Home Rule

Contributors: TOR.

‘Home Rule’ had as its aim the establishment of a parliament in Dublin to legislate for Irish domestic affairs. This political policy was devised by Isaac Butt who argued that Ireland suffered not so much from bad government but from scarcely any government at all. He argued that the heart of Empire beat too remotely from Irish grievance and that MPs in the Imperial Parliament at Westminster understood little of Irish problems and were not willing to spend sufficient time considering them or trying to solve them. A Home Rule parliament in Dublin would understand, address, and solve Irish problems. The idea of an Irish legislature with responsibility for domestic affairs was to be enduringly attractive to Irish constitutional nationalists for almost half a century, from 1870 to 1918. It was probably Rev. Joseph A. Galbraith who coined the phrase ‘Home Rule’, and it had an appealing brevity and ring to it. It soon replaced Butt’s more cumbersome phrase ‘Home Government’. The vagueness of the term Home Rule was useful politically and it enabled people of many political hues to attach their own meaning to it.

Isaac Butt, founder of the Home Government Association and the Home Rule League, wrote authoritatively about Home Rule. He envisaged a federal arrangement for Ireland, Scotland, and England. The three countries would be part of a federal United Kingdom, and would share a common sovereign, executive, and ‘national council’ at Westminster for UK and international purposes. Each of the three countries would have its own parliament to legislate for domestic affairs. In Ireland’s case an Irish assembly, elected on the basis of household suffrage, would decide the form of parliament. Butt campaigned for the principle rather than for a particular form of Home Rule.

In the wake of the Disestablishment of the Church of Ireland (1869) the Home Rule League attracted significant support from disillusioned members of the Protestant middle and upper classes who felt that their interests were not being protected in Westminster. The Irish Republican Brotherhood, grateful to Butt for his work in defending Fenian prisoners and in the Amnesty Association, were prepared in the beginning to co-operate with Home Rulers though their objective was total separation from Britain and the establishment of an Irish republic. Butt’s policy of Home Rule caught the imagination of the people but his party’s pursuit of that policy in the 1870s was not successful for many reasons. The character of the movement changed in the 1870s: landlord involvement declined and the numbers of Fenians, Catholic clergy, and agrarian campaigners increased.

Unionists, and in particular Ulster Unionists and the Orange Order, feared Home Rule might mean a parliament in Dublin dominated by the Catholic Church and that this would interfere with Ireland’s economic progress. Conservative governments from the 1880s on sought to divert attention from the demand for Home Rule by implementing a policy of conciliation, namely, to address and remedy Irish grievances; and to govern Ireland so well that there would be no demand for Home Rule. The Conservative policy of constructive Unionism (‘killing Home Rule with kindness’) was to bring many benefits to Ireland.

Butt’s successor as leader, Charles Stewart Parnell, disciplined and organised the party into an impressive political machine that had widespread support in Ireland and great success at the polls. Parnell succeeded in persuading Gladstone, the greatest parliamentarian of the age and the leader of the largest party in the House of Commons, of the merits of Home Rule. When Gladstone committed himself to Home Rule he used Butt’s ideas and the example of Canada, to construct the Home Rule Bill which he introduced on 8 April 1886. It was, however, defeated on 8 June by 343 votes to 311 in the House of Commons. He had failed to persuade all of his Liberal party to support it. The radical section of the party, led by Joseph Chamberlain, and the Whigs on the right wing of the party, led by Hartington, voted with the Conservatives to defeat Gladstone’s first Home Rule Bill. Gladstone’s second Home Rule Bill, in 1892, was passed by the Commons but was rejected by the House of Lords.

A Liberal Government led by H. H. Asquith introduced the third Home Rule Bill on 11 April 1912. He had needed the support of the Irish Party, led by John Redmond, to secure the passage of the Parliament Act in 1911 and had promised Home Rule in return. Sir Edward Carson, for the Unionists, led opposition to the Bill. The House of Lords used its veto to delay the passage of the Bill but it was to become law in 1914. Asquith’s government attempted to reach a compromise with Redmond and Carson, about the exclusion of some part of Ulster. Partition was not acceptable to either side and by the summer of 1914 nothing had been settled.

The Buckingham Palace Conference in July 1914 failed to reach a settlement and after the outbreak of the First World War in August, Asquith secured from the Irish parties an agreement that the implementation of the Home Rule Act would be suspended until the war was over. King George V signed the Home Rule Act into law on 18 September but with an addendum that the Act would not come into effect until some provision had been made for part of Ulster.

By 1919 events in Ireland, after the Easter Rising of 1916, made Home Rule increasingly irrelevant. Redmond’s party was defeated by Sinn Féin in the general election of December 1918. Sinn Féin representatives meeting as Dáil Éireann, in January 1919, reaffirmed the Irish Republic proclaimed at Easter 1916. The British Government attempted to settle the problem with the Government of Ireland Act 1920. The Act provided for two Home Rule parliaments: one for the six north-eastern counties; the second for the 26 counties. Ulster reluctantly accepted its Home Rule parliament and Stormont and the Six-County state of Northern Ireland were established. For the rest of the country Home Rule had come too late and it was too little to satisfy those engaged in the War of Independence which continued until July 1921. The Irish Free State was established as a result of the Anglo-Irish Treaty signed on 6 December 1921 by the Irish and British representatives. The new state had Dominion status and far more independence than Northern Ireland, and much more than had ever been envisaged by Home Rule.

Bibliography. Isaac Butt, Home government for Ireland: Irish federalism!: its meaning, its objects, and its hopes (3rd ed. Dublin 1870; 4th ed. Dublin 1874). T. M. Healy, Letters and leaders of my day (2 vols, London 1928). J. L. Hammond, Gladstone and the Irish Nation (London 1938). Terence de Vere White, The road to excess (Dublin 1946). Conor Cruise O’Brien, Parnell and his party, 1880–90 (Oxford 1957). F. S. L. Lyons, The fall of Parnell, 1890–91 (London 1960). Lawrence J. McCaffrey, ‘Irish Federalism in the 1870’s: a study in conservative nationalism’, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, NS, 52 (1962), Part 6. L. P. Curtis, Coercion and conciliation in Ireland, 1880–1892: a study in conservative unionism (Princeton NJ 1963). David Thornley, Isaac Butt and Home Rule (London 1964). F. S. L. Lyons, Charles Stewart Parnell (London 1977). James Loughlin, Gladstone, Home Rule, and the Ulster Question, 1882–93 (Dublin 1986). Alan O’Day, Parnell and the first Home Rule episode 1884–87 (Dublin 1986). William Michael Murphy, The Parnell myth and Irish politics 1891–1956 (New York 1986). Paul Bew, Conflict and conci-liation in Ireland, 1890–1910: Parnellites and radical agrarians (Oxford 1987). Alan O’Day, Irish Home Rule, 1867–1921 (Manchester 1998).

Fidelma Maguire & Tomás O’Riordan