Irish Home Rule Bill Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Irish Home Rule Bill marked the collision of Irish nationalism and British party politics, bringing about a constitutional crisis that nearly resulted in the enactment of a law that could not be enforced.

Summary of Event

The Act of Union of 1800, which established the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, had never been popular either in Catholic Ireland or in Protestant Ulster. When Catholic Irish Nationalists sought the restoration of the Irish parliament, or home rule, during the nineteenth century, Ulster Protestants, fearing for their safety, turned to the Conservative Party for help. In the 1880’s the matter became important in British politics when the Irish Nationalist Party Irish Nationalist Party delegates, led by Charles Stewart Parnell, Parnell, Charles Stewart used their 85 votes to keep the Liberal Party in power in exchange for home rule. As a result, William Ewart Gladstone’s Gladstone, William Ewart Liberal government introduced the first Home Rule Bill in 1886, but it was defeated by 30 votes, and part of the Liberal Party, the Liberal Unionists, Liberal Unionists (Great Britain) broke away to join with the Conservatives. Gladstone’s second Home Rule Bill passed the House of Commons by 34 votes in 1893, but it was overwhelmed in the House of Lords by a vote of 419 to 41. Irish Home Rule Bill Ireland;home rule Home rule, Ireland [kw]Irish Home Rule Bill (Sept. 15, 1914) [kw]Home Rule Bill, Irish (Sept. 15, 1914) Irish Home Rule Bill Ireland;home rule Home rule, Ireland [g]England;Sept. 15, 1914: Irish Home Rule Bill[03590] [g]Ireland;Sept. 15, 1914: Irish Home Rule Bill[03590] [c]Government and politics;Sept. 15, 1914: Irish Home Rule Bill[03590] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Sept. 15, 1914: Irish Home Rule Bill[03590] Asquith, H. H. Carson, Sir Edward Churchill, Winston [p]Churchill, Winston;Irish Home Rule Bill Craig, James Law, Bonar Lloyd George, David MacNeill, Eoin Pearse, Patrick Henry Redmond, John Smith, Frederick Edwin

In succeeding years Conservative-Unionist governments tried unsuccessfully to divert Irish attention from home rule by a series of economic reforms. John Redmond, a good parliamentarian and an orator of repute, became leader of the united Irish Nationalist Party in the House of Commons in 1900, but as neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives needed Irish votes, no progress was made until 1910. In the campaign of that year, the Liberals supported home rule but lost so many seats that they needed the votes of the Irish Nationalists to form a cabinet and pass their legislative program. A new Home Rule Bill for Ireland was assured as a result of this political necessity. The obstacle to such a measure in the House of Lords had been removed with the passage of the Parliament Act of 1911, Parliament Act (1911) which had reduced the power of the upper chamber.

The third Home Rule Bill was introduced into the House of Commons on April 11, 1912, by H. H. Asquith, the Liberal prime minister, and managed by Winston Churchill, who was then Liberal leader in the House of Commons and a strong proponent of home rule. The provisions of the bill were similar to those of the earlier bills, which had proposed an Irish parliament in Dublin while reserving for the British parliament at Westminster control over foreign affairs, customs duties, and defense. The number of Irish members of Parliament at Westminster would be cut by half, to forty-two.

Redmond and the Irish Nationalists praised the bill and argued that it would strengthen the relationship between Great Britain and Ireland. Liberal leaders defended it as a rightful measure of self-determination and noted that home rule would relieve the British parliament from being burdened by local Irish affairs. The Home Rule Bill met bitter opposition from the Unionists, including both the Conservative-Unionists and the Ulster Unionists. With the Conservative Party having lost three consecutive elections, newly elected Conservative Party leader Bonar Law seized on Unionism as a means by which he could reunite a badly divided party. Sir Edward Carson’s goal was simpler: protection of the rights of Ulster, present-day Northern Ireland. This area was predominantly Protestant Scots-Irish and somewhat industrialized; the residents were bitterly opposed to joining the more rural Catholic south. The situation was complicated by the presence of a large Catholic minority in Ulster and a smaller but influential Protestant minority in the south of Ireland. Partition, however, was opposed by both sides. Irish Nationalists opposed it because they wanted Ireland to remain one nation, and the Ulster Protestants fought it because they did not wish to abandon the Protestants in the south. Ulster Unionists also argued that they were loyal Protestant Britons who were being sacrificed to disloyal Catholic Irishmen for the sake of political expediency. They were convinced that the Catholic Irish would persecute them religiously and economically.

The debate in the House of Commons was heated and disorderly, but the Liberal-Irish coalition had the votes and the Home Rule Bill passed the Commons on January 16, 1913. The House of Lords rejected it by a huge majority, as expected, which meant that the bill would have to be passed again by the Commons at its next two sessions to overcome the Lords’ veto. Nevertheless, it was almost certain to pass, as the same Parliament would still be in session. Second passage was accomplished in the Commons on July 7, 1913; eight days later, the Lords again rejected the bill in uncompromising fashion.

It was clear that, if constitutional means were followed, there was no real obstacle to the Home Rule Bill becoming law in 1914. Thus Ulster Protestants and Conservative-Unionists were willing to use any means, even apparently unconstitutional ones, to stop home rule. At first, the Liberal government did not consider the threat of rebellion in Ulster to be real, and they believed that the situation would settle down if they avoided provocation. Carson was aware that some hard-line Protestants favored overt action against the bill, and he undertook measures that he hoped would control and direct Ulster Protestant emotions. A “covenant” was drawn up containing a total of 470,000 signatures, and the Ulster Unionists began to drill a militia, the “Ulster Volunteers.” The Conservative-Unionist leaders, Bonar Law, Frederick Edwin Smith, and others, openly supported these measures in speeches throughout Great Britain. It was hoped that rhetoric and demonstrations could force the Liberal-Irish Nationalist coalition to the bargaining table.

Southern Irish Nationalists were much upset by Ulster’s defiance and by the Liberal government’s weakness in the face of Ulster threats. Although Redmond continued to support Asquith and Parliament, other Irishmen became convinced of the need for stronger measures and for more than home rule. Groups such as the Irish Republicans and certain labor unions urged the south to imitate Ulster’s tactics. In November 1913, the Nationalist Volunteers, led by their founder, Eoin MacNeill, and by Patrick Henry Pearse, leader of Sinn Féin, Sinn Féin began to drill in the south. In the face of such threats, Asquith backed down to some extent when the Home Rule Bill passed the Commons for the third and last time in March, 1914. He compromised by adding an Amending Bill, crafted by David Lloyd George, which provided a six-year exclusion clause for Ulster. Reluctantly, Redmond accepted it, but Nationalist groups objected. Neither Carson nor Law would, or could, accept the compromise.

Tragically, other events quickly outpaced the parliamentary leadership. In late March, the so-called Mutiny at the Curragh Mutiny at the Curragh apparently left the government with the prospect of a Home Rule Act that it could not enforce. Under the leadership of James Craig, German rifles were smuggled to the Ulster Defense Force; weapons were now poised behind words. With the Nationalist Volunteers in the south growing in influence and restlessness, Redmond unwillingly took command of them in May to avoid a split with MacNeill and Pearse. In this atmosphere, the Home Rule Bill passed the Commons on May 25, and the Amending Bill passed on June 23. The House of Lords again amended the Bills far beyond what Asquith could accept. When Carson proclaimed the “Ulster Provisional Government” on July 12, Britain appeared poised on the brink of civil confrontation. King George V called a conference at Buckingham Palace on July 21, but the questions of permanent exclusion and the boundaries of Ulster could not be solved, and the conference broke up. The situation became even more tense when, on July 26, after some guns had been smuggled into town, British troops fired on an angry Irish crowd in Bachelors’ Walk, Dublin, killing three and wounding many others.

Austria declared war on Serbia the next day, however, and Great Britain was plunged into World War I by August 4. There does appear to have been a collective sigh of relief when those events forced home rule to the back burner. Redmond, Carson, and Law all agreed to postpone the Amending Bill until the end of hostilities in Europe. Redmond, in a loudly applauded speech, stated that his Irish Nationalist Volunteers would aid Great Britain; the Ulster Defense Force volunteered en masse to serve in the British army. Finally, on September 15, 1914, the Home Rule Bill became law, but its operations were suspended for the duration of the war. Nevertheless, home rule was dead, and the radical elements in Ireland soon split from Redmond. Eventually they were responsible for the Easter Rebellion of 1916 and for civil war after 1918.

Significance

The passage of the Home Rule Bill had profound effects on both Great Britain and Ireland. The Conservative-Unionist preaching of revolution seriously threatened the entire parliamentary system of government. Tragically, the danger of hyperbolic rhetoric is that there are always some individuals who take the arguments seriously and literally. Radical Irish groups, Protestant and Catholic, did so and broke with parliamentary tactics. The battle over the bill itself resulted in great domestic unrest throughout Ireland, and only the outbreak of World War I prevented an ominous constitutional crisis, and possibly even a bloody civil war, in Great Britain and Ireland. Ultimately, the failure to enforce home rule helped to sever the bonds between Great Britain and Ireland, preparing the way for the Irish Rebellion and eventual independence. Ulster opposition to home rule also resulted in the partition of Ireland that split off Northern Ireland from the rest of the island. Irish Home Rule Bill Ireland;home rule Home rule, Ireland

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bew, Paul. Ideology and the Irish Question: Ulster Unionism and Irish Unionism, 1912-1916. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Contends that conciliation was viable before the Easter Rising of 1916 brought Sinn Féin to dominance. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blake, Robert. The Unknown Prime Minister. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1955. A summary of Bonar Law’s role in the home rule crisis that provides insight into the motivations of the Conservative-Unionist leadership.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boyce, D. G. The Irish Question and British Politics, 1868-1986. 2d ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. An overview of the use of the Irish question by political parties during the period. Includes maps, appendixes, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dangerfield, George. The Strange Death of Liberal England, 1910-1914. 1935. Reprint. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997. Provides brilliant exposition of the turmoil in Great Britain in the years just before World War I, but presents conclusions that require careful scrutiny.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hughes, Michael. Ireland Divided: The Roots of the Modern Irish Problem. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994. Examines the nationalistic ideas and myths that provide the underpinnings of the various Irish groups.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jalland, Patricia. The Liberals and Ireland: The Ulster Question in British Politics to 1914. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980. Provides an overview of the Irish question as a political issue in Britain and its effect on the Liberal Party.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Laffan, Michael. The Partition of Ireland, 1911-1925. Dundalk, Ireland: Dundalgan Press, 1983. Presents a narrative of the issues and events surrounding the partition, from the time of the introduction of home rule.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mansergh, Nicholas. The Unresolved Question: The Anglo-Irish Settlement and Its Undoing, 1912-1972. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991. Presents important analysis of the long-range impact of the failure of compromise.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stewart, A. T. Q. The Irish Question. London: Edward Arnold, 1986. Brief, well-balanced account written by an Ulster Unionist historian.

Sinn Féin Is Founded

Parliament Act Redefines British Democracy

Easter Rebellion

Ireland Is Granted Home Rule and Northern Ireland Is Created

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