Today marks the centenary of the first session of the Irish Convention, an attempt to resolve what the British persisted in calling the Irish Question that failed completely, reflected badly on its creators and participants, and helped polarise Irish politics through the decades of civil violence that followed. Despite taking place slap in the middle of a crucial phase in the modern political development of a country hooked on history, you can see why the Convention has been largely ignored by posterity.
That doesn’t make it right, and forgetting about the Convention is a classic case of history being written by the winners. While the subsequent successes of militant Irish republicanism have rendered glorious a failure like the Easter Rising, they have tended to obscure the failures of history’s losers, in this case those trying to negotiate for Irish autonomy within the British Empire. You miss things that way.
I sketched a few paragraphs of Anglo-Irish history into my post about the Easter Rising (24 April, 1916: Heroes and Villains), so here I’ll just remind us all that autonomy within the British Empire, known as Home Rule, had been a raging political issue on both sides of the Irish Sea since the 1880s. Furiously opposed by the right wing of British politics (and the British Army occupying Ireland) and by the unswervingly pro-British Protestant population of Ireland’s industrially developed northeast, Home Rule was also despised as a half-measure by those Irish nationalists seeking full independence, whether or not they accepted violent struggle as an acceptable means to that end.
Home Rule was the aim of the moderate nationalists that made up the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) and the smaller All-For-Ireland League (AFIL), and it had the theoretical a support of the British Liberal Party. The Liberals in government were never strong or brave enough to actually enact Home Rule until the second general election of 1910 left them as a minority government. Dependent for survival on the support of 42 Labour MPs and 84 IPP/AFIL members, the Asquith government had no choice but to force Home Rule through a hostile House of Lords, but an attempt to introduce it in 1914 collapsed under the threat of rebellion in pro-British Ulster, and the War gave the Westminster government an opportunity to put the process on hold for the duration.
For most Irish people, as for most Europeans in 1914, political issues were trumped by war in all its emotive (and illusory) glory. For almost two years the British were able to get away with yet another relapse into dithering inaction in Ireland, but the actions of relatively small cohorts of militant nationalists – gathered around organisations like the paramilitary Irish Volunteers and the more politically focused Sinn Fein – had already shaken British confidence by the spring of 1916, when the Easter Rising convinced Asquith’s coalition to throw the Irish a bone.
A month after the Rising, Asquith announced that he was sending war minister Lloyd George to Ireland to discuss the implementation of Home Rule with IPP leaders John Redmond and John Dillon. Given that Home Rule for a united Ireland was still fundamental to IPP aims and still anathema to Ulster Unionists, the talks stood no chance of success, but they did boost popular hopes of peaceful change at an important time.
Lloyd George – who held simultaneous but separate discussions with Unionists – made enough hopeful noises to both sides to keep the discussions dragging on until late July, when they finally collapsed, leaving the IPP leadership with nothing to show for its trouble except a very public humiliation.
The sense of crisis that pervaded Britain during and after the Somme Offensive extended to Ireland, and it wasn’t until 1917 that the extent of damage to the moderate cause became clear. On becoming prime minister in December 1916, Lloyd George had responded to IPP requests for action on Home Rule with another piece of gesture politics, granting a Christmas amnesty to Irish internees in Britain. The gesture merely released committed republicans back into Irish politics, which did the IPP no good at all, and in an atmosphere of rising popular support for an immediate ‘Irish Settlement’ Sinn Fein won its first two by-election victories in April and May 1917. Well aware of the need to appease the strongly pro-Irish sentiment of Britain’s newest and most important ally, the USA, Lloyd George tried again.
On 16 May Lloyd George made the Irish parliamentarians an offer of home rule for the 26 counties of southern Ireland, excluding the six counties of Ulster. If this was unacceptable, he offered to call a conference of all parties in Ireland for the purpose of hammering out a system of self-government. Faithful to their long, public commitment to all-Irish autonomy, the moderates chose the latter option, and in the process lost their last vestiges of political credibility in Ireland.
Sinn Fein refused to attend the Convention, as did the small AFIL delegation, both preferring to focus their efforts on winning electoral support, but 95 delegates representing a fairly broad cross-section of Irish life and political opinion were present for the opening session on 25 July. That was as good as it got, because it quickly became clear that, no matter what the British had led them to believe, neither side had any intention of budging an inch.
The majority, led by IPP delegates, remained committed to autonomy within the Empire for all Ireland, while the northern unionist minority refused to include Ulster in any devolution process. The small group of southern unionist delegates did put forward a compromise proposal, known as the Midleton Scheme, for an all-Irish parliament hedged by guarantees of Ulster’s separate identity. It prompted weeks of highly detailed debate, and gave increasingly desperate moderates an opportunity to express a lot of unwarranted optimism, but had changed nothing by the time the Convention spluttered to a halt in late March 1918. Its final report in early April amounted to little more than separate statements of both sides’ unchanged aims.
The Convention’s prolonged and much-derided failures did permanent damage to the IPP, to the cause of moderate Irish reformers in general and to the popular credibility of Home Rule in Ireland. Lloyd George wasted no time finishing them off.
Although the Convention’s majority report in no way amounted to the ‘substantial agreement’ stipulated by the British government as a condition for implementing Home Rule, Lloyd George agreed to begin the process of implementation on the IPP’s terms, but only in return for the extension of conscription to Ireland. Deemed necessary in the light of a sudden manpower crisis created by the German spring offensive on the Western Front, this bundling of Home Rule and the spectre of compulsory service effectively guaranteed the former’s popular rejection in Ireland.
The tortuous death of Home Rule pushed the Irish political agenda firmly and irretrievably towards republicanism, and the most obvious political consequence of the Convention was the irresistible rise of its most trenchant critics. Sinn Fein had made a breakthrough in 1917 by winning its first four by-elections, and went on to win two more in 1918 before adding another 67 at that December’s general election. The same election saw the IPP’s vote collapse, leaving it with only six parliamentary seats, and signalled the ‘War of Independence’ that finally secured southern Ireland’s freedom from the British Empire – but that’s another story.
The Convention was hardly Irish nationalism’s finest or most important hour, but looked at dispassionately it seems worth remembering for a few reasons. In itself, it was the long, loud anticlimax that exposed the futility of seeking Home Rule within the Empire for all of Ireland, and conclusively confirmed the refusal of Ulster’s unionists to countenance any degree of separation from Great Britain. Meanwhile the well-meaning, all-absorbing and circuitous efforts of the IPP, some northern unionists and a small group of southern unionists to achieve an unlikely agreement left moderates in the south politically paralysed, stuck in wait-and-see mode while republicans galvanised popular opinion with demands for immediate change.
From a British perspective – the one I’m stuck with – everything about the Convention and its outcomes is a reminder of something our heritage view of the First World War tends to bypass altogether. By the time war broke out, it was probably impossible for Ulster and the rest of Ireland to develop as one nation, but the British routinely peddled false hope to both sides as a means of neutralising any distraction from the war effort, and casually shattered that hope when the same war effort had more need of Irish soldiers than Irish approval.
In 1917 Great Britain was fighting for its life or, if you prefer to take a social-historical view, British ruling elites were fighting for their fiefdoms. Either way, the struggle entailed the ruthless exploitation of allied and occupied countries in ways that often left them poor, unstable, vulnerable to conquest or all three. Germany tends to attract most of the opprobrium for that kind of behaviour during the Great War, and it’s not hard to see why, but if we forget what the British got up to we might end up with a warped worldview based on the idea that the rest of the world thinks we’re the good guys. Where that might lead, Gove only knows…