope of securing a home rule parliament in return. The opposite of this is true. Redmond did not commit to supporting Britain in the war until after home rule had been delivered.


On the eve of Britain’s entry into the war in August 1914, Redmond had made his famous, impromptu speech in the House of Commons offering to deploy the Irish Volunteers to defend the coasts of Ireland for the duration of the war. His gesture gained him much political capital in London at the expense of his nemesis, the Ulster unionist leader Edward Carson, who sat stony-faced in the chamber as MPs all around stood to cheer Redmond’s intervention, waving their papers in the air.

For the next few weeks Redmond and Carson, the latter backed by the Conservative Party leader Bonar Law, furiously lobbied the prime minister, Herbert Asquith, in pursuit of their respective goals: Redmond seeking the enactment of the Government of Ireland Bill, providing for home rule; Carson and Law doing everything in their power to prevent this from happening.

Lot of trouble

Asquith had a lot on his plate at the time and, on August 31st, nearly a month into the war, he wrote in despair to Venetia Stanley, a young woman with whom he was engaged in an intense correspondence, the Irish – “both sets” – were giving him a lot of trouble.

“I sometimes wish we could submerge the whole lot of them, and their island, for say 10 years, under the waves of the Atlantic,” he wrote, before concluding: “I have had interviews today – in the intervals of what are equally serious and more urgent things – with Redmond and Bonar Law (inspired by Carson); and they almost fill one with despair.”

In the end, however, Redmond won. Asquith accepted his argument that unless home rule was placed on the statute book, Britain would lose all the goodwill towards it then existing in nationalist Ireland.

Home rule duly became law amid tumultuous celebrations in the House of Lords on September 18th, 1914. (Law declared it a “great injustice”.) Only when Asquith confirmed the decision to enact the measure did Redmond call on Irish men to enlist for the war.

Those who claim today that the British government never intended to introduce home rule are arguing against the evidence. Implementation of the new law was suspended, by agreement, for the duration of the war, but all that remained to be worked out was the still highly contentious issue of what portion of Ulster would be excluded from the measure.

That Dublin would have its own parliament, with jurisdiction over at least 26 counties (the fates of Tyrone and Fermanagh had yet to be decided) was now a fait accompli, and nobody – not even the Tory/unionist establishment – was opposing it.

But would the creation of this parliament have led to a better Ireland than that which emerged as a result of the Easter Rising? One can only admire the self-confidence of those who claim to know the answer to this. But there are a few things that can be reasonably stated.

1. The home rule parliament would have had a far lesser degree of autonomy than the Free State Dáil.

2. Relations between the northern and southern jurisdictions would likely have been far healthier under home rule than was the case following the foundation of the Free State, as an agreement between Redmond and Carson on behalf of their respective constituencies was in sight before the intervention of the war.

3. Several benefits would likely have flowed from the establishment of the new southern and northern jurisdictions on an agreed basis. Northern nationalists would not have been abandoned to their fate to face a generation of discrimination with only local representatives to speak for them. The influence of the Catholic Church in the southern jurisdiction would almost certainly have been weaker than was the case in the Free State. And the prospect of a united Ireland would, arguably, have been less remote. (Carson urged Redmond to “win over” the Ulster unionists to home rule by good government; can anyone imagine Arlene Foster exhorting Enda Kenny to do the same?)

True appreciation

Could John Redmond really have “won over” Ulster if given time? Probably not, but we can say for sure he would have tried. And when he failed, he would have tried again, employing practical politics to overcome disappointments, setbacks and disillusions. Politics is something Redmond was remarkably good at, over a very long period, and it is possible to recognise this without taking a position “for” Redmond and “against” the leaders of the Rising, whom we again honoured at events over the weekend. It is not just possible to do so, but important, because in the absence of a true appreciation of Redmond’s qualities and achievements, we get a distorted picture of the merits of constitutional politics in the necessary debate about the justification for the Easter Rising.

Chris Dooley is Irish Times Foreign Editor and the author of Redmond – A Life Undone