2015 09 – Parliament and World War One

Parliament And World War One

by Dick Barry.


On 22 August 1916 the House of Commons debated the question of Ireland and the potential for Irish volunteers to the British Imperial Army. Irish Nationalist MP T.P. O’Connor spoke in the debate, regretting a lost opportunity for Ireland. His full contribution is published following this short biography.

Thomas Power O’Connor (5 October 184818 November 1929), was a journalist, an Irish nationalist political figure, and a member of parliament (MP) in the House of Commons for nearly fifty years. He was born in Athlone, County Westmeath, the eldest son of Thomas O’Connor, an Athlone shopkeeper, and his wife, Teresa Power, the daughter of a non-commissioned officer in the Connaught Rangers. He was educated at the College of the Immaculate Conception in Athlone, and at Queen’s College Galway, where he won scholarships in history and modern languages and built up a reputation as an orator. He entered journalism as a junior reporter on Saunders ‘ Newsletter, a Dublin journal, in 1867. In 1870, he moved to London, and was appointed a sub-editor on the Daily Telegraph, principally on account of the utility of his mastery of French and German in reportage of the Franco-Prussian War. He later became London correspondent for the New York Herald. In 1885, O’Connor married Elizabeth Pascal, a daughter of a Judge of the Supreme Court of Texas.

O’Connor was elected Member of Parliament for Galway Borough in the c1880 general election, as a representative of Charles Stewart Parnell’s Home Rule League. At the next general election in 1885, he was returned both for Galway and for the Liverpool Scotland constituencies, which had a large Irish population; he chose to sit for Liverpool, and represented the constituency from 1885 until his death in 1929. This was the only constituency outside Ireland ever to return an Irish Nationalist Party MP. He continued to be re-elected in Liverpool under this label unopposed in the 1918, 1922, 1923, 1924 and 1929 general elections. From 1905 he belonged to the central leadership of the United Irish League. During much of his time in parliament, he wrote a nightly sketch of proceedings for the Pall Mall Gazette. He became “Father of the House of Commons”, with unbroken service of 49 years and 215 days. The Irish Nationalist Party ceased to exist effectively after the Sinn Fein landslide of 1918, and thereafter O’Connor effectively sat as an independent.

T.P. O’Connor:

I do not intend to comment upon the speech which has just been made by my right hon. Friend, except to congratulate him and the country upon the position which he now occupies. I intend to deal with the affairs of Ireland. The Chief Secretary for Ireland seems to me to be facing conditions similar to those which confronted Lord Fitzwilliam and Lord Cornwallis. After the rebellion of 1798 Lord Fitzwilliam came over to Ireland with the best intentions, but he came from a divided Cabinet, and he was disowned after he had made his proposals. Lord Cornwallis suppressed the rebellion, but he was confronted with a number of people who found severe fault with his main criticisms and with the manner in which the rebels had been put down. The conditions in Ireland are not favourable for my right hon. Friend (Mr. Duke) I am going to tell him of two or three things which have assisted to bring about the situation which he has to face. My hon. and gallant Friend the other night interrupted me in the course of some observations I made with regard to recruiting in Ireland. I hope he will permit me to give him, very briefly, the history of recruiting in Ireland up to-date. I must preface my remarks by saying that his panacea of Conscription would be the best means of destroying what chance there is of a peaceful Ireland. As a matter of fact, the Sinn Fein-rebellion was largely an anti-Conscription rebellion, and any attempt to establish Conscription in Ireland, I am afraid, would have the most disastrous consequences both to the cause that he has at heart and to peace and good order in Ireland.

Let me refer to the condition of Ireland in 1914. Everybody will remember that momentous night when Sir Edward Grey, now Viscount Grey, made what was practically a declaration of war. In the course of his speech the Foreign Secretary made the observation that the one bright spot in the situation was the condition of Ireland. That speech of the Foreign Secretary was immediately followed by what I may now call the historic speech of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Waterford (Mr. John Redmond). I do not think anyone who is not acquainted, as I am, with the Irish race in the various parts of the world, including some of our own Dominions, can appreciate the momentous importance of that pronouncement of my hon. and learned Friend. It had immediate consequences all over the Irish world. In the United States there are many millions of our people, most of them, either through themselves or their ancestors, the victims of cruel wrong and enforced emigration. I venture to say that 80 or 90 per cent. of our race in the United States accepted the policy of the hon. and learned Member for Waterford and became the friends of the just cause of the Allies in this War. In Ireland there was a very remarkable and to me an astonishing state of things. I think even those who were formerly my political opponents will not question that I have devoted the greater part of my political career to an endeavour to bring about a reconciliation of the mass of the English and Irish races. I hoped to see them reconciled, but I must confess that I never anticipated that I should see more than a beginning of the reconciliation in my time. I thought it would require a generation or two after my generation had passed away to bring full and complete good will between the two countries. But I saw in Ireland a change of heart so deep, so wide, and so prompt as to make it a matter of surprise to me.

Let me illustrate it by a few instances. I spoke of the Irish in America. In 1867 two Fenian prisoners were rescued by a body of Irishmen from a prison van. A police constable was killed in the course of the disturbance. I think he was killed accidentally. Five men were put on their trial for their lives. They were all convicted and sentenced to death. One of them was immediately released, three of them were executed, and one spent nine years in penal servitude. This gave the impetus to the national movement in Ireland, and the memory of these men is still celebrated. The fourth man, who was reprieved because he was an American citizen, and who served ten years’ penal servitude, was named Edward O’Megher Condon. If any man would have had bitter feelings against this country, one would have thought it would have been that man, but, marvellous to say, Edward O’Megher Condon, sentenced to death and a convict for ten years, brought up in a school of hatred of this country and its institutions, the child of evicted tenants driven out of Ireland, declared himself on the side of the Allies. I could go through any number of cases of the same kind. I met here the other day a young fellow, a wounded soldier of the name of Egan. That does not convey much to those who are not Irishmen, but he was the grandson of Patrick Egan, and I remember the time when he was one of the most hated men in this country. He had to fly to France. His grandson has been fighting in the trenches. He was present on the night—this is the tragedy of the situation—with the Munsters when the Germans put up a placard—it was during the recent rebellion—to say “The English are shooting your wives and children in the streets of Dublin.” The Munsters went out across that No Man’s Land, where every man’s life was in danger, and they were not satisfied until they had captured and brought back that placard which was the denunciation of your Government.

Throughout Ireland there were scenes which I do not think anybody ever thought possible in our lifetime or in the lifetime of many generations to come. Recruiting was going on with energy. Members of Parliament, clergymen, and local leaders of the National party were all making speeches in favour of recruiting. My hon. Friend the Member for West Belfast (Mr. Devlin) by his own efforts raised thousands of men. The recruits as they went to the station marched with bands and a cheering crowd, and there were cries of “God bless you!”—God bless the work which they were going to do in putting down those principles of savage and cruel oppression against which Ireland has always ranged herself and against which she must range herself to-day if she is to be true to her own traditions. Between the police and the Irish people, as everybody knows, there have been, especially in times of turbulence, a good deal of friction. Many of the constabulary joined the Army. Again, they went to the station amid the cheers and good will of their countrymen. There never was in the history of any country after six centuries of another point of view a change of heart so wide, so deep, and so remarkable as that which took place in Ireland after the speech of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Waterford. I am sure when the history of this War comes to be written the historian will acknowledge that speech was one of the most eventful and one of the most helpful incidents at the commencement of the War

What happened? My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Waterford accompanied by my hon. Friend the Member for East Mayo (Mr. Dillon) and the Member for West Belfast went to the War Office. They had a series of suggestions to make. I think it was the very day after the declaration of War, so anxious were they to help in every way the cause which they had taken up. They made several suggestions, and they made one in particular. They suggested that their Volunteers, who at that time were still a united body, should be equipped and drilled by the War Office and have officers sent from the War Office. The remarkable thing is that when my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Waterford made that proposal to the Volunteers of Dublin one of the men who supported it was John McNeill. If that offer had been accepted by the War Office, you would have had many of those 20,000, 30,000, 40,000, 50,000 or 100,000 men fighting on your side, because khaki is a catchy kind of thing, and when a man once gets it on his back, even if he is only a volunteer, he rarely resists the temptation to go into the fighting line. Thousands of these men would have gone into the fighting line and into the trenches. There would have been no Sinn Fein movement, because there would have been no men to draw upon. Many of the men who are in penal servitude to-day would have been in the trenches fighting, and would have given up their lives for the cause of the Allies. During the recent rebellion there was a young fellow tried for his life. His life was spared, and he was sentenced to penal servitude for life. Will it be believed that that young man for two or three months was begging my hon. Friend the Member for West Belfast to get him a commission in the Regular Army, and all the appeals of my hon. Friend proved in vain. He drifted into the Volunteers. One thing led to another, and the result of it is that this man who was ready to fight in the cause of the Allies is to-day in penal servitude.

Every single suggestion made to the War Office in the interests of the Allies was, without exception, rejected by the War Office. An hon. Member asks me why. I do not know, but I have my suspicion. I believe that there was what was called the Unseen Hand there. I hope I am not going to revive any controversy by using the phrase, and, if I do so, I express my regret, but I believe there was a “Curragh Camp set” there which regarded any proposal made by Nationalists as a proposal that was rebellion pretending to be loyal. Everything was done—it seemed to be almost calculated in a Machiavellian spirit—not to encourage, but to discourage recruiting. Every little insult possible was given to national sentiment. For instance, a number of ladies were asked by the General of the 16th Division to make some banners; they made the banners, and the banners were refused, not, I am sure, by the General, but by the General under orders from the War Office. The War Office interfered. In the National University in Dublin they proposed to raise a corps of officers; there was a similar corps in Trinity College, but permission was refused. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Waterford (Mr. Redmond) went to the Prime Minister, and the Prime Minister gave his assent to the corps being raised; but the War Office refused even to listen to the suggestion of the Prime Minister, and the corps was not brought into existence. It was in an atmosphere of that kind that men were confronted with a propaganda which ultimately let in the Sinn Fein rebellion. Some six or seven months after the beginning of the War a very remarkable Englishman was sent over to Ireland, Sir Hedley le Bas. What did he find there? He found that there was no recruiting, no placards, no posters appealing to the national sentiment, and, above all, no form of proper recruiting appeal. I make no apology for the fact that when you try and induce Irishmen to enter the Army you must use a somewhat different kind of appeal from those you would apply to Englishmen, just as you have dealt with Wales differently. There were two places in Dublin where they positively refused to put up placards, one was Trinity College and the other was Liberty Hall, the centre of Larkin and the leaders of the Citizen Army.

Sir Hedley le Bas found that all over the country they employed the very last type of men to make a successful appeal to the people. In Waterford—I say nothing against the gentleman personally; I did not know even his name—they employed a gentleman who was a Unionist, who was not of the same religion as the majority of the people, and who was a landlord’s agent! Although we have to a large extent settled the land question in Ireland, there are traditions which remain, and I say that a landlord’s agent is not quite the man to appeal to the patriotic fervour of an Irish Catholic population. In Limerick the gentleman who was sent down was a Catholic, but he had stood on Orange platforms as a Unionist candidate, and he had been Unionist candidate in that very city a short time before. All my fellow countrymen know that an Irish Nationalist hates an Irish Catholic Unionist much worse than he hates the most virulent Orangeman. That was not the kind of gentleman whose personality would appeal to men to go and die for the cause of the Allies in the trenches. In Dublin a number of ex-Unionist candidates were selected for the purposes of recruiting, and I am not sure whether they did not import some dug-outs or found-outs from this country. These gentlemen could not make the best appeal to Irishmen, who, after all, are a courageous race, and some of whom are sensible. They actually called the people cowards and slackers, and used other terms of abuse. I need not tell you that men like that, instead of encouraging, discourage recruits.

I take another section of the Irish race, my countrymen in Great Britain, with whom I am more closely associated than with any other section of my people, and with whom I have, lived now for about half a century. No part of the Empire has given a more generous contribution, proportionately, to the fighting forces than the Irishmen in Great Britain. How are they treated? At the very beginning of the War I called a meeting and explained my views of the issue of the War—and from that explanation I have never wavered, and I do not waver now—and we determined to recruit in this country for the War as far as we could, and I asked them to accept our views of the issues and policy which I ventured to lay before them. I made what would appear perhaps at that time a rather rash proposal, that we should sing “God Save the King.” It had never been sung at an Irish Nationalist meeting in Great Britain before, and that great meeting of 5,500 Irishmen in Glasgow sang it full-heartedly, and accepted the same position as their fellow-citizens of English and Scottish descent. What happened? The Irish in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, which is a great Irish centre, proposed to raise an Irish battalion. The Irish at Newcastle, as hon. Members on the Labour Benches know, are very closely associated both in the social and labour life of their English fellow-citizens. The hon. Member for Morpeth (Mr. Burt) has told me that in his early struggles for trade unionism he could not have succeeded without the assistance of many Irishmen who were his comrades. They proposed in Newcastle-upon-Tyne to raise an Irish battalion. Mr. Joseph Cowen, the son of one who was well known to this Assembly, put up £10,000 to be devoted to the raising of an Irish regiment and a Scottish regiment and a Newcastle battalion. The Irish immediately raised a battalion; they raised two; they raised three; they raised four; altogether they raised 5,500 Irishmen in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. I took some small, obscure, but zealous part in raising those Irishmen in Newcastle. I said to myself, “Here is a chance to raise recruits, in Ireland; I will get these men to consent to go to Ireland to be drilled; I will go over myself; I will march at their head through the City of Dublin, and I dare say that forty or fifty thousand of their fellow-countrymen will welcome them to the land of their fathers.” Does it require much imagination to see what effect such a procession would have upon recruiting in Dublin? I was refused. I got these men to go to Ireland, which was a sacrifice to them, because at Newcastle they were billeted with their mothers and wives.

In West Belfast my hon. Friend for that constituency (Mr. Devlin) has done very much in persuading his fellow-countrymen to join the Army, but for months they did not have a recruiting station in West Belfast, and the people had to go to other parts of Belfast to join the Army. That was a great mistake, and militated against the sentiment of the Nationalists in the city, and against their joining the Army in as large numbers as they would otherwise have done. In Kingstown there was no recruiting station, and men who wished to join the Army had to go eight or nine miles to Dublin for the purpose. Sir Hedley le Bas found two or three remarkable things when he went to Dublin. He found that the Recruiting Committee there had only one Nationalist on it, and that in this great Nationalist city. When Sir Hedley made a certain suggestion for the purposes of encouraging recruiting, a member of the Committee, after the meeting was over, called him aside and said, “Why, Sir Hedley, you seem to be anxious to get Nationalists to recruit; we don’t want them to recruit. The more Nationalists that join the Army the surer they are to get Home Rule.” That is the kind of Committee that was set up to do recruiting. Sir Hedley also went to some of the military authorities, and the first thing they told him was, “Have nothing to do with the Nationalists; do not kow-tow with them; give them a wide berth.” If you want to appeal to the people of Ireland, send to them gentlemen of the same political convictions and the same religion as the people to whom they appeal. The same story was found everywhere. The Irish Guards band made a most successful tour in Ireland and gained many recruits. When Sir Hedley suggested that the Lord Mayor of Dublin should be got to receive the band, he was told, “You must not touch the Lord Mayor; he is opposed to recruiting; it would be a dreadful mistake.” But he went to the Lord Mayor and he found him one of the best friends of the cause of the Allies. The Lord Mayor did not refuse to receive the band. He gave them an entertainment, and they went through Ireland receiving addresses of welcome from the people and raised a number of recruits. I do not want the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War to imagine I am attacking him in this connection. He is not responsible for that state of affairs, nor was his great predecessor. It was the unseen hand of the War Office that was responsible. All through Ireland every step was taken not to encourage but to discourage recruiting.

Let me take another point. I went down to visit the 16th Division here in England. I found an admirable set of officers—I need not say anything about the men, because they have proved their valour. What did I find? The men were 90 or 95 per cent. Nationalists and Catholics, while the officers were 75 or 85 per cent. Protestants. Nobody will accuse me of anything like sectarian feeling. I have not a particle of it; I hate it. But you must have regard for these religious and political affinities between men and even between soldiers and officers. I am glad to be able to say that bad as that method of officering the 16th Division was, it turned out admirably. The officers won the hearts of the men, the men won the hearts of the officers, and there is the deepest and almost uninterrupted harmony between them. It was very unfair to my hon. Friend the Member for West Belfast and others who had done so much to recruit your forces that they should have knocked in vain, month after month, to get a commission for a man who is a Nationalist, while a gentleman who was a paid servant in the Unionist organisation was put over a regiment comprising 90 per cent. of Irish Nationalists.

That is not the end of this somewhat discreditable story. Our regiments went into action. No man will criticise the valour of the Irish soldiers. They were in the retreat from Mons, they were in the massacres in the Dardanelles, they were at Festubert, and they have been in some of the other recent engagements. The story of the Dardanelles is known to many Members of this House. It is as well known to the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Trinity College as well as to any man on these benches. It is a story, dreadful in many respects, but a story of incomparable valour in the face of unprecedented difficulties. Several Irish regiments took a leading part in these engagements. Two of them, I believe, took the leading part. Will it be believed that the names of those regiments were absolutely omitted from any word of mention in the dispatches describing the engagements? All over the battle fronts it is the same story even to-day. Irish regiments have taken a large part in the engagements within the last few weeks, but their names have not been mentioned. It looks as if an Irish soldier is good enough to be killed but is not good enough to be mentioned in the dispatches describing those engagements. How could I or any Irishman feel anything but resentment at such a series of incidents and facts as I have mentioned? Some of the causes of the Sinn Fein rebellion were that our men were not equipped and organised under the War Office, and that Ireland began to feel that while this country was willing to take her soldiers, she was not willing to recognise them on the Nationalist principles for which they stood. There were other causes, but I will not go into them now, because I do not want to revive any controversy if I can help it. The creation of a Coalition Government was one of them. I do not blame the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Trinity College for that transaction. I believe that his own judgment was against his entering into the Ministry, and, to do him justice, he left it as soon as he could. Was it not quite clear that, when the leader of one political party in Ireland declines to enter the Cabinet, the leader of the other political party ought to have been asked to do so, some months after the War had begun in this auspicious state of Irish feeling?

I come to recent events. My reference to them will be as brief and as considered as I can make it. There were two events in Ireland, a rebellion and the repression of that rebellion. The repression of the rebellion was a much more important and a much more far-reaching event than the rebellion itself. I do not want to go into that painful and tragic event more than I can help. I still think that if the same humane, generous, and wise spirit that induced General Botha to spare the rebels of his own race and of his own land had been extended to the rebellion in Ireland my right hon. Friend would have a much more favourable set of conditions to deal with and his task would be comparatively easy. When that rebellion started, 90 per cent. of the people of Ireland condemned and repudiated it; but when repression was in progress the sympathies of the 90 per cent. were on the other side. I do not want the right hon. Gentleman to accept my view or to disavow things that have been done. He had no responsibility. I do impress upon him, however, that the sooner he is able to remove from Ireland all signs and tokens of that very bitter incident in Irish life he will have a different Ireland to deal with. I see the Home Secretary here. I was astonished to hear an answer of his at Question Time to-day. There are a great many Irishmen still in prison or under internment. I hope he will expedite their release. I am going to make another suggestion. I do not want to use strong language, but I was shocked by his answer to-day in regard to Irish political prisoners who have been sentenced. There is not a civilised country in the world except this that does not make a distinction between the political and the ordinary prisoner. It is made in France. [An HON. MEMBER: “Not in Germany or Russia.”] Hon. Members who say “Not in Russia” have not read as much about Siberia as I have. I have read an account of a reception by the Czar—I think when he was Czarevitch—which has made the foundation of a thousand perorations, dramas, and novels, of a man with whom he entered into friendly conversation, who was the man who tried to take his father’s life. The Home Secretary will not get any encouragement there for his doctrine. It is a false doctrine. He will get no confirmation of it in the treatment of political prisoners, even those in Russia after they have been sentenced and exiled. As to France, Frenchmen would regard it as an abnegation of all the doctrines of the French Revolution and its new gospel of humanity and liberty to treat a political prisoner as an ordinary prisoner. I hope my right hon. Friend will revise his views upon that matter, and try to extend generous treatment to men of this kind, who in no civilised country are classed in the same category as ordinary prisoners.

I end as I began, by saying that the position of the Chief Secretary is not one altogether to be envied. He will get fair play from us. So long as he follows what we regard as a wise policy he will not get injustice from us. I want to give him a few words of friendly warning. The path of coercion is a dangerous one. Once a Chief Secretary enters upon it he very soon finds himself in conflict with the Irish people. I ask him to be a little on his guard, for, after all, he is an Englishman, against the official classes. I remember reading many years ago a striking story of French life where a Deputy filled with the spirit of reform and good intentions tried to clear out some office. There was a Radical at the head of the office, there was a Radical majority in Parliament, there was a Radical President of the Assembly, but there was a fine fat old gentleman who sat in an armchair as the permanent official of the office, who put himself in the way. The Deputy said to himself, “That fellow or somebody like him was there in the days of the first Napoleon. Perhaps he saw Marie Antoinette going to the scaffold. He saw Louis XVI. and Louis XV., and all the other generations. He was there all the time.” That old gentleman has been most of the time at Dublin Castle. It is bureaucracy without responsibility either to an English or an Irish Parliament. I warn the right hon. Gentleman not to respect its traditions, and not always, at least to take its counsel.

One further word of advice I will give him. The example comes to one’s mind of the resemblance between his position and that of Lord Cornwallis after the rebellion. Lord Cornwallis protested in the strongest way against some of the savage cruelties with which that rebellion was put down. In his memoirs he over and over again lamented that all his kind intentions and inclinations as to clemency were scouted and denounced in the spirit of caste, class and bigotry by some Irishmen themselves. I am afraid there may be a little of that spirit in Dublin to-day. I implore the Chief Secretary to rise superior to it and to all its follies and bad suggestions.