Let the Irish Work It Out

By Sydney Brooks
(London Correspondent of The Independent)

[The Independent; August 21, 1915]

In all politics one has to allow for a difference between appearances and realities. But in no politics is that difference so profound as in Irish politics. To get to the truth that lies behind the animated surface of Irish affairs is always a supremely difficult task and often an impossible one. The average man in London is pretty completely in the dark as to what it was that wrecked the Lloyd George settlement. He classes its failure among the many incomprehensible mysteries of Irish politics. The average man in New York must be floundering still more hopelessly for an explanation that will really explain. It is such an explanation that I propose to attempt now.

Among the causes of the breakdown some give the first place to the secrecy in which the negotiations were conducted. Others put it down to the delay in throwing the agreement that had been reached into the form of a bill. Still others hold that the Prime Minister's hesitancy in the face of Lord Lansdowne's opposition was the fatal turning point. And others again declare that the differences between the settlement that Sir E. Carson and Mr. Redmond had assented to and the provisions of the bill that was supposed to embody the terms of that settlement were what really brought the scheme to the ground. Undoubtedly all these factors helped. It was a mistake not to publish the agreement as soon as it had been arrived at and so enlist as much public opinion as possible on its side. It was a not less serious error to allow a whole month to go by without putting the agreement into legislative shape and submitting it to Parliament. It was a blunder, but a very characteristic one, on Mr. Asquith's part not to stretch his authority to the utmost, summon up all his driving power and insist on the Unionist opposition either accepting the proposals or leaving the Cabinet. And it was a grave misfortune that the draft bill departed in one or two not unimportant particulars from the terms of the settlement to which Mr. Lloyd George had won the reluctant assent of the Irish Nationalist and the Irish Unionist leaders.

But while each and all of these factors contributed to the ultimate fiasco they were not the determining factors. They were much less potent, both singly and collectively, than another factor, the existence of which is still almost unrealized in Great Britain and very possibly is not even suspected in the United States—I mean the intense and universal unpopularity of the Lloyd George settlement in Ireland itself. It had no friends. About two Irish papers apologized for it; the rest busily and without difficulty tore it to pieces. You could not have got a free public meeting in any of the four provinces to endorse it. That is the fundamental thing to be understood in the whole wretched business. It was not a case of England refusing Home Rule to Ireland. It was a case of Ireland declining to accept Home Rule on the terms on which it was offered to her.

But how, it may be urged, can that possibly be the case? Were not the terms of the Lloyd George settlement accepted by Sir E. Carson and ratified at a convention of Ulster Unionists? Were they not equally accepted by the official representatives of the Irish Nationalists and also endorsed by a party convention? They were. And in that fact lies the mystery which the ordinary Englishman finds insoluble. But it ought not to be insoluble by Americans. Americans know what preposterous authority such gatherings throw into the hands of the political machine and how very far the machine leaders may be from representing the views of their professed followers. They know all this. But Englishmen do not. Conventions are not a device of English politics. Similarly, Englishmen have next to no experience in their own country of the realities of machine politics? There exist, of political organizations in England, but they are infinitely less rigid and mechanical than similar bodies in Ireland and the United States. There is nothing in England that at all corresponds to that common phenomenon of Irish and American affairs—the spectacle of a compact and disciplined group of politicians, with their hands on every lever of the party machine and claiming to speak for "the people" when they are really only speaking for themselves. When Englishmen heard that, as the result of Mr. Lloyd-George's efforts, Sir E. Carson and Mr. Redmond had reached an agreement, they regarded the whole question as settled. It never occurred to them to ask how far these leaders were actually entitled to commit their followers or whether Irish opinion was behind them.

Irish opinion, as a matter of fact, very 'largely diagnosed the Lloyd George scheme as an attempt to save the face of the Nationalist party; and Irish opinion, and especially Irish Nationalist opinion, has no particular affection just now for the Nationalist party. The root causes of the Easter Monday rising in Dublin were at least as much anti-Redmond as they were anti-British. The Sinn Fein element, the remnants of the old Fenian element and the new syndicalist labor element were united by a common antagonism to the Nationalist organization. The insurrection that they engineered brought down Dublin Castle, but it also severely damaged the Parliamentarians. Something had happened, a very dramatic something, which they had said would never happen. The rebellion was conceived without their knowledge; it was aimed directly at their policies and their authority; on their advice all the signs that it was coming had been disregarded; they believed the storm would never burst; and when it did burst their influence and standing were the first to suffer.

The government made nearly every possible mistake in dealing with the aftermath of the revolt. It court-martialed and shot about a dozen of the leaders without publishing either the charge against them or the evidence on which they were convicted. It then plunged into a policy of indiscriminate arrests all over the country, filled the prisons with pretty nearly all against whom the police cared to lay information, and is now releasing them by scores and hundreds to carry back to their villages tales of their sufferings in "British dungeons" and so pose as the victims of "British tyranny." I do not know for certain what the great mass of the Irish people thought of the rebellion. But there is no doubt that the actions of the government have driven them into a tumult of sympathy with the rebels and that Ireland at this moment is a seething pot of passions unknown since the agrarian troubles and only restrained by Sir John Maxwell's 40,000 troops. Neither do I know for certain whether the "golden opportunity," which the Prime Minister during his visit to Dublin thought he detected, for a settlement of the Irish problem, had any real existence. But there can be little question that, even assuming it to have been a thing of substance and not a mirage, he went about the business of grasping it in the wrong way.

The wrong way, because if anything has been underscored time and again of recent years in Ireland, and especially by the disturbances of Easter Monday, it is the failure of the Nationalist party to reflect or even to understand the true sentiments of Nationalist Ireland. The same disability applies to some extent to the Irish Unionist party, but it is conspicuous and undeniable in the case of the Nationalists; and there are large bodies of Irish opinion that find no expression in either party. When, therefore, the Prime Minister entrusted the settlement solely to the Nationalist and Unionist organizations, with Mr. Lloyd George as the mediator between them, it meant that he was seeking a purely political and Parliamentary solution and had no intention of consulting or eliciting the genuine opinion of Ireland. The moral of the Councils Bill fiasco of 1907—a bill accepted by the Nationalist leaders at Westminster and heatedly rejected by Nationalist opinion in Ireland—was something he clean forgot

But if his method of approach was faulty, still more so was the scheme that was evolved from the negotiations. It had in the eyes of all Nationalists in Ireland, of all the moderate men, and, I should say of nearly all Ulster, two fatal defects. The first was that it dismembered Ireland. It placed three-fourths of the country under Home Rule and it left six counties in Ulster under the Imperial Parliament. Now the whole claim of the Nationalist party to Home Rule is based upon the argument that Ireland is a nation. Yet here was this same party agreeing to a scheme that flatly contradicted the very idea of nationality. They did it, of course, because there was no other way of getting round the Ulster difficulty, and they probably had little idea of how vehemently their followers in the country would resent this sacrilege offered to the ideal of a united Ireland. The second defect of the Lloyd George scheme was that it proposed to set up in Dublin without an election, without in any way consulting the Irish people, a parliament that was to be mainly nominated from the ranks of the present Nationalist M. App.'s at Westminster—of men, that is to say, who were chosen some years ago, on dead and forgotten issues to represent Nationalist Ireland in the British Parliament, who had just proved how signally they were out of touch with the Irish mind and Irish activities, who were in many instances not at all the sort of men whom Irishmen would think of sending to a parliament of their own, and who none the less were to be imposed upon their disgusted fellow-countrymen and put in complete possession of the patronage that would enable them to build up an indestructible machine.

But why, it may be asked, could not an election have been specially held to inaugurate the new Home Rule parliament? For many reasons, two of which were final. The first was that in the present temper of Ireland it was doubtful how many of the existing Nationalist M. App.'s stood any chance of being returned to the Dublin legislature. The second was that to keep the peace among the innumerable factions that would at once have jumped into the arena, the British Government would have had to double and perhaps more than double Sir John Maxwell's force.

Against these features of the settlement popular feeling thruout Ireland was not merely arrayed but inflamed. Had it been otherwise, had the scheme been received with even tolerable favor, had it been possible to pretend that it was anything but nauseating to Irish instincts would Mr. Redmond have thrown it over on a clearly minor pretext?

Yet this is what he did. It is clear, from the debates in Parliament, that the position of Ulster was settled in fact if not in words between the parties. But Mr. Redmond had asked for an undiminished representation of the Irish members at Westminster for the term of the agreement—that is, for the duration of the war, for twelve months afterward, and possibly for considerably longer. Sir E. Carson and Mr. Lloyd George had both agreed to this, but the British Unionists in the cabinet took alarm at it. They pointed out that the Home Rule act provided that when Home Rule was in operation the Irish members in the Parliament at Westminster should be cut down from 103 to 42; and they refused to assent to the proposal that the Irish, while governing three-fourths of Ireland from Dublin, should also govern, or very largely govern, Great Britain from Westminster by continuing to send 103 members to the Imperial Legislature. What, therefore, Mr. Redmond was (1) an ultimately undiminished representation until the next general election; (2) after that the smaller contingent of 42 provided in the Home Rule act: and (3) a full representation of 103 whenever Parliament took in hand the permanent settlement of the form of Irish government. A difference certainly. But not a difference big enough to warrant the abandonment of any scheme on which Ireland had really set its heart. It was because on this scheme Ireland had set not its heart but its boot, that the Nationalist leader could not merely afford to make a mountain out of a molehill but found it politically expedient to do so.

The unqualified hostility of Irish opinion in Ireland was thus what killed the Lloyd George settlement. Whether the Home Rule act has also died with it remains to be seen. From all the turmoil of the last few weeks there do, at any rate, seem to emerge two established facts. One is that Ulster must be excluded from the scope of Home Rule. The other is that Home Rule without Ulster is unacceptable to Nationalist feeling in Ireland. I see no chance yet awhile of persuading Ulster to abandon her opposition and the idea of coercing 'her has been given up, even if it were ever entertained, by common consent. Nor do I see a much better chance of educating Nationalist feeling into the belief that half a loaf is better than no bread and that a Home Rule parliament, once established in Dublin, would sooner or later, providing it conducted itself with good sense, attract within its orbit the men of the "black North."

Is there then no way out? I believe there is if only we British, who have just added one more to our numberless blunders in Irish affairs, would now confess our incapacity and, turn over to the Irish themselves the problem of deciding how Ireland is to be governed, during the war and the first crucial year of peace. The land question, remember, a far older and more contentious question, was settled by a round-table and really representative conference of Irishmen only. If a similar gathering were summoned today a solution of the problem of Irish government would, I think, be forthcoming. I doubt whether any solution is possible at Westminster. A solution can come only from Ireland as the handiwork of Irish statesmanship. An authoritative conference of Irishmen only, including the politicians, but not confined to them, and expressive of genuine Irish thought and sentiment, is in my judgment the only agency that can work out a satisfactory scheme of Irish government. But both Great Britain and Ireland may have to go thru some distressing times before that fact becomes universally recognized and acted upon.

London, July 29

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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