The Irish Convention

Ronald McNeill
Chapter XXII

After the failure of Mr. Lloyd George's negotiations for settlement in the summer of 1916 the Nationalists practically dropped all pretence of helping the Government to carry on the war. They were, no doubt, beginning to realise how completely they were losing hold of the people of Southern Ireland, and that the only chance of regaining their vanishing popularity was by an attitude of hostility to the British Government.

Frequently during the autumn and winter they raised debates in Parliament on the demand that the Home Rule Act should immediately come into operation, and threatened that if this were not done recruits from Ireland would not be forthcoming, although the need for men was now a matter of great national urgency. They ignored the fact that Mr. Redmond was a consenting party to Mr. Asquith's policy of holding Home Rule in abeyance till after the war, and attempted to explain away their own loss of influence in Ireland by alleging that the exasperation of the Irish people at the delay in obtaining "self-government" was the cause of their alienation from England, and of the growth of Sinn Fein.

In December 1916 the Asquith Government came to an end, and Mr. Lloyd George became Prime Minister. He had shown his estimate of Sir Edward Carson's statesmanship by pressing Mr. Asquith to entrust the entire conduct of the war to a Committee of four, of whom the Ulster leader should be one; and, having failed in this attempt to infuse energy and decision into the counsels of his Chief, he turned him out and formed a Ministry with Carson in the office of First Lord of the Admiralty, at that time one of the most vital in the Government. Colonel James Craig also joined the Ministry as Treasurer of the Household.

The change of Government did nothing to alter the attitude of the Nationalists, unless, indeed, the return of Carson to high office added to the fierceness of their attacks. On the 26th of February 1917—just when "unrestricted submarine warfare" was bringing the country into its greatest peril—Mr. Dillon called upon the Government to release twenty-eight men who had been deported from Ireland, and who were declared by Mr. Duke, the Chief Secretary, to have been deeply implicated in the Easter rebellion of the previous year; and a week later Mr. T. P. O'Connor returned to the charge with another demand for Home Rule without further ado.

The debate on Mr. O'Connor's motion on the 7th of March was made memorable by the speech of Major William Redmond, home on leave from the trenches in France, whose sincere and impassioned appeal for oblivion of old historic quarrels between Irish Catholics and Protestants, who were at that moment fighting and dying side by side in France, made a deep impression on the House of Commons and the country. And when this gallant officer fell in action not long afterwards and was carried out of the firing line by Ulster soldiers, his speech on the 7th of March was recalled and made the peg on which to hang many adjurations to Ulster to come into line with their Nationalist fellow-countrymen of the South.

Such appeals revealed a curious inability to grasp the realities of the situation. Men spoke and wrote as if it were something new and wonderful for Irishmen of the "two nations" to be found fighting side by side in the British Army—as if the same thing had not been seen in the Peninsula, in the Crimea, on the Indian frontier, in South Africa, and in many another fight. Ulstermen, like everybody else who knew Major Redmond, deplored the loss of a very gallant officer and a very lovable man. But they could not understand why his death should be made a reason for a change in their political convictions. When Major Arthur O'Neill, an Ulster member, was killed in action in 1914, no one had suggested that Nationalists should on that account turn Unionists. Why, they wondered, should Unionists any more turn Nationalists because a Nationalist M.P. had made the same supreme sacrifice? All this sentimental talk of that time was founded on the misconception that Ulster's attachment to the Union was the result of personal prejudice against Catholics of the South, instead of being, as it was, a deliberate and reasoned conviction as to the best government for Ireland.

This distinction was clearly brought out in the same debate by Sir John Lonsdale, who, when Carson became a member of the Cabinet, had been elected leader of the Ulster Party in the House of Commons; and an emphatic pronouncement, which went to the root of the controversy, was made in reply to the Nationalists by the Prime Minister. In the north-eastern portion of Ireland, he said:

"You have a population as hostile to Irish rule as the rest of Ireland is to British rule, yea, and as ready to rebel against it as the rest of Ireland is against British rule—as alien in blood, in religious faith, in traditions, in outlook—as alien from the rest of Ireland in this respect as the inhabitants of Fife or Aberdeen. To place them under National rule against their will would be as glaring an outrage on the principles of liberty and self-government as the denial of self-government would be for the rest of Ireland."

The Government were, therefore, prepared, said Mr. Lloyd George, to bring in Home Rule immediately for that part of Ireland that wanted it, but not for the Northern part which did not want it. Mr. Redmond made a fine display of indignation at this refusal to coerce Ulster; and, in imitation of the Unionists in 1914, marched out of the House at the head of his party. Next day he issued a manifesto to men of Irish blood in the United States and in the Dominions, calling on them to use all means in their power to exert pressure on the British Government. It was clear that this sort of thing could not be tolerated in the middle of a war in which Great Britain was fighting for her life, and at a crisis in it when her fortunes were far from prosperous. Accordingly, on the 16th of March Mr. Bonar Law warned the Nationalists that their conduct might make it necessary to appeal to the country on the ground that they were obstructing the prosecution of the war. But he also announced that the Cabinet intended to make one more attempt to arrive at a settlement of the apparently insoluble problem of Irish government.

Two months passed before it was made known how this attempt was to be made. On the 16th of May the Prime Minister addressed a letter in duplicate to Mr. Redmond and Sir John Lonsdale, representing the two Irish parties respectively, in which he put forward for their consideration two alternative methods of procedure, after premising that the Government felt precluded from proposing during the war any measures except such as "would be substantially accepted by both sides."

These alternatives were: (a) a "Bill for the immediate application of the Home Rule Act to Ireland, but excluding therefrom the six counties of North-East Ulster," or, (b) a Convention of Irishmen "for the purpose of drafting a Constitution . . . which should secure a just balance of all the opposing interests." Sir John Lonsdale replied to the Prime Minister that he would take the Government's first proposal to Belfast for consideration by the Council; but as Mr. Redmond, on the other hand, peremptorily refused to have anything to say to it, it became necessary to fall back on the other alternative, namely the assembling of an Irish Convention.

The members chosen to sit in the Convention were to be "representative men" in Emerson's meaning of the words, but not in the democratic sense as deriving their authority from direct popular election. Certain political organisations and parties were each invited to nominate a certain number; the Churches were represented by their leading clergy; men occupying public positions, such as chairmen of local authorities, were given ex-officio seats; and a certain number were nominated by the Government. The total membership of this variegated assembly was ninety-five. The Sinn Fein party were invited to join, but refused to have anything to do with it, declaring that they Would consider nothing short of complete independence for Ireland. The majority of the Irish people thus stood aloof from the Convention altogether.

As the purpose for which the Convention was called was quickly lost sight of by many, and by none more than its Chairman, it is well to remember what that purpose was. If it had not been for the opposition of Ulster, the Home Rule Act of 1914 would have been in force for years, and none of the many attempts at settlement would have been necessary. The one and only thing required was to reconcile, if possible, the aspirations of Ulster with those of the rest of Ireland. That was the purpose, and the only purpose, of the Convention; and in the letter addressed to Sir John Lonsdale equally with Mr. Redmond, the Prime Minister distinctly laid it down that unless its conclusions were accepted "by both sides," nothing could come of it. To leave no shadow of doubt on this point Mr. Bonar Law, in reply to a specific question, said that there could be no "substantial agreement" to which Ulster was not a party.

It is necessary to emphasise this point, because for such a purpose the heterogeneous conglomeration of Nationalists of all shades that formed the great majority of the Convention was worse than useless. The Convention was in reality a bi-lateral conference, in which one of the two sides was four times as numerous as the other. Yet much party capital was subsequently made of the fact that the Nationalist members agreed upon a scheme of Home Rule—an achievement which had no element of the miraculous or even of the unexpected about it.

Notwithstanding that the Sinn Fein party had displayed their contempt for the Convention, and under the delusion that it would "create an atmosphere of good-will" for its meeting, the Government released without condition or reservation all the prisoners concerned in the Easter rebellion of 1916. It was like playing a penny whistle to conciliate a cobra. The prisoners, from whose minds nothing was further than any thought of good-will to England, were received by the populace in Dublin with a rapturous ovation, their triumphal procession being headed by Mr. De Valera, who was soon afterwards elected member for East Clare by a majority of nearly thirty thousand.

Four months later, the Chief Secretary told Parliament that the young men of Southern Ireland, who had refused to serve in the Army, were being enrolled in preparation for another rebellion.

It was only after some hesitation that the Ulster Unionist Council decided not to hold aloof from the Convention, as the Sinn Feiners did. Carson accompanied Sir John Lonsdale to Belfast and explained the explicit pledges by Ministers that participation would not commit them to anything, that they would not be bound by any majority vote, and that without their concurrence no legislation was to be founded on any agreement between the other groups in the Convention; he also urged that Ulster could not refuse to do what the Government held would be helpful in the prosecution of the war.

The invitation to nominate five delegates was therefore accepted; and when the membership of the Convention was complete there were nineteen out of ninety-five who could be reckoned as supporters in general of the Ulster point of view. Among them were the Primate, the Moderator of the General Assembly, the Duke of Abercorn, the Marquis of Londonderry, Mr. H. M. Pollock, Chairman of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce, one Labour representative, Mr. J. Hanna, and the Lord Mayors of Belfast and Derry. It was agreed that Mr. H. T. Barrie, member for North Derry, should act as chairman and leader of the Ulster group, and he discharged this difficult duty with unfailing tact and ability.

There was some difficulty in finding a suitable Chairman, for no party was willing to accept any strong man opposed to their own views, while an impartial man was not to be found in Ireland. Eventually the choice fell on Sir Horace Plunkett as a gentleman who, if eagerly supported by none, was accepted by each group as preferable to a more formidable opponent. Sir Horace made no pretence of impartiality. Whatever influence he possessed was used as a partisan of the Nationalists. He was not, like the Speaker of the House of Commons, a silent guardian of order; he often harangued the assembly, which, on one occasion at least, he addressed for over an hour; and he issued manifestos, questionnaires, and letters to members, one of which was sharply censured as misleading both by Mr. Barrie and the Bishop of Raphoe.

The procedure adopted was described by the Chairman himself as "unprecedented." It was not only that, but was unsuitable in the last degree for the purpose in view. When it is borne in mind what that purpose was, it is clear that the only business-like method would have been to invite the Ulster delegates at the outset to formulate their objections to coming under the Home Rule Act of 1914, and then to see whether Mr. Redmond could make any concessions which would persuade Ulster to accept something less than the permanent exclusion of six counties, which had been their minimum hitherto.

The procedure actually followed was ludicrously different. The object, as stated by the chairman, was "to avoid raising contentious issues in such a way as to divide the Convention on party lines,"[96] which, to say the least, was a curious method of handling the most contentious problem in British politics. A fine opportunity was offered to amateur constitution-mongers. Anyone was allowed to propound a scheme for the future government of Ireland, which, of course, was an encouragement to endless wide-ranging debate, with the least conceivable likelihood of arriving at definite decisions. Neither of the leaders of the two parties whose agreement was essential if the Convention was to have any result took the initiative in bringing forward proposals. Mr. Redmond was invited to do so, but declined. Mr. Barrie had no reason to do so, because the Ulster scheme for the government of Ireland was the legislative union. So it was left to individuals with no official responsibility to set forth their ideas, which became the subject of protracted debates of a general character.

It was further arranged that while contentious issues—the only ones that mattered—should be avoided, any conclusions reached on minor matters should be purely provisional, and contingent on agreement being come to ultimately on fundamentals. Month after month was spent in thus discussing such questions as the powers which an Irish Parliament ought to wield, while the question whether Ulster was to come into that Parliament was left to stand over. Committees and sub-committees were appointed to thresh out these details, and some of them relieved the tedium by wandering into such interesting by-ways of irrelevancy as housing and land purchase, all of which, in Gilbertian phrase, "had nothing to do with the case."

The Ulster group raised no objection to all this expenditure of time and energy. For they saw that it was not time wasted. From the standpoint of the highest national interest it was, indeed, more useful than anything the Convention could have accomplished by business-like methods. The summer and autumn of 1917, and the early months of 1918, covered a terribly critical period of the war. The country was never in greater peril, and the attitude of the Nationalists in the House of Commons added to the difficulties of the Government, as Mr. Bonar Law had complained in March. It was to placate them that the Convention had been summoned. It was a bone thrown to a snarling dog, and the longer there was anything to gnaw the longer would the dog keep quiet. The Ulster delegates understood this perfectly, and, as their chief desire was to help the Government to get on with the war, they had no wish to curtail the proceedings of the Convention, although they were never under the delusion that it could lead to anything in Ireland.

Having regard to the origin of this strange assembly of Irishmen it might have been supposed that its ingenuity would be directed to finding some modification of Mr. Asquith's Home Rule Act which Ulster could accept. That Act was the point of departure for its investigation, and the quest was ex hypothesi for some amendment that would not be an enlargement of the authority to be delegated to the subordinate Parliament, or any further loosening of the tie with Great Britain. Any proposal of the latter sort would be in the opposite direction from that in which the Convention was intended to travel. Yet this is precisely what was done from the very outset. The Act of 1914 was brushed aside as beneath contempt; and the Ulster delegates had to listen with amazement week after week to proposals for giving to the whole of Ireland, including their own Province, a constitution practically as independent of Great Britain as that of the Dominions.

But what astonished the Ulstermen above everything was to find these extravagant demands of the Nationalists supported by those who were supposed to be representatives of Southern Unionism, with Lord Midleton, a prominent member of the Unionist Party in England, at their head. The only material point on which Lord Midleton differed from the extremists led by the Bishop of Raphoe was that he wished to limit complete fiscal autonomy for Ireland by reserving the control of Customs duties to the Imperial Parliament. Save in this single particular he joined forces with the Nationalists, and shocked the Unionists of the North by giving his support to a scheme of Home Rule going beyond anything ever suggested at Westminster by any Radical from Gladstone to Asquith.

This question of the financial powers to be exercised by the hypothetical Irish Parliament occupied the Convention and its committees for the greater part of its eight months of existence. In January 1918 Lord Midleton and Mr. Redmond came to an agreement on the subject which proved the undoing of them both, and produced the only really impressive scene in the Convention.

For some time Mr. Redmond had given the impression of being a tired man who had lost his wonted driving-force. He took little or no part in the lobbying and canvassing that was constantly going on behind the scenes in the Convention; he appeared to be losing grip as a leader. But he cannot be blamed for his anxiety to come to terms with Lord Midleton; and when he found, no doubt greatly to his surprise, that a Unionist leader was ready to abandon Unionist principles and to accept Dominion Home Rule for Ireland, subject to a single reservation on the subject of Customs, he naturally jumped at it, and assumed that his followers would do the same.

But, while Mr. Redmond had been losing ground, the influence of the Catholic Bishop of Raphoe had been on the increase, and that able and astute prelate was entirely opposed to the compromise on which Mr. Redmond and Lord Midleton were agreed. On the evening of the 14th of January it came to the knowledge of Mr. Redmond that when the question came up for decision next day, he would find Mr. Devlin, his principal lieutenant, in league with the ecclesiastics against him. He was personally too far committed to retrace his steps; to go forward meant disaster, for it would produce a deep cleavage in the Nationalist ranks; and, as the state of affairs was generally known to members of the Convention, the sitting of the following day was anticipated with unusual interest.

There was an atmosphere of suppressed excitement when the Chairman took his seat on the 15th. Mr. Redmond entered a few seconds later and took his usual place without betraying the slightest sign of disturbed equanimity. The Bishop of Raphoe strode past him, casting to left and right swift, challenging glances. Mr. Devlin slipped quietly into his seat beside the leader he had thrown over, without a word or gesture of greeting. All over the room small groups of members engaged in whispered conversation; an air of mysterious expectancy prevailed. The Ulster members had been threatened that it was to be for them a day of disaster and dismay—a little isolated group, about to be deserted by friends and crushed by enemies. The Chairman, in an agitated voice, opened proceedings by inviting questions. There was no response. A minute or so of tense pause ensued. Then Mr. Redmond rose, and in a perfectly even voice and his usual measured diction, stated that he was aware that his proposal was repudiated by many of his usual followers; that the bishops were against him, and some leading Nationalists, including Mr. Devlin; that, while he believed if he persisted he would have a majority, the result would be to split his party, a thing he wished to avoid; and that he had therefore decided not to proceed with his amendment, and under these circumstances felt he could be of no further use to the Convention in the matter.

For a minute or two the assembly could not grasp the full significance of what had happened. Then it broke upon them that this was the fall of a notable leader, although they did not yet know that it was also the close of a distinguished career. Mr. Redmond's demeanour throughout what must have been a painful ordeal was beyond all praise. There was not a quiver in his voice, nor a hesitation for word or phrase. His self-possession and dignity and high-bred bearing won the respect and sympathy of the most strenuous of political opponents, even while they recognised that the defeat of the Nationalist leader meant relief from pressure on themselves. Mr. Redmond took no further part in the work of the Convention; his health was failing, and the members were startled by the news of his death on the 6th of March.

Not a single vote was taken in the Convention until the 12th of March, 1918, when it had been sitting for nearly seven months, and two days later the question which it had been summoned to consider, namely, the relation of Ulster to the rest of Ireland, was touched for the first time. The first clause in the Bishop of Raphoe's scheme, establishing a Home Rule constitution for all Ireland, having been carried with Lord Midleton's help against the vote of the nineteen representatives of Ulster, the latter proposed an amendment for the exclusion of the Province, and were, of course, defeated by the combined forces of Nationalism and Southern Unionism.

Thus, on the only issue that really mattered, there was no such "substantial agreement" as the Government had postulated as essential before legislation could be undertaken; and on the 5th of April the Convention came to an end without having achieved any useful result, except that it gave the Government a breathing space from the Irish question to get on with the war.

It served, however, to bring prominently forward two of the Ulster representatives whose full worth had not till then been sufficiently appreciated. Mr. H. M. Pollock had, it is true, been a valued adviser of Sir Edward Carson on questions touching the trade and commerce of Belfast. But in the Convention he made more than one speech which proved him to be a financier with a comprehensive grasp of principle, and an extensive knowledge of the history and the intricate details of the financial relations between Great Britain and Ireland.

Lord Londonderry (the 7th Marquis), who during his father's lifetime had represented an English constituency in the House of Commons and naturally took no very prominent part in Ulster affairs, although he made many excellent speeches on Home Rule both in Parliament and on English platforms, and was Colonel of a regiment of U.V.F., gave proof at once, on succeeding to the peerage in 1915, that he was desirous of doing everything in his power to fill his father's place in the Ulster Movement. He displayed the same readiness to subordinate personal convenience, and other claims on his time and energy, to the cause so closely associated historically with his family. But it was his work in the Convention that first convinced Ulstermen of his capacity as well as his zeal. Several of Lord Londonderry's speeches, and especially one in which he made an impromptu reply to Mr. Redmond, impressed the Convention with his debating power and his general ability; and it gave the greatest satisfaction in Ulster when it was realised that the son of the leader whose loss they mourned so deeply was as able as he was willing to carry on the hereditary tradition of service to the loyalist cause.

In another respect, too, the Convention had an indirect influence on the position in Ulster. When it appeared likely, in January 1918, that a deadlock would be reached in the Convention, the Prime Minister himself intervened. A letter to the Chairman was drafted and discussed in the Cabinet; but the policy which appeared to commend itself to his colleagues was one that Sir Edward Carson was unable to support, and he accordingly resigned office on the 21st, and was accompanied into retirement by Colonel Craig, the other Ulster member of the Ministry. Sir John Lonsdale, who for many years had been the very efficient Honorary Secretary and "Whip" of the Ulster Parliamentary Party, and its leader while Carson was in office, had been raised to the peerage at the New Year, with the title of Lord Armaghdale, so that the Ulster leadership was vacant for Carson to resume when he left the Government, and he was formally re-elected to the position on the 28th of January. It was fortunate for Ulster that the old helmsman was again free to take his place at the wheel, for there was still some rough weather ahead.

The official Report of the Convention which was issued on the 10th of April was one of the most extraordinary documents ever published in a Government Blue Book.[97] It consisted for the most part of a confused bundle of separate Notes and Reports by a number of different groups and individuals, and numerous appendices comprising a mass of miscellaneous memoranda bristling with cross-references. The Chairman was restricted to providing a bald narrative of the proceedings without any of the usual critical estimate of the general results attained; but he made up for this by setting forth his personal opinions in a letter to the Prime Minister, which, without the sanction of the Convention, he prefixed to the Report. As it was no easy matter to gain any clear idea from the Report as to what the Convention had done, its proceedings while in session having been screened from publicity by drastic censorship of the Press, many people contented themselves with reading Sir Horace Plunkett's unauthorised letter to Mr. Lloyd George; and, as it was in some important respects gravely misleading, it is not surprising that the truth in regard to the Convention was never properly understood, and the Ulster Unionist Council had solid justification for its resolution censuring the Chairman's conduct as "unprecedented and unconstitutional."

In this personal letter, as was to be expected of a partisan of the Nationalists, Sir Horace Plunkett laid stress on the fact that Lord Midleton had "accepted self-government for Ireland"—by which was meant, of course, not self-government such as Ireland always enjoyed through her representation, and indeed over-representation, in the Imperial Parliament, but through separate institutions. But if it had not been for this support of separate institutions by the Southern Unionists there would not have been even a colourable pretext for the assertion of Sir Horace Plunkett that "a larger measure of agreement has been reached upon the principles and details of Irish self-government than has ever yet been attained." The really surprising thing was how little agreement was displayed even among the Nationalists themselves, who on several important issues were nearly equally divided.

It was soon seen how little the policy of Lord Midleton was approved by those whom he was supposed to represent. Although it was exceedingly difficult to obtain accurate information about what was going on in the Convention, enough became known in Dublin to cause serious misgiving to Southern Unionists. The Council of the Irish Unionist Alliance, who had nominated Lord Midleton as a delegate, asked him to confer with them on the subject; but he refused. On the 4th of March, 1918, a "Call to Unionists," a manifesto signed by twenty-four influential Southern Unionists, appeared in the Press. A Southern Unionist Committee was formed which before the end of May was able to publish the names of 350 well-known men in all walks of life who were in accord with the "Call," and to announce that the supporters of their protest against Lord Midleton's proceedings numbered upwards of fourteen thousand, of whom more than two thousand were farmers in the South and West.

This Committee then took steps to purge the Irish Unionist Alliance by making it more truly representative of Southern Unionist opinion. A special meeting of the Council of the organisation on the 24th of January, 1919, brought on a general engagement between Lord Midleton and his opponents. The general trend of opinion was disclosed when, after the defeat of a motion by Lord Midleton for excluding Ulster Unionists from full membership of the Alliance, Sir Edward Carson was elected one of its Presidents, and Lord Farnham was chosen Chairman of the Executive Committee. The Executive Committee was then entirely reconstituted, by the rejection of every one of Lord Midleton's supporters; and the new body issued a statement explaining the grounds of dissatisfaction with Lord Midleton's action in the Convention, and declaring that he had "lost the confidence of the general body of Southern Unionists." Thereupon Lord Midleton and a small aristocratic clique associated with him seceded from the Alliance, and set up a little organisation of their own.

Read "Ulster's Stand for Union" at your leisure

Ulster's Stand for Union

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Ronald McNeill provides a truly fascinating account of the Home Rule Crisis of 1912 from a Unionist perspective. The book covers, inter alia, the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), the drafting and signing of the Solemn League and Covenant, gun-running to Larne and Donaghadee, Ulster in the Great War, and the establishment of the Ulster Parliament in 1921.

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