Lord Loreburn's Intervention

Sir E. Carson's amazing career from a Dublin lawyer "on the make" to a dictatorship of the Empire passed through three stages—the first when, if generous concessions were offered to Ulster, his opposition to the Home Rule Bill would have been as negligible as had been his opposition to George Wyndham's great Purchase Act of 1903; the second, while he was incubating his audacious plans for an Ulster Rebellion, when a resolute Government might still have put him down by means of his own Coercion Act without firing a shot; the third when, left in undisputed possession of his German armaments, he was no longer to be resisted, without an appeal to the British electorate which the Liberals shrank from making.

We were now at the third stage, when the Government and their Hibernian allies fell into a state of panic as unheroic as their previous mirthful gibes had been idiotic: when the Ulster leader spouted systematical treason without let or hindrance to what had now become a really formidable army of Volunteers panting for the signal for action, in which they counted upon the refusal of the King's Army to fire upon them. They counted above all upon the pitiable collapse of the King's Government, who chose this moment to evacuate Belfast altogether and withdraw their troops to a country camp at Hollywood at a respectful distance from the Ulster Provisional Government. Sir E. Carson even went the length of specifying the sort of action for which his preparations were made. Had the constabulary attempted to seize the old Town Hall, the headquarters of his Provisional Government:

"Many thousands of Volunteers from the Queen's Island Shipyards and reinforced by other men, would have attempted to regain possession. The Central Office of the Belfast police is in the same block of buildings and as a high percentage of Belfast's male population carry revolvers, it is doubtful whether the police could have held either the Town Hall or their Office. Long before the troops could have arrived, the streets would have been running in blood, and by the time General Macready could have reached the city from Hollywood, to take over the duties of Military Governor under Martial Law, a terrible situation would have arisen." (Interview in Daily Telegraph, April 20, 1914).

Pray imagine the feelings with which all this was read by the All Highest War Lord, revolving his own plans for setting the streets of half Europe "running with blood" before the General Macreadys of England could arrive to trouble the good work!

It will always remain the heaviest reproach of a Liberal Ministry, which wanted neither brains nor high purpose, that two precious years were allowed to pass without one genuine effort on their part to conciliate or even to understand Ulster.

Little boots it now to recall how persistently our own small group from the start pointed out that a conciliatory attitude towards Ulster was the rudimentary wisdom of the matter and, regardless of the scoffs and insults of the worst of the Hibernians and the most ignorant of their confederates on the Ministerial side of the House, pressed precisely those proposals of friendly conference and large local autonomy which are now as I write on everybody's lips as offering the only hope of deliverance from a loathsome civil war.

One supreme opportunity, and the last, offered at the end of the Session of 1913 of turning the deadlock between the two Houses into a broadminded settlement by consent, and it will be the wonder and regret of History that it was not availed of. On the 11th September, 1913, Lord Loreburn published in The Times a letter appealing for a small friendly Conference of all Parties, unfettered by any preliminary conditions, to try whether the deadlock might not be terminated by a settlement by consent. Lord Loreburn was a life-long Liberal and enthusiast for Irish Home Rule. He was one of our foremost Counsel at the Parnell Commission, was Mr. Asquith's first Lord Chancellor, and enjoyed universal respect as a man of fine judicial temper and a winning courtesy to all men. "A document of the first political importance" was the description of his letter by The Times, which still retained its Unionist bias, but was already beginning to manifest that large-minded sense of the realities of the Irish situation which, in the subsequent years, was to make the old implacable journalistic foe of Parnell the most powerful influence in Britain for Irish liberty since the death of Gladstone. The most thoughtful of the Liberal organs, the Nation, the Westminster Gazette, the Daily News, the Manchester Guardian and so forth gave Lord Loreburn's appeal a discriminating, but all the more useful welcome. The great Tory papers—the Observer, the Daily Telegraph, even the Morning Post—were already won over to a settlement conditioned by reasonable guarantees to Ulster, and rebuked the few meaner Unionist and Hibernian sheets which affected to see in Lord Loreburn's appeal a signal of distress on the part of the Liberal Cabinet. The truth, as it turned out, was that the only obstacle to its success was the hesitation of his Liberal colleagues, still reassured by the optimism of their purblind Hibernian advisers. On the evening after the appearance of the letter in The Times I received at my home in Mallow a sheaf of telegrams from the Times, the Daily News, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Chronicle, and Daily Express pressing for my views. They were concentrated in my message to the Times:

"I have as yet seen a summary only of Lord Loreburn's letter, but it is a pronouncement which no Party can afford to disregard. Our All-for-Ireland motto 'Conference, Conciliation and Consent' is sufficient intimation how enthusiastically we welcome Lord Loreburn's plea for friendly consultation before it is too late. I am absolutely convinced that an unfettered Conference such as he proposes will not separate without an agreement."

And to the Daily News, I wired inter alia:

"Nationalist opinion in the South notes with profound satisfaction the respectful sympathy with which the Liberal Press is treating Lord Loreburn's letter. . . Suspend Party warfare for three months and the thing is done."

It was one of those golden moments when there was an "atmosphere" of unprecedented friendliness—at least in Britain—for the attempt to do those very things which all parties are at this writing only too eager to do, after years of immeasurable anguish and bloodshed. It was even announced from Balmoral that King George—long a genial convert to Home Rule—"was using his good offices" with two guests so worthily typical of the two great British parties as Lord Lansdowne and Sir John Simon, "in the direction of bringing the political leaders together to discuss Home Rule." Mr. Redmond alone was dumb. As at every critical juncture since 1903, he allowed Mr. Dillon and Mr. Devlin to make up his mind for him, and as on the Land Purchase Bill of 1903 Mr. Dillon and Sir Edward Carson were, for destructive purposes, now again agreed. Mr. Dillon proclaimed that " he would enter no Conference" unless Sir Edward Carson would first declare himself a Home Ruler, which was a characteristically rash oracle, for a few months afterwards he was glad to enter the Buckingham Palace Conference with Sir E. Carson without any such condition. He gave the cue to his leader and followers for the defeat of Lord Loreburn's proposal by raising the cry that "appeals for a Conference coming from the friends of Home Rule were regarded as flags of distress and would only encourage the Orange leaders to fresh extravagance of threats and violence." Mr. Devlin alluded with lofty scorn to "some references on the part of certain individuals to the question of compromise on the Home Rule Bill"—he who was a little later to accept the one irreparable "compromise" of Partition and to coerce his Hibernians into swallowing it—and dismissed "all this talk about conciliation and Conference-mongery" as meant to "defeat the Home Rule Bill and to smash up the Irish movement." He held the true policy was "to stand up to Ulster" and he "stood up to Ulster" himself by departing for a distant meeting in Connacht where he undertook if the police and military would only stand aside to "wipe Carson and his Covenanters off the face of the earth." After a week or two of which propaganda, the Freeman found it safe to announce that the Loreburn Conference idea was an "exploded idea" and that "Lord Loreburn's ballon d'essai was a tangled mass of wreckage."

The cruel fallacy of all this "no compromise" cry was that the compromise had already been made and by the very man who raised the cry. The only reason why Lord Loreburn had interfered at all was that the "bluff and threats of the Ulster leaders," to use Mr. Dillon's words, had already so far "intimidated the Government and the National Party" that the Prime Minister had pledged himself to refer the whole matter to the British electorate before a Home Rule Act was put in operation—that Mr. Winston Churchill had openly gone over to the Partitionists with an offer of "the four Orange Counties" to Sir E. Carson—and that the "National Party" were so successfully intimidated that they did not offer a word of protest against the one surrender or the other.

Sir E. Carson of course declined with bitter sarcasm Mr. Dillon's preliminary condition, but on the main point of throwing cold water upon Lord Loreburn's peace proposal spoke altogether after Mr. Dillon's own heart. A closer study of his words, however, made it clear that his objection to the Conference was based on the shadowy distinction between "Local Government" and Home Rule, and that he was only manoeuvring to avoid any suspicion in the minds of his own braves that he was flying "a flag of distress" himself, when he fed their fires of indignation by reminding them: "Is it not strange that all this talk about the feelings of Ulster never occurred before to the Liberal Party? When they took up this Bill and Mr. Asquith and Mr. Redmond were meeting together, they framed this measure without any concern about us because they believed that it was all plain sailing." While, of course, no man could honestly propose a Home Rule pledge to Sir E. Carson as the first condition of a parley, the striking fact is to be noted that, in the whole of the discussions raised by Lord Loreburn's letter, neither from him nor from any speaker or newspaper in the Unionist camp was there yet a whisper of that Partition of Ireland as a condition of settlement which was to be the torch of discord during the eight following years. Had Mr. Asquith and Mr. Redmond only shown the high virtue not to be afraid to seem afraid, the Loreburn Conference must have assembled under every circumstance that could favour a noble enterprise of peace. The Irish leader, and the British Prime Minister stood tongue-tied until the golden sands ran out, and the denouncers of "conciliation and Conference-mongery" had their victory for nine months more, when they and their leaders did very truly raise "a flag of distress" too late to conceal their ignominy and panic.

It was on May 12, 1914, in moving that the Committee stage of the Home Rule Bill, on its last appearance in the House of Commons should be formal and that "all questions should be put from the Chair without amendment or debate," Mr. Asquith gave the first public intimation that Home Rule was about to be given up for Partition. Under cover of leaving the door open for "an agreed settlement," the Prime Minister announced that "while we shall ask the House to give this Bill a Third Reading before we separate, we shall make ourselves responsible for introducing an Amending Bill in such a manner that the two Bills shall become law practically at the same time." Mr. Bonar Law promptly, with a certain exultation but with still more contempt, fastened upon the admission that the Government "which had been drifting for the past six months and was drifting still" had "now made a distinct advance and was now going to introduce an Amending Bill which would fundamentally alter the present Bill." He tauntingly invited the Prime Minister and Mr. Redmond "between whom the real crux of the question lay" to take the House into their confidence as to what the Amending Bill was to be. Obviously the Prime Minister's announcement must have been concerted with Mr. Redmond and his Hibernians. If they objected, it was in their power to put their Governmental betrayers out of office in the division lobby that evening. No less obviously Mr. Redmond knew that Partition in some shape was to be the blood and bone of the Amending Bill. His last doubts, had he any, were dispelled by Mr. Lloyd George, who on this occasion for the first time showed his hand as the villain of the drama and avowed that the "Exclusion" of any counties that chose to follow Sir E. Carson was the object of the new departure. Under these circumstances Mr. Redmond had to go through a performance perhaps the most humiliating that ever fell to the lot of an Irish leader. He had first to simulate extreme surprise and indignation at the betrayal in a burst of reheated passion which bore too evident traces of being studied by the midnight oil. He wrathfully pointed to the delight on the Unionist benches as "another lesson to the Government of the inevitable effect of making advances to the Opposition"—forgetful of the fact that the Government advance could never have been made without his own consent, and that this particular "advance" meant the Partition of his country. He, indeed, majestically reserved his freedom of action when the Amending Bill was under discussion, but quite spoiled an excellent piece of playacting by announcing amidst a general titter that for the present he and his Party intended to go into the Division lobby with his betrayers. To pass the Bill at any price—even though a Bill repealing it was to be passed simultaneously—was the one plank he clung to in the wreckage. He had to wind up with this sorry piece of rhetoric for consumption in Ireland: "They had the consolation of knowing that the vision which had sustained them through darkness, suffering and oppression in the past was about to be realized and that in a few weeks the triumph of their cause would be consummated."

"In a few weeks the triumph of their cause" was in matter of fact "consummated" when on May 25, the final Third Reading of the Government of Ireland Bill was passed on the solemn undertaking of the Prime Minister that an Amending Bill decreeing Partition would be passed into law "at the same time." An occasion which a blindfolded Irish public was led to believe marked the crowning triumph of their nation marked in reality the most cruel fraud upon popular credulity by which Irish leaders ever disgraced themselves. The Prime Minister, in a few perfunctory sentences, renewed in the most distinct terms his pledge that the Amending Bill would be introduced while the Home Rule Bill was still before the House of Lords, and left no doubt what the Amending Bill was to be by announcing that its object had been "most clearly stated by my right Hon. friend (Mr. Lloyd George) with my complete assent in the course of the debate on Wednesday, the 12th of this month"—namely, "exclusion" to any needful extent to appease Sir E. Carson. The first Clause of the Bill nominally passed established one Parliament for all Ireland. The Amending Bill to which the Government and the Irish Party now pledged themselves gave that First Clause the lie direct and gave up the last hope of a Parliament for all Ireland. In presence of this appalling surrender of all that made Home Rule worth fighting for, Mr. Redmond and his Party spoke not a word of protest. Indeed the Irish leader spoke not a word at all. The deed was too shameful to be defended.

Only one voice was raised by a representative of Ireland in this supreme hour of her fate. It was the protest which I was commissioned to make in the name of my All-for-Ireland colleagues. As it was the only one from any quarter against the vote which made Partition an acknowledged article of the creed of "the Home Rule Government" one or two passages from my speech may be found of interest even at this day. Having declared that the Ministerial pretext for not disclosing the contents of the Amending Bill for fear of offending the susceptibilities of the House of Lords in whose House it was to be introduced "was not straight dealing either with Ireland or with England," and remarked that the device "somehow conveyed to me the impression of a last desperate throw of ruined gamblers," I proceeded:

"The game was lost for Ireland the day when the Hon. Member for Waterford and his friends consented to the Partition of Ireland. (Interruptions). That fact will never be forgotten for them and will not easily be forgiven to them in spite of the cheers with which their treason is received on the Radical benches opposite. All that has happened since is only a consequence of their policy of bitterly opposing any genuine concession to Ulster at the right time, and now consenting to the concession of all others which will not only fail to conciliate Ulster, but will rouse millions of the Irish race against your Bill and indeed against all British party politicians impartially. We all know the object of this policy of adjournment to the House of Lords is to put off for a few weeks more the day of inevitable disillusion for the Irish people and to enable the Member for Waterford in the meantime to brag that some tremendous victory has been gained by the ghastly farce of this Third Reading to-night. . . . The Government are determined to pass this Bill—yes, but they are equally determined not to put it in force in its most vital particular. The Prime Minister confessed only a few minutes ago that this Bill is only a first instalment and that the second instalment is to nullify the first. . . . Any Bill that purposes to cut off Ulster permanently or temporarily from the body of Ireland is to me worse than nothingness, and I think you will find millions of Irish Nationalists will be of the same opinion. The Member for Waterford spoke as if the technical passage of this Bill will be a joyday for Ireland as a nation. Sir, it will be on the contrary one of the grossest frauds that ever was perpetrated on a too confiding Irish people. It will be little short of a cruel practical joke at the expense of their intelligence as well as of their freedom. They will have the cup of liberty presented to their lips, but only on condition that their lips must not touch it. . . . This Act will be born with a rope around its neck. It is not even intended to be enforced. It is to be repudiated by its own authors in the particular of all others which will wound Irish Nationalists to the heart and which will blot out the very name of Ireland as a nation. Sir, the difference between us and the Party who sit behind us is that we are ready for almost any conceivable concession to Ulster that will have the effect of uniting Ireland, but we will struggle to our last breath against a proposal which will divide her and divide her eternally, if once Ireland's own representatives are consenting parties. . . . Of course we all know you have the voting power to pass this Bill as a sort of mechanical toy to amuse a people whom you very stupidly suppose to be a nation of children. But you know that this Bill does not mean business, and so long as it is clogged, as the Prime Minister to-night admits it is clogged, by a Ministerial pledge of a repealing Bill for the mutilation of Ireland, we regard this Bill as no longer a Home Rule Bill, but as a Bill for the murder of Home Rule such as we have understood it all our lives and we can have no hand, act or part in the operation."

My colleagues and myself abstained from voting. To vote with the Government would have been to give our sanction like that of the Hibernian Party, to the avowed scheme for the mutilation of Ireland. By declining to vote we at least did something to save the future by placing it on record that there was one body of Irish representatives, however small, who refused to be accomplices in the infamy. We did not doubt that our action, temperate though it was, would bring a tempest of misrepresentation about our ears. Looking back upon the scene now, there seems an element of diabolical humour about what happened. For it was the seventy Irish representatives who had just sentenced their country to Partition who postured as the patriots and wise men, and it was the seven Nationalists, who made the only protest in their power in the name of a betrayed nation, who in the face of a grinning House of Commons were saluted with yells of "Factionists!" and "Traitors!" by the triumphant Hibernians. The grim irony did not even stop there. The subsidised Irish Press, with one voice, held us up to the execration of the country with the cry that we "had voted against Home Rule," and, under cover of that villainous falsehood, five or six hundred All-for-Ireland County Councillors and District Councillors were, at the Local Government elections at that moment pending, subjected to ferocious persecution and a considerable number of them expelled from public life. Personally, we had the ample revenge of despising our calumniators, but it must be confessed that there was something heartbreaking in the thought that the people had no means of knowing, and indeed have never come to know of what an abominable untruth they were the victims, and lighted their bonfires for the passage of Home Rule without the slightest suspicion that they were all the time celebrating their own condonation of Partition.

If they lighted bonfires five years later it would be to burn the famous "Act on the Statute Book" in its flames with execrations, which was indeed the fate it received from Mr. Lloyd George, with general consent, in his Act of 1921.

The Loreburn peace proposal was wrecked and the first stage of Partition successfully negotiated. But the victors were so little at ease with their work that they immediately set themselves to organise a peace conference on their own account, making it is true a pompous pretence of effecting Lord Loreburn's object, but in reality so devised as quite certainly to defeat his hopes from an "unfettered conference" and serving only as a further crafty move in the Partition game.

The Conference which the King was induced to summon at Buckingham Palace on 21st July, 1914, was born only to have its brief life cursed by every evil gift a malignant fairy god-mother could throw into its cradle. It came too late. The events of the previous twelve months—the incidents at the Curragh, the landing of the German armaments at Larne, the dazed incompetence of the nominal Government of the country—had filled the Covenanters with a confidence akin to insolence. The Conference was a jumble of irreconcileable elements. Only two of its nine members were Irish Nationalists; and one of the two was the man whose hatred of any form of friendly settlement by Conference had been an obsession bordering on monomania ever since 1903; and who shipwrecked Lord Loreburn's proposal by refusing to enter into any Conference until Sir E. Carson had first abjured his objection to Home Rule. The immense body of Conciliationist opinion in Ireland was left out of consultation altogether. Worst of all, the object of the Conference, as announced to the House of Commons by Mr. Asquith, was one destructive of the first principle of Home Rule, namely—" to consider the possibility of defining the area to be excluded from the operation of the Government of Ireland Bill." It was not even to discuss the possibility of substituting Partition for Home Rule, but only of "defining the area to be excluded." It was the first time the separation of Ulster from Ireland was publicly avowed as a practicable programme by any Party—even Sir E. Carson's—and now "the Home Rule Government" and the Hibernian Party went to Buckingham Palace recognising that it was a programme not merely possible, but already settled behind the backs of the Irish people, and that the only business to be discussed was to define the extent to which Ireland was to be mutilated. The only question in debate at Buckingham Palace, it is now certain, was whether it was six counties, or only four, that were to be torn from the body of Ireland. It was upon this question—one of unimaginable meanness compared with the principle of the Partition of an ancient nation, which does not seem to have been under debate at all—that the Buckingham Palace Conference, in Mr. Asquith's words, "was unable to agree," and, after four sittings, "brought its meetings to a conclusion." The Government sternly refused any opportunity of even discussing in the House of Commons this astounding transformation in the fortunes of Home Rule. The Hibernian Party took good care by their newspapers and organisers, to prevent the people of Ireland from understanding, unless in the most misty way, that their representatives had killed Home Rule by killing the only thing that made it worth having—the integrity of Ireland as a sovereign and immemorial nation. It was many a day before the Irish masses had any but the faintest conception that the morning Mr. Redmond and Mr. Dillon entered Buckingham Palace with such a programme, they committed themselves to the Partition of their country with a completeness from which it was never again in their power to recede.

Read "The Irish Revolution" at your leisure

The Irish Revolution

Read The Irish Revolution at your leisure and help support this free Irish library.

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 ».


Library Ireland Facebook