Speech by John Bruton, former Taoiseach, at a meeting of the Westmeath Archaeological and Historical Society in the Greville Arms Hotel in Mullingar at 8pm on Wednesday 17 October 2018
I am greatly honoured to be invited to speak here in Mullingar on the 40th anniversary of the foundation of your society, which took place in 1978.
It is a sign that John Redmond is not, in fact, a forgotten patriot, that your society chose his life as the topic for your 40th anniversary, notwithstanding the fact that he himself died over 100 years ago, and 60 years before your society was founded.
John Redmond had a political career of 39 years, and became an MP in his twenties, in January 1881, at the height of the agitation for land reform.
Previous to becoming an MP, he worked as a clerk in the House of Commons where his father had been a member.
When his father died in 1880, Redmond hoped to contest his father’s seat in Wexford town. The new Leader of the Irish Party, Charles Stewart Parnell, ironically as events turned out, preferred to have Tim Healy (later an opponent of Parnell) contest the Wexford seat.
Not long after, Redmond did secure a seat in Parliament, representing New Ross. In 1885, he was re elected to Parliament, representing Wexford North.
In 1890, the Irish Party split, when Gladstone and the Liberal Party refused to do business with them under Parnell’s leadership, because of Parnell’s extra marital affair with Katherine O Shea.
Redmond was one of the minority of Irish Party MPs who supported Parnell. His decision appears to have been motivated by personal loyalty rather than ideology.
When Parnell died in October 1891, Redmond decided to uphold Parnell’s memory by contesting his dead leader’s seat in Cork City. He lost and was out of Parliament.
But in July 1892, Redmond, as a Parnellite, contested and won a seat in Waterford, against Michael Davitt, standing as an anti Parnellite. He was to retain that Waterford seat to the end of his life, in March 1918.
At boarding school in Clongowes from 1868 to 1874, Redmond excelled in drama and debating. He went from Clongowes to Trinity College, but dropped out after two years. He did, however later qualify as a barrister, and was called to the Bar in 1887, while already an MP.
His parents were separated, something that was uncommon, and difficult, at that time. Redmond, as the eldest son, often had to act as a conciliator between his parents, thereby developing diplomatic characteristics, along with a certain solitariness, characteristics that were to mark his political career.
Redmond’s mother came from Protestant and Unionist stock, although she converted to Catholicism on marrying Redmond’s father.
His life was marked by tragedies.
His first wife, Johanna Dalton, died in childbirth in 1889, after only six years of marriage.
Redmond had met Johanna, a native Australian, while fundraising for the National Land League in Australia shortly after he became an MP.
One of his daughters died as a young adult.
His brother, and close political lieutenant, Willie (MP for Clare) was killed in the Great War in 1917, at a difficult moment in Redmond’s career when his brothers presence would have been of great support to him.
John Redmond, a widower, married Ada Beesley in 1899, ten years after the death of his first wife. Ada was English and a Protestant.
The fact that both his mother, and his second wife, came from Protestant backgrounds may explain why Redmond took a conciliatory line in respect of differences in Ireland which had religious roots. Redmond demonstrated this broad minded view in his condemnation of anti Semitism in Limerick in 1904, whereas others, like the Fenian, John Devoy were openly anti Semitic.
The crowning achievement of John Redmond’s career was the enactment into law of Irish Home Rule on 18 September 1914.
Other achievements with which he was closely associated were
+ the settlement on the land question, in a way which transferred ownership of the land of Ireland to those who were actually farming it,
+ the achievement of democratic Local Government in 1898,
+ the Universities Act of 1908 which established NUI,
+ the beginnings of the welfare state with the introduction of old age pension and social security in 1909, and
+ the continuation of state support for denominational (Catholic and C of E) schools in England,
Apart from these achievements, Redmond played a crucial role in reuniting the Irish Party, after the Parnell split of 1891, in 1900.
John Dillon, who was on the other side of that split from Redmond, described this work, at a banquet in Redmond’s honour in 1908, as “one of the greatest works of reconciliation ever wrought for Ireland”.
Redmond’s conciliatory and consensual approach was key to maintaining unity among a talented but fractious group of men.
Redmond did not have the same control over candidate selection as Parnell had had, because of the circumstances in which he became leader of the reunited Party in 1900. So his achievement in maintaining a reasonable degree of Party unity is all the greater.
Undoubtedly Redmond’s most important achievement was the passage into law of Home Rule for Ireland on 18 September 1914.
Before I turn to that I would like to say something about the other achievements with which he was associated.
Land Reform was crucial.
The Land Act of 1881, enacted shortly after Redmond became an MP, was the first step towards the eventual transfer of land ownership, with compensation, from landlords to tenants, giving this numerous body of people, the former tenants, a stake in the country, a sense of shared ownership of Ireland.
In retrospect, it is probably good that this was done before Ireland became independent.
Trying to solve the land question after independence would have put an immense strain on Irish democracy. It would have been either deeply divisive, or financially costly, or both. It was easier to pay for Irish land reform from the much larger UK Treasury, than it would have been if the cost of compensating landlords had to come from the much smaller Irish tax base.
Land Reform in Ireland was predominantly an achievement of parliamentary politics. But agitation for it often took more direct forms.
For example, in the period between 1906 and 1908, local agitation involved driving cattle from farms at night, so that land might be converted from grass to tillage, on the assumption that tillage would employ more people. These cattle drives were particularly common in Meath and Westmeath, traditional grazing counties.
This agitation was led by the then Irish Party MP for North Westmeath, Larry Ginnell, but strongly criticized by another Irish Party MP, John P Hayden, who represented South Roscommon, but who was also the proprietor of the “Westmeath Examiner”. The “Examiner” circulated in Larry Ginnell’s constituency.
John Redmond was a very close friend of John Hayden, so he had, as party leader, to tread a fine and difficult line to keep the peace between his friend, and his local MP here in Westmeath.
This is just one of many illustrations of the personality clashes Redmond had to conciliate in order to keep his Party sufficiently united to achieve Home Rule.
This so called “Ranch War”, here in Westmeath, Meath and neighbouring counties, was finally brought to an end by the 1909 Land Act, which gave a Land Commission power to compulsorily acquire, and redistribute, large holdings that it considered to be farmed with insufficient intensity.
The introduction of social insurance in 1907, by the Liberal government had the support of the Irish Party. It was intended to provide for workers who could not work because of illness or lack of a job. It was very advanced for its time.
John Hayden MP said it would be welcomed by the Irish people, but the Catholic hierarchy and the “Irish Independent” were not so keen on it. I assume the Hierarchy was not keen on the state becoming involved in matters that it felt should have been left to families and voluntary or charitable effort, and the “Irish Independent” would have been worried about the costs imposed on employers.
Old Age Pensions were also introduced at this time, and Ireland benefitted disproportionately because there were a disproportionate number of older people in Ireland by comparison with the rest of the then United Kingdom.
Of course, this posed a problem for Home Rule advocates, in the sense that the pensions could more easily be afforded if they were be paid for out of the larger UK wide tax base, and less easily affordable if they had to be met from the much smaller tax base of a Home Rule Ireland.
This same type of dilemma arises today in respect of suggestions that Northern Ireland might opt to transfer sovereignty from London to Dublin by a referendum called under the terms of the Belfast Agreement.
The smaller Irish tax base would have greater difficulty, than the larger UK wide tax base, in supporting the external subvention of public services in Northern Ireland, which now brings in from outside 25% of the Northern Ireland GDP, as against the mere 7% of GDP that had to be brought in from outside to prop up NI public services in 1960.
Also in the 1906/08 period, the Liberal Party government wanted to abolish public support for denominational schools in England. The Irish Party successfully joined with the Conservatives to oppose this, and, as a result, denominational schools continue to exist in England up to this day. The interests of the children of recent Irish immigrants to England were a concern for the Irish Party.
From an Irish perspective, the creation of the National University in 1908 was also a major achievement for Redmond and his Party. It’s very name, “National University”, underlines its importance in the progression towards economic and cultural independence.
The passage into law of Home Rule for Ireland in September 1914 was, of course, an Irish parliamentary achievement without equal in the preceding 200 years.
Redmond, as Irish Party Leader, achieved something that had eluded previous Irish leaders O Connell, Butt, Shaw and Parnell.
Home Rule granted Ireland its own legislature, something denied it since 1800. And that was obtained without violence on the part of those who worked for it, but in the face of threats of violence from those who opposed it.
The enactment of Home Rule may have been a purely peaceful achievement, but this is not to suggest that those who obtained it, the Irish Parliamentary Party of John Redmond and John Dillon, were mild mannered and non confrontational.
Two previous attempts to obtain Home Rule had failed, the first because it was defeated in the House of Commons, and the second because it was vetoed in the House of Lords.
To get Home Rule onto the statute book, John Redmond had to
+ get a majority for Home Rule in the House of Commons, and simultaneously
+ get the British constitutional arrangements changed to remove the House of Lords power of veto. There was a permanent majority against Home Rule in the House of Lords, and the veto could only be removed with the consent of the House of Lords itself.
Furthermore, in the House of Commons, the Liberal party, which had been committed to Home Rule under Gladstone, had moved away from that policy under Lord Rosebery, Campbell Bannerman, and Herbert Asquith.
So to get a majority in the House of Commons the Liberal Party had first to be won back to a firm commitment to pass Home Rule.
In a masterly exercise of parliamentary leverage and constructive opportunism, Redmond achieved all these goals, in a very short space of time.
He withheld Irish Party support for the radical 1909 Budget, unless and until there was a commitment to remove the Lords veto and introduce Home Rule.
He also, in effect, exercised pressure on the King, because the Lords eventually only passed the legislation to remove their own veto, as a result of a threat by a reluctant King to swamp the House of Lords with new, Home Rule supporting, Lords.
This shows what Irish MPs can do by taking their seats, and using their votes, when the government of the day is in a minority.
All this was achieved from the position of being a minority party in the House, albeit a party whose votes were needed to avoid a General Election which the Liberal Government feared they would lose.
Considerable brinksmanship was needed, because, if the Liberals lost the election, the cause of Home Rule would also be lost.
Redmond and his Party did not have all the trump cards. He just played the cards they had very well indeed.
On the other side of the House, the Irish Party faced a Conservative Party that was determined to force a General Election, and to that end, they were prepared to incite Ulster Unionists to military insurrection, and to connive with elements in the British military to ensure that such an insurrection would not be prevented.
In Britain itself, Home Rulers had to overcome deep anti Irish, and anti Catholic, sentiment is some sections of opinion. To counter this, Redmond had toured Britain, over 30 years, gradually preparing British opinion to accept Irish legislative independence.
In face of all these difficulties, getting Home Rule onto the statute book, without the loss of a single life, really was a remarkable parliamentary achievement.
Was Redmond right to urge his supporters to volunteer to fight in the Great War?
The Woodenbridge speech of John Redmond, on 20 September 1914, urging Irish men to join the Allied cause in the Great War that had broken out six weeks previously, must be seen in the context that Home Rule had been placed on the statute book just two days previously.
Home Rule was law, but the implementation of it was simply postponed until the end of what most people expected would be a short war.
Redmond’s address to the Volunteers at Woodenbridge was not just a reciprocation for the passage of Home Rule.
He also wanted to show that the passage of Home Rule into law two days before, had inaugurated a new and better relationship between Ireland and its neighbouring island.
He wanted to show everybody, including Ulster Unionists, that things had changed.
As he was still aiming to persuade Ulster Unionists to come in under Home rule, he felt he needed to say what he said if there was to be any chance at all that Ulster Unionists would, when the War was over, voluntarily come in under and take part in a Home Rule Parliament in Dublin. He wanted to show to Ulster Unionists that, in some matters, Unionists and Nationalists were now “on the same side”.
Irish men had fought in the British Army in the Boer War, notwithstanding Redmond’s and the Irish Party’s opposition to that war, so those many of those who volunteered to fight, in what turned out to be the Great War, would have done so anyway, whether Redmond asked them to do so or not.
Imagine what would have been the reaction if , two days after Home Rule had been passed into law and signed by the King, Redmond had chosen instead to advise the Volunteers in Woodenbridge not to join the forces to defend neutral Belgium, which had been invaded by Germany a month previously. Those in Britain and in Ulster, who had opposed Home Rule would have felt they had been vindicated and that the Irish could not be trusted.
Some have criticised the limitations of the initial Home Rule Act of 1914.
The powers were limited, in part, because Home Rule, as initially presented to Parliament, was designed to apply to all 32 counties of Ireland, encompassing a reluctant Unionist minority.
To get around the Lord’s veto under the Parliament Act of 1911, the Home Rule Bill had to be passed in the House of Commons in three successive years, in identical terms.
Although the possibility of temporary exclusion of some Ulster counties was conceded by the time the Home Rule Act finally came to be passed a third time, the Bill had to adhere to the form in which it had been framed originally, when it was to apply, from the outset , to all 32 counties of Ireland.
In the hope of Ulster Unionist acquiescence to coming in under Home Rule, either immediately or later, safeguards and limitations had to be inserted to protect or reassure the Ulster Protestant minority.
Some historians, who have criticised the limitations of the Home Rule Act of 19914, ignore the fact that it was designed for a 32 county, not a 26 county, Ireland.
For example a provision was inserted whereby the Home Rule Government “could not endow any religion”. This safeguard was actually a worry to the Catholic hierarchy, who feared it might affect existing state funding for Catholic teacher training colleges, but it was put there to reassure Protestants in a 32 county Ireland.
For the same reason, marriage law was to be kept at Westminster, because the Vatican’s “Ne Temere” decree of 1907 on mixed marriages had caused alarm among Protestants.
Likewise, limitations in the on the imposition of tariffs and customs duties by the Home Rule Government of a 32 county Ireland were needed, to assure the minority industrial interests in Ulster, that their trade interests would not be sacrificed to those of the majority, predominantly agricultural, economy of the rest of the country.
As it transpired, these safeguards were not enough.
Ulster Unionists continued to insist on exclusion from the whole system, and backed their demand with the threat of force.
Modern critics may claim Home Rule Act of 1914 was too limited. The Ulster Unionists of the time clearly did not think so!
If John Redmond had wanted to maximise the powers of the Home Rule Government in Dublin, he could, early on, have accepted the exclusion from Home Rule of the 4 Ulster counties where there was a Unionist majority. Even the Conservatives would have given the Home Rule Parliament more powers on that basis
Redmond, unlike those who negotiated the Treaty, and the Good Friday Agreement for that matter, did not accept any open ended exclusion from Home Rule of any part of Ireland.
In that sense, John Redmond in 1914 could be said to have been more idealistic than the republicans and physical force men who came after him turned out to be in 1921.
The American historian, Joseph P Finnan in his book, “John Redmond and Irish Unity 1912-1918”, has claimed that Redmond prized Irish unity more than he prized Irish sovereignty.
“Although he (Redmond) acceded to demands for temporary exclusion of northern counties, he never gave them up for lost. The Irish revolutionaries who negotiated the Anglo Irish Treaty of 1921 did just that. Even the anti Treaty forces led by de Valera based their objections on the loss of the republican ideal, not the loss of the northern nationalist population”
Redmond’s 32 county ideal has not been achieved.
Charles Townsend said in his book “Easter 1916”
“The Rebellion played a part in cementing partition”
Indeed, the words of the 1916 Proclamation itself were literally “oblivious” to the problem of resistance in parts of Ulster to any form of rule by Dublin.
The 1916 Proclamation said it was
“Oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, who have divided a minority from a majority in the past”
In effect, the 1916 leaders seemed not to think the Ulster Unionists had minds of their own, and were simply tools of the British. There was nothing in the Proclamation to deal with the fears of Ulster Unionists. The Irish Republic was just deemed to include them. That was it.
Under the agreement by which Home Rule was passed into law in 1914, its implementation was postponed for the duration of the war, but there was no doubt but that it would come into effect, once the war was over, either for the whole of Ireland, or, more likely, for 26 or 28 counties.
There was an attempt to bring Home Rule into effect, while the War was still on, in late 1916.
Carson and Redmond were agreeable to this, on the basis that it would apply to 26 Counties initially. Unfortunately some Conservative members of the War cabinet vetoed this. They were apparently fearful, while at war with Germany and in the wake of the 1916 Rebellion which had German support, of German influence on a Dublin Home Rule government.
But, once the War was over, Home Rule was to come into effect.
The Lloyd George Coalition Government’s re election manifesto in the December 1918 Election stated bluntly
“Home Rule is upon the statute book”.
There was thus no going back on it. That was John Redmond’s achievement of 1914, before a shot was fired in 1916.
He had reached a position whereby all major parties in Britain accepted legislative independence for Ireland.
My belief is that Home Rule, like the Treaty, could have been a stepping stone to full independence, but without the loss of life.
Under the 1914 Home Rule arrangement, if Ulster counties opted out, they would have continued under direct rule from Westminster.
There would have been no Stormont.
When John Redmond died in March 1918, in Dublin Corporation, the Sinn Fein member and later President of Ireland, Sean T O Kelly described John Redmond as
“ an honour to his country”.
The leader of the Irish Unionists, Edward Carson, described him as
“invariably an honourable and courteous opponent”
The Freemans Journal described Redmond’s character as
“ a rare combination of inflexible will and genial humanity”.
It emphasised that “He would have been an ideal first Prime Minister of an Irish Cabinet, skilled in bringing men and parties together”.