In my opinion, in order for us to thoroughly understand the pre-eminent features of Liberal policies towards Ireland during 1906-1914, firstly we need to appreciate the importance of context and how preceding events helped shape the Liberal policies towards Ireland during that period.
Although the question focuses on the period 1906-1914, it would, in my opinion be both unwise and inadequate to focus solely on this era.
This is why within my essay I intend not only to define the prominent features of Liberal policies towards Ireland between 1906-1914, but also consider the influence of past events in erecting a ‘framework’ for many of the features offered in the Liberal policies.
Towards the end of 18th century, Ireland was filled with an air of perplexity. In 1791, the formation of the SUI (Society of United Irishmen) through leader Wolfe Tone, advocated ideas of Ireland becoming a ‘Self-governing democratic republic’. Although its ‘Non-religious’ ethos and clear acceptance of both Catholics and Protestants within its community did raise some level of confusion amongst the Irish people.
Notably, the 1798 Irish rebellion resulted in a disconnection of opinion amongst Irish Protestants, who became inclined to choose between the ‘Orange lodge’, protestants who where indifferent to British Rule and the ‘SUI’.
Irish nationalists vented a strong desire for dissolution and during the rising expressed anger towards the Irish Protestants. The result ended with the English forces accompanied by the’ Orange Lodge’ suppressing the revolt. Yet the defeat had already sown the earliest seed in the growing discontent and animosity the Irish Nationalists felt towards England.
In a way, these events partly help us distinguish the different sentiments of both the Catholics and Protestants of Ireland at the time.
The Act of Union (1801) was a consequence of the Insurrection. To some extent, the subversive attitudes shown in the rebellion led to a developed fear of the Irish imitating a ‘French-style’ revolution. They became aware of the possible threat it may have.
As a result, the English government formulated an agreement with Irish Prime minister William Pitt to unionise Ireland and Britain. Additionally, there was a promise of Irish Catholic emancipation, in which they would be granted civil rights.
The act became law in 1801, confirming the end of a separate Irish parliament and the amalgamation of Ireland and Great Britain.
Yet it was England who remained the only beneficiaries of the deal. A cabinet split over the decision provided an excuse for King George III to rebuff and refuse assent. Irish Catholics where betrayed by the English who merely exploited the union in order to consolidate power and inflict further suppression. Catholic enmity intensified.
The whole century had become affected by English control and towards its later stages, more fixed increased action took place. In 1868, the Liberal party leader Gladstone had declared Ireland after seven hundred years of tutelage, an ‘intolerable disgrace’. He purposefully set himself the task of ‘remedying the situation’. However, his plans for ‘protection of tenants against arbitrary eviction’ amongst other measures, failed in all fairness to satisfy Irish demands.
Charles Parnell, was a Protestant landowner who to some extent was a paradox. He possessed the characteristics of a man whom the Irish where being instructed to fight against. Parnell was keen on endorsing a ‘2 line strategy’, In Ireland he encouraged a campaign of ‘rent-strikes’ amongst tenants’, whilst in England, he insisted Irish Mps ‘frustrate and agitate’ parliamentary business. In 1882, he formed the ‘National league’ with the intention of achieving ‘National self-government’.
Of course, as a previously mentioned, the exploration of context gives us an additional advantage in being able to recognise patterns in similar feelings shared amongst leaders. Echoes of Wolfe Tone’s ‘Self-governing republic’ can perhaps be heard in Parnell’s objective of ‘National Self-government’. Some attitudes remain adamant throughout time.
It was in fact ‘time’ that unfortunately ran out on Gladstone in his second ministry, (1880-1885). His hopes for a peaceful settlement to the whole dispute with the introduction of ‘The second land act (1881) where eclipsed by the reality that many people never shared his vision.
Amid the troubles that circulated during this period, Gladstone became increasingly drawn towards the idea of ‘Home rule’ as means of resolving the ‘Irish question’.
However, the introduction of the first ‘Home rule’ bill in 1886 was perhaps more renowned for its ability to split the Liberals. Initially, it was greeted by Irish Nationalists, as it raised their expectations of freedom.
Funnily enough, although both Parnell and Gladstone had differed in their handling of the Irish question, the introduction of ‘Home Rule’ looked set to solidify a compromise between the two. ‘A final settlement of our national question’ Parnell insisted of Gladstone’s introduction. Alternatively the unionists within the Liberal party believed the bill deliberately undermined the Act of Union (1801). The introduction of the bill generated two extreme views. In fact Conservative politician Randolf Churchill objected so strongly to the Bill that he publically threatened to play the ‘Orange card’, insisting he was not afraid of using violence, He would ‘Not hesitate to agitate Ulster even to resistance beyond constitutional limits’.
Churchill established himself as the clear antagonist to Gladstone. He travelled to Ulster in 1886 to rally support for his opposition against Home Rule. Developing popular slogans like ‘Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right’ to help stimulate the Unionist community that occupied that area.
Political tension during that year led to rioting within Belfast, the Unionists where clearly focused on not letting the Bill pass.
Churchill was successful as the First Home Rule Bill finally came to an end in the commons, its defeat resulted in Gladstone’s departure as Prime Minister.
The failure of the 1st Home Rule Bill and the controversy that it created kept the subject of the Bill off the political scene for many years after. The 1886 general election illustrated how the ‘Conservative- Liberal Unionists’ held an overwhelming 393 votes to the Gladstonians 192. The circumstances and manner in which Gladstone lost, with so much belief behind the Bill is certainly shown by the support people shown towards the Unionists. In 1892, the Gladstonian Liberals gained 80 seats, helping to contribute to a total of 272. The Conservatives and Liberal unionists won 313, but the decisive factor in the push for Second Home Rule came from the 81 seats, the Irish Nationalists won. The Nationalists offered their support to Gladstone, who had promised another ‘shot’ at Home Rule.
In 1893, the Bill had looked destined to succeed as it completed its morale boosting passage through the commons, yet unfortunately it was the domineering majority in the House of Lords that killed off all hope of total completion. The Bill lost out overwhelmingly 419 votes to 41.
However, the rejection had helped reveal where the obvious difficulty for the Gladstonians lay. The House of Lords had an ‘In-built’ Unionists majority which made the refusal of the Bill a lot easier. In reality, the Unionists threat of playing ‘Orange card’ was not necessary as long as this remained the case.
The Irish Unionists did however find the very fact that the Gladstonians were prepared still ‘offer’ their support to Home Rule more intimidating.
Perhaps we can relate England’s hardened ‘step-up’ in their attitudes to the SUI and Irish Catholics to the Irish Unionists treatment of the Home Rule Bill. The Unionists worked hard to consolidate their forces and develop well-organised resistance to the Bill.
Quite simply, the Unionists needed to outweigh the Gladstonians. Connections between the Southern Unionists and Conservatives ‘on the mainland’ helped create a much closer network. Propaganda was illuminated in Great Britain on behalf of the Ulster Unionist cause. In Southern Ireland, towards the end of the century, there was as many as 250,000 Unionists.
The crisis had remained dormant for quite sometime after the defeat second time round. In fact, it was the Liberals election victory in 1906 that galvanised the issue once again. The Liberals won the election through an overall majority of 128 seats. And had committed themselves to a ‘step by step’ attitude towards handling the Irish question. It remained a fairly subdued issue on the Liberal’s political agenda.
However, by 1910 the situation changed. Following an election held that year, the Irish Nationalists once again held the balance of power.
The passing of the Parliament Act a year later meant that the House of Lords could only formally delay the Home Rule Bill. If a law had been rejected twice, its third attempt would automatically result in approval.
The Act became the vital stepping-stone for the Gladstonains. It ultimately revolutionized the whole dispute, removing a ‘major obstacle’ in the way of Home Rule.
In April 1912, the Third Home Rule Bill was brought before the House of Commons and managed to, despite agitation and disruption from Conservatives and Unionists, complete its passage to the Lords.
The Parliament Act was the Liberals indestructible weapon, after previous rejection, the Liberals where guaranteed to be triumphant third home round. The Lords rejected the Bill in vain, as they only had the power to delay, not dismiss. It was destined to become law in 1914.
However, the Third Home Rule Bill is perhaps more notorious for the impact it had on the Ulster Unionists and Conservatives. The Act almost ‘washed’ away the ideas of strengthened resistance they shared towards the Liberals and Home Rule during the campaign against the Second Home Rule Bill.
Its acceptance, third time round ignited a ‘major political crisis’. The opposition where forcefully determined not to accept the Bill. They exploited the time between its delay and its inevitable passage into law to rise against Home Rule, once again rallying support opposed to its introduction.
The formation of illegal volunteer forces intensified the likelihood of a civil war within Ireland.
In a paradoxical sort of way, the break out of another war (the first world war) eased the unsettled hostility. By the time of this war, the Bill had passed but in the context of events that surrounded its introduction, was immediately ‘suspended’ until the end of the war.
In Ulster, Many remained intransigent over the introduction of the Bill. Resistance towards its introduction was led by Unionists, Edward Carson and James Craig. Evidence shows that both had launched stiff opposition to the bill to the bill prior to its introduction. In September 1911, Unionists from all over Ulster where assembled in a mass meeting organized by Craig. At the gathering, Carson was the main speaker and encouraged one simple message, ‘Resist the Home Rule Bill’.
The Unionists used ‘Mass meetings’ as a tool to pressurize the government, inevitably leading to the introduction of ‘covenant day’ on September 1912.
The covenant was a formal pledge of allegiance, in which the person/s signing it where committing themselves to opposing the Home Rule. An estimated 250,000 signed the agreement, with many of the more fanatical extremists signing in their own blood.
By January 1913, Ulster augmented their resistance through the formation of the UVF (The Ulster Volunteer force). By June of that year, the UVF had obtained around 50,000 members, yet almost a year later they boasted around double that figure.
The Nationalists in response formed the Irish volunteers, an organisation whose objective was to defend Home Rule. The group was led by Nationalist leader, John Redmond in June 1914.
The conservative party had also made their feelings known over the Home Rule issue. Leader Andrew Bonar Law believed that armed resistance to the bill was clearly justifiable in his eyes. In July 1912, he offered his willing support to armed resistance ‘I can imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster can go in which I would not be prepared to support them’.
For the Conservatives however, opposition to the Bill was perhaps much more than just opposition. They used resistance more like a ‘tool’ to attack the liberal’s loss of seats in the 1910 election and the fact that they did not have a mandate. Politically, they believed it would increase their popularity and perhaps re-generate their party. They argued that Home Rule was only introduced because the Nationalists supported the Liberals. They saw the Liberals as perpetrators, guilty of an attack on the British Empire. As (Foster 1988) insists it was ‘an assault on property and Empire..conspiratorially planned by a minority interest’.
The Third Home Rule Bill’s plans to treat Ireland as a ‘Single entity’ raised concern amongst Ulster Unionists who during the period (1912-1914) were edging more towards ‘single status’. In response, the Nationalist attitude remained firm, they rejected the notion entirely. In contrast, the government remained more unclear over the matter, adopting a ‘wait and see’ policy. It was in March 1914, that Liberal party leader Asquith was able to persuade Redmond to accept a proposal which declared Home Rule was avoidable for 6 years. The idea was preposterous to Carson who insultingly rejected.
Carson’s bitter refusal of the compromise led to expanded security within Ireland, insisted upon by the government. They feared the UVF may react violently to the weakness of the weakness of the offer and asked commanding officer General Paget to tighten up security.
The government where cautious in not using the British Army to take military action against the UVF, as this may weaken the governments chances of negotiation.
However, on the night of 24-25 April 1914, the UVF did manage to complete a successful ‘gun-running’ operation. More than 20,000 rifles and several million rounds of ammunition were shipped in from Germany for the UVF.
The UVF’s blatant ignorance to the ban, that had been imposed on importing arms, had left a bitter impact on Nationalists.
In contrast, Irish volunteers who later shipped in weapons to Ireland, were stopped by police who, supported by British troops had attempted to seize them. The difference in treatment that both experienced intensified relations between the two.
By the Summer of 1914, once again control had changed. The power lied amongst the UVF, who were both well armed and in a position of strength in Ulster. In 1912, the government rather naively had dismissed the threat of the Unionists.
The summer of 1914 proved how sedulous and determined, the Unionists had become. Their demands where being treated with much seriousity.
Although the Unionists by this time had achieved recognition as a respected force within government, it became increasingly acceptable to Carson that the fight against Home Rule was gradually slipping out of their hands. This was exemplified through his reduction in demands (i.e. six of the nine counties of Ulster) should remain permanently excluded from Home Rule. He and his supporters would go no further than this settlement.