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The Home Rule Crisis 1910 - 1914

This document was written by Stephen Tonge. I am most grateful to have his kind permission to include it on the web site.

Main Dates

1910 Home Rulers hold balance of power after two elections
Edward Carson elected leader of the Irish Unionists
1911 Parliament Act passed. Unionists begin preparations against Home Rule. Resistance led by Edward Carson and James Craig.
1912 Introduction of the Third Home Rule Bill
Unionists sign the Solemn League and Covenant.
1913 Formation of the Ulster and Irish Volunteers
1914 Exclusion of Ulster proposed.
Curragh Mutiny
Larne and Howth gun running
Buckingham Palace Conference
Civil war averted by the outbreak of World War One

1910 Election

In 1909 the House of Lords rejected "the People's Budget" introduced by David Lloyd George. The Budget had proposed an increase in taxes on the rich to pay for welfare measures and dreadnoughts. This was not the first Liberal measure that the Lords had rejected but it was understood that the Lords could not veto a money bill.

The Liberals called an election and proposed to end the veto and to reduce the power of the House of Lords. Two elections were held in 1910 on the issue. As the table below shows the results left the Home Rulers with the balance of power:

Results of the January 1910 Election

Liberals 275
Conservatives 273
Labour (sympathetic to Home Rule) 40
Irish Unionists 21
Home Rulers (split into two factions) 83

The result in Ulster showed a small Unionist majority (17 to 16 seats) but politically the situation was extremely serious for the Unionists.

In return for Redmond's support, the Liberals agreed to introduce a Home Rule Bill after the power of the Lords had been reduced.

Profiles of the Unionist Leaders

Edward Carson 1854-1935

Carson“A ‘sombre, melancholic man, a man of notable courage and forensic ability, he brought the Orange cause a considerable capacity for organisation, a moral fervour almost fanatical in its intensity and an instinctive feel for high, political drama.’ Joe Lee

Carson was born in Dublin where he trained as a barrister at Trinity College. In the early 1880s he represented tenant farmers in the Land Courts set up by Gladstone's 1881 Land Act. Home Rulers in Waterford were so impressed that they asked him to stand for Parliament. Carson, a firm supporter in the Union, refused. He believed that Ireland would be worse off with Home Rule and hoped that opposition in Ulster would kill the bill for the whole of the country.

When Balfour became Chief Secretary in 1887, he employed Carson to prosecute members of the Plan of Campaign. His courage in the face of threats won Balfour's admiration. In 1892 he was elected a Unionist MP for Trinity College, a seat he held until 1918. Although a strong supporter of the Union, he was liberal in other areas and supported the demand for a Catholic University.

After the Conservatives lost the 1892 election, Carson moved his to London and won fame as a barrister. He made a devastating cross-examination of Oscar Wilde in Wilde’s libel action against the Marquis of Queensberry. This led to Wilde’s imprisonment for homosexuality. His speech against the 1893 Home Rule Bill was highly regarded at the time.
In 1900 he was made Solicitor General and knighted. He continued to oppose Home Rule, even resisting the suggestion for a limited "Irish Council". When Walter Long, leader of the Irish Unionist MPs in Westminster, retired in 1910, Carson was chosen in his place.


James CraigJames Craig 1871-1940

He came to symbolise the very soul of Ulster intransigence” FSL Lyons
“Closer to the east Ulster ground than Carson, Craig was in many respects the real organiser of victory” Joe Lee

Craig is regarded as the founding father of Northern Ireland. Craig was the son of a self made whisky millionaire. When his father died he was left £100,000. He was founder member of the Belfast stock exchange. He was keen yachtsman who had competed in the America’s Cup (although his colour blindness cut his yachting career short).

During the Boer War he had been wounded and taken prisoner. His support of the Empire and opposition to Home Rule saw him enter politics in 1903. A member of the Orange Order, he was elected MP for East Down in 1906.

While Carson, a forceful speaker with charisma, promoted this cause at Westminster and at public meetings, his strength lay in his organisational ability and he acted as Carson’s principal lieutenant. Like Carson he hoped to stop Home Rule completely but he was prepared to accept partition. Carson commented after the crisis “it was Craig who did most of the work and I got most of the credit”.

The End of the Lord’s Veto

In 1911 the Parliament Act removed the Lord's veto over bills passed by the House of Commons. It could now delay a bill for two years. A major obstacle to Home Rule was removed. It seemed as if Home Rule was inevitable.

The Unionists realised the danger. In 1910 Sir Edward Carson had replaced Walter Long as leader of the Unionists in Ireland. On the 25 September 1911 Carson spoke at a rally of 50, 000 unionists at James Craig's home outside Belfast. He said

“the morning Home Rule passes, ourselves to become responsible for the government of the Protestant province of Ulster.”

Plans were made to set up a provisional government to rule Ulster in the event of Home Rule being passed. Five men led by Craig were appointed to draw up a constitution. A propaganda campaign began in Britain to convince the electorate that Home Rule was unjust and that Ulster Unionists were serious in their determination to remain part of the UK.

Bonar LawAndrew Bonar Law

The same year, Arthur Balfour was replaced as leader of the Conservative party by Andrew Bonar Law, a Canadian of Ulster descent. He claimed to only care about two things in politics - tariff reform and Ulster. He also realised that opposition to Home Rule would help to unite the badly divided conservative party.

Unionist opposition grows

On April 11 the Third Home Rule Bill was introduced into the House of Commons. On the eve of the Bill's introduction, 9 April, a mass demonstration was held at Balmoral in Belfast. It was attended by about 200,000 Unionists, including contingents from the Orange Order and Unionists Clubs which marched from the city centre. The demonstration was addressed by Carson and was supported by the presence of a large number of English and Scottish Conservative MPs, and by their new leader Andrew Bonar Law. Law assured his listeners that they were not alone as their cause was also that of the Empire. Famously in July, Law said at a rally in Britain “I can imagine no lengths of resistance to which Ulster can go in which I would not be prepared to support her.

The Third Home Rule Bill

Due to the absence of the Lord's veto, this Bill would become law in 1914. This Bill proposed to give Ireland control over her internal affairs. However it withheld, from an Irish parliament, power over defence, war, relations with the crown, customs and excise, and at first control of the police. The measure was so limited that John Redmond had to use his powers of persuasion to win the support of some of his MPs. Even this limited measure was viewed with complete hostility by Unionists. They feared as Lee wrote “that this measure might be the first step towards complete independence.”

In June it was proposed to exclude the four most Protestant counties from the terms of the Bill. This was rejected. Members of both British parties were looking for a compromise based on excluding part of Ulster. Partition was completely unacceptable to Redmond and the Home Rule party.

The Solemn League and Covenant

Signing the documentThe Solemn League and CovenantCraig planned a dramatic show of Unionist solidarity. He helped to organize the Solemn League and Covenant. The document was signed throughout Ulster and by people from Ulster living in the rest of Ireland (2000 in Dublin) and Britain on 28 September (Ulster Day). All shipyards and factories closed. One of the most striking features of the Covenant was the level of support given to it across all classes of Unionism, including labourers, professionals, gentry, aristocracy and clergy.

Another feature was the high turn-out of women to sign the Declaration - 228,991 women signed in Ulster compared to 218,206 men, and 5,055 women signed elsewhere as against 19,162 men, making a grand total of 471,414.

The Unionists pledged to use “all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland.”

Unionists threatened to defy public opinion in Ireland and the will of parliament in Britain. They hoped to impress the government in Britain by highlighting the party’s strength, unity and determination.

The Liberals and Irish nationalists felt that the Unionists were bluffing but they seriously underestimated the depth of feeling in Ulster.

The Ulster Volunteers

More ominous steps were being taken by the Unionist Party’s leaders. In December 1912, they agreed to form a paramilitary organisation, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). It was to be composed of all males of military age who had signed the Covenant. It was a decision which, in due course, was to transform the face of Irish politics. At the time, James Craig considered the step to be fully justified. The demonstrations and protests had made no measurable impression on the Irish policy of British ministers; the Home Rule Bill was continuing to make slow but steady and progress through Westminster. Rank and file unionist supporters had therefore for months urged the necessity for more drastic action and had begun to drill and train in considerable numbers.

The UVF was established, therefore, as a means of preserving party unity and discipline as well as of exerting additional pressure on the British government. It was also a means of preparing for the worst - the possible need to use physical force to resist an all-Ireland government based in Dublin. By mid 1914, 90,000 men had enlisted province-wide. It was led by General Sir George Richardson who as Lee wrote “had long experience of teaching the natives lessons.”

The Irish Volunteers

Irish Volunteers poster By late 1913, some Nationalists were convinced that they should form a paramilitary organisation to reinforce their demands for self-government. They also wanted to exert additional pressure on the British government in the same way that Ulster unionists had done by establishing the Ulster Volunteer Force. As Padraig Pearse wrote “I think the Orangeman with a rifle a much less ridiculous figure than the Nationalist without a rifle.

In November, the respected academic, Eoin MacNeill, suggested such an initiative in a article “The North Began”. The IRB leader, Bulmer Hobson immediately seized on this opportunity and helped organise the public launch of the new force, the Irish Volunteers, on 25th November 1913. The IRB hoped to infiltrate it and use it in a future rising. By mid 1914 it had 180,000 members and most of the members of its Provisional Committee were IRB men such as Thomas Clarke Sean McDermott and Eamon Ceannt.

In June Redmond worried by the growth of the organization imposed his nominees onto the Provisional Committee that gave his supporters a majority of its members.

Search for a compromise

Throughout the crisis a compromise solution was sought, based on the exclusion of four or six Ulster counties. In March Carson rejected the proposal that individual counties be allowed to opt out of Home Rule for a period of six years. He said “Ulster wants the question settled now and for ever. We do not want sentence of death with a stay of execution for six years.”

The revolt of the British Army

A major issue was the loyalty of the British army in the event of armed resistance in Ulster. Large numbers of retired and reserve officers were already members of the Ulster Volunteer Force. Sympathy was overwhelmingly pro-Unionist in the officer corps.

In March the government received an unwelcome answer as a very significant event occurred known as the "Curragh Mutiny”.

Sir Arthur Paget, Commander-in-Chief of troops in Ireland, was summoned to London and instructed to move 800 men into Ulster to reinforce depots and arms stores there. It was rumoured that unionist leaders would be arrested. Fifty-nine officers threatened to resign rather than march on Ulster. They were led by Brigadier General Herbert Gough who, like many of them, had Irish family connections. A leading British general, Douglas Haig warned the government that many officers in Britain would resign if Gough was punished. The Government was forced to back down and reinstate Gough. The affair led to the resignation of the Secretary of State for War and two generals.

The British government could not count on the loyalty of its army in Ireland if the Unionists rebelled against Home Rule. As O’Day noted “after the incident it was clear that the military could not be used to impose Home Rule upon Ulster.”

This event convinced many that compromise was essential and strengthened Carson and the Unionists.

The Crisis Deepens

The Unionist leaders organised the purchase in Germany of 25,000 rifles and 3 million rounds of ammunition and succeeded in landing them on the night of 24-25th April 1914, at Larne and other ports in Ulster. The operation was organised by Colonel Frederick Crawford with Carson’s and Craig’s approval. The authorities made no attempt to intervene and the arms were distributed throughout Ulster with total success. Asquith abandoned all plans to cow or disarm the UVF and put his faith in 'masterly inactivity'.

The same month the Home Rule bill passed the Commons and it was due to become law in September. A desperate search for a compromise continued. It was accepted that the four North Eastern counties would be excluded but the main debate centred on Fermanagh and Tyrone both with small Catholic majorities and the length of the exclusion.

The King intervenes

King George V sympathised with the Unionists and in a last desperate attempt to avoid civil war, he persuaded the Unionists, Conservatives, Liberals and Nationalists to attend a conference at Buckingham Palace.

The Buckingham Palace Conference of July 21-24 failed to improve matters as the leaders of Unionism and Nationalism failed to reach an agreement over which area of Ulster would be excluded. On the day the conference broke up Austria presented her ultimatum to Serbia.

Howth Gun Running

Two days later Nationalists organised their own gun running. On the 26 July, the novelist and skilled yachtsman Erskine Childers landed 900 guns and ammunition at Howth. Troops returning from the incident fired on a jeering crowd killing 3 civilians and injuring 38.

In the House of Commons, John Redmond denounced the killings: "Let the house clearly understand that four fifths of the Irish people will not submit any longer to be bullied, or punished, or shot, for conduct which is permitted to go scot-free in the open light of day in every county in Ulster by other sections of their fellow countrymen."

World War One

On August 4th the British and Germans went to war. The First World War One erupted and civil war was averted. The British Prime Minster, Herbert Asquith wrote that the outbreak of the war could be seen as the greatest stroke of luck in his lucky career.

The Home Rule Bill was enacted in September 1912 but suspended for the war’s duration. Partly in gratitude for the bill, John Redmond threw his weight behind the British war effort. His speech at Woodenbridge split the Volunteers with the vast majority supporting Redmond. Carson also promised the loyalty of the Ulster Volunteers to the British war effort.

As the realities of the trenches became more widely known, the enthusiasm for the war drained away. Redmond’s party was suffered with this shift in public opinion and by the fact that Home Rule had still not being implemented.


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Last modified 26 October, 2013

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