Home Rule

Home Rule dawn
Ireland greets the Home Rule dawn, 1912

Home Rule — the long-time constitutional goal of self-government for Ireland within the United Kingdom – similar to Scotland's status now. In the late 19th century, two attempts had been made to forward Home Rule bills at Westminster, but these had been defeated by Conservative opposition. In 1912 the Liberal Government, relying on Irish votes, introduced a Third Home Rule Bill. Despite fierce opposition from Unionists and Conservatives, the bill became law in 1914. It was suspended, however, for the duration of hostilities in the Great War.

Home Rule envisaged a separate parliament in Dublin to legislate on domestic affairs, while the Imperial Parliament in Westminster continued to deal with foreign and military matters. In this it differed sharply from the Fenian goal of an independent republic. The Irish Parliamentary Party, the main proponents of Home Rule, eschewed political violence in favour of legislative action and moral persuasion.

Parnell, Freeman cartoon
Parnell, holding the balance of power, presides over the "game" of politics. Weekly Freeman, 1885.

19th Century — The 1885 general election brought the first serious prospect of Home Rule for Ireland. The Irish Parliamentary Party held the balance of power at Westminster. Parnell had persuaded Gladstone, the Liberal leader, to the cause of Home Rule. Now, in return for Irish support, Gladstone introduced the first Home Rule bill. It was defeated in the House of Commons, splitting the Liberal party in the process. Gladstone returned briefly to power in the 1890s, again with Irish support, when a second Home Rule bill was introduced. This bill fell in the House of Lords, which had an unelected (and therefore irremovable) Unionist majority. Parnell's downfall in 1891 and the subsequent disarray of the Irish Party ended Home Rule hopes for a generation.

Anti Home Rule cartoon
Anti-Home Rule cartoon, St Stephen's Review, 1887

Conservative Rule — The Conservative Party in Britain was staunchly opposed to Home Rule. In government from 1892–1906 it formulated a policy of "constructive Unionism", aimed at dampening Irish desires for separation by ameliorating material concerns. This approach led to very real improvements in Ireland: Land Acts, which redistributed land from landlords to tenants, effectively ending agrarian unrest; a local government act, providing for county councils and the like, which, however, rather than checking desires for home government, tended to excite them. The policy became popularly known as "killing Home Rule with kindness" after a speech given by Gerald Balfour, Chief Secretary for Ireland, in 1895.

John Redmond
John Redmond, leader of the Irish Party, 1900-1918
pro-Home Rule envelope label, 1912

Third Home Rule bill — In 1910, the Irish Parliamentary Party, reunited under John Redmond, once again held the balance of power at Westminster. In return for Irish support, the Liberal Government introduced the third Home Rule bill in 1912. This bill had every prospect of success: the Parliament Act the year previous had reduced the veto of the House of Lords to a delaying power of, at most, two years.

Edward Carson
Edward Carson, leader Ulster Unionist Party, 1910-1921
anti-Home Rule envelope label, 1912

Rome Rule — Ulster, the northern province of Ireland, had a significant Protestant population, the majority living in the north-east. Belfast, the regional capital, was an industrial city, famous for its cotton manufactories and shipbuilding yards. It was quite unlike any other Irish city of the time. These northern Protestants shared strong cultural and religious ties with Britain. They feared the dominance of Catholics in any Dublin legislature, regarding Home Rule as "Rome Rule". The Ulster Unionist Party was officially formed in 1905. In 1911, Edward Carson, prominent Dublin-born solicitor, became its leader.

Ulster Covenant signed by Carson
Ulster Covenant, signed by Carson, 1912
founding of Irish Volunteers
Founding of the Irish Volunteers, 1913
Crisis — The 1912 Home Rule bill heralded a constitutional crisis. The Lords could no longer veto Home Rule: it seemed to Ulster Unionists that parliamentary means had failed them. Nearly half a million signed (some with their blood) the "Solemn League and Covenant" pledging themselves to use "all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland". In 1913, Carson established the Ulster Volunteers, an armed militia numbering 100,000 men, to protect Ulster from Home Rule. Nationalists in response formed the Irish Volunteers, a militia numbering 180,000, to defend Home Rule against Unionist intransigence. Volunteers

As the Home Rule bill wound its way through parliament, civil war threatened in Ireland. In Britain the Conservative leaders openly championed the Ulstermen, even to the extent of armed rebellion. Even the British Army proved unreliable. In March 1914, fearing disorder in Ulster, the Government ordered troops stationed in Ireland to prepare to march north: the vast majority of officers refused. Government soon backed down, reinforcing the climate of militarism in the south. Nationalists of every hue became convinced that only they, through the Irish Volunteers, could guarantee Home Rule.

Redmond WW1 recruitment poster
Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, commits Irish nationalists to the British war effort
Irish Volunteers 1916 postcard
Irish Volunteer postcard commemorating the Easter Rising, 1916
War — the Home Rule bill finally received royal assent on September 18 1914, thus becoming the law of the land. Six weeks earlier, however, Britain had declared war against Germany. Home Rule was suspended for the duration of hostilities. Ireland tiptoed back from civil war, as both Ulster Unionists and Irish Nationalists volunteered in their thousands in the British Army.

By the end of the War, events in Ireland – the 1916 Rising and the advance of Sinn Féin – had rendered Home Rule irrelevant to most nationalists. It's an irony of history that the one place where it did take root was in the new Unionist Home-Rule state of Northern Ireland.