The Irish Convention was an assembly which sat in Ireland from July 1917 until March 1918 to address the Irish Question and other constitutional problems relating to an early enactment of self-government for Ireland, to debate its wider future, discuss and come to an understanding on recommendations as to the best manner and means this goal could be achieved. It was called by the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Lloyd George in June 1917 and was composed of representative Irishmen from different political parties and spheres of interest.
Self-government for Ireland had been the predominant political issue between Ireland and Britain since the 1880s reflected in three Home Rule bills, the first two rejected, culminating with the passing of the third Irish Home Rule Act 1914 (properly, the Government of Ireland Act 1914) on the 25 May by the British House of Commons. The government decided to introduce 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. On 18 September 1914 Home Rule was enacted and simultaneously postponed for the duration of the World War I conflict. 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.
The Great War was the single most crucial factor influencing the course of Irish history from the second decade of the 20th century, creating circumstances which led to total and irreversible political polarisation and partition. Initially it split the Irish Volunteers, who were raised to resist the secession of Ulster by the Ulster Volunteers from a coercive All-Ireland Home Rule settlement, into two opposing camps, the larger National Volunteers - supporting the war effort and subsequently in combat on the Western Front and in Gallipoli, enabling a minority group of Volunteers who remained in Ireland stage the 1916 Easter Rebellion, proclaiming an Irish Republic, virtually unimaginable without the backdrop of the European conflict.
Their limited and failed insurrection nevertheless strengthened the not directly involved small political separatist movement Sinn Féin, at the cost of loss of popularity for the Home Rule Act won by the Irish Parliamentary Party. Negotiations by Britain in July 1916 to introduce Home Rule immediately collapsed on the issue of partition.
The confused position was debated at length in the House of Commons on 31 July. The Nationalists and their supporters argued for the Home Rule Act to be implemented, and called for the replacement of senior officials in Dublin by Home Rule supporters, who would be in government anyway soon after the war ended. The Unionists commented that, if the Act were to be implemented during the war, 6 counties in Ulster would be excluded and would not submit to coercion; Irish unity could only come about with their consent.
Lloyd George on 16 May 1917 again offered Redmond in a letter the enactment of Home Rule for the twenty-six southern counties. Three by-election wins by Sinn Féin startled both the Irish Party and the British government, so that four days after the death of Redmond's brother Major Willie Redmond on the war front, Lloyd George proposed on 11 June 1917 to call a Convention of all Irish parties and interests which Redmond agreed to, hoping it might yet produce a deal which would secure the future of constitutional nationalism. The USA had entered the war on 6 April, and Lloyd George also needed to change Irish-American opinion, that had been isolationist, and to gain further Irish support for the war.
The Irish Convention brought together the enormous number of ninety-five representatives from different political fields and other interests. Two of the invited parties were prominent by their absence:
Sinn Féin boycotted on the grounds that the terms of reference of the Convention provided that Ireland must be "within the Empire", which entailed maintaining the supremacy of the British Parliament; the Sinn Féin absence was disastrous in the long term.
The All-for-Ireland Party of William O'Brien, who earlier championed "conference plus business", rightly stated that the attendance size was doomed to failure, calling for a compact panel of a dozen prominentaries, to include leading southern unionists and clerics. Outlining essential conditions for success, O'Brien's proposals were ignored by Redmond, but Lloyd George appealed to O'Brien to attend.
The first conference meeting was held on 25 July at Regent House, Trinity College Dublin, the chairmanship sought and won by Sir Horace Plunkett. The Secretary of the Convention was Robert Erskine Childers. Nine-tenths of the representatives were Irish Party and Ulster Party members all of whom had previously supported the Home Rule Partition Act. The Convention laboured under long orations, and the Ulster delegates were at the mercy of an Ulster Orange Council veto. The conference eventually agreed to submit further negotiations to sub-committees (close to O'Brien's original proposal), and indeed by late 1917 the possibility of an All-Ireland parliament came within the concept of thought where clashes between Ulster Unionists and nationalists were no longer over partition but rather over taxing powers and defending a customs union.
Sir Edward Carson, the Ulster leader, even seems to have regarded a unitary settlement with a degree of sympathy at this time, provided essentials for Ulster Unionists were guaranteed:- the need to secure the position for which they stood, no coercion, ample safeguards for the Unionist minority under an Irish Parliament, allow all Unionists to possess a dual Irish-British identity and no Dominion status for Ireland outside the United Kingdom .
The Irish Convention finally turned out to be more than an elitist talking-shop, although an understanding took a long time in coming. It was apparent by late November that a fleeting breakthrough could be attained when Lord Midleton, the moderate leader of the southern Unionists, proposed a Home Rule settlement without partition, in which an Irish government would have full control of internal taxes, but not of customs and with safeguards for Ulster. Initial opposition came not only from the Ulster delegates but from a majority of the nationalists led by Bishop Patrick O'Donnell of Raphoe who held out for full fiscal autonomy. Deliberations during the period November into January 1918 appeared as if a deal was in the offing, both the Unionist alliance and the nationalist strategists prepared to make sufficient concessions that a deal could be struck. Everything hinged upon timing, a speedy settlement was essential.
When the Convention re-assembled in early January Redmond announced an amendment that supported the Midleton Plan, but with the strict condition that the government commit itself to giving legislative effect to the deal, which would mean enforcing it on Ulster. Ulster Unionists influenced by their southern counterparts wavered towards a settlement, the Southern Unionists striving to prevent partition proposed that a self-governing Ireland occupy the same position as other parts of the United Kingdom in a greater scheme of Imperial Federation, towards which they believed the Empire was moving. However before the decisive debate on 15 January, Joseph Devlin, who represented the northern nationalist and Bishop O'Donnell, told Redmond of their opposition to his amendment in the absence of an advance agreement from Ulster to 'come in'. Redmond, rather than divide the nationalists, withdrew his proposal.
At this point the chairman Horace Plunkett, the country's most distinguished centrist politician, an advocate of a federal solution for Ireland and the future of the United Kingdom, intervened. Rather than clearing the timetable to allow a final discussion overcome the impediments to an agreement, he diverted by initiating a lengthy debate on land purchase. The various sides gained time to reconsider and recoup, with the earlier momentum lost committees came under the influence of outside institutions and hard-liners. Ulstermen reverted to stern traditional demands of fiscal autonomy and the partition of all of the province of Ulster, and by February a deal that was close to being won was ruined. Nationalists were now seen as the obstructers by which the Midleton Plan failed to win unanimity.
Although the Convention appeared to have failed in its immediate objective, it generated ideas and reactions and revealed standpoints that had an independent and lasting significance. Parallel to the Convention negotiations amongst a circle of influential sympathisers for an alternative federal settlement were at work since the breakdown of the Home Rule negotiations in July 1916. On 14 February Carson wrote to Lloyd George urging a federal settlement, the latter hinting that Home Rule would be merely the first step in a wider federal reform of British government.
The political calculations of the government were dealt the final blows by a series of further set-backs to the Convention. Redmond who had been long ill died on 6 March, an eloquent voice for conciliation demised. His place as voice of the moderate Nationalists was taken by Stephen Gwynn who had been called back from the war front the previous year to participate in a compromise with the southern unionists. Redmond was followed as leader the Parliamentary Party on the 13 March by John Dillon who was less consensual and more sympathetic to the aspirations of Sinn Féin.
Then the situation on the Western Front deteriorated dramatically eliminating any hopes of an agreement. The German massive Spring offensive of 21 March swept all before it scattering and over-running the Allied armies and would soon reach the Channel coast. The new Russian soviet state had finally signed its concessionary treaty with the Central Powers on 3 March.
There was a manpower crisis which forced the cabinet on 28 March to extend the spectre of conscription to Ireland. At the same time the final Convention report, previously agreed on 5 March by forty-four votes to twenty-nine, arrived in Downing Street its key recommendation calling for either Home Rule within a federal United Kingdom or Dominion status within the Empire. The Cabinet ministers grasped the opportunity to make a totally illogical decision, agreeing on 5 April a "dual policy" of conscription and devolution. It sounded the death knell of a political era, killing the strategy of Irish political constitutionalism through tying it to compulsory military service.
To link Home Rule with conscription signalled its end as a popular cause. On the official announcement of the dual policy of Home Rule and conscription, Dillon and O'Brien led their party members out of the Commons. At the height of the Conscription Crisis they united at the Dublin Mansion House Conference with the separatists and Sinn Féin in the anti-conscription pledge of 21 April 1918 and the great one day strike and demonstration of 23 April.
The war, its duration, the suspension of the Home Rule Act, particularly the conscription crisis drastically increased support for Sinn Féin, the numbers of people joining its branches rising immeasurably. For Unionists the war confirmed all their pre-war suspicions that Irish Nationalists could no longer be trusted, contrasting the Easter Rising with the Battle of the Somme , the conscription crisis providing a watershed for Ulster Unionists to withdraw securely into their northern citadel.
On 11 April government ministers formed a cabinet committee to supervise the drafting of Home Rule as recommended by the Convention. The committee was chaired by Walter Long, self-claimed to be the best informed person on Irish affairs, also a champion of federalism, a life-long Unionist and committed adversary of Home Rule. In particular his manipulative interpretation of the negotiated agreement in July 1916 between Redmond and Carson had created an ambiguity which caused them to repudiate it.
On 16 April 1918 the Military Service (Ireland) Bill passed into law. This dualism signalled the end of All-Ireland Home Rule and the end of an optional federal engagement with Ireland, which had it succeeded and if the Convention's Report had been implemented in full, would have established a novel form of federal government at the heart of Europe. The failure of the German offensives after American intervention and success of the Allied counteroffensives led to a significant improvement in the British situation on the Western Front, permitting the cabinet on 19 June to postpone the implementation of its dual policy of Home Rule and conscription for All-Ireland.
With the German Armistice on 11 November 1918, and with Sinn Féin winning a majority of seats in the December election, the government faced its obligation under the Home Rule suspensory measure of 1914. Because of the Convention it was considered that a fourth Home Rule Act was required. But firstly the Versailles Peace Conference had to be concluded and was signed in July. This was followed by holidays in August, which meant that when the Long Committee started its work in September 1919 it was nearly a year behind recent political events in Ireland.
In the meantime, the Dublin administration was confronted from January 1919 with the separatist Dáil Parliament of the Irish Republic in Dublin, and the indiscriminate shooting of usually unarmed members of the Royal Irish Constabulary by Republican volunteers across Ireland, heralding the beginning of the Anglo-Irish war.
The Long Committee decided by October 1919 that two Irish parliaments should be established, and including a Council of Ireland, a mechanism for the "encouragement of Irish unity", optionally in a Federation or as a Dominion, beginning with the partition of nine Ulster counties. The committee thereby adopting much of the recommendation contained in the March 1918 Irish Convention Report.
Home Rule after-life:
By February 1920 Ulster unionist politicians stated again that they would only claim six counties, which became the basis of the Fourth Home Rule Act 1920 (properly, the Government of Ireland Act 1920), which came into effect with elections to the two Irish parliaments of Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland in May 1921. The latter parliament of the twenty-six counties never functioned. The partition of Ireland under the Act was in place for months before the negotiations effecting the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which granted the south an Irish Free State with Dominion status. The inevitable "loss" of the claimed 32-county republic and the northern six counties became catalysts in starting the Irish Civil War.
The new Northern Ireland Parliament, protege of the Irish Convention, opened on 22 June 1921, and was portrayed as a loyalist triumph for years of patriotism and sacrifice. The paradox was that Ulster Unionists now had the Home Rule system that they had opposed since the 1840s, ideally preferring to remain within the metropolitan United Kingdom. Home Rule did not die in 1916, in 1918, or in 1921. It enjoyed a form of after-life in Northern Ireland up until 1972. In the south the former Home Ruler politicians relocated themselves within the two main parties of the new Free State, which became Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, where the old Home Rule Party's constitutional, ethnic, ideological and structural legacies continued to survive.