The Act was the first law ever passed by the Parliament of the United Kingdom that sought to establish devolved government in a part of the United Kingdom. However, the implementation of both it and the equally controversial Welsh Church Act 1914 was formally postponed for a minimum of twelve months with the outbreak of the First World War. Subsequent developments in Ireland led to further postponements, meaning that the Act never took effect; it was finally superseded by a fourth home rule bill (enacted as the Government of Ireland Act 1920).
Instead of home rule as envisioned in the 1914 Act, most of Ireland was to achieve independence in 1922 as the Irish Free State; however, the six north-eastern counties that remained within the United Kingdom as Northern Ireland did obtain home rule in the previous year.
The separate Kingdoms of Ireland and Britain were merged on January 1, 1801, to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Throughout the 19th century Irish opposition to the Union was strong, occasionally erupting in violent insurrection. In the 1830s and 1840s attempts had been made under the leadership of Daniel O'Connell to repeal the Act of Union 1800 and restore the Kingdom of Ireland, without breaking the connection with Great Britain. These attempts to achieve what was simply called repeal, failed.
In the 1870's, the Home Rule League under Isaac Butt sought to achieve a modest form of self-government, known as Home Rule. Under it, Ireland would still remain part of the United Kingdom but would have limited self-government. The cause was then pursued by Charles Stewart Parnell and two attempts were made by Liberal ministries under British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone to enact home rule bills, accompanied by a revival of Ulster's Orange Order to resist any form of Home Rule.
The first bill, with Gladstone's Irish Home Rule speech beseeching parliament to pass the Irish Government Bill 1886 and grant Home Rule to Ireland in honour rather than being compelled to one day in humiliation, was defeated in the Commons by 30 votes; while the second Irish Government Bill 1893 was passed, but then defeated in the Lords. With the Conservative Party's pro-unionist policy, and joined by a group of Liberal Unionists on this issue, the consequent majority could block any such bill from passing the Commons. Few expected a Home Rule bill to make it through the final stage, the Conservative-majority House of Lords.
In 1909, a crisis erupted between the House of Lords and the Commons, each of which accused the other of breaking historic conventions — the Commons accused the Lords of breaking the convention of not rejecting a budget after it had rejected the budget of Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George, which was so framed by him that the Lords were certain to reject it. By this means Lloyd George hoped to clear the way for a determined onslaught on the privilege of the Lords and their veto on legislation. The Lords duly rejected the Finance Bill in November 1909 and the Liberals joined battle with the Lords. The Prime Minister Herbert Asquith appealed to the country.
Two general elections followed in 1910 to decide the issue. Far from breaking the deadlock, they left the Liberals and Conservatives equally matched. In the December 1910 general election the Liberals having lost their majority, were dependent on the Irish Nationalists to hold on to government. The issue was now quite clear: if the Liberals were to bring down the House of Lords, they would need the vote of the Irish Party, and the price would be Home Rule for Ireland. With the promise of cooperation from both the late king, Edward VII, and the new king, George V, the Liberals threatened to swamp the Lords with sufficient new Liberal peers to assure the Government a Lords majority. The peers backed down, and the relationship between the Lords and Commons changed fundamentally.
The two general elections had left the nationalist Irish Parliamentary Party under its leader John Redmond with the balance of power in the House of Commons. Prime Minister Asquith came to an understanding with Redmond in which, if he supported his move to break the power of the Lords and support his budget, then Asquith would introduce a Home Rule Bill. The Parliament Act 1911 was passed in which the Lords agreed to a curtailment of their powers. Now they had no powers over finance bills and their unlimited veto was replaced with one lasting only two years, if the House of Commons passed a bill in the third year and was then rejected by the Lords it would still become law without the consent of the Upper House. Thus the last obstacle to Home Rule was removed.
On 11, April 1912, the Prime Minister introduced the Third Home Rule Bill which foresaw granting Ireland self-government. Allowing more autonomy than its two predecessors, the bill provided for:
- A bicameral Irish Parliament to be set up in Dublin (a 40-member Senate and a 164-member House of Commons) with powers to deal with most national affairs;
- A number of Irish MPs would continue to sit in the Imperial Parliament in Westminster (42 MPs, rather than 103).
- The abolition of Dublin Castle, though with the retention of the Lord Lieutenant.
The financial situation was a concern. Irish taxes had yielded a surplus of £2 million in 1893, that had turned into a current spending net deficit of £1.5m by 1910 that had to be raised by London. An annual "Transferred Sum" mechanism was proposed to maintain spending in Ireland as it was.
The Bill was passed by the Commons by a majority of 10 votes but the House of Lords rejected it 326 votes to 69. In 1913 it was re-introduced and again passed the Commons but was again rejected by the Lords by 302 votes to 64. In 1914 after the third reading, the Bill passed the Commons on 25 May by a majority of 77. Having been defeated a third time in the Lords, the Government used the provisions of the Parliament Act to override the Lords and send it for Royal Assent.
In Ulster, Protestants were in a numerical majority. Much of the northeast was opposed to being governed from Dublin and losing their local supremacy — before the Act of Union in 1801, Protestants were the business, political élite and landed aristocracy in Ireland. Catholics had only been allowed to vote again in 1793 and been excluded from sitting in parliament until Catholic Emancipation in 1829. Since the Act of Settlement 1701, no Catholic had ever been appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the head of the British government in a country that was 75% Catholic. In 1800 Protestant privilege in Ireland was based on land ownership, but this had diminished from 1885 with the introduction of land purchase by a Land Commission and the Irish Land Acts.
By 1912, Protestant influence remained strong in Ulster, based not on farmland but on new industries that had been developed after 1800. Many Protestants in Ulster were Presbyterians, who had also been excluded from power before 1801, but now wanted to maintain the link with Britain. Further, Belfast had grown from 7,000 people in 1800 to 400,000 by 1900, and was then the largest city in Ireland. This growth had depended largely on trade within the British Empire, and it seemed that the proposed Dublin-based parliament elected by a largely rural country would have different economic priorities to those of Belfast and its industrial hinterland. The argument developed that 'Ulster' deserved separate treatment from the rest of Ireland, and that its majority was socially and economically closer to the rest of Britain. Unionists declared that the Irish economy had prospered during the Union, but with Ulster doing better than the rest of Ireland. The Protestants of Ulster had done well with their industries, particularly linen and shipbuilding. They feared a Dublin parliament run by farmers would hamper their prosperity by imposing barriers on trade with Britain.
All the arguments for and against Home Rule, in general or as proposed in the Bill, were made by both sides from the day it was introduced in April 1912. The main issue of contention during the parliamentary debates was the "coercion of Ulster", and mention was made of whether or which counties of Ulster should be excluded from the provisions of Home Rule. Irish Party leaders John Dillon and Joseph Devlin contending "no concessions for Ulster, Ulster will have to follow". On ‘Ulster Day’ 28 September 1912 over five hundred thousand Unionists signed the Ulster Covenant pledging to defy Home Rule by all means possible, drawn up by Irish Unionist leader Sir Edward Carson and organised by Sir James Craig, who in January 1911 had spoken of a feeling in Ulster that Germany and the German Emperor would be preferred to the ‘rule of John Redmond, Patrick Ford (veteran Fenian) and the Molly Maguires'.
Unionists continued to demand that Ulster be excluded, the solution of partition appealing to Craig; Carson however, as a Dublin man, did not want partition, which would leave 250,000 Southern Unionists at the mercy of a huge nationalist majority. He was willing to talk partition hoping that Redmond would give up Home Rule rather than agree to it. Redmond under-estimated the resilience and strength of their resistance and thought they were bluffing and would accept Home Rule after Parliament passed it. On New Year's Day 1913, Carson moved an amendment to the Home Rule Bill in the House of Commons, to exclude all nine counties of Ulster and was supported in this by Bonar Law.
Represented mainly by the Ulster Unionist Party and backed by the Orange Order, the unionists established in January 1913 the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force, with 100,000 members who threatened to resist by physical force the implementation of the Act and the authority of any restored Dublin Parliament by force of arms, fearing that Dublin rule would mean the ascendency of Catholicism—in the words of one MP, that "'home rule' in Ireland would prove to be 'Rome Rule'. Later that year Carson and other leading men in Ulster were fully prepared to abandon the Southern Unionists, Carson's concern for them largely exhausted.
The Nationalists in turn raised the Irish Volunteers from late 1913 and planned to help Britain enforce the Act whenever it passed, and to oppose Ulster separatism. In the Curragh incident of 20 March 1914, dozens of army officers stationed in Ireland offered to resign or accept dismissal rather than enforce Home Rule on Ulster. In April 1914 the Ulster Volunteers illegally imported 24,000 rifles from Imperial Germany, being worried that force would be used to impose the Act upon the northeast. Nationalists, led by John Redmond, were adamant that any partition was unacceptable, and he declared that they could never assent to the mutilation of the Irish nation. "Ireland is a unit . . . . the two-nation theory is to us an abomination and a blasphemy". In June 1914 Erskine Childers imported 900 German rifles for the Irish Volunteers in his yacht. In mid-July Padraig Pearse complained of Redmond's takeover of the Volunteers, that he wanted to arm them for the wrong reasons - 'not against England, but against the Orangemen'. It seemed that Ireland would slide into a civil war.
The economic arguments for and against Home Rule were hotly debated, but all agreed that without the ability to tax Ulster's industrial areas the future prospects for the rest of Ireland would be worse. The case in favour was put by Erskine Childers' "The Framework of Home Rule" (1911) and the arguments against by Arthur Samuels in 1912. Both books assumed Home Rule for all of Ireland; by mid-1914 the situation had changed dramatically.
Even before the Bill became law, questions arose about proposals to exclude Ulster from the Act. At the Bill's third reading on 21 May several members asked about a proposal to exclude the whole of Ulster for six years; it seemed remarkable, as the proposal was being made as a new amending Bill in the House of Lords, where the government had less support. Liberal and Irish government supporters were instantly critical of any effort to water down the existing Bill. Lord Hugh Cecil, a Conservative MP, was also mystified, saying: "Let them bring in their amending Bill under the Standing Orders before next Tuesday. It is perfectly manifest that somebody is going to be tricked. There is no genuine honest reason for making a secret of this kind. My hope is that it is the Nationalist party who are going to be tricked. It may be them, or it may be us, but that somebody is going to be tricked is perfectly plain.."
It now appears that in late May Asquith sought any solution that would avoid, or at least postpone, an Irish civil war. He had not been frank about the new temporary-partition possibility, leaving everyone wondering what, exactly, they were voting for in the main Bill, when it might be seriously altered by the as-yet-unseen Amending Bill that was to be launched in the House of Lords.
Sir Edward Carson and the Irish Unionist Party (mostly Ulster MPs) backed by a Lords' recommendation, supported the government's Amending Bill in the Lords on 8 July 1914 for the "temporary exclusion of Ulster" from the workings of the future Act, but the number of counties (four, six or nine) and whether exclusion was to be temporary or permanent, all still to be negotiated.
The compromise proposed by Asquith was straightforward. Six counties of the northeast of Ireland (roughly two thirds of Ulster), where there was arguably or definitely a Protestant majority, were to be excluded "temporarily" from the territory of the new Irish parliament and government, and to continue to be governed as before from Westminster and Whitehall. How temporary the exclusion would be, and whether northeastern Ireland would eventually be governed by the Irish parliament and government, remained an issue of some controversy.
Redmond fought tenaciously against the idea of partition, but conceded only after Carson had forced through an Amending Bill which would have granted limited local autonomy to Ulster within an all-Ireland settlement. The British government in effect accepted no immediate responsibility for the political and religious antagonisms which in the end led to the partition of Ireland, regarding it as clearly an otherwise unresolvable internal Irish problem. To them, the Nationalists had led the way towards Home Rule from the 1880s without trying hard enough to understand Unionist apprehensions, and were instead relying on their mathematical majority of electors. In the background, the more advanced nationalist views of ideologues such as D. P. Moran had nothing to offer the Unionists.
William O'Brien alone made a concerted effort to accommodate Unionist concerns in his All-for-Ireland League (AFIL) political programme, prepared to concede any reasonable concessions to Ulster, denounced by both the Irish Party and clergy. The eight Independent AFIL Party MPs abstained from voting on the final passing of the Bill on 25 May in protest that it had not taken any account of Protestant minority concerns and fears, being in effect a "partition deal" after the government introduced an Amending Bill into the House of Lords to give effect to the exclusion of Ulster constructed on the basis of county option and six year exclusion, the same formula rejected by Unionists in March. To save endless debate in parliament, George V called a Buckingham Palace Conference with two MPs from each of the British parties, and two each from the nationalists and unionists, held between 21 and 24 July, which achieved very little, except a flicker of understanding between Carson and the Nationalists, that if Ulster were to be excluded, then in its entirety, that the province should come in or out as a whole.
With the outbreak of war with Germany in August 1914, Asquith decided to abandon his Amending Bill, and instead rushed through a new bill the Suspensory Act 1914 which was presented for Royal Assent simultaneously with both the Government of Ireland Act 1914 and the Welsh Church Act 1914; although the two controversial Bills had now finally reached the statute books on 18 September 1914, the Suspensory Act ensured that Home Rule would be postponed for the duration of the conflict and would not come into operation until the end of the war. The Unionist opposition in Parliament claimed that this manouevure by Asquith was a breach of the political truce agreed on at the start of the war. However, with the Home Rule Bill effectively put into limbo, and the arguments surrounding it still capable of being resurrected before home rule was actually to come into operation, Unionist politicians soon left the issue aside in the face of more pressing concerns.
The Ulster question was 'solved' in the same way: through the promise of amending legislation which was left undefined. Unionists were in disarray, wounded by the enactment of Home Rule. and by the absence of any definite arrangement for the exclusion of Ulster. Nationalists, in the belief that independent self-government had finally been granted, celebrated the news with bonfires alighting the hill-tops across the south of Ireland. But as the Act had been suspended for the duration of what was expected to be a very short war, this decision was to prove crucial to the subsequent course of events.
With the outbreak of what was expected to be a short Great War in August 1914, looming civil war in Ireland was averted. Both mainstream nationalists and unionists, keen to ensure the implementation of the Act on the one hand and to influence the issue of how temporary was partition to be on the other, rallied in support of Britain's war commitment to the Allies under the Triple Entente (See: Ireland and World War I).
The Irish Volunteers split into the larger National Volunteers and a rump who kept the original title. The NV and many other Irishmen, convinced at the time that Ireland had won freedom and self-government under the Act, joined Irish regiment of the 10th (Irish) Division or the 16th (Irish) Division of the New British Army to "defend the freedom of other small nations" and to fight in France and Belgium for a Europe free from oppression. The men of the Ulster Volunteers went on to join the 36th (Ulster) Division, and unlike their nationalist counterparts who apart from Irish Generals William Hickie and Bryan Mahon, lacked prior military training to act as officers, were allowed their own local reserve militia officers.
However, a fringe element of nationalism, represented by the remaining Irish Volunteers, opposed Irish support for the war effort, believing Irishmen who wanted to "defend the freedom of small nations" should focus on one closer to hand. In Easter 1916 a rebellion, the Easter Rising, took place in Dublin. Initially widely condemned in view of the heavy Irish war losses on the Western Front and in the disastrous Gallipoli V beach landing at Cape Helles (the main nationalist newspaper, the Irish Independent, demanded the execution of the rebels), the British government's mishandling of the aftermath of the Rising, including the protracted executions of the Rising's leaders by General Maxwell, led to the rise of an Irish republican movement in Sinn Féin, a small previously separatist monarchist party taken over by the rebellion's survivors, after it had been wrongly blamed for the rebellion by the British.
This marked a crucial turning on the path to attaining self-government. The rising put an end to the democratic constitutional and conciliatory parliamentary movement and replaced it with a radical physical-force approach. Unionists became even more trenchant in their views on All-Ireland self-government, ultimately leading to a perpetuation of partition.
After the rebellion, the British Cabinet urgently decided in May 1916 that the 1914 Act should be brought into operation immediately and a Government established in Dublin. Asquith tasked Lloyd George, then Minister for Munitions, to open negotiations between Redmond and Carson. As to how long the period of partition was to last, due to the ambiguities of the wording of the final document purposely intrigued by Walter Long to jeopardise Home Rule, Redmond, understanding it would be temporary, broke off negotiations when he realised this was not so. The tragedy of the failure to reach agreement between Redmond and Carson is underlined by the narrow division separating the disputants and the fact that the deal was very nearly concluded had Long not undermined it.
But before anything could evolve from this new constellation of nationalists and unionists, the massive German Spring Offensive of 21 March swept all before it, smashing the Allied and Irish Divisions, both the Irish Convention and any hope of Irish self-government. Britain had a manpower shortage and planned to enact Home Rule immediately, but under a dual policy of Home Rule linked with conscription. Britain could not have chosen a worse time or manner to introduce either to Ireland.
The issue now became the threat of conscription; all interest in Home Rule dissipated when moderate Nationalists and Sinn Féin stood united during the Conscription Crisis of 1918.
Fortunately an Allied defeat was staved off, just as American support reached the front, so that the military draft bill was never implemented. However its threat resulted in a dramatic rise in popularity for Sinn Féin and a swing away from the Irish Party. The Armistice ended the Great War on 11 November 1918.
December saw Sinn Féin secure a clear majority of seventy-three Irish seats in the general election, twenty five of these seats taken unopposed. Twenty-six Sinn Féin MPs assembled in Dublin (the rest were imprisoned) and proclaimed themselves as an independent parliament of an Irish Republic, the First Dáil where they ratified the Irish Republic (Poblacht na hÉireann) proclaimed in 1916 and announced a Unilateral Declaration of Independence, only Russia recognising it internationally. A ministry (Aireacht) was formed under Éamon de Valera. The Dáil unrealistically refused to negotiate any understanding with London and abstained from attending Westminster, thereby abandoning Ulster and its Catholic Nationalists to their fate. The killing of two local RIC constables at Soloheadbeg in county Tipperary became the first shots of the Irish War of Independence (Anglo-Irish War) fought between 1919 and 1921.
A second attempt to introduce self-government in Dublin was made by Britain with the calling of the Irish Convention in July 1917, to which Lloyd George, now Prime Minister, invited representatives of all parties. Two refused to attend, William O'Brien's dissident All-for-Ireland Party because Redmond objected to prominent Unionists he wished to have invited, and Sinn Féin on the grounds that the Convention would not lead to the Irish Republic they aspired to. The Convention sat until March 1918, discussing various options from Dominion status to a federal solution within or outside the United Kingdom. Southern Unionists, opposing the Northern Unionists, eventually sided with Redmond's Nationalists and accepted the setting up a Dublin Home Rule parliament. Redmond died in March 1918. Proposals contained in the Convention's report later formed the basis for a new Home Rule Act, a dual Home Rule parliament settlement from which just one evolved as Ireland's first Home Rule Parliament established in Northern Ireland in 1921.
The British prime minister David Lloyd George responded by replacing the suspended Home Rule Act of 1914 with a new (Fourth) Home Rule Bill, the Government of Ireland Act 1920, which was largely shaped by Walter Long's Committee which followed most of the recommendations contained in the Irish Convention's March 1918 report. Long, now with a free hand to shape Home Rule in Ulster's favour, partitioned Ireland into Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland; strict adherence to the policy of abstentionism meant that there was no Sinn Féin MP or Dáil envoy at Westminster to voice a protest. Lloyd George foresaw in each case a bicameral legislature and an executive presided over by a shared royal representative, the Lord Lieutenant.
Whilst Home Rule for Northern Ireland did come to pass in June 1921, Southern Ireland remained a political entity on paper only: the overwhelming majority of Irish MPs refused to recognise either of the enacted Houses of the Parliament of Southern Ireland, sitting instead as Teachtaí Dála (Deputies) of the Second Dáil. Just three MPs and four senators turned up for the state opening of the "Parliament of Southern Ireland". The war continued until a truce was agreed in 1921. Dáil Éireann delegated five envoys, with plenipotentiary powers, to negotiate terms of secession with the British government, Éamon de Valera remaining in Dublin having been informed in advance by Lloyd George that under no circumstances would a republic be conceded.
The outcome was the Anglo–Irish Treaty, signed on 6 December 1921, modelled largely on the foregone Fourth Home Rule Act, but giving Ireland Commonwealth Dominion status under the British Crown, and effectively abolished the Irish Republic. All of Ireland would become the Irish Free State, but Northern Ireland would be allowed to vote itself out of the Free State within a month. After a long and acrimonious debate lasting some weeks, the Dáil ratified the Treaty on 7 January 1922 by 64 votes to 57. Those opposed (led by Éamon de Valera) refused to accept the decision of the constitutionally elected Second Dáil and led their anti-Treaty forces into the Irish Civil War six months later, boycotting the Third Dáil after it had been elected.
The Parliament of Southern Ireland functioned as such only once, when pragmatically and in accordance with the provisions of the Treaty, the House of Commons of Southern Ireland assembled in Dublin in January 1922 to ratify it.
Under the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty a provisional parliament, the Third Dáil, was elected on 16 June 1922. This parliament was recognised both by pro-Treaty Sinn Féin and the British Government and so replaced both the Parliament of Southern Ireland and the Second Dáil with a single body. Ninety-four out of a total of 128 elected members of the new Dáil attended, thus democratically sanctioning it. The Irish Civil War started on 28 June 1922. The Irish Free State or Saorstát Éireann was established on 6 December 1922. Northern Ireland voted to exclude itself on 8 December, as expected, leaving 26 counties out of 32 (Leinster, Connaught and Munster plus three counties of Ulster) in the new Free State.