Parnell Split


After the war upon those who had "received from the country an absolutely overwhelming vote of confidence" had gone on throughout the summer and autumn of 1903, while our plans were being laid for an experimental test of the new Purchase Act, I took a step about which doubtless controversy will long rage whether it was a weak surrender of an unassailable position, or a patriotic self-effacement as the only means of making a renewal of the horrors of the Parnell Split impossible. It was in any case an act of self-renunciation such as was never made before, and assuredly will never be made again by any Irish leader who studies how he who made it was rewarded. In November, 1903, I resigned my seat in Parliament and on the Directory of the United Irish League, which I had founded to put and end to the disunion caused by the Parnell Split and which for more than two years I had to carry on my own all but unassisted shoulders, [3] and in order to put an end to the last danger of perpetuating public controversy, I at the same time suppressed my own newspaper, The Irish People.

This step naturally created consternation among a public from whom I had up to the last moment striven to conceal the intolerable difficulties that were accumulating upon me, and who only saw (as Mr. Dillon confessed) that the country was "overwhelmingly" with me. Long after they had fallen under the control of Mr. Dillon, members of the Irish Party told me (what I very well knew) that, up to the moment of my resignation, the Party, all but an unimportant group), would have supported Mr. Redmond and myself in resolutely putting down the mutiny, if they had only known. They pathetically reproached me with having left them, like sheep without a shepherd, to fall a prey to the first comer. It was never doubtful that, had I chosen to distract the country with an open exposure of the conspiracy that was in progress, and met with and fought it outright, I could have spoken for ninetenths of the Nationalists of Ireland and of the Parliamentary Party (including their leader) in the conflict that must have followed. But, conflict there must have been, a fierce and unforgetable one, with its conquerors and conquered, and that was the whole question for one filled with abhorrence of the dissensions of the Parnell Split, the wounds from which were only just half-healing.

Those who, without a more intimate knowledge of what was going on, condemned my retirement as the principal mistake of my life (as, if it were only the tactics of a politician with an eye on his own future, it most obviously would be) forgot that the minority, numerically small though it was, included three distinguished Irishmen, enjoying a well-deserved popularity as patriots and a reputation for wisdom in the matter of Finance which events proved was not so well deserved. Reduced to silence, as they must undoubtedly have been, it could only have been by a public exposure which would not quite get rid of an uneasy suspicion that they had suffered merely for an uncompromising hatred of Landlordism which was the most pardonable of crimes in Irish eyes, and the advantage sure to be taken of our intestine differences by unscrupulous landlords would dangerously compromise our plans for an equitable test of the Act, if not occasion its breakdown altogether. There was a fourth Irishman of more eminence still, under whose countenance their campaign against the Act would have been at that moment consecrated. The Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. Walsh—next to the famous Archbishop of Cashel Dr. Croke, the most potent patriot Churchman of his generation—had unhappily conceived the conviction that the Finances of the Act would prove unworkable, owing to his doubt that the Treasury could ever be got to consent to the Imperial Bonus on which the whole Land Conference scheme hinged. As soon as His Grace found that his apprehensions were unfounded and that the Imperial Bonus was forthcoming, he retired altogether from the controversy (as did also Michael Davitt long before his death) and in after years His Grace was one of the decisive factors in the overthrow of the degenerate Irish Party.[4] Dr. Walsh's initial doubts however were at the moment a grievous addition to the difficulties of repressing the growing mutiny in our camp. The illness of Mr. Redmond's son and his own indolent habits of business, as well as the internal malady which was already undermining Lord Mayor Harrington's iron constitution, deprived me largely of their assistance in working out the plan of test cases resolved upon by the National Directory of the League. We were furthermore handicapped by the danger of explaining in public to the country our own confidential machinery for testing the Act, for fear of giving the insatiable section of the landlords a weapon against the tenants, while Mr. Dillon was free to incite the Convention in his own constituency to open repudiation of the plans of the Directory and Mr. Sexton was daily demonstrating in the Freeman—the recognised official organ, be it remembered, of the Party—that the Act demanded ruinous prices and that the tenants had only to boycott it altogether to obtain the land at 13 ½ years' purchase. The Freeman was meanwhile debauching public opinion by all the subtle arts of exaggeration or suppression within the power of a daily newspaper, displaying under scare headings the carefully organised resolutions which were hawked about to the local representative Boards, assailing the National Policy under the plausible shelter of votes of thanks to Mr. Dillon and Mr. Davitt for their speeches, and ruthlessly mutilating such speeches of the members of Parliament deputed to the local Conventions as might have supplied adequate answers. While this demoralising process went on unchecked for months, the necessary silence of Mr. Redmond, Mr. Harrington and myself seemed to let judgment go against us by default.

But what is quite certain is that my withdrawal would never have been thought of, had Mr. Redmond been at the time in a position to exercise his authority as leader in a crisis in which his judgment and mine as to the highest interests of the nation were absolutely at one. By a woeful mischance, he was disabled at that very moment by private embarrassments arising out of the clamour set going against him in the Freeman on the report that he was demanding 24 ½ years' purchase for his own estate in Wexford. The allegation was, save for the price of one specially circumstanced farm, a cruelly slanderous one, but it contained that small modicum of truth which was grasped at by unscrupulous landlords as an excuse for demanding "24 ½ years' purchase—your own leader's price," and it created such an alarm and even panic in the country as paralyzed Mr. Redmond's liberty of action and endangered his continuance in the leadership. Preparations were actually in progress to refuse him a hearing on his visit to Limerick. I did not act without frank and constant communication of my views to Mr. Redmond. Thrice over I wrote urgent letters which were in after years published, impressing upon him how fast the infection was spreading in the Party and in the country; that it had not yet got so far that it would not promptly disappear if he would in the temperate and measured language of which he was a master apprise the country that the National Policy again and again ratified by a practically unanimous Party and National Convention was in danger; but that failing such a pronouncement from the only leader with authority to issue it, it would be no longer possible for me to undergo the insupportable strain upon my health and upon a temperament perhaps ultra-sensitive when the wounds came from those of our own household, of being compelled to stand silently by while the fruit of our labours was slowly rotting under our eyes; and that my withdrawal altogether from the scene would be the only other means left of warning the country of the danger and of recalling the organizers of dissension to their senses. I ventured upon the prediction, which was promptly justified by events that my withdrawal would rally our assailants in a panic-stricken alarm to his support, and assured him of my own undiminished sympathy and good will in whatever course his new advisers might be prepared to recommend. His letters, in reply were full of the friendliest and most anxious remonstrance and entreaty not to withdraw from the scene; but as to the practical matters at issue he only pleaded that the farmers would pay no heed to the advice of the Freeman and that those responsible for the trouble would soon disappear from the country altogether: in a Word, he was plainly intimidated, and would let the emergency take care of itself.

Mr. Dillon and the Freeman verified my anticipations by eager and violent protestations of their loyalty to Mr. Redmond against whom they had just been organising a Holy War in the Freeman; but Mr. Dillon verified also the anticipations of Mr. Redmond as to his moral courage. Criticism when in opposition can only be justified by efficiency when in power. Far from being ready with any constructive plans of his own, when my retirement left him master of the situation, Mr. Dillon quitted the country in a panic, leaving the Party derelict, dismantling our machinery for working the Act and throwing the farmers into a state of chaotic disorganisation, and he did not return to Ireland until after I had been prevailed upon to come back to their rescue. He returned then only to raise against me the incredibly base war-cry of "Unity!" and "Majority Rule!" with a temporary success as an electioneering trick, but a success which was to lead to the ultimate extinction of "the Party" and the destruction of Home Rule.

More contemptible still, if that were possible, was his imputation that it was all an affair of jealous competition on my part with Mr. Redmond for the leadership. The truth happens to be—and nobody had more cogent reason for knowing it than Mr. Dillon who set the calumny going—that Mr. Redmond pressed me earnestly to accept the Leadership of the Party when Parnell had offered it to me as the condition of his retirement in 1891, and that it was in favour of Mr. Dillon himself I rejected the proffer. Apart from any question of taste, that the insinuation should come from him, of all men, Mr. Dillon was listening when at meetings of the Party Mr. Redmond declared again and again that he was unreservedly in agreement with me in every particular up to the date of my withdrawal from public life, and wholly shared my belief in the National Policy for which he was every whit as responsible as I. Even in one of his public speeches, after my withdrawal, Mr. Redmond paid me the somewhat exaggerated compliment of saying that "but for Mr. William O'Brien there would have been no Land Conference and no Land Act." Some indication of the uninterrupted cordiality of our personal relations may be gathered from the fact that, four months after my retirement from Parliament, it was to me he turned for advice in the subjoined letter, when the men who had driven me out had no counsels to give him except those of sheer destructiveness.

"House of Commons, 23-3-1904.

"My dear O'Brien,—Notwithstanding all that has occurred, and our difference on the subject of your resignation, I am certain you are as anxious as ever to aid me in my difficult position. You could not do so more effectively than by giving me your views on the situation, in view of the coming Convention. Is there any practical way in which we can again close up our ranks by inducing you to rejoin the Party? I assure you I feel the position keenly and am fully alive to its dangers. Would any sort of private conference be of use? I hope your health is good. I need not say this note comes from myself alone. Very truly yours,

John E. Redmond."

"From myself alone"—be it observed, without this time asking the leave of the new Hibernian turnkeys who had taken him under their protection. In my reply, full of heartfelt sympathy for Mr. Redmond's difficulties, I concluded:

"My own fixed belief is that so long as Dillon and Sexton continue in their present temper, no brave National programme requiring the loyal co-operation of responsible and patriotic men will have the ghost of a chance of succeeding during our generation. The first step towards any remedy for the situation is that they should be brought to realize the country's sense of the immeasurable mischief they have wrought in destroying what will yet be recognised as the most glorious opportunity Ireland ever had for winning peace and freedom with the assent of all English and Irish parties. The excitement of a General Election and a change of Ministry will, no doubt, blind many unthinking people for a time, but a few years will bring the inevitable désillusionnement and break up."

All this notwithstanding, the trick of shouting "Unity" and "Majority Rule" and "a plot against our trusted leader," succeeded in diverting attention both in Ireland and in England from the vital issues at stake and for many years the men who never swerved an inch from the National Policy in which they only obeyed the mandate of every representative authority in the country, were merrily hounded down as the destroyers of National Unity by the very men who had succeeded in acquiring the control of the Party and of its leader by impudently trampling that principle under foot. The columbae were censured as factionists and traitors, and the corvi received the applause of the unfortunate nation for their clamourous cawings of "Unity!" and "Majority Rule!"

The student will find the narrative of the revolt against the National Policy of Conciliation plus Business (comprising the whole period from 1903 to 1910) and also of the circumstances under which I was compelled to return to Parliament under the affectionate coercion of a constituency faithful beyond any I have ever heard or read of, set forth in full detail in An Olive-Branch in Ireland and its History. (Macmillan, 1910).

The truthfulness of the record has never been impeached in a single particular and may, therefore, now be regarded as settled history.

Before passing from this part of the narrative, let us finish with another fiction which has almost become classic. It is a dogma with all pious believers, Liberal and Hibernian, that it was the Ulster Orange members, and not the Irish Party, who drove George Wyndham out of the Irish Secretaryship. The legend is an impudent falsification of the facts. The expulsion of Wyndham from the Irish Office before his benign work was half completed was the first exploit of the new masters of the Irish Party, and it was only the preliminary to their next achievement, which was to repeal his great Purchase Act of 1903. It was Mr. Dillon and his friends who alone had the power to do it, and it was they who did it.

Mr. T. P. O'Connor wept tears of ink over "The Passing of George Wyndham"—his passing from the Chief Secretaryship, and into his grave—and sang canticles over the great things he had done for Ireland and the greater things he might still have done, were it not for wicked men. The wicked men were, of course, the handful of Ulster Orange members, and to these Mr. T. P. O'Connor, without a wink in his scandalised eyes, attributed the entire guilt for the overthrow of Wyndham's career in Ireland. Never was hypocritical fable more easily confuted by the incontestable facts. It is quite true that the Orange Ulster Party did combine and conspire with Mr. T. P. O'Connor's Irish Party to harry Wyndham and to hang upon his flanks, until he was finally chased from the country—so much the deeper disgrace to both sets of conspirators. But it is true as well that the Irish Party, commanding 80 votes to the Orangemen's 14, and being in a position in addition to carry the whole Liberal Opposition into the voting lobbies with them, were incomparably the most powerful partners in the conspiracy. A brief summary of what really happened will, it is to be hoped, dispose once for all of the legend that it was the Orangemen who killed Cock Robin.

Before the Session of 1904 opened, Mr. Redmond announced that his Party held the Government of Wyndham as "prisoners in a condemned cell" waiting in fear and trembling for the execution of the sentence, and gave them notice that they would be "struck at as quickly and as strongly as we can."

He lost no time in keeping his word.———On the 15th March, on a vote of censure moved by the Irish Party on the Education Vote, the Government was defeated by 141 votes to 130. Col. Saunderson and the other Ulster members—Messrs. Lonsdale, Gordon, Moore, Craig and Sloane—aided on this occasion by abstaining from voting for the Government.———On 22nd March, the Irish Party moved another vote of censure on Wyndham (Arterial Drainage) in which they were joined in the division Lobby by the entire Ulster Party, Col. Saunderson declaring that "all Irish members were going to act together and fight what he called the Battle of the Bann"——On March 29th the Irish Party moved still another vote of censure on Wyndham (popular control of R.I.C.) but this time the Ulster Party voted with the Government.——On 3rd August Wyndham speaking on the University question, said the Government were accused of trifling with the question, but he pointed out that during the Session the Irish Party had joined in every attempt to turn out the Government. He appealed to the Party to think it out. (A Nationalist Member—"We want to turn you out")——In the Session of 1905, Mr. Redmond moved (20th February) an Amendment to the Address censuring the Government and was joined by Mr. William Moore (of the Orange Party) in a violent denunciation of Wyndham, which was followed up by a speech from Mr. Dillon bespattering Mr. Moore with his praises and reiterating the attacks upon Wyndham. Mr. C. Craig said they had been invited by the Nationalists to go into the lobby with them to show their indignation against the Government. As Unionists they could not do that, but they were so profoundly dissatisfied with the conduct of Irish affairs that it had been their intention to abstain from voting. Mr. Flavin (North Kerry)—I will win my cigars if you are going to vote with us to-night. Mr. Craig said he sincerely hoped he would win his cigars and if they could vote he would give the Hon. Member a few more.——A few months afterwards, Wyndham resigned.

Will anybody be ever again found bold enough to deny that it was the Irish Party who killed Wyndham as Chief Secretary in 1905, as surely as it was they who killed his great Purchase Act of 1903 by their own Act of 1909?

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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.

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