The term New Departure has been used to describe several initiatives in the late 19th century where Irish republicans, who were committed to independence from Britain through use of physical force, attempted to find a common ground for cooperation with groups committed to Irish Home Rule through constitutional means. The term refers to the fact that Fenians were to some extent departing from their orthodox doctrine of non-involvement with constitutional politics, especially the British parliament. It was coined by John Devoy in an anonymous article in the New York Herald on 27 October 1878 in which he laid out a framework for a new policy.
In 1868-69, Irish Republican Brotherhood (hereafter IRB) member John O'Connor Power attempted to forge links with Mayo MP George Henry Moore in what has been described as an early 'New Departure'. However Moore died in April 1870 and O'Connor Power successfully shifted his efforts to win Fenian support for Isaac Butt. Although O'Connor Power later claimed to have pioneered cooperation between revolutionary and constitutional activists, with Moore to have been the leader, his effective switch from the revolutionary to the constitutional camp makes his actual motives problematic.
O'Connor Power and Patrick Egan's efforts led to what T. W. Moody has described as the first 'New Departure', when Fenians supported the forming of the Home Rule League in November 1873. The IRB's attitude was that while it waited for the right moment for war with England, it would support movements that could advance the cause of Irish independence "consistently with the preservation of its own integrity". The IRB became disillusioned with the lack of results achieved by Home Rulers and on 20 August 1876 dissolved the partnership and gave its members six months to withdraw from active cooperation with the Home Rule movement. The IRB supreme council enforced its resolution in March 1877 and John Barry and Patrick Egan resigned from the council. John O'Connor Power and Joseph Biggar refused to resign and were expelled.
Revolutionary and constitutional nationalists remained in contact. In March 1878 the exiled senior IRB member John O'Leary and Supreme Council secretary John O'Connor met secretly in London with MPs Charles Stewart Parnell, Frank Hugh O'Donnell, William Henry O'Sullivan and eventual MP James Joseph O'Kelly. The meeting was "sought" by Parnell (according to Ranelagh) or by William Carroll of Clan na Gael (according to Moody) to consider cooperation between the IRB and Parnell. O'Leary stated his perhaps self-contradictory doctrine to them as follows:
"Nine out of ten Irishmen entering the British Parliament with honest intentions are corrupted soon ... when once they get drawn into the whirlpool of British corruption in Dublin, with the West British society, the jobbery, the servility, very soon all the manliness goes out of them. If Irishmen are to save their honour, they must keep aloof from everything English... I am not saying that good members would not be better than bad ones, if they could keep right. George Henry Moore meant well". Parnell apparently merely listened and did not commit himself.
In late 1878 Michael Davitt of the IRB made a fund-raising political lecture tour of the United States, promoted by William Carroll and John Devoy of Clan na Gael. On October 13 in Brooklyn, New York Davitt first presented, in a lecture titled "Ireland in parliament from a nationalist's point of view", a doctrine that Irish republicans could not prevent Irishmen voting or being elected to the British parliament, but they could influence who was sent to that parliament. He stated that the Home Rule League, especially Isaac Butt and John O'Connor Power were failing to prevent Ireland from being 'imperialised' or 'West Britainised'.Davitt however believed that Charles Stewart Parnell and Joseph Biggar were acceptable Irish MPs, and Irish republicans should ensure that more such strong nationalists were voted in. John Devoy followed and pointed out that if Irish republicans were to gain the support of Britain's potential enemies, such as Russia, they needed to provide far stronger opposition to Britain both inside and outside parliament. He pointed out that Russia had not yet seen the Irish as providing any such meaningful opposition - in fact to Russia they appeared loyal to Britain. Hence it was necessary to replace representatives in all Irish public bodies with suitable committed nationalists.Both Davitt and Devoy at this meeting stressed that resolution of the Irish land question by transfer of ownership to the farmers themselves was integral to Irish demands on Britain.
On 27 October 1878 Devoy, without first consulting Davitt, summarised these ideas in what he termed a 'new departure' in the New York Herald, and it was reported in Ireland on 11 November. He also stated that Irish participation in the British parliament was to be temporary, and that at a suitable time Irish nationalist MPs would withdraw to Dublin and form an independent Irish legislature. Davitt was at first worried that perceived connections to the Fenians would threaten Parnell in parliament, but Devoy convinced him that Parnell would not be affected.IRB leaders John O'Leary and Charles Kickham rejected the overture to constitutionalists and Parnell gave no comment. He did however adopt the militant rhetoric of land ownership to be transferred to the Irish farmers themselves in various public speeches in Ireland. Hence the stage was set for the successful collaboration in 1879 over the Land War.
A "New Departure" initiative was forged by John Devoy of the American Clan na Gael on his visit to Paris and Ireland in 1879. The visit was sanctioned by Clan na Gael to discuss planning for a revolutionary war against Britain, and hence the "new departure" discussions can be considered Devoy's personal initiative and separate from his official mission. While the IRB leadership refused to officially support his call to cooperate with Parnell and his radical wing of the Home Rule League, the IRB's Michael Davitt supported it as a personal initiative. The high personal standing of both Davitt and Devoy with local Fenians allowed them to build a highly successful, albeit short-lived, "unofficial" partnership between moderate Fenians and Parnell's radical Home Rulers, agreed verbally in Dublin on 1 June 1879.
This led to the escalation of the Land War (a national protest against landlords), creation of the Irish National Land League and a crisis for the British Government.
The following disparate groups cooperated in the common cause of small tenant farmers :
Revolutionary nationalists such as Matt Harris and Thomas Brennan;
Conservative nationalists such as James Daly;
Catholic leaders such as the influential Archbishop of Cashel and Emly, Thomas Croke (who is quoted as telling Devoy "that he had no objection to physical force in principle, but strongly opposed it because it had no chance of success" and that he had "more respect for the Fenians than for any (other) men in Ireland") and Tuam's Catholic clergy (with the notable exception of Archbishop John MacHale);
Constitutionalists such as Parnell and Joseph Biggar;