IT WAS a quid pro quo, driven by pragmatic political arithmetic rather than ideology or principle, but all the more remarkable in that the deal involved two fundamental reforms to the British constitution. The introduction of the Third Home Rule Bill by Liberal Party prime minister Herbert Asquith on this day 100 years ago, in exchange for Irish nationalist support for the 1911 Parliament Act’s curtailing of the House of Lords’ powers, was for John Redmond an extraordinary moment of triumph.
A crossroads in our history. Constitutional nationalism vindicated, it appeared, albeit with a Bill that promised what we would now call devolution, rather limited devolution, to an Irish parliament.
Home Rule was never to be, except, ironically, in six counties; it would be eclipsed by a combination of mass Ulster resistance, the Great War, and the Easter Rising. And history, played out on a bigger stage than the great Commons theatre of the Redmond-Carson clash, has not been kind to the legacy of Redmond. He will always be remembered above all for his appeal to service in the British Empire’s cause in the first World War that he saw as a first step to Irish freedom.
It was a disastrous miscalculation, from the best of intentions, for which a generation of young men would pay a terrible price, and which would ultimately ensure his party’s and his reputation’s demise.
Yet it is too easy to forget that Asquith’s Bill in 1912 had huge support in nationalist Ireland, evidenced in massive, excited demonstrations of support throughout the country. And without the agitation surrounding it Ireland’s subsequent history would certainly have taken a different course.
The Bill was the catalyst for Ulster’s mobilisation and arming in the face of what unionists, with some justice saw – as political scientist Paul Bew has reminded us in his reflections on the anniversary – as the inevitable slippery slope from Home Rule to independence. (Not so inevitable, he might note, in Northern Ireland’s own experience of Home Rule).
In the end it would not be the sweet reason of the Bill’s debates in the House of Commons which would determine whether Ireland was one people, one nation or two – in June an amendment excepting four counties in Ulster from the Bill’s provisions would be defeated – but a trial of strength in which the unionist threat of force and ties with the British establishment and army would make partition inevitable. That was never Redmond’s wish (nor, incidentally, that of Carson as a Southern unionist).
Today we look back on the Third Home Rule Bill as a landmark in our history, the curtain-raiser and necessary prequel to the revolutionary upheavals that would follow. A moment that heralded a temporary breach in the tradition of democratic constitutionalism whose line the founders, and spirit, of the new State would reconnect with a decade later.