A centenary ago on 18 September 1914, the Third Home Rule Bill for Ireland went on the statute books in Westminster, with its implementation simultaneously postponed for a year or for the duration of WW1. At the time there was no doubt that collective sighs of relief were drawn by members of the Melbourne Celtic Club (founded as the Home Rule Club in 1887), along with the Melbourne United Irish League, the Irish Foresters, and other smaller groups.
Among these members were some prominent (and not so prominent) Melbournians of Irish heritage and birth. Justice Bourne Higgins who had delivered the Harvester judgement setting the family wage and whose only child, Mervyn would die at Gallipoli. Dr Micheal Ulick O’Sullivan, first president of the Celtic Club whose son Brendan would serve with the AIF. Morgan Jaguers, a later president of the Celtic Club, whose son John Davitt would be killed in action in France as would Desmond MacMahon Gavan Duffy, son of Frank Gavan Duffy and Dr Nicholas O’Donnell, another president of the Celtic Club, and many others.
‘Home Rule’ was shorthand for the marathon political campaign waged by the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) and the All For Ireland League (AFIL) and their predecessors in the 19th and early 20th century. John Redmond headed up the IPP, and William O’Brien, almost whitewashed from the Home Rule saga, was the leader of the AFIL. Both parties wanted constitutional recognition of Ireland as a sovereign nation with status somewhat similar to Australia and Canada, as well as re-instatement of the Irish parliament, which had been dissolved by the Act of Union in 1801.
Both IPP and AFIL held the balance of power in a coalition government led by Herbert Asquith, Liberal Party (LP) since the UK general election of December 1910. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), led by Ramsay MacDonald, also agreed to support Home Rule for Ireland. As quid pro quo for IPP and AFIL support, the LP introduced a Third Home Rule Bill for Ireland on 11 April 1912. The Home Rule Bill aka the Government of Ireland Act (4 & 5 Geo. 5c.90) called for:-
A bi-cameral Irish Parliament to be set up in Dublin with a 40 member Senate and a 164 member House of Commons with power to deal with most internal affairs, plus 42 MPs who would sit in Westminster…
A Lord Lieutenant would be installed and Dublin Castle Administration abolished…
The most notable difference between the Second and Third Bills was that the Third Home Rule Bill gave power over the police to the proposed Irish parliament. This provision aroused intense objections in Ulster.
Home Rule was strongly opposed by Conservatives and Unionists who were determined to maintain the parliamentary union of Ireland with England. Their constituents were mainly proprietors, industrialists, businessmen, manufacturers, textile millers, and scions of wealthy merchants and brewers/distillers such as Edward Carson and James Craig. In fact, only five months earlier when it seemed likely that Home Rule was about to pass through the House of Commons, Unionists, claiming to be Loyalists defied their elected government. On 24-25 April 1914, 25,000 rifles and 3million rounds of ammunition were illegally imported from Hamburg into Ulster, allegedly to protect themselves from their fellow islanders who had hardly any arms, except for some outmoded rifles and, harking back to Cuchulainn, hurley sticks. Even Winston Churchill said the Unionists’ action amounted to a ‘treasonable conspiracy’ and questioned where their loyalties lay.
The minority party, Sinn Fein, spurred on by the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), sought a thirty two county independent republic whether Unionists wanted it or not, even if it meant using guerrilla tactics if necessary. In addition, there was a group of urban Socialist Workers aiming for a socialist republic.
There were other forces to be reckoned with:- Cuman na mBan, founded 2 April 1914, and the Suffragettes now fighting fiercely to get votes for women. Asquith had not kept his side of his bargain with them and Redmond had neither time nor interest in promoting women’s rights before Home Rule. Clearly he didn’t consider Women’s Rights as a vital part of Home Rule.
It was Redmond’s misfortune that the passage of the Third Home Rule for Ireland Bill finally occurred after Britain had entered World War I on 4th August, 1914. All sides of the English political debate wanted free access to Ireland’s reserves of fighting men. Hence the passage of the Suspension Act immediately after the passage of the Third Home Rule Act. Redmond then campaigned very actively for the recruitment of Irish men into the British Army.
As it was widely anticipated that the War to end all Wars would be over by Christmas, Melbourne Irish Constitutional Nationalists decided not to hold any public demonstration or ‘other outward display of jubilation’ to celebrate Home Rule. Joseph Winter, editor of The Advocate, advised supporters
to bear their victory with calmness and self-control and when the War is over, and parliament opens in Dublin they can give full expression to their joy without wounding the sensibilities of those who may be in mourning for victims and martyrs in a just war.