"An Irish Provisional Government"

Mr. Asquith met the Easter Week crisis with a "gesture" which, had he persisted, might, even at the half-past eleventh hour, have saved Home Rule and himself. He went across to Ireland in person, visited the rebels in their prisons—it was even made a high crime that he shook hands with some of them—learned things that were not likely to be divulged in evidence before Lord Hardinge's Commission and returned with the conviction that England was not dealing with a gang of criminals, but with the best youth of a nation—that it was not Dublin Castle or Sir John Maxwell's firing-platoons that had won the day—that, on the contrary, it was "Dublin Castle" that was doomed by God and man to disappear, and it was militarist terrorism that must disarm before the more unconquerable spirit of Liberty. Hearts the most lacerated by recent events could not be impervious to the soothing influence of the pilgrimage of an English Prime Minister who came to Ireland not to insult the memory of Pearse and his brother martyrs, or to traduce their motives, but to do justice to their romantic adventure, to confess that their fight had been "a clean one," and to solicit advice by what great measures of conciliation he could best prove that they had not died in vain. Furthermore, on the morrow of an abortive insurrection savagely put down, and with the knowledge of the futility of expecting any further military aid from Germany,[30] the great mass of the population might, nobody then doubted, be still weaned from counsels of violence by some practical demonstration that Parliamentary methods were not wholly vain nor English promises always perfidious. A deputation from the All-for-Ireland League who waited on Mr. Asquith in Cork—headed by Captain Sheehan, M.P., whose credentials were his own services in the Munster Fusiliers, and the lives of two of his gallant sons buried on the fields of Flanders—gave the Prime Minister in a sentence the programme which even at that dark hour might have spelled salvation for the two countries. It was—"Any price for a United Ireland, but Partition—never under any possible circumstances!"

A statesman of the Gladstone stature, returning to London with such convictions, would not have rested a day nor relaxed a muscle before giving them practical effect. Mr. Asquith's incurable defect was not want of courage or of constructive capacity, but a genial indolence which was growing upon him as his unexpected passion for human companionship expanded. There is no evidence that he personally went a step further upon the road he had opened up in Ireland. He made the gran rifiuto and handed over his Irish task and with it his own future to the ready hands of Mr Lloyd George. Weighed though the latter was with a thousand feverish cares as Minister for Munitions, his dauntless spirit did not hesitate to accept the inheritance bequeathed to him by his unsuspecting chief. His ignorance of Irish affairs was fathomless as the ocean—so fathomless that, as will be seen in a moment, he was unaware that Mr. Redmond had ever said: "There is no longer an Ulster Difficulty," and had never heard that Mr. Devlin's B.O.E. Hibernians were an exclusively Catholic Order. His genius lay in first making daring imaginative proposals and afterwards thinking out how the facts might fit in with them, or might be brutally ignored if they did not. That is not to say that he was consciously heartless or unscrupulous. I think he was always cloudily sensible of the beauty of the Irish cause, both for ethnic reasons, which enabled him to see Celtic visions beyond the Irish seas as well as amidst his own haunted Welsh mountains, and also because Ireland in the House of Commons had shown him the pattern of glorious hardihood which he was himself to copy and improve upon for the upliftment of his Welsh brethren in the House of Commons, up to his day an ineffectual bilingual folk. Even his ignorance might have had its advantages, since it saved him from any inveterate prejudices in affairs so surcharged with prejudice as those of Ireland. It will always be debatable whether if he had accepted the Chief Secretaryship and devoted to it the prodigious energies—the matchless dynamic power of "push and go"—which enabled him to turn the munitionless débâcle of Mons into the breaking of the Hindenburg line, he might not have succeeded, where Mr. Asquith with his majority of 98 and a sterilised House of Lords had failed through loss of nerve or a too easy temper.

The misfortune was that in his eyes an Irish settlement was only a residual product of the tremendous Imperial munition manufacture he was engaged in. Everything had to be viewed from the standpoint of the world-war, and of how America was to be brought in. Whatever sentiment, Irish or Ulsterite, blocked the way had to be coaxed, and if not coaxable, to be crushed, untroubled by the nice questions of schoolgirls as to right or wrong, with something of the condescension of one of the great ones of the earth accustomed to play with lions as with lambs, and the self-righteousness of one whose aim was to set up the horn of his nation—and no doubt, in some modest degree, his own. Mr. Lloyd George was sagacious enough to see all the advantages of having the solution of the Irish problem, and with it of the war at one of its most critical moments, transferred to his own hands, but he had no notion of allowing his ambitions to be circumscribed within the dingy limits of the Irish Office. As will be seen, he seems at first to have toyed with the temptation of accepting the Chief Secretaryship, but he lost little time in contradicting the rumour in the newspapers that he had stooped so far to conquer. He had only consented to be the Deus ex machina whose bare appearance with his enchanted wand was to work in Ireland the same miracle by which he had glorified the Ministry of Munitions. Being in a hurry, and with but half his thoughts upon his work, he, unluckily, hit upon a solution so extraordinary that its audacity was its only merit, and his elementary ignorance of conditions in Ireland its only excuse. It was nothing less than a proposal to hand over a country where the shots of the insurrection had barely died away to a Provisional Government of Irishmen to be in some apocalyptic manner selected.

It was the first time, during a five years' term of power, Mr. Asquith's Cabinet had thought of calling into counsel a body of Irish Nationalists whose proposals they had hitherto spent their time in deriding and thwarting. It was possibly the reports the Prime Minister had brought back from Dublin, which gave them their first inkling that Mr. Redmond and the Hibernians were a spent force, and made them rush to a conclusion equally extreme in the opposite direction, that ours was the only Parliamentary force left which had any chance of retaining the confidence of the young men and at the same time of reassuring the Unionist minority. According to the official calculation, plainly, the All-for-Ireland League offered the principal hope of working out Mr. Lloyd George's impulsive plan for straightening out the Irish tangle. The compliment was a pretty one; but belated homage of that kind, it can scarcely be necessary to say, was not likely to shake our conviction that the proposal now shadowed forth rather than put in definite terms was a fantastic and impossible one, and from the outset of my first conversation with Mr. Lloyd George I thought it a duty without ambiguity to tell him so. The idea apparently was the formation of all sorts of elements, Nationalist and Unionist, into a Provisional Government to "carry on" until the war was over. In a country where the fires of civil war were only half extinguished, where the insurrectionary youth were rather fired than cowed by the fate of their leaders before the bullets of the firing platoons and the savage sentences of the courts-martial, one set of Nationalist Parliamentarians who had forfeited public confidence beyond repair,[31]—another set whose voices had not been allowed to be heard for years in three out of the four provinces—and a third set, the Ulster Covenanters, still raging with the passions which only the world-war prevented from finding vent in an insurrection of their own—were to be miraculously combined to relieve magnanimous England of the responsibility for ruling Ireland. And with what a commission! Nothing less than, with our co-operation and under the protection of a British Army, to give practical effect to the pact between Mr. Redmond and Sir E. Carson set forth in the House of Commons a few weeks before—viz., "to denounce those rebels with horror and detestation and put them down for ever more," and by such means to reduce Ireland to silence until the war was safely over, without the smallest guarantee of any National Settlement worth the name to follow. I should, no doubt, have displayed more of the wisdom of the serpent, had I played with Mr. Lloyd George's suggestion until he had first developed it in all its crazy particulars—if, indeed, he had got so far as thinking out any particulars at all. Prudently or imprudently, I thought it fairer to him and to everybody to make no concealment from the first of my conviction that the institution of an Irish Provisional Government of such a sort and at such a moment was a wildly—almost insanely—impracticable project and could only put an end to the last hope, that after an interval of appeasement our own slower but surer plans of conciliation might once more come within the range of practical politics. Everything was to depend upon our being wheedled into consent to Partition in some shape. That hope once dissipated the Provisional Government was incontinently dropped and this is probably the first intimation the world has got that it was ever in contemplation.

However, I had better let my part in the transaction tell its own story from notes made on the days of the various conversations between us (or in one instance, the day after) while my memory was still fresh:

MEMORANDA

(May 23, 1916)

On a request conveyed through T. M. H (ealy) I met B (onar) L (aw) alone to-day in his room at the House of Commons amidst suffocating clouds of tobacco-smoke. He asked was there no way of taking advantage of the present opportunity? I said for the moment all was chaos. The best thing the Government could do was to try to soften the memory of recent happenings in Dublin by fearless investigation into responsibilities and by leniency all round. He asked was not some settlement—even a provisional one—possible? I said anything hastily patched up was sure to turn out badly, but if a policy of appeasement were first tried for six months, there would be every prospect of bringing the best Irishmen together to devise some generous settlement before the war was over. Our own position had been stated in a sentence to A (squith) when he was in Cork: "Any price for a United Ireland, but Partition—never under any possible circumstances." "Then," he said, shaking his head: "It is all up. It is useless to think of Ulster coming in." "For the moment I quite agree," I said. "That is why I despair of any move while feeling is at present fever heat on both sides." B. L.—"That is very discouraging." O B.—"Who can be otherwise than discouraged? Do you suppose the tragedy of it all, and of what might have been is not haunting me day and night? Better discourage you than mislead you into thinking Partition in any shape can ever do anything except make bad worse."

He quite agreed that facts had to be faced, and asked "if I should have any objection to meet Sir E. C(arson) and Col. Craig?" I replied not the least—that I never obtruded my views on others but was always willing to state them frankly to anybody who cared to listen. He said Sir E. had always expressed the highest respect for my action for the last ten years, but he dared say there would be little use in our meeting if my position as to the exclusion of Ulster was unalterable. "But could not," he again suggested, "something be patched up even provisionally? Would it not be possible for you in a Parliament of the other three provinces to become leader of a powerful Opposition, with the Unionists of the South on your side and in that way bring round Ulster?" I said he little knew the Unionists of the South. In the higher interests of Ireland I had been fighting for their lives at the risk of my own for the past thirteen years and not more than a dozen of them had dared come on a platform to declare for me, although they were all ready enough to protest their sympathy in secret. I did not blame them. They were intimidated like our own people by the political machine and would be more back-boneless than ever in an assembly from which Ulster was banished. B. L.—"Do you think it would be quite impossible to attract Ulster back, if the thing was approached temporarily in a friendly spirit?" I replied that "a three-quartered Parliament in Dublin would be hopelessly handicapped from the first. They would have no funds for anything except to pay the placehunters, and there would be no generous spirit to appeal to. They would divide from the first day into two bodies—the placemen and their backers, and the young idealists who would shrink from the whole ugly business and turn to other means—that is to say, if you could even get them to tolerate the thing at all. You could not. Any attempt to vivisect the country they would regard as the worst crime in all England's catalogue. You would probably have the barricades thrown up again in Dublin on the opening day. Whereas Ulster had only to remember they were Irishmen, and come in on the magnificent terms which we proposed, and which they now could have with universal assent, and the bare fact of such an Irish Reunion would do more to capture and disarm the Sinn Féiners than ever your armies will do, and you would at once have all the materials for a strong and level-headed National Government of Ireland. All this could have been brought about without much difficulty five or six years ago, before the Larne gun-running commenced, if A(squith) had then gone to Ireland in the same spirit of conciliation and concession as he has just done. Now it is both too late and too soon. You have set up an Ulster Provisional Government and you have brought an Irish Republic on the scene. But I don't say for a moment all is lost. Spend the next six months in cultivating a better feeling and your opportunity may quite possibly come again."

That, he said, might well be, but that would involve a long delay, and he seemed to intimate that in the meantime the men behind R. were forcing him to go

back to a policy of Obstruction, in order to recover their popularity, and that the effect might be disastrous to the prospects of the Allies. I said in their desperation anything was possible, but Parliamentary obstruction would be less harmful than if they grasped at a Partition of Ireland Act which they would be wholly incapable of getting to work, for they would have the whole race against them. The main strength of the Rebellion was that it was the reaction against the bungling and corruption by which the country had been ruled in obedience to a sham-Catholic secret society which did far more to alarm Protestant Ulster and to compromise the highest interests of England than the uprising of the fine young fellows they had just been shooting down in Dublin. The one hope was to appeal to a higher and broader Irish patriotism.

B. L., who impressed me much by his straightforwardness, again expressed his feeling of dejection, but said, "We've got to do something," and said there might still be some use in a meeting between C. and myself. So we parted. In the beginning of the interview he intimated that, if it should be found necessary to appoint a Liberal as Chief Secretary, his friends were inclined to favour L(loyd) G(eorge) although he knew what I thought of him. But he did not leave the impression that anything had actually been decided upon.

P.S.—A few hours later the L. G. nomination was announced by L. G. himself to T. M. H. as a fait accompli.

(May 25, 1916)

T. M. H. told me L. G. had called him into his room, and asked if I would be willing to see him. H. said he did not know owing to his treatment of me on certain occasions L. G. might remember. But, of course, no such objection could be thought of. Met him to-day at the Metropole (Munitions Headquarters). He said, "I suppose you know why I want you. I am going to see what I can do for Ireland." I replied: "I suppose you are tired of being told you are a man of courage. But I am afraid that is the only comfort I can give you on your journey." "Things are very bad," he said, "but is it quite so bad as that?" O'B.—" I was once one of the most sanguine of men, but I am nearer to despair of anything I can do than I was ever before in the darkest times." L. G.—"Oh, come, you are a brave Irishman. Something will have to be done. Is there no way of getting all the best Irishmen together, even provisionally?" He then said he knew I would dismiss from my mind all former differences between us—that, of course, he knew how I felt about the old budget troubles—that, as I knew, he would have excluded Ireland altogether if he had been allowed. "You admitted yourself I was bound to be guided by the majority of the Irish Party." I said a very much worse thing in my eyes was his appropriating the first of the Home Rule Parliament's four sessions for his Insurance Act, and forcing it upon Ireland, and also his part in the abominable finances of the Home Rule Bill. Worst of all, he must forgive me if I did not find it easy to forget that he had destroyed the Irish Party by making them Treasury pensioners. So long as Irishmen were doing good work in Parliament their countrymen never refused to support them generously. Now they had ceased to depend on the Irish people, and in consequence Irish seats in Parliament had become like Dispensary Doctorships or Corporation jobs, a mere scramble among men with the longest tailed families and the least creditable secret influence. Hence the kind of men the Irish Party were now filled with. "Yes," he said, "those who have turned up since Parnell's time are a poor lot. What has become of your young men?" I could not help blurting out: "Those of them your Government have not turned into place-hunters you have been shooting in Kilmainham Jail. You have ruled Ireland for six years through a pseudo-Catholic Secret Society of the most sordid kind, and you are now face to face with the reaction. Your own Secret Society is being countered with another, which is at least worlds above it in idealism and disinterestedness."

He took it all with great good humour. "I suppose you are referring to Devlin's Society, the Hibernians?" he said, and then laughingly: "Healy told me while I was disendowing the Church in Wales I was endowing the Molly Maguire Church in Ireland." He asked: "Is Devlin's Society really confined to Catholics?" I said: "You did not do me the honour of listening while I was endeavouring to get you not to endow them under the Insurance Act, or you would know that this Hibernian Society is so exclusively Catholic that Grattan or Robert Emmet or Parnell as Protestants would be debarred from membership unless they first pledged themselves to frequent the Catholic Sacraments. Even their Catholicity is such a sham that the Order was a few years ago under interdict from Rome, which was only raised on their abandoning the blasphemous form of initiation which was by placing the postulant's hand upon a crucifix while making his vow of secrecy." L. G. touched the bell and asked the Secretary to 'phone to the Irish Office for the numbers of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in Ireland. I told him R(edmond) in the House of Commons estimated them at 90,000, but they had since much increased. The Hibernian "Approved Society" under the Insurance Act would not probably represent one third of the total. The reply came back from the Irish Office that they would have to telegraph to Ireland for particulars. I found it hard to refrain from commenting on these two grotesque instances of the wisdom with which Ireland is governed—that L. G. did not know the Mollies were an exclusively Catholic body, and that nobody in the Irish Office could tell him the numbers of what had been for years the most formidable organisation in Ireland. I apologised if I had been a bit rough, but it was because the Government had closed their ears to the most elementary facts that they had landed themselves and us in the present mess.

"Well," he said, with unbroken good humour, "something will have to be done and you must help us." I replied: "Willingly if I could honestly tell you I can see anything to be done for the moment except mischief. As I told B. L. when he was kind enough to ask me, it is both too late and too soon—too late for the concessions that might have won Ulster four or five years ago, and too soon to hope that any small haphazard measures can have any effect upon the passions now raging. You might as well try to quench a live volcano with a watering pot." "Do you really think the insurrectionary spirit is still alive, or at least that it will spread?" he asked. I replied by repeating some verses written by Pearse the night before his execution: "How are you going to put down a spirit like that? They may seem poor verses enough, but they will strike a spark from many millions of souls." "It is all very sad," he said, "but they have no leaders." "Leaders have a way of turning up in Ireland when they are least expected," was my comment. "A few years ago you might have won them all—both Sinn Féin and Ulster."

He admitted that no real concessions had ever been made to Ulster. "No," I said, "strict justice perhaps, but justice raw and unboiled. When I proposed some real concessions, I was set upon with the cry that I was handing Ireland over to the veto of twelve Orangemen, and when on behalf of my friends, I made the only protest ever heard in this House against the bargain for the Partition of Ireland, our people were told in their lying newspapers that we had voted against Home Rule, and it was upon that villainous cry our candidates were beaten at the County Council and District Council elections." I noticed that L. G. at once pricked up his ears and looked thoughtful. Quite clearly, the opportunist politician had jumped to the conclusion that the Partition of Ireland could not be such an unpopular measure, since we had suffered at the polls for protesting against it. I soon disabused him of the illusion. "That," I said, "was how the corruptionists blinded the unfortunate people to the truth. Now that honest Irishmen are beginning to realise what really happened they would tear the fellows limb from limb that would attempt to play the game of Partition in their name."

L. G. changed the subject and pressed me whether something might not still be done, even provisionally "until the war was over" (a phrase that struck harshly on my ear) and for the first time made any direct reference to the Provisional Government scheme. The suggestion was a purely tentative one. He did not go into particulars as to how it was to be formed, but I inferred we were to be a sort of connecting link. I was amazed and told him so in pretty candid terms, for he seemed immediately to draw back. I told him bluntly any such thing was at this moment impracticable; no genuine Nationalist could touch it as a nominee of England and while the country was under the heel of martial law. "Well," he said, "there must be good Irishmen whom it might be well to take into consultation, and questioned me as to names. He seemed to regard R. as fini and no longer of much account. I agreed, but with regret. R.'s judgment was all right, but circumstances were too strong for him and he ended generally by doing the wrong thing. He mentioned Sir Horace Plunkett. I said I had never entertained any unfriendly feeling for P. He was a high-minded and devoted Irishman only that he got it into his head that the history of Ireland began with——" "With his creameries—Yes," broke in L. G. I remarked that with the more go-ahead farmers he had a good deal of influence, but was detested by the town shopkeepers. "Including Dillon," he interjected with a grin. Various names were canvassed, nearly all of whom I spoke favourably of, but doubted whether there was any personality that could bring them together in the present culbute générale. Stephen Gwynn's name cropped up. L. G. remarked that Gwynn did not speak bitterly of any one. I agreed. L. G. was surprised to hear G. was a Protestant. I added that he was a grandson of William Smith O'Brien, who was a Protestant, too. L. G. looked a bit bewildered as if it were the first time he heard speak of Smith O'Brien. I recalled that Gwynn, M'Murrough Kavanagh and a number of other clever young Protestants had begun by joining Lord Dunraven, but were intimidated by the abuse of all who came over to us in the Molly Press and allowed themselves to be seduced by seats in Parliament which the Mollies alone could give. Two of the most valued Protestant members of the Land Conference were silenced with baronetcies by the Aberdeens, and T. W. Russell, who might have been an immense power among the Ulster Dissenters allowed himself to be bullied into "toeing the line" and got his job. "His influence now does not count" was L. G.'s comment.

I said that was how the elements that might have brought about as easy a settlement on Home Rule as upon the far more envenomed Agrarian problem had been debauched, or frightened. He questioned me as to who would be an acceptable Lord Lieutenant, adding to my amazement: "You know I am not going to be Chief Secretary" (shrugging his shoulders) "I could not think of pinning myself to an office like that." I said that would be a very grievous disappointment to begin with. "I might go over to see for myself how things stand." I inferred from his reference to Wimborne that he had thrown over Wimborne. I told him he must quite understand that I wanted nothing for anybody, and I only ventured opinions about individuals very reluctantly and solely because he knew so little of the country. Dunraven was of all the Irish Unionists the man of most capacity and tolerance as a statesman, but I took it for granted would be of all men the least welcome to R.'s friends or masters, although in their present plight they might grasp at anything. He was curiously enough abused for the two very things that would secure his fame by and bye—his success in reconciling the landlords to give up landlordism, and in breaking the hostility of the Southern Unionists to Home Rule. But I presumed his time had not yet come. L. G. shook his head, but said nothing. I mentioned a few other names—Lord Carnarvon, whose father was the first great Englishman to embrace Home Rule and had suffered for doing so; Lord Shaftesbury who had been three times Lord Mayor of Belfast, was Chancellor of the Belfast University, and was known to be at heart reconciled to Home Rule by consent; and the Duke of Devonshire, of whom I only knew that his children lived at Lismore and loved Ireland better than England. He asked what of Lord Derby? I said I knew nothing pro or con, except that his name would be identified in Ireland with recruiting and possibly conscription.

Had I any objection to talking things over with Sir E. Carson and Col. Craig? I told him I had no objection to meeting anybody of any section, with the possible exception of Devlin (for reasons I must decline to discuss); at which he made a gesture of annoyance which convinced me that Devlin and he have not yet broken off relations, and that he thinks D. may still find refuge in the Labour ranks. We then drifted away into general talk of the situation. He referred with great cordiality to my brother-in-law, Arthur Raffalovich, whose familiarity with the laws of currency seemed to have made an enormous impression upon him, and whose geniality and mastery of English was most welcome to him in his communications with the Russian Minister of Finance. He took an extremely gloomy view of the war, saying that the Italians were doubled up and France bleeding to death. He agreed with me that what England wanted was not men, but a man, admitting that the new style of unwarlike English conscripts could not very much count. He was quite alive to the superiority of the French as soldiers, and spoke with enthusiasm of some of their generals—Pétain, Castelnau and a little Breton, Maud'huy, whom he had met, but referred with alarming irreverence to Joffre who, he said, owed his position to political reasons, there being a dread in Republican France of any too successful soldier—all of which, it must be owned, impressed me with the superficiality of his own judgments. We parted on the understanding that he was to arrange an interview with C.

(May 30, 1916)

Met Sir E. C. with L. G. at Metropole. C. said he was afraid there was no prospect of a satisfactory settlement "for the moment." That," I observed, "was exactly what I had been advising L. G.," but I was glad to think his statement implied that later on, when the present bitterness abated, a settlement by consent was quite on the cards before the winter was over. C. concurred, adding that the difficulties of anything immediate had been greatly aggravated by the Rebellion. People in Ulster were constantly asking him how were they to hand over the country to the authors of the Pro-German rebellion and of certain speeches in the House. I burned to make a different answer and remind him of Catiline complaining of sedition, but contented myself with recalling that we had never promised that Ireland was to be won except by H. R., and yet the mere proffer of H. R.—miserable a fiasco as it was turning out to be—had revolutionized Irish resentment so far that there must be at least five hundred thousand Irish soldiers fighting in the various Allied armies. L. G. nodded approvingly. C. said he was speaking of the difficulties in dealing with Ulster. Apart from the religious trouble, which he never liked to speak of, there was the dread of the commercial men for their trade, and the hostility of the Northern workmen who were constantly passing to and fro between Belfast and Glasgow and Liverpool. He had always thought separate Trade Union laws was one of the mistakes of those who framed the H. R. Bill. I intimated that it was a perfectly adjustable difficulty, as the Southern Trade Unionists were just as inextricably mixed up with the British Trade Unions.

C. said that H. R. Government had proceeded all along on the assumption that Ulster did not count. I said that could never be charged against my friends and myself at all events. C. said he had always felt that from the beginning I had realised the situation, but R. told them there was no longer an Ulster problem. L. G. (in amazement)—"Did he really say that?" C.—"He did, indeed, and said there would be no difficulty in putting down any resistance in Ulster with the strong hand." I said that kind of thing was bluff—there was bluff on all sides. The cards of my friends and myself were on the table all the time. If Ulster would only join us in Dublin, she could practically name her own terms. The Irish Unionists would become the biggest individual Party in an Irish Parliament, and might even be its rulers if they threw themselves into a patriotic and sensible programme.

C.—"You cannot expect Ulster to come in just now." O B.—"No, nor anybody else. That is why I urge there should be nothing precipitate. Spend the next six months in mollifying the present bitterness—take your military precautions by all means, but don't be afraid to own there were faults on both sides. Trust to leniency rather than to force, and we will then be all in a better humour to come together in a United Ireland." L. G. (with sudden energy)—"In six months the war will be lost." C. (throwing up his arms)—"If the war is lost we are all lost." L. G.—"The Irish-American vote will go over to the German side. They will break our blockade and force an ignominious peace on us, unless something is done, even provisionally, to satisfy America." O'B.—"That is to say, of course, that whatever is to be done shall be done for war purposes. Take care I beg of you, in the interests of the war as well as of Ireland, that you will not infuriate Irish-American feeling rather than appease it. I most solemnly believe that will be the result if you attempt anything on the basis of splitting up Ireland. Make no mistake about it we are at a point at which all our labours for a better feeling for the last thirteen years may be lost. All honest Irish feeling will be so fiercely against you, you will have to send an army corps to open your mutilated Dublin Parliament and in spite of them the people will bundle the whole crew of them into the Liffey. And" (turning to C.) "don't think I say it in any way as a taunt, but what happened in Dublin the other day would be child's play compared with the horrors in Belfast. Your men are dogged fighters, no doubt, but so are ours, you will admit. Even if you could outnumber them, and it would be a tougher job than you had in Easter Week in Dublin, you would have to reckon with the rest of Ireland, and with hundreds of thousands of Irish soldiers when they get back from the war." C. did not utter a word of dissent.

L. G. clung obstinately to his view that, come what might, something must be done before the American elections or Wilson would be returned and the war lost.[32] He announced positively that the Government had information that the Germans were planning a new descent upon Ireland. He spoke again with the utmost gloom of the military situation, and in such exaggerated terms that the object was plainly to frighten C. Not without success; for C. was visibly affected and said with a deep emphasis that Ulster would go very far indeed rather than see the war lost. That was all he could say. L. G.—

"It is saying a great deal. It is a very important statement." O'B.—"So important that if it means a United Ireland, we are all at one. But that is just the point, and there is no use trying to blink it. What ideal men have for ages been suffering for is Ireland a Nation. Go on with this Partition business, and you would make the very name of Ireland an impossible one. You would have to find two new names for it—suppose Orangia and Molly-Maguire-land—and you would leave five-sixths of an honest Irish race without a country or an ideal." L. G.—"We are only speaking of a provisional arrangement." O'B.—"A 'provisional' arrangement that is to last until Col. Craig and his men of their own free will walk into a bankrupt Dublin Parliament, for the pleasure of being ruled by Mr. Devlin and his Mollies." C. avowed that he had never liked Partition. The Ulster men had grasped at it as their only chance of preserving their British citizenship, and nothing else had been offered them. They had before them the fate of the Unionists of the South. In Cork itself they had been driven out of the County Council and the Corporation, and that, he believed, because they were supposed to be in favour of O'Brien's concessions to the North." O'B.—"Rather because these concessions had not been closed with by the Irish Unionists themselves. My own friends met the same fate and are very proud of it. Things of that kind are to be expected everywhere from an unscrupulous political machine. A genuine Irish Parliament would soon deal with the gang who run it, if the Irish Unionists would only look on Ireland as their own country, and give us a chance."

L. G. pressed me again to make some alternative suggestions, saying: "I have failed to get a single suggestion of any kind from the other people. Whatever I propose they will find fault with, but they will not take the responsibility of making a single definite suggestion themselves." O'B.—"They are waiting until they see how the cat will jump in Ireland, no doubt. But you have had my alternative suggestions before you all the time—I have never criticised without offering some counter-proposal, and you would never listen." L. G.—"Yes, but now?" O'B.—"I have told you quite definitely what my view is—six months of conciliatory government to pave the way for a Conference of Irishmen on the basis of a United Ireland, with whatever aid you can get from Overseas Prime Ministers like those of Canada and Australia where Ulstermen and Nationalists live side by side in freedom without friction." L.G.—"But can you give us no suggestion of something to be done at once to save the war?" I said that was to me a new situation and it was not quite fair to expect me to be prepared with any considered proposal, but as far as I could judge on the spur of the moment, a far more effective way of impressing American and Irish opinion than the experiment he had mentioned which was bound to fail badly and at once, for want of any basis of agreement, would be that Parliament should give Ireland some such guarantee of freedom after the war as the Tsar and the Duma had given with such striking effect to Poland. It ought to be possible to arrange a debate which would be practically unanimous and would at once strike the imagination of Ireland and of America. C. and L. G. were afraid the difficulties would be almost insurmountable. L. G. (with bitterness)—"You would have somebody like Dillon starting up without even knowing the effect of what he was saying and wrecking the whole business." O'B—"If you refer to his performance of the other night he knew perfectly well what he was at. He was only trying to make Dublin habitable for him. But that only proves D. can be easily enough brought to bow to the inevitable."

I then urged upon C. that he knew how to put his views in such a way, with all that was at stake, as to strike a note that would capture the hearts of young Irishmen, Sinn Féiners and all. If he would then take a secret Referendum—"yes" or "no"—of the Covenanters upon a letter of advice signed by himself , and such men as Craig, Londonderry, Shaftesbury and Sharman Crawford (whose name was still one to conjure with among the Dissenters) 90 per cent. of the Covenanters outside Belfast and Portadown would gladly endorse his action and give him a mandate to see things through. C.—"I don't even know whether I could get these people to sign it." O'B.—"If you will allow me to say it, the great mistake you make about Ulster is to minimise your own power there. Without you, we should still have plenty of street riots, but nothing more formidable." C. shook his head and laughed. I added that all the vows of the Covenanters were made against a Home Rule Bill which was now given up or rendered unworkable by its own authors. There would be the advantage of beginning with a clean slate, with possibly some big scheme of Federation of the whole Empire in which the Covenanters' right of Imperial citizenship might stand upon the same footing as if they were Englishmen. C. said he had always felt and even publicly stated that the situation might be entirely changed under some Federal arrangement which would preserve to Ulster its Imperial standing and under which Ireland might be treated as a unit, with general consent.[33] L. G. pressed me to put my suggestions in writing. I said I should willingly do so, although no doubt any Irishman who made a helpful suggestion of any kind at this moment took his life in his hands. As C. stood up to leave he, I think, greatly surprised both of us by stating that, having regard to the exigencies of the war, which were to him the supreme consideration, he would consult with his friends in Ulster and advise them to reconsider the whole situation under the new conditions we had been discussing. L. G.—"That is a very important declaration indeed." I left immediately after.[34] I am confident I have noted all the references to Partition made in the interview. L. G. when I pressed him as to his own position only said: "Mind, I am making no proposition."

The next morning (May 31) I sent the promised Memo. to Mr. Lloyd George, who was attending a Cabinet meeting.

In a covering letter, I wrote: "Enclosed jottings are the best I can do as the result of my cogitations last evening. If you like to see me again, I shall be at your disposal all this day and to-morrow, after which 'Bellevue, Mallow, Co. Cork,' will find me. But I am far from wishing to obtrude myself unnecessarily. I hope enclosed communique from today's Times is not accurate.[35] Any confident announcement just yet would almost surely lead to bitter disappointment hereafter and would force me, at least, to make it clear that the Buckingham Palace basis—which was Partition—is for us impossible and even undiscussable. Indeed that seemed to be the view of our interlocutor of last evening as well."

The Memo. simply elaborated my suggestion that "if, unfortunately, it should be essential to take any decisive public action at once," the best way of favourably impressing both Ireland and America would be an 'agreed' debate in the House of Commons involving a distinct pledge of National Self-Government for Ireland, "acceptable to the people of every part of the country," to be worked out by a small conciliatory Conference. I now added the suggestion (notable in view of subsequent events) that the debate "should be initiated by an impressive message from the King (the Tsar did the same in the case of Poland)" in which case, "it seems impossible to imagine that any responsible person of any Party, British or Irish, should misconduct himself. . . ."

"All would, of course, depend on the nature of Sir E. Carson's declaration. If he were armed with the assent of the Covenanters (which he might with certainty obtain upon a strong representation of the War Danger and a guarantee that any agreed settlement hereafter would be founded not on the present Bill but on a new Federal arrangement securing to the Ulstermen substantially the same rights of Imperial citizenship as to Englishmen, Scotchmen or Welshmen) he might safely be trusted to lay the proper emphasis upon the readiness of Ulster to reconsider the situation under these new conditions, and to do so in a manner that would appeal to the imagination of young Irishmen in Ireland and in America, rousing their National pride and dispelling any apprehension of dismemberment of the country. What would be most important would be a definite promise to go into Conference with all sections of his countrymen with a view to the reconsideration of the entire question of a new and wiser settlement by consent. It can hardly be doubted that Mr. Bonar Law, Mr. Walter Long and other men who carry weight in Ulster would co-operate."

The Memo. wound up in these words: "Please bear in mind that these suggestions are only made, at your request, as a bad second best to my own preference for slower and better matured action, nothing except the War Emergency in the least shaking my belief that any sudden or ill-advised attempt to solve the difficulty (so to say) 'by miracle' will only lead to more widespread dangers hereafter. And it must be clearly understood that, to any scheme expressly or impliedly contemplating Partition in any form, my friends and myself are unalterably opposed."

Neither to the Memo. nor to the accompanying letter did I ever receive a reply. But Mr. Lloyd George did publish in the Times of the following morning an official denial of the communique of the previous day, and he made no statement of any kind before the Adjournment for the Recess. For good reason, as will be seen in the following chapter.

Read "The Irish Revolution" at your leisure

The Irish Revolution

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William O'Brien was a County Cork M.P. who participated in the negotiations for Home Rule in Ireland. In this account, first published in 1923, he provides an insight into the politics and politicians of the time - John Redmond, John Dillon, Arthur Griffith, Sir Edward Carson, Bonar Law, Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, etc. - and gives his analysis of the origins of the Easter Rising of 1916 and the subsequent Irish Civil War. From his own perspective, O'Brien was very much anti-Partition, and was evidently frustrated at the failure to give adequate reassurance to the Northern Unionists.

The ebook is available in .mobi (for Kindle), .epub (for iBooks, etc.), and .pdf formats, and a sample PDF can be downloaded. For more information on the book see details ».


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