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The fate of southern unionists was sealed in 1917

They had no choice but to reach some accommodation with nationalist Ireland

Tuesday marks the centenary of the inauguration of the Irish Convention, convened in Regent House in Trinity College Dublin to attempt to thrash out a framework for Irish self-government acceptable to all Irish parties and interests.

Sinn Féin alone declined to participate. Almost one hundred Irishmen took part, including leading MPs, most significantly John Redmond. The two Church of Ireland archbishops, one Roman Catholic archbishop and two bishops, a senior Presbyterian clergyman, sundry businessmen, a few trade unionists and representatives of local authorities attended. The peerage was handsomely represented by one duke, four earls, a marquess, a viscount and a couple of lords (although one was a former official rather than an aristocrat). There was also a scattering of knights and baronets. The provost of Trinity, JP Mahaffy, and the president of University College Cork represented the two southern Irish universities. Women were comprehensively ignored.

Proceedings were opened by the well-intentioned, inexperienced chief secretary for Ireland HE Duke, but Dublin Castle played no part in steering the business of the convention, which delivered its final report in April 1918. The government did, however, unilaterally release all remaining prisoners held since the Rising, a gesture which failed in its primary aim of improving the general atmosphere and instead strengthened the separatist movement considerably.

Prime minister David Lloyd George presented the convention as a means through which patriotic Irishmen could through honest discussion and compromise solve their problems once and for all. It is a moot point whether he had any faith in the convention's deliberations. But it bought him time: he and his cabinet colleagues had a world war to fight, and that war was going badly. Setting up the convention put the Irish question back in Ireland's court; and it lessened if it did not entirely remove the need for London to concern itself with Irish affairs.


Broken man

For Redmond, the convention represented the final hope of rescuing some form of agreed Home Rule while the war continued. But he died a broken man in March 1918, a month before the convention produced its split report. For Ulster Unionists, the convention was something to be tolerated but not at the expense of core principles. Since 1914 they had already secured agreement that a minimum of four northeastern counties, and possibly six, would be excluded from the initial operation of Home Rule. Why should they now agree to anything less? In fact they essayed the exclusion of all nine Ulster counties, though in the course of proceedings some interest was also evinced in the improbable alternative of the subdivision of the entire United Kingdom into four self-governing provinces. For southern unionists, including those in the Ulster counties of Cavan, Donegal, and Monaghan, as well as in the other three provinces and in Trinity College itself, the failure of the convention marked a final break with Ulster Unionism.

Had such an all-party convention taken place during the passage of the 1912 Government of Ireland Act which made Home Rule law; had Edward Carson, MP for the University of Dublin, not led Ulster in threats of rebellion between 1912 and 1914; had not Asquith's Liberal government capitulated on the question of coercing Ulster following the Curragh mutiny of March 1914; had the Great War not broken out in August 1914; and had there not been a German-backed Rising in 1916; it is conceivable that some workable compromise might have been achieved. But that list contains rather too many "had nots".

Principle of partition

It would be ahistorical to portray the convention’s proceedings as evidence of latent moderation and tolerance within Irish politics. Ulster Unionists had signalled acceptance of the principle of partition from 1914 onwards, so southern unionists simply had no choice but to reach some kind of accommodation with nationalist Ireland.

Before, during and after the convention, Trinity College lobbied vigorously for its exclusion from any form of Dublin rule: in February 1920, as the outlines of the partition settlement became known, provost John Bernard complained that, "It is proposed to establish two parliaments; one in the loyal North and one in the disloyal South and West, and to give the latter complete authority over the funds and policy of Trinity College Dublin would be, in my judgment, a great blunder .. . the Imperial interests, including the interests of the University and of the Church will be at the mercy of an exasperated and hostile majority". During the treaty negotiations, he wrote that "if Trinity College were a Sinn Féin institution like its neighbours, we would be given all and every grant of money that we asked for . . . but inasmuch as we are only loyal people who have given the Empire all we can in war and in peace' – his son Robert had died at Gallipoli in 1915 – "we get nothing and are faced with academic bankruptcy". Yet Trinity and the southern unionist minority did not do so badly out of the eventual Irish settlement, and the convention's deliberations played a useful part in identifying means by which unionist minority rights should be protected in a new Irish polity.

There were some checks against majoritarian rule, including a complex form of election by proportional representation, and a senate. Yet neither the convention nor subsequent discussions gave the same sustained thought to the related question of how to protect minority rights in the new Ulster. We are still living with the consequences of that failure.

Eunan O’Halpin is professor of Irish contemporary history at Trinity College Dublin