John Bruton: Home rule could have led peacefully to independence

There is much we could learn from considering different historical choices

The Remembrance Wall at Glasnevin Cemetery commemorating all those who died in 1916. We ended up after all the killing of the 1916-1923 period in a similar position to what was likely under home rule. File photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Home Rule, already law, could have led this part of Ireland peacefully to the same fully independent position Canada enjoys today, had it not been derailed by the 1916 Rebellion, its aftermath, and the 1918 election result.

Peaceful methods had already demonstrated their worth. The landlord system had been overturned. A national university had been established. There was growing recognition of the Irish language.

Most importantly, the principle of legislative independence for Ireland had already won from the Imperial Parliament, in September 1914, by the passage into law, and signature by the king, of the Home Rule Bill.

The point of principle was thus already won, without a shot being fired.


So it is difficult to argue that starting a rebellion in 1916, and a war of independence from 1919-1921 , were – either of them – a “last resort”, which is a primary requirement for a just war.

The only open question in 1914 was whether, or for how long, Antrim, Down, Armagh and Derry (and perhaps to Fermanagh and Tyrone which had narrow nationalist majorities) might have been excluded from home rule. The violence of 1916 made this issue harder to fix.

I believe the home rule government would not have ended up with jurisdiction over most of those counties. But, after all the killing and dying of the 1916-1923 period, and the treaty of 1921, the Free State did not get jurisdiction over them anyway.

Under the home rule formula, the excluded counties would have been under direct rule (not Stormont), which would have been better for the nationalist minority.

The Irish Parliamentary Party tried and failed to solve the Ulster problem in the 1910-1918 period. The men of 1916 simply ignored it.


The speech of

John Redmond

in October 1916, of which

Brian Murphy

makes so much, was about the exclusion of part of Ulster, something his critics eventually acquiesced on. Coercion of northeast Ulster was never a viable option, but it took some people longer than others to accept that.

The home rule House of Commons, which would have come into being at the end of the Great War in 1919, would have been elected with a much wider voting roll than applied in the 1910 general election. All adult men, and all women over 30 for the first time, would have had the vote. That probably would have favoured those looking for greater degrees of independence.

I do not believe the UK would have denied a home rule Ireland the powers it freely granted to dominions such as Canada and Australia, under the statute of Westminster of 1931. If that is so, the sufferings of the War of Independence were not needed. The evidence for this is there.

In the 1918 UK election, not only was dominion status for Ireland the policy of the Irish Party, led by John Dillon, it also was the policy of the Asquith Liberals and, importantly, of the British Labour Party. The policy of the Lloyd George Liberal/Conservative coalition government was home rule.

During the 1920s , the British Labour Party came to power in Westminster and that would have been an early opportunity for the Irish home rule administration in Dublin to push for, or beyond, dominion status.

Policy of separation

Sinn Féin fought the 1918 general election on a policy of separation of the 32 counties from the UK, which eventually it had to settle, after all the killing in the war of independence, with dominion status in the treaty of 1921. This was the policy of their defeated Irish Party opponents three years earlier, and in this lay the roots of the civil war.

It is said home rule would have left British forces on Irish territory. But so did the treaty of 1921. It left the UK military in control of ports in Cork and Donegal. But these ports were handed back in 1938, thanks to peaceful negotiation on the eve of the second World War. This suggests that unwanted limitations on home rule could also have been negotiated away, peacefully.

If a nation is to learn anything from history, it must examine what might have happened if different historical choices had been made.

As a rule, compromise is good, killing is bad. Negotiation is better than coercion. The uncompromisingly worded 1916 Proclamation, with its focus on “dead generations” and “indefeasible rights”, led us down an unproductive road.