From Irish Political Review: February 2008

Joe Devlin And The Demise Of Redmondism

Pamphlet Review: Joe Devlin: What Now?, His Confrontation of the British Parliament, After The 1918 Election.Edited by Brendan Clifford. 48pp. 978-1-874158-19-6. A Belfast Magazine No. 32. Oct. 2007. E7, £4.50.

In his biographical sketch of John Redmond, Nicholas Mansergh commented:

"He was moreover by temperament inclined to underestimate opposition. In the summer of 1913 he was saying that the 'argumentative opposition to Home Rule was dead, that all the extravagant action, all the bombastic threats are but indications that the battle is over'. Right down to 1914 he continued to assure Asquith that Carson and the Orangeman were bluffing."

Going down to the wire with the Third Home Rule Bill Joe Devlin was equally dismissive of the Protestant threat to all things bright and beautiful. On 20th February 1914, just a month or two shy of the Curragh Mutiny and the Larne gunrunning, Devlin delivered a report for the consideration of the British Cabinet making it crystal clear that no one had anything at all to fear from the straw men of Carsonia. According to Wee Joe:

"We have exceptional sources of information in regard to the Ulster Volunteer movement, and we are convinced that its danger is grossly exaggerated. The main ground for this conviction is the fact that, in Belfast, the headquarters of the Carsonite movement, where the Catholic and Protestant Home Rulers would be among the first victims of any outbreak among the Orangemen, the Home Rulers regard the whole thing with absolute contempt, and are astonished that anybody outside Belfast should take it seriously" (quoted in Eamon Phoenix, Northern Nationalism, page 10).

That is probably the worst of Devlin. Devlin at his best can be found in a recent Athol Books publication: Joe Devlin: What Now? The core of this booklet is Joe Devlin's speech made during the debate on the King's Speech at the opening of Parliament in the wake of the 1918 election at which the Irish Parliamentary Party was destroyed in Southern Ireland and put on notice in the North.

That speech was, as Clifford puts it, an open confrontation of the British Parliament, in which Devlin asked a series of very pertinent questions of Prime Minister Lloyd-George to which no one on the (coalition) government benches felt able to reply:

"I have risen for the purpose of asking the Prime Minister, if he were here, or the Leader of the House, if he were here, or the Chief Secretary for Ireland, if he were here, or any responsible Minister, high or low, great or small, this question: What is the meaning of this passage in the King's Speech:

" 'The position in Ireland causes Me great anxiety, but I earnestly hope that conditions may soon sufficiently improve to make it possible to provide a durable settlement of this difficult problem.'

"That is a very enigmatical sentence. It is characteristically Lloyd-Georgian. Why was that paragraph put in the Speech of the King, unless we had some explanation of it from the Prime Minister? I waited here and listened to his reply to the two rather meek and humble speeches from the two leaders of the Opposition. I waited here and listened with interest to get some explanation as to what that passage meant. I wanted to know from him what is the position in Ireland, what is the Government in Ireland, who are the Government in Ireland, what is going on in Ireland, and what you propose to do with Ireland. Do not imagine by your pledge-breaking, by your false promises, by your criminal treatment of Ireland, that you have rid yourselves of your responsibility when you engage in a conspiracy, which is successful, of driving the constitutional representatives of Ireland out of public life. For nearly forty years this party, of which there are only a few of us left, laboured by constitutional means to win the great constitutional end of a great constitutional party, namely the right of our people to govern themselves on their own soil. We won that great reform by the constitutional judgment of the electorate of this country. We won it because it was a just cause, and because it was sanctioned by public opinion. We won it because it had the moral sanction of the Colonies. We won it because mankind in every English-speaking country in the world was in its favour. Yet the Gentlemen who from these benches are now lecturing labour upon their extreme courses, are the very Gentlemen who destroyed the possibility of that solution and have cast Ireland again into the melting-pot of agitation and discontent" (What Now? pp10-11).

Clifford's introduction puts the matter of Devlin's 1919 speech very succinctly:

"Devlin was by far the most substantial and consequential figure in the Home Rule leadership in 1914. The others, whatever their prestige, all belonged to the past. They led a Party which was subjectively empty, except for Devlin's contribution to it. And in 1918 they were all brushed aside by the electorate, except for Devlin, who held West Belfast easily against de Valera. He went to Parliament in February 1919, as a remnant of the great Party, which had served as a representative fig-leaf for British government in Ireland, told the members of the Government that it was they who had destroyed the Party that had enabled British rule in Ireland to pass muster as representative, and asked them what they intended to do now that the Irish electorate had voted for independence.

"But for Devlin, that great question about the democracy and national rights for which the Great War had allegedly been fought would not have been raised in Parliament in a way that demanded an answer. And it would not have been demonstrated that Parliament had no answer to give, even to one of its own—which Devlin undoubtedly was" (ibid, page 5).

Though Clifford says that "Devlin's speech would merit extensive annotation in a parallel column, like one sometime sees in Bibles but I can't do that here", he does in fact very briefly present a significant amount of contextual material. As well as an introduction and Devlin's 1919 speech, the booklet contains extracts from the Irish News of Devlin's Election Campaign Against Sinn Fein and a chapter on William O'Brien. 

All of which brings to mind some material I have to hand on the development of the Home Rule question in Ulster, which leads up to another of Devlin's finest hours (one which only occurs in extemis but nevertheless shows how at the end of all his manoeuvring to compromise even the Irish imperialist par excellence at the last stood to a firm line of principle beyond which he would not go. 

John Redmond, Chairman of the Irish Parliamentary Party from 1900, became truly its leader in 1914 following on a disastrous speech in Parliament in which he pledged himself and his colleagues as recruiting sergeants for England's war on the world. To begin with the Party's success at raising cannon-fodder was greatest in Ulster. Then in May 1915 the War Coalition was formed with Carson and Bonar Law in the Cabinet (Redmond was invited but refused). Shortly after that (in June I think) senior Catholic clerics and local nationalists met in Omagh, County Tyrone, in a conference which aimed to oppose any compromising Redmondite attempt to "impose an exclusion scheme on nationalist Ulster" (Phoenix, op. cit. page 24). From just around that time recruiting was dead in Tyrone.

On 3rd June 1915, Michael Fogarty, Bishop of Killaloe, formerly a supporter of the IPP wrote to Redmond:

"The English have got all they wanted from Ireland, and don't care two pence about her feelings. Such is our reward for her profuse loyalism and recruiting. The people are full of indignation, but are powerless…

"As far as Ireland is concerned, there is little to choose between Carsonism and Kaiserism, of the two the latter is a lesser evil: and it almost makes me cry to think of the Irish Brigade fighting not for Ireland but for Carson and what he stands for—Orange ascendancy here.

"Home Rule is dead and buried and Ireland is without a national party or national press. The Freeman is but a government organ and the national party but an imperial instrument. What the future holds in store for us God knows—I suppose conscription with a bloody feud between people and soldiers. I never thought that Asquith would have consented to this humiliation and ruin of Irish feeling. There is a great revulsion of feeling in Ireland" (from Conflict of Nationality in Modern Ireland, A.C. Hepburn, ed. pp91 -92).

Then in May 1916 Lloyd George persuaded Redmond to accept the exclusion from Home Rule of the six Northern counties. While assuring Carson (in writing) that the exclusion would be permanent he told Redmond that it would be temporary, that Irish representation at Westminster would be unchanged and that there would be no Northern Parliament.  Great disquiet in the Northern Party followed and led to the 'Black Friday' conference in Belfast's St. Mary's Hall on 23rd June 1916. Dissent was greatest in the west of the six counties so Joe Devlin saw to it that the conference was packed with his loyal Belfast followers. The vote went the leadership's way by a wide margin (475 to 265) but Redmond and Devlin both had to threaten resignation to carry it through. Conference voting figures show that the Party was nigh to death in Fermanagh, Tyrone and Derry City, and on life support in County Derry.

According to Eamon Phoenix:

"…the convention of June 1916 was a watershed in the history of northern nationalist politics. As a result of its decision, and the exclusion proposals, the nationalist organisation began to disintegrate. The accompanying weakening of support amongst the local branches of the A.O.H. and the clergy, as seen in the by-elections of 1918, also made way for the displacement of the party by Sinn Féin" (ibid. page 43).

Then on 22nd. July Lloyd George told Redmond that the exclusion of the Six Counties would in fact be permanent and that Irish representation at Westminster would be greatly reduced. Redmond pledged to fight the Bill all the way down the line. Southern Unionist opposition to being marooned in a Southern sea of Home Rule scuppered Lloyd George's exclusion plans later that month but they resurfaced as the Fourth Home Rule Bill which became the Government of Ireland Act of 1920.
On 13th. February 1920 Devlin, who was considering attending Westminster for the second reading of the Government of Ireland Bill, wrote to his oldest and most important ally, Bishop O'Donnell of Raphoe (in 1904 O'Donnell had the ban on the Hibernians as a "secret society" removed, just in time for Devlin's take over of the organisation at its national convention in Dublin in July 1905):

"This will mean the worst form of partition and, of course, permanent partition. Once they have their own parliament with all the machinery of government and administration, I am afraid that anything like subsequent union will be impossible. I propose, if an opportunity is offered, to attack the Bill, and to do so from an Ulster point of view, giving reasons why we Catholics and Nationalists could not, under any circumstances, consent to be placed under the domination of a parliament so skilfully established as to make it impossible for us to be ever other than a permanent minority, with all the sufferings and tyranny of the present day continued, only in a worse form" (quoted Phoenix, ibid. page 76).

So at the end of March Devlin went to Westminster and spoke against the Bill as a partitionist measure. Bonar Law taunted him with having agreed to the permanent exclusion of the six northern counties back in 1916. Devlin felt impelled to explain himself again to his ally O'Donnell, writing to him on 2nd. April 1920:

"It was impressed upon me during the controversy about partition, and indeed it strongly influenced my action (four) years ago, that in the absence of any agreement about the six counties, a parliament would be set up in Ulster, and I considered that it would be the greatest and last of all calamities…You will, therefore, understand, that in consenting at the time (1916) to the proposals…I thought they would avert the setting-up of an Ulster parliament, and, at the same time, create a condition of things that would force Ulster to take the initiative in bringing about ultimate unity. Indeed, Sir Edward Carson has stated repeatedly in the smoking room of the House of Commons that, if these proposals had been agreed to, Ireland would now be united. At all events, by agreeing to them at the time, setting up a parliament for the twenty-six counties, keeping Ulster under the control of the Imperial Parliament, with 100 Irish member, 85 of whom would have been Nationalists, still having the same power over governmental and administrative matters for Ulster as formerly, and recognising that the whole scheme would have been unworkable, my visualisation is that they would have been glad to come to the parliament of the twenty-six counties to plead for union. On the other hand, if once a parliament were established in Ulster, with all its governmental and administrative machinery, and all the vested interests that were bound to be created in consequence of its establishment, it would mean a permanent arrangement. For that reason, I believed that what could be done ought to have been done at the time to prevent such a parliament being brought into existence" (quoted Phoenix, ibid, page 82).

All of which I think shows that even at the end of their tether, at the highest conceivable point of their willingness to compromise with the English, Redmond and Devlin could not bring themselves to agree to and advocate what became the Government of Ireland Act, 1920. Standing on their own ground they are a standing reproach to those revisionists who would have them a willing party to the dismemberment of their every principle and policy. Only over their dead bodies I think.

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