John Redmond: one of Irish history’s great losers

A Review Essay by  Elizabeth Malcolm


Dermot Meleady, John Redmond: The National Leader, Newbridge, County Kildare: Merrion Press, 2013, 2018.
ISBN: 9781785371547

Dermot Meleady (ed.), John Redmond: Selected Letters and Memoranda, 1880-1918, Newbridge, County Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018.
ISBN: 9781785371554
RRP: €29.99

In 1989, a book was published in Dublin entitled Worsted in the Game. The book was made up of a collection of short biographies of Irish political figures and its sub-title, Losers in Irish History, made its intentions very plain. Amongst the thirteen men dealt with—and the subjects were all men—was John Redmond (1856-1918). The author of the Redmond chapter, the historian Michael Laffan, pointed out that in the years before 1914, as leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party at Westminster, Redmond enjoyed a degree of power and influence in both Ireland and Britain that few Irish politicians before him had ever achieved. His party was keeping a British Liberal government in power which was on the verge of conceding home rule—that is a substantial measure of Irish self-government—something that earlier leaders, like Daniel O’Connell, Isaac Butt and Charles Stewart Parnell, had failed to secure. Surprisingly perhaps, neither O’Connell nor Parnell figured among the ‘losers’ discussed in the book. Redmond by contrast was characterised by Laffan as ‘one of the great losers of Irish history’ and a ‘tragic figure’. This was partly because, after nearly fifty years of struggle, he came so tantalisingly close to achieving the goal of home rule, only to fall short at apparently the final hurdle.

Redmond’s long political career centred on the House of Commons in London. He had worked from the age of twenty for his father, who was a home rule MP, and was first elected an MP himself aged only twenty-four in 1881. He passed virtually his entire adult life in parliament. Laffan considered this was one of the man’s major limitations: that he had spent far too long in the ‘narrow and rarefied world’ of British politics and over time lost touch with what was happening in Ireland, especially among the increasingly discontented younger generation. Added to this, like most Irish nationalists, Redmond really did not understand Ulster unionists and initially under-estimated their determination to defeat home rule.

March 2018 marked the centenary of John Redmond’s death at the age of sixty-one. To commemorate the occasion, Dermot Meleady’s second volume of his biography of Redmond, first published in 2013, has been re-issued in paperback. To accompany the biography, Meleady has also produced a new edited collection of extracts from Redmond’s political and personal letters and memoranda written between 1880 and 1918.

Volume two of the biography deals with Redmond’s eighteen years as leader of the Irish party, which had re-united under him in 1900 after a decade of division. The climax of his political career came for Redmond in September 1914 when an all-Ireland home rule act, having been passed by the British parliament, was signed into law. But the Ulster unionist community, supported by the Tory party and many of the British establishment, including the king, remained staunchly opposed to Ulster being governed from Dublin. They insisted that at least six of the Ulster counties containing large Protestant populations should be excluded from home rule and remain under London control. The outbreak of war with Germany led the British Liberal government to defer the whole issue. Home rule, although now law, would not be implemented until after the war and, in the meantime, further consideration would be given to satisfying unionist objections.

Redmond, like most people in late 1914, believed that the war would be a short one, lasting a year at most. He gambled that if nationalist Ireland promptly offered troops to bolster the British war effort then, at war’s end, a grateful Britain would be willing to ignore Ulster’s objections to rule from Dublin. Yet, by the time of his death only a little over three years later, it was very apparent that this gamble had failed disastrously. With the war dragging on, casualties rose, voluntary enlistments declined and Ireland was threatened with conscription for military service. Discontent with Redmond’s pro-war policy grew and the prospect of conscription drove many young people into the ranks of the republicans. Just as Redmond’s support among nationalists was eroding, unionist influence within the British government was increasing. In early 1915, the Liberals invited Tory and unionist leaders to join a coalition government to better prosecute the war, but Redmond refused the offer of a cabinet post. The 1916 Rising and the executions that followed delivered a further major blow to Redmond’s already faltering credibility in Ireland. During 1914, he had come reluctantly to accept that home rule could not be forced upon Ulster. Then he had hoped that temporary exclusion voted for by individual counties might prove an acceptable compromise, but in the wake of the Rising he became convinced that permanent exclusion of six counties—that is partition—was the only way that home rule for the rest of Ireland could be guaranteed. However, many of his own supporters, especially in the North, strongly objected to this proposal and Redmond was forced to withdraw it, leaving a political deadlock that persisted up until his death and beyond.

Meleady makes very clear from the outset of his book that he does not accept much of the previous scholarly and political consensus concerning Redmond’s alleged personal and political shortcomings. He claims that Redmond’s critics, especially his republican opponents, used him as a handy ‘scapegoat’, blaming him for failing to solve problems that they themselves were unable to solve either (p. 5). If Redmond was driven reluctantly to accept partition, eventually many republicans did so as well: in practice, even if not in theory. Historians like Laffan have also, according to Meleady, often misread the situation that Redmond faced. Meleady does use words like ‘failure’ and ‘tragedy’ in his assessment of Redmond, but he claims that the abortive home rule campaign was not the result of Redmond’s ‘shortcomings as a nationalist leader’, nor even of the ‘muddled stratagems of British politicians’. These problems certainly hampered Redmond, but more fundamental were ‘structural factors beyond his control rooted in the existence of two distinct national communities in Ireland’ (p. 6). Meleady clearly believes that, given determined unionist opposition, home rule for the whole of Ireland under a nationalist-dominated Dublin parliament was never a viable political option.

Meleady concludes his book with a counter-factual appendix in which he imagines what might have happened had the home rule act been implemented in 1914. But he takes for granted that home rule could not have come into operation without the exclusion of parts of Ulster. He imagines nationalists and unionists agreeing that Ulster counties should have the right to vote themselves out of home rule permanently. But a boundary commission would be established to adjudicate on border areas, while a council of Ireland would provide a venue where matters of common concern could be resolved. In this scenario, only four Ulster counties vote against home rule, so a twenty-eight-county home rule Ireland is established in 1915 under a government led by Redmond. Meleady anticipates republican opposition, which the home rule government may be able to suppress by arresting and imprisoning dissident leaders or it may have to fight them. If so, Meleady imagines Redmond defeating his republican enemies after a bitter and bloody six-month-long civil war. Either way though, home rule is achieved at the cost of Ireland being permanently divided.

In a 1997 book chapter, another historian of home rule and unionism, Alvin Jackson, had also engaged in a counter-factual imaginative exercise as to what might have occurred if home rule had been implemented. Jackson saw it operating from 1912, with six Ulster counties excluded only temporarily. He imagined dissident republicans as less of a threat to Redmond’s Dublin government; the main issue it faced would be whether after six years’ exclusion the Ulster counties would join in. And Jackson thought that would very much depend on how competent an Irish prime minister Redmond proved to be. Jackson admired Redmond’s ‘sharp political intelligence’ and, unlike Meleady, he believed that it provided ‘grounds for optimism’ about the future prospect of a united home rule Ireland.

Since we have entered the realms of speculation, here’s one final question. A little over a century ago, a British Liberal government bent upon major constitutional change was maintained in power by John Redmond’s Irish nationalist MPs, who hoped to secure Irish self-government in return for their support. Today a British Tory government bent upon major constitutional change is maintained in power by Arlene Foster’s Ulster unionist MPs, who hope to secure in return a continuance of British rule in the six counties. From the standpoint of Redmond’s nationalists, the Liberal alliance did not deliver home rule and, indeed, failed disastrously. Only time will tell if the Ulster unionists’ current Tory alliance is similarly doomed and if Foster is fated to join Redmond in a future edition of Losers in Irish History.

Elizabeth Malcolm

Professor Elizabeth Malcolm was the first incumbent of the Gerry Higgins Chair of Irish Studies at the University of Melbourne.