To take part or not to?

Sinn Féin was thus ruled out of the programme of a Government which had to wait for the lessons of years of bloodshed and horror to appreciate the value of the patriotic offer which Sir H. Duke was compelled almost rudely to repulse. It is impossible to believe that Mr. Lloyd George had not the Griffith telegram before him when he shot his bolt defining the membership of his Convention in a way which he knew must render the collaboration of Sinn Féin and of the All-for-Ireland League impossible. He had made up his mind to cast in his fortunes with the Hibernian and with the Ulster Partitionists.

A characteristic stroke of the small politicians, British and Irish, followed. The Hibernian leaders, accustomed to rely upon petty Government doles and favours as a means of concealing their failure in great things and lost to all power of diagnosing the new spirit they were dealing with, came to the conclusion that their best hope of rehabilitating themselves with the country, and, in the cant of the day, of "creating a friendly atmosphere" for "the Irish Convention" was to advise an Amnesty for the Sinn Féin internees. Accordingly, when an evening or two afterwards I went over to Dublin, to make a last effort with Sinn Féin before announcing my own decision as to Mr. Lloyd George's invitation, it was to see Mr. De Valera and his interned fighting men—some four thousand of them—flocking over by the Holyhead boat to the frantic joy of a country that not unnaturally received them as conquerors. Be it remembered that up to that time the Irish Republic had no existence of any kind, even in name. The utmost length to which the first Sinn Féin Convention of five hundred delegates in Dublin in the early part of 1916 went was a resolution: "That we proclaim Ireland to be a separate nation"—as Mr. Lloyd George did a few years afterwards. Neither Count Plunkett's election for North Roscommon, nor Mr. McGuinness' for North Longford had been fought on the Republican issue. It was not until a few days after his return to Ireland from his English prison that Mr. De Valera for the first time made the Irish Republic the electoral touchstone of the future. Any other programme had now, however, been wiped off the slate by Mr. Lloyd George's own hand. When Mr. Griffith did me the favour of calling upon me at the Shelbourne Hotel, the streets outside were throbbing with the rejoicings for the returning fighting-men. With all Mr. Griffith's moral courage—and it was dauntless—there was obviously no more to be said for peace. The Amnesty which must have followed as a matter of course once a genuine National agreement was arrived at, was now justly despised as a mere Hibernian electioneering trick. Its only effect was to convince the Irish people—even those who were most reluctant to own it—that the fighters of the Easter Week dispensation were the only men to deal with shifty British Ministers. Sinn Féin in its most militant shape was rooted more firmly than ever as the best hope of a country which had already irrevocably sentenced Parliamentarianism to die the death.

Not for the first, nor the tenth time, Mr. Lloyd George failed to see the "fundamentally right" thing and did the obviously wrong one. No sooner was the composition of the Convention disclosed than it became evident it must end in Partition or throw the blame for its abortiveness upon Ireland. Of the 101 members 80 at the lowest estimate were Partitionists of the Hibernian Party or of the Orange Party. The representation accorded to the political parties—5 delegates apiece to the Hibernian Party, the Ulster Party and Sinn Féin, 2 to the All-for-Ireland League and 2 to the Irish Labour Party—was on the face of it a perfectly fair one. It in reality covered a gross deceit. The Hibernian Party, with a nominal representation of only 5, obtained some 70 representatives through the Mayors of Corporations and the Chairmen of County Councils and District Councils, nearly all the direct nominees of the Board of Erin; the Ulster Party, technically restricted to 5 representatives, numbered 20 at the least through the delegates from the Unionist County and District Councils and the nominees of the Crown. These two Parties combined, counting a majority of something like 8 to 1 of the entire body, were publicly committed to a Partition agreement if there was to be any at all. Into this Partitionist sea, the five Sinn Féiners and the two All-for-Ireland representatives were to be precipitated, rari nantes in gurgite vasto, with whatever help they might receive from four known opponents of Partition who were included among the direct nominees of the Crown. Worse remained behind. Sir E. Carson, the only person who could operate any change of front from the Ulster side, held personally aloof from the Convention, and the participation of his Party was made expressly subject to the condition that their five representatives at the Convention were to agree to nothing without first obtaining the approval of the Ulster Unionist Council—an extern body of the Covenanters' staunchest extremists—who were not to figure publicly at the Convention at all, but were to act as a Black Cabinet to revise or veto any agreement, even if recommended by their own Parliamentary representatives. The Convention was thus to be a collection of puppets, of which it was to be Sir E. Carson and his Ulster Unionist Council who were to pull the strings.

After Mr. Redmond's death, Lord MacDonnell, in a letter to the Times mentioned that the Irish leader had confided to him that he would never have entered the Convention if he understood at the time that this was to be the arrangement. If he was unaware of it, it must have been because he failed to notice either the resolution of the Ulster Unionist Council making the stipulation regarding their veto in the most distinct terms, or my own reply to Mr. Lloyd George (dated June 18, 1917) in which I made this fatal flaw in the constitution of the Convention one of my principal reasons for declining to nominate representatives from the All-for-Ireland League: "On the other hand, while my friends and myself would welcome the most generous representation of the unofficial Unionist population of Ireland, the Government scheme ensures to the official Ulster Unionist Council a full third of the voting power of the Convention, under the direction, moreover of a Committee not present at the Convention, but specially nominated by the Council to supervise its proceedings from outside. The terms of the Resolution under which the Ulster Unionist Council consented to enter the Convention make it clear they have only done so as a war measure, and relying upon the assurances of the Government that they need fear no Parliamentary pressure if they should adhere to their demand for the exclusion of the Six Counties as a minimum—a demand, indeed, which was conceded to them last year by the Irish Parliamentary Party. It is consequently obvious that the chances of any agreement by the Ulster Unionist Council other than one based on the separation of the Six Counties are all but hopelessly handicapped from the start, and the temptation dangerously increased to those Nationalist politicians who have already committed themselves to dismemberment."

If this were not a sufficient proof how complete would be the veto of Ulster, any possible doubt on the subject was removed by a candid statement in the House of Commons from Mr. Bonar Law, in which the man who was next to Mr. Lloyd George, if even second to him, the most important member of the Ministry, pledged himself that the assent of Ulster would be regarded as indispensable to the "substantial agreement" in the Convention on which the Prime Minister undertook to legislate. Mr. Redmond's own want of foresight was, therefore, alone to blame if he was not warned in good time that nothing could come from the Convention unless with the consent of the Ulster Unionist Council, and that consent, he already knew, was only to be had by reviving the old pact for the separation of the Six Counties. Notwithstanding these conclusive warnings that the Convention must end either in Partition or in abortiveness, a perfect torrent of entreaties was for the next month poured upon my head from all sorts of worthy peace lovers, imploring me to make the All-for-Ireland League a consenting party to the imposture. On 13th June the Prime Minister addressed to me in cordial terms an invitation "to nominate two representatives of the Party under your leadership to serve as members of the Convention." My reply, dated June 18th, expressed "with deep disappointment" my conclusion that "while the Government have nominally adopted the principle of allowing the constitution of Ireland to be settled by agreement among Irishmen, they have done so under conditions which must render that principle a nullity. There can be little or no hope that a Convention constituted as the Government have directed can arrive at any agreement except some hateful bargain for the Partition of the country under some plausible disguise." I admonished him that "to attribute the blame for such a decision or for the failure to arrive at any better one to the unrepresented Irish people would be little short of an outrage upon Ireland and would be a gross imposition on the credulity of friendly nations abroad," and intimated that under the circumstances "I have made up my mind with reluctance, and indeed with poignant personal sorrow, that I must decline to undertake any responsibility in connection with a Convention so constituted."

Sir Horace Plunkett, who was to be the Chairman of the Convention, did me the unusual honour of addressing to me two public letters couched in terms of high courtesy asking me to reconsider my decision, adding that, in his belief "if you could see your way to come in, you would bring a good many more than your own immediate followers." In my reply, I pointed out that in his letter he had forgotten "the objection which is the most fatal of all—namely, that at least 90 of the 100 members of the Convention will be the nominees of the two Irish parties of politicians who only last year came to an agreement to form six Irish counties into an 'excluded area' to be separately administered through departments responsible only to an English Secretary of State under an arrangement which could never be terminated without a new Act of the Imperial Parliament." My colleagues and myself had made it known that we were ready to go into the Convention to resist Partition against all odds, "if the august body of Bishops, Catholic and Protestant, who signed the recent manifesto, saw fit to delegate to the Convention representatives of their Order as to whose 'unrelenting opposition to Partition, temporary or permanent' (to use the Bishops' own words) the bulk of the Convention could be left in no possible doubt," but I was obliged to add: "Unhappily their lordships have decided in a sense which has given rise to grave misunderstandings and for reasons which this is not the time to discuss but which have not lessened the anxieties of patriotic Irishmen." To Sir Horace's gentle reproach that, in refusing to participate, I was "casting off the mantle of National Unity," which had so long been mine, my reply was:

"Our small band have fought, not for a contemptible verbal victory, but for a practical agreement which would make Irishmen of all parties and creeds willing partners in the government of an undivided Ireland, and while nominally pursuing that object, the organisers of the Convention have so loaded the dice that, short of a miracle from Heaven, the only agreement likely to be arrived at is one for the permanent division of Ireland among the place-hunters of both factions."

But his letter seemed to open one avenue by which our participation might still be possible. He made it an "essential point" that an agreement by the Convention should be "submitted for popular approval by Referendum or otherwise," and intimated that this "would unquestionably" be done. "If he made this statement on official authority" I answered, a Referendum would still leave it possible for us to take part. Sir Horace Plunkett, in his second public letter, avowed that "unfortunately, I have no authority to make any official person responsible for the statement, but I did not speak without having the best of reasons for believing that what I said was true. If, I am able to give you my authority later, I will gladly do so." The "later" announcement of his authority was never made, and so that avenue to the reconsideration of our decision was closed as well. Manifestly, with Sir Horace as with myself, the Chief Secretary had inclined towards a Referendum for all Ireland, but was promptly put in his place by those who had Sir E. Carson to satisfy. A Referendum for all Ireland was now and had always been the terror of his life.

For all that, the most trusted of my own advisers began to waver, under the influence of that cry of "Peace!" where there can be no peace which some-times sweeps over Ireland with the weird pathos of a Banshee. With, perhaps, the most influential of them all, for his breadth of judgment, Lord Dunraven, I had been compelled to differ on Conscription, although with a respect for one another's different points of view which was never diminished for an hour on either side. "I agree with you," he wrote, on the first disclosure of the Constitution. "If Redmond's majority can come to any agreement with Lonsdale, they can carry it. What I fear is some agreement involving carefully concealed Partition": but he eventually yielded to the argument that our absence would let judgment go against us by default, and accepted for himself the invitation of the Crown. I suspect that Mr. Healy's preference inclined in the same direction, although with the loyalty in which he never failed throughout these soul-trying years, he forbore to say so.[40] Mr. William Martin Murphy, the proprietor of the most widely circulated of the Irish newspapers, The Independent, had been all along a convinced believer in the policy of the All-for-Ireland League, but to Ireland's heavy loss he hesitated to enforce his opinions in his paper, acting, as he told me more than once, on the advice of Lord Northcliffe: "Never come out strong until you've first got your circulation; once your circulation is there, you can say anything you like." His first impression of the Convention was my own:

"Dartry, Dublin,

28th May, 1917.

"Dear Mr. O'Brien,—I agree with you about the danger of Partition. Bonar Law's reply to Ronald McNeill has turned the Convention which was intended as a trick into a farce. The Ulsterites will be able to say: 'Heads I win, tails you lose.'

After Partition is repudiated by four-fifths of Ireland, it is to be set up again at the Convention. My present feeling is to advise that the whole scheme should be ignored until Lloyd George repudiates Bonar Law's promise to the Ulsterites.

I think I will write to Northcliffe and tell him that all confidence in the bona fides of the Convention was knocked on the head by Bonar Law's statement. It is evident that he expected some question from Dillon to which he referred.

Sincerely yours,

Wm. M. Murphy.

Wm. O'Brien, Esq., M.P.,

Bellevue, Mallow."

Later on, however, Mr. Murphy confessed he was a little shaken by the disgraceful cry that his object was to wreck the Convention, with which he was assailed in public and in private. He now wrote that "I have no doubt whatever the three of us" (Mr. Healy, himself and myself) "would dominate the show with the combinations which I think could be got together and the fear of public opinion outside acting on the Co. Council Chairmen," and he too ended by accepting the invitation of the Chief Secretary, adding: "If I cannot do any good there, I may be some check to those who would do mischief."

One of the entreaties it was most difficult to resist was a secret message I received (June 26) from a member of the Cabinet for whom I entertained a sincere respect, and the difficulty of resistance was all the greater that the message came through one whose single-minded services as an intermediary in the highest quarters were of priceless value to Ireland throughout these years, although they were rewarded with the usual brutal injustice by Irish politicians. This was the communication of the Minister to my excellent friend:

"Go over and see O'B.; don't give him messages from me direct; but move him. I know so much more than he can know of the North East people. I know how hard and almost impossible it is for them to confer with R. or he with them. . . . O'B. has got very near the Northerners. He, if anyone can bridge the last gap. Will he not do it? If he knew all that is in the wind and how much importance attaches to his attitude he would."

It can scarcely be necessary to accentuate the historical value of this testimony from a Cabinet Minister of exceptional authority with "the Northerners," both as to the transformation our conciliatory labours might have wrought in them, had we received even common toleration from our own side while there was still time, and as to the evil effect on the mind of "the Northerners" of the Hibernian ascendancy. It was too late to think of all this except with a sigh. In an Hibernian-ridden and an Orange-ridden Convention, neither we, nor, as it turned out, the sober Conciliationist Northerns could do anything but wring our ineffectual hands in presence of an artificially constructed majority whose programme was: "Either Partition or nothing."

My friend received my answer with sorrow, most gently and most diffidently expressed; but his next communication contained a startling confirmation of my prognostication that Partition, in even a more offensive form than I had suspected, was up to that time the settled purpose of the projectors of the Convention:

"The forces that are gathering in this connection are very interesting and complicated and frankly not to my liking. I will throw out the idea as I get it from very high up. There is a lot being said about a Federal Commission, and the idea is not merely Home Rule all round but Partition all round—that England is to be broken up into two States, Scotland, two; Ireland, two, and Wales one! Then also it is believed that Smuts and Borden have dealt a death-blow to Empire Federation; that what we are asked to work on now is a lot of local Federal Units—the B. Isles, Canada, Australia, S. Africa, N. Z.—and that these scattered federations are to be loosely united under the Crown in what I suppose will be called a 'Confederacy of States.' ... I feel that the issue—that a score of vast issues—whether they emerge for better or for worse hangs on the toss of a coin."

My indomitable friend worked on for a manageably-sized Conference as the true remedy, but reported: "No, their minds run on big battalions and noise! They think that a small Convention will be described in the U. S. as 'hole and corner,' and that the columns given to it over there will be in direct proportion to what Jones of Nevada used to call 'base Roman numerals'"; he struggled for at least a Referendum of all Ireland and could only get as far as dim understandings that the Convention itself might order a Referendum—a Referendum which, ex hypothesi, would be one to destroy their own guilty (but successful) conspiracy! They were still harping on "the U. S. and the big battalions and noise!"

Finally, on the eve of the sitting of the Convention, the Prime Minister came to the charge once more, in a manner probably without a precedent in the usages of Prime Ministers, by addressing to me a second public letter (dated from Downing St. 20th July) asking me would I not withdraw my refusal? He had nothing better to offer than these anodyne generalities: "The Convention is a sincere effort to see if Irishmen in Ireland can agree on a settlement which will make for better relations between the different parties in Ireland and happier relations between Ireland and Great Britain. With the object in view, I know that you are in full sympathy, and I most earnestly hope that you will respond to this appeal, which I understand, has come also from many other quarters, to give your help toward securing the success of the Convention."

The controversy was wound up in a letter in which I repeated that "the type of Convention selected by you defeats its stated object with fatal certainty by leaving the great mass of Nationalist opinion all but wholly unrepresented and conferring the power of decision upon a majority of politicians who have notoriously lost the confidence of the Irish people," and begged of him to persevere no further with a Convention hopelessly out of touch with Irish public opinion, but to fall back upon a friendly conference of the most potential friends of peace in all parties as the only means—a forlorn one enough by this time—of finding a way out.

Unluckily this latter advice was now a counsel of perfection. An event had just happened which put an end to the last chance of negotiating otherwise than with weapons of steel. At the battle of Messines on June 7th, Major "Willie" Redmond, like the "vera parfait, gentil knight" he was, insisted "on going over the top" at the head of his men and met his death. His only complaint, we may be sure, was that he could but repeat the dying cry of Sarsfield at Landen: "O that this were for Ireland!" For his constituency in East Clare, Mr. De Valera offered himself as a candidate on the straight issue of an Irish Republic. The Hibernians made a supreme effort to rehabilitate their fortunes and, what, with the sympathies enkindled by the young soldier's fate, the high expectations created by the Convention, and a candidate of widespread local influence, they were fatuous enough to count upon an easy victory. To their stupefaction, the Irish Republic carried the day with a majority of five thousand votes. Had the figures been reversed, a Partition scheme must have been carried through the Convention with not more than half a dozen dissenting voices. East Clare put an end to the danger of the Convention coming to a criminal agreement for Partition, but it was only to create a new danger—for the uprise of the Republic forbade the possibility of any other agreement, since if it were to meet acceptance by the country in its present mood, it would not have the smallest chance of acceptance either by Ulster or by the British Parliament. The Irish people are too ready to make idols and too ready to break them. It was by men too little known to excite either idolatry or animosity that the ways were to be in the long run straitened out. But for the next four years, at all events, Mr. De Valera, with his Republican Tricolour, was the National idol, and Mr. Griffith and his peaceful penetrationists were laid up in lavender. The presence of Sinn Féin at an amicable Conference-table was no longer practical politics. Elated with what seemed the cleverness of a paltry electioneering dodge, Mr. Lloyd George and his Hibernian counsellors released Mr. De Valera and established the Irish Republic.

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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