Why Did Unionists Oppose Home Rule Essay


In 1900, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (the 'Fenians' or IRB) began to regroup: they had been doing very little since their failed rebellion of 1867. They were a group of hard-line Irish Republicans who began to recruit volunteers for a future rebellion against British Rule. In 1905 a Dubliner named Arthur Griffith set up a new political party, called Sinn F�in. It was a Republican party and was vehemently against Home Rule, which it regarded as falling too short of what was needed. It supported a completely independent republic consisting of the whole island of Ireland.

In the 1909 General Election, there was a hung Parliament when the Liberals and the Conservatives both won exactly 272 seats. For John Redmond, the leader of the 84-seat Home Rule Party, this was an ideal situation to get what he wanted - both sides needed the support of his party to form a government, so he could ask for almost anything he wanted. The way things were at the time, the only way the Hung Parliament situation could be resolved was if the power of the House of Lords was reduced. The Liberals introduced the Parliament Act to make this change, but they needed more than 272 votes to ensure that it was passed. Redmond agreed to support the Liberal's Parliament Act in return for another Home Rule Bill. The Act was duly passed, and the House of Lords' powers were reduced.

The Liberals were now obligated to introduce the Third Home Rule Bill, in 1912. They were more reluctant than they had been in the past, but the Conservatives had more Unionist support than ever before. When the Bill was discussed, the Conservatives fiercely campaigned to have the Unionist north east of Ireland treated separately from the rest of the island. They argued that the Protestants of Ulster constituted a separate Irish nation. They hoped this argument would stop Home Rule being introduced, since it would, they believed, result in a volatile Ireland containing two national identities. The two prime Unionist speakers were Sir Edward Carson (leader of the Unionists) and Sir James Craig.

In Belfast, tensions were so high over the Bill that spontaneous rioting kept breaking out between the Catholic and Protestant residents of the City. On 28 September 1912, Craig introduced the 'Ulster Covenant', which people could sign to pledge their determination to defeat the Third Home Rule Bill. It was a huge success and 450,000 Irish people signed it, some in their own blood. The week came to a climax on 28 September 1912, which was known as Ulster Day. The whole event was remarkably peaceful, considering the tension, and received huge publicity in Britain.

As the Bill was discussed, one proposition put forward was that the 4 counties with a Unionist majority (Antrim, Down, Londonderry and Armagh) could be left out of the Home Rule scheme. This was proposed as a compromise, since both sides were threatening to use force if the other got their way. At first the Unionists were horrified, since it made Home Rule much more likely, but they quickly resigned themselves to the idea. Many of them decided they would need a back up military force as 'insurance' to make certain that at least Ulster was left out of Home Rule. So in January 1913, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) was set up. Thousands of Unionists joined, and they met in Orange Halls around Ulster. The only thing missing was weapons. On 24/25 April 1914, 25,000 rifles and 3,000,000 bullets were illegally landed by the UVF at Larne, Bangor and Donaghadee, all near Belfast. Since the police in these areas did not try to stop the landings, the Nationalists felt that the police were in league with the UVF.

By the end of 1913 (the Bill was still being debated) the Nationalists realised that the Liberal government was likely to agree with the Conservatives and leave part of Ulster out of Home Rule. They were horrified, as they felt an Irish nation could only be forged with the whole island included in Home Rule. So some of them set up their own military force, the Irish Volunteer Force (IVF) in November 1913. It recruited even more men than the UVF. Since many Nationalists felt that the Home Rule leader, John Redmond, was ready to compromise Ireland, Redmond was frightened by the size of the IVF. The IVF landed 1,500 rifles and 45,000 bullets at Howth, near Dublin, on 26 July 1914. In this case, the police did intervene and shot 3 people dead. It looked as if the police were treating the UVF and IVF very differently.

In March 1914, the government introduced a new scheme, which it hoped would prevent a Civil War between the UVF and IVF. This was called the 'County Option Scheme', under which each county in Ireland would vote whether or not to join Home Rule. If it said No then it would be outside Home Rule for 6 years. Under this, the 4 eastern counties in Ulster (Antrim, Armagh, Down and Londonderry) would be out of Home Rule. But the Unionists felt that if the dug in their heels, they could get counties Tyrone and Fermanagh out of Home Rule too, even though they had a slim Nationalist majority (about 56%).

Home Rule came to dominate domestic British politics in the era 1885 to the start of WorldWar One. Home Rule effectively started in Ireland in 1870 but in British politics, Gladstone was converted to it in the 1880’s.  Home Rule was the name given to the process of allowing Ireland more say in how it was governed – freeing them from the rule of London and thus appeasing those in Ireland who wanted Ireland to have more home derived power.

One of the main barriers to Home Rule for decades had been the House of Lords. In 1911, the Parliament Act effectively reduced their power to that of delay as opposed to one of outright rejection. In 1886 and 1893, there had been two Home Rule bills but both were rejected and killed off by the Lords. The House of Lords saw the introduction of Home Rule as the start of the process whereby the power of London was reduced, first in Ireland – and then where else? The leader of the Irish Nationalist Party, John Redmond, had stated quite clearly in 1910 that it was the Lord’s veto alone that came between Ireland and a successful Home Rule bill.

In 1910, Herbert Asquith’s Liberal government had fought two general elections and they only held onto power by forming political alliances. In 1910, this was with the Irish Nationalist Party. In exchange for supporting the government, Redmond wanted something in return – Home Rule.

However, Home Rule was not a political vote winner for the Liberals and Asquith. When the Lords rejected the Home Rule bills of 1886 and 1893, there was barely a whimper of protest in mainland Britain.Gladstone’s crusade in the 1880’s and 1890’s was not matched even in the Liberal Party. Even Asquith was not a natural supporter of Home Rule. In 1902, he said:

“Is it to be part of the policy and programme of our party that, if returned to power, it will introduce into the House of Commons a bill for Irish Home Rule? The answer, in my judgment, is No.”
However, by 1910, Asquith was not in the position to bargain. If he wanted power in Britain as a whole, he needed Redmond’s support. During the two election campaigns of 1910, very few campaigning Liberal politicians even mentioned Home Rule. It was as if there was an attempt to bury the issue in mainland Britain – especially as it was known to be a contentious issue amongst the voting public at large. Even senior Liberal politicians were not in favour of Home Rule in 1910: Asquith, at best, was lukewarm; Sir Edward Grey was barely in favour of it; Lloyd George and Winston Churchill were more concerned with social reforms to the welfare system than with Ireland.

Redmond knew exactly where he stood with the Liberals. No-one could call the relationship between the Liberals and the Irish Nationalists a positive one and Redmond did not delude himself about this. However, in 1910, he was very much the reason why Asquith found himself Prime Minister again. Redmond could push for a speedy introduction of a Home Rule Bill but he had little control over what details was in it.

One of the major problems faced by Asquith was appeasing those in the region known as Ulster who were against any form of Home Rule.

The opposition to Asquith in Parliament had now adopted the title the Unionist Party. It comprised of an assortment of parties but was dominated by the Conservative Party. They were naturally opposed to Home Rule. Before 1910, the Unionists had put their faith in the House of Lords rejecting any form of Home Rule Bill – as proved to be the case in 1886 and 1893. After the Parliament Act of 1911, they could no longer do this. The Unionists feared that any form of Home Rule would lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom. In this they had the full support of many.

Some Unionists like George Wyndham, believed that the country had every reason to use every means at its disposal to stop Home Rule in its tracks – including using the army to stop Asquith!

“(The Tories and the King) have the money, the Army and the Navy and the Territorials, all down to the Boy Scouts. Why then should they consent to a change in the constitution without fighting?” (Wyndham)

By 1911, the Unionists were led by Arthur Bonar Law who was against Home Rule. However, despite all the arguments for and against Home Rule, a Home Rule Bill was introduced into Parliament in April 1912. Its contents were similar to the ones of 1886 and 1893. It would introduce:

1. Purely Irish questions would be dealt with by an Irish Parliament

2. Parliament in Westminster would deal with all issues relating to the crown, army and navy, foreign policy and custom duties.

3. Irish members would still be in Westminster.

Asquith saw this bill as the start of a process that would free up Westminster from would could be seen as local issues to deal with more important imperial issues – especially as Britain was the world’s largest imperial power. In this sense, the Home Rule Bill was the start of a devolutionary process. Asquith knew that the Lords would not support the bill. He also knew that he had about two years from the start of the process (the bill being introduced) before time ran out to get a compromise through. In a letter to Winston Churchill, it is clear that Asquith knew that a compromise was needed:

“I always thought that, in the end, we should probably have to make some sort of bargain about Ulster as the price of Home Rule.”

However, all talk of Home Rule ended when World War One broke out. Redmond agreed that the issue should be postponed for the duration of the war. Many in Ireland agreed that this was the patriotic thing to do – even staunch supporters of Home Rule. They saw the threat of Germany as being a far greater issue to overcome. Many Irishmen joined the call to arms and fought in Western Europe. However, there were those who were greatly angered by what they saw as Redmond’s acquiescence to Westminster, even if they were small in number. It was these people – James Connolly, Patrick Pearse, Eamonn de Valera etc. – who led theEaster Uprising in 1916.

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