2015 12 – Parliament And World War One

Parliament And World War One

by Dick Barry


On 18 October 1916 Irish Nationalist MP John Redmond initiated a debate on the government of Ireland. In his opening speech he argued that the British government’s treatment of Ireland had a negative effect on recruitment. His comments on the Easter Rising, he referred to it as a ‘mad rising’, and its impact on Irish attitudes to the War are worth noting.


I beg to move, “That the system of government at present maintained in Ireland is inconsistent with the principles for which the Allies are fighting in Europe, and has been mainly responsible for the recent unhappy events and for the present state of feeling in that country.”

My object in raising this discussion this afternoon is to call the attention of Parliament and the attention of the country to the very serious situation which exists in Ireland at this moment. I propose to snake a general survey—not I hope at very great length—of that situation and of the causes which have led to it. This is certainly an occasion when the public interests can be served by plain speaking. It is a plain, undeniable fact that at this moment there is a situation in Ireland full of menace and of danger—full of menace to Ireland and to all our hopes and aspirations for her entire future; full of menace to that good understanding between the two peoples which has been the great result of the patient labours of the constitutional movement in Ireland for the last forty years, and, I think, full of menace also to the highest interests of the Empire at this moment. In describing such a situation, in endeavouring to explain it, and in offering any suggestions for its amelioration, I feel that one must tread with caution. My object is to allay and not to inflame feeling, to minimise and not to increase difficulties, and to show how, in my opinion, it is possible even yet to save the situation.

The crisis which has arisen in Ireland was of very slow and gradual growth; but I will only go back as far as the declaration of war. Were my purpose different from what it is, were my desire simply to make a political point in a party controversy, the temptation would, I think, be irresistible to go back far beyond the outbreak of war and to show where the original responsibility lies for what has occurred. But I do not want to make a party speech. I will commence my survey at the outbreak of war. At that moment, fraught with the most terrible consequences to the whole Empire, this country found, for the first time in the history of the relations between Great Britain and Ireland, that the Irish Nationalist representatives, representing the overwhelming mass of the people of Ireland, were enabled to declare themselves upon the side of the Allies, and in support of this country in the War. They did that with their eyes open. They knew the difficulties in their way. They knew, none so well, the distrust and suspicion of British good faith which had been in the past universal, almost, in Ireland. They recognised that the boon of self-government had not been finally granted to their country. They knew the traditional hostility which existed in many parts of Ireland to recruiting. Facing all these things, and all the risks that they entailed, they returned from this House to Ireland and told her sons that it was their duty to rally to the support of the Allies in a war which was in defence of the principles of freedom and civilisation. They succeeded far better than they had anticipated or hoped.

At the commencement—and this is a notorious fact—there was genuine enthusiasm in Ireland on the side of the Allies. I myself was a witness of that. I addressed great popular gatherings in every province in Ireland in support of the Allies. The whole atmosphere on the question of recruiting in Ireland had been altered, and I say here, solemnly, that all that was needed was a little sympathetic understanding on the part of the Government of this country to have created a practically united Ireland in support of the War. Surely the most elementary statesmanship would have dictated the wisdom and the policy of supporting and encouraging our efforts by every possible means at the disposal of the Government of this country. But instead of that, I am sorry to say that from the very first hour our efforts were thwarted, ignored, and snubbed. Our suggestions were derided. Everything, almost, that we asked for was refused, and everything, almost, that we protested against was done. Everything which tended to arouse Irish national pride and enthusiasm in connection with the War was rigorously suppressed. Under all the circumstances of the case, looking back now, I am amazed at the success which at first attended our efforts. I am not today going to enter into any argument as to whether Ireland has or has not done all that she could. Of course, that topic may be raised and may be discussed later in the Debate or on some other occasion. All I will do now is to point to the fact that Ireland has at this moment 157,000 men in the Army, 95,000 Catholics and 62,000 Protestants, and that she has 10,000 men in the Navy—that is 167,000 men, including both—and that they are drawn—I speak not now of the proportions—from every part of Ireland—north, south, east, and west. But when we entered on this work our difficulties rapidly increased. The delay in putting the Home Rule Bill on the Statute Book was really of no advantage to any political party in this House. No party gained the smallest advantage by that delay. But in Ireland that delay gave every opponent of ours an opportunity of saying that we were about to be cheated and betrayed.

We offered at the very commencement of the War many thousands of Irish National Volunteers for Home defence to be put in the same position practically as the Territorials were at that moment in this country, but they would not be accepted, and there was no disguise—and this is the thing that did the harm in Ireland—made of the reason, the reason being that you could not bring yourselves to trust Nationalist Ireland. Since then I am glad to know that 30,000 of these Irish Nationalist Volunteers have entered the Army. Many of them have made the sacrifice of their lives on the field of battle, and very many of them have gained very high military distinction. But if your response at that time, at that critical moment, had been a generous and chivalrous response, if it had been a response of trust when we made that offer, I say that that number would easily have been trebled, and what was regarded as little short of an insult to Irish national feeling would have been avoided. To such extreme and absurd lengths did this distrust go that even a man like Lord Powerscourt, when he came here to London with an offer to raise for Home defence a battalion of a 1,000 men in his own county, was refused. We asked then for the creation of an Irish Army Corps, that all the Irish divisions and regiments should be put together to form an Irish Army Corps. The Prime Minister will remember that in his speech in September last year in Dublin he promised that that request of ours would be acceded to. I am not making any attack upon him when I say that that promise has never been carried out, and we had to wait many weeks and months before the 16th Irish Division was called into being in the South of Ireland.

Day by day and hour by hour our difficult and uphill task of endeavouring to popularise the Army was systematically thwarted—in small things, perhaps, which singly would have been of no account, but which in their cumulative effect had a damning influence upon the work in which we were engaged. The Ulster Division properly—I was delighted when it occurred—were permitted to wear in their caps a special badge with the red hand of O’Neill. The Welsh Division—the present Minister of War took care of that—were allowed to have a special distinguished badge with the Dragon of Wales. When we asked for a special distinguishing Irish badge for our Irish Division in the South of Ireland it was refused. A committee of Irish ladies—if my recollection does not betray me, I think it was on the initiative of Lady Fingall—came together to embroider flags for the new Irish Division. The offer was accepted with gratitude by the General Commanding the Division, and subscriptions and committees were started all over the country, when suddenly, within a few days, a peremptory letter appeared in the papers saying that the War Office would not permit the acceptance of these flags. Officers Training Corps were established in Dublin University and in Belfast University. I think they existed in most of the Universities of this country. But when the new National University in Dublin asked for an Officers’ Training Corps they were refused. When my hon. Friend the Member for West Belfast (Mr. Devlin) raised three or four thousand troops in his constituency for the Irish Division, and when they were being brought to Cork, through Dublin, we asked that they should be allowed to march with military bands from one railway station to another. We asked it as a recruiting device in order to arouse military enthusiasm. No, it was refused, and these thousands of men who had come down from my hon. Friend’s constituency were kept at Amiens Street station, cooped up in the train for some hours, then they were brought round by the loop line to Kingsbridge and taken down in secret to Cork

Then when recruiting committees were established in Ireland, almost invariably in Nationalist districts, the Unionist registration agents were given charge of them. I wonder if my hon. Friend who sits below me, the Member for East Mayo (Mr. Dillon), will be annoyed if I tell a story with reference to him in this matter. The chief town in his constituency is the town of Swinford. I need not say what his position is in that constituency. The recruiting agent appointed was the Unionist agent, a highly respectable gentleman. I say nothing against him; but in that constituency, where the Unionists are but a handful, the Unionist registration agent was the person put in charge of the committee, and he decided to call a recruiting meeting in Swinford, and he wrote a letter to my hon. Friend which really was as good a joke as ever I heard. He wrote to him to say, “We are calling a meeting to be held in the town of Swinford and we invite your presence, and I can assure you that if you come you will be well received.” Then at all these meetings Unionist speakers were selected. Bands were refused to the new battalions. Now I dare say that in pre-war times it was a regulation of the War Office that a band should be provided out of the private purses of the officers. That may be so for all I know. But here you were trying to create a New Army in a country where the first thing you had to do was to arouse some enthusiasm on the part of the people. The War Office refused to give anything at all towards bands, and I had myself to get up a subscription among some of my friends which enabled me to present a fife-and-drum band and an Irish war pipes band to every one of these new battalions.

When Sir Hedley Le Bas went to Ireland to endeavour to push on recruiting he stated in his report to the War Office, which I saw, that in some places—I will not mention them—in Dublin he was plainly told by members of the recruiting committee that they did not want too many Nationalist recruits, and it was only after a prolonged struggle that we got what was considered by the Catholic Hierarchy an adequate number of Catholic chaplain in either the Army or the Navy. Then there seemed to us—at any rate there seemed to the mass of the Irish people whom we were trying to wean away from their old hostilities—to be on foot a systematic suppression of recognition of the gallantry of the Irish troops at the front. I do not think that there was any single incident that did more harm to our efforts at that time than the suppression in the official dispatches of all recognition, even of the names being mentioned, of the gallantry of the Dublin Fusiliers and the Munster Fusiliers in the landing at V Beach at Gallipoli. Then we asked that these new battalions should be trained in places where their very presence and appearance would help us in our work. That also was refused. In the whole province of Connaught not one single new battalion was trained. Galway is the headquarters, I think, of the Connaught Rangers. Several new battalions of the Connaught Rangers were raised, but not one of them was allowed to be trained within the confines of the province of Connaught, although there is at the present moment, outside Galway, an admirable training ground properly equipped with rifle ranges and everything else.

Then what about the officers? I do not want to go into the question of Nationalist or Catholic or Protestant, but it is a strange thing—and while such considerations do not influence me, you must realise how they were likely to influence the masses of people in Ireland—that up to the time that the 16th Division went to the front, with the exception of two or three subalterns, there was not a Catholic officer in the Division. That has been somewhat changed now I am glad to say, and some of these other things which I have mentioned have been changed, but too late. The mischief was done at the time when I was striving with all my might and main in this matter, and when I was entitled, in the circumstances, to all the support which the Government could give me. Let me give one more instance, and I will pass on. On the Tyneside in this country, owing largely to the generosity of Mr. Joseph Cowen, I think five battalions of Irishmen were raised. My hon. Friend the Member for the Scotland Division of Liverpool (Mr. T. P. O’Connor) made a request that of those five battalions one at least might be trained in Ireland. Why? We wanted the spectacle seen in Ireland of an Irish battalion from England going to Ireland and marching through the streets of Dublin and being trained there as an example and stimulus to the rest of Ireland. It was said, first, that it would be hard on the battalions, because the men were very often billeted in their own homes, and that it would be a loss to them. But these battalions asked to go, but it was said, No, they would not be allowed.

Taking any one of these things singly, you may say they seem contemptible and small, but the cumulative effect was enormous, and they took all the heart out of the efforts which were being made. Day by day the undoubted enthusiasm at the commencement of the War began to die down. Day by day our enemies were instilling into the minds of the people that we were just as much distrusted by England as ever, and that in the end we would be cheated and betrayed. Then, what I may call the final blow came in the creation of the Coalition Government. I tell the Prime Minister that, from the day the Coalition was formed, recruiting for the Army in Ireland declined rapidly. From the day the Coalition was formed, recruiting for the revolutionary, anti-recruiting, Sinn Fein party rapidly increased. An eminent Prelate once declared that, in his opinion, Home Rule was dead and buried. Distrust and suspicion spread all over the country, and the spectacle—explain it how we would to the people of Ireland—of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Dublin University being given a seat in the Cabinet as chief Law Officer meant, to the minds of these people—I am speaking of the impression created in Ireland—meant, in the minds of large masses of the people, that in the end they would be betrayed. The offer that was made to me to join the Cabinet of course deceived nobody. Everyone knew that I would not and could not accept it. Everyone noted this further fact that, while representatives of the small Unionist party in Ireland were put in this Coalition Government, into the Executive of Ireland, the offer made to me, who represented the majority of the Irish people, was not an office in the Government of my own country at all, but some unnamed English office. I begged the Prime Minister at the time to leave Ireland out of the Coalition. He refused, and the result in Ireland was fatal.

I did not, however, in consequence of this, even then relax my efforts, but, from that day to this, things have gone from bad to worse. Suspicion and distrust have spread rapidly, and finally came the rising in the City of Dublin last Easter. At first, that rising was resented universally by all classes of the people of Ireland. It seemed so causeless, so reckless, so wicked, and I am to-day profoundly convinced of this, that if that rising had been dealt with in the spirit in which General Botha dealt with the rising in South Africa, it probably would have been the means, strange though it may sound to hear it, of saving the whole situation. But, unfortunately, it was dealt with by panicky violence. Executions, spread out day after day, and week after week—some of them young boys of whom none of us had never even heard, and who turned out to have been young dreamers and idealists—shocked and revolted the public mind of Ireland. There were only some fifteen hundred men, according to my information, who took part in that rising, and yet the military authorities scoured the entire country, and arrested thousands—we heard the number of thousands to-day at Question Time—of perfectly innocent men and young boys, and spread terror and indignation all through the land. I know myself personally of perfectly peaceful villagers, where the Sinn Feiners have never been heard of, who were raided, in some cases in the dead of night, and in some cases, to my knowledge, against the advice of the local police officer, and young boys were dragged off to Dublin only to be returned a couple of days afterwards when it was found there was nothing against them. By that proceeding terror and indignation were spread throughout the country, and popular sympathy, which was entirely against the rising on its merits, and against the rising when it took place, rapidly and completely turned round.

All this was a terrible and fatal blunder. How different was the action of General Botha. Do you ever reflect how this South African case is relevant to the case of Ireland? You made peace with General Botha, in spite of profound distrust, in spite of bitter and powerful opposition. Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman sealed that peace with freedom. If he had not done so where would South Africa be to-day? He trusted General Botha, and South Africa had been, at the time war broke out, in the enjoyment of free institutions for ten or twelve, or more, years; and in spite of that, and in spite of your trust in General Botha, and in spite of the fact that they had the experience of the working for several years of self-government, General Botha was faced, after war broke out, with a rebellion, just as we were in Ireland. And yet poor Ireland was denounced because a couple of thousand foolish men attempted this mad rising—Ireland which had not been trusted, which had not had ten years’ experience of free institutions; Ireland, which had not yet tasted the first fruits of the peace which she had been only too glad and proud to make with the people of this country.

Is the situation hopeless? Is it too late to repair the mischief? Will you trust Ireland even now? When the Prime Minister returned to this country from Ireland, after the suppression of the rising, he solemnly told his colleagues and the House of Commons that the system of government in Ireland had hopelessly broken down, and, as he told us, his colleagues unanimously asked the present Minister for War to endeavour to bring about a settlement by agreement. After many conversations, he put before us a certain set of proposals, and asked us to go back and submit them to our followers in Ireland. We had the assurance that these proposals were accepted by him. We had more. We had the assurance that they were accepted by the Prime Minister, and if we had had the remotest idea that these two right hon. Gentlemen were not prepared to stand by these proposals, do you think we would have been such fools as to go with them in our hands for the acceptance of our followers in Ireland? We had this assurance, we went, and, in the teeth of enormous difficulties, we got our people to agree to most unpopular proposals. We then came back here, and found that these proposals were thrown over by the Cabinet; and the answer that you have given to Ireland, if she were trusted even now, is that you have again set on its legs this system of government which the Prime Minister told us had hopelessly failed. You have set up Dublin Castle, and you have got into it not merely a Coalition Government, but a Unionist Government—a Unionist Chief Secretary and a Unionist Attorney-General—the two men who practically conduct the whole of the government of Ireland. We have it on the statement of the Prime Minister himself that the Viceroy has no power, and we know it. The men responsible for the government of Ireland are these two Unionist gentlemen.

And what is the system of government they are administering? They are administering a system of universal martial law all over the country. I am here this afternoon to ask the Government what do they propose? The new Chief Secretary went to Ireland to attempt to find a solution. Has he found one? What does he propose? Is it seriously proposed to maintain the present system to perpetuate martial law, to keep a Unionist executive in office, to keep hundreds of unaccused and untried prisoners in prison? I think we are entitled to demand from the Government a statement of their policy. To me, personally, one of the saddest things in the present situation is the danger which in spite of anything I can do, there is that the Irish regiments at the front may not be kept up to their full strength. Personally I would do anything possible to avert that catastrophe. But it is no use you asking me to do the impossible. These gallant men have an irresistible claim on their fellow countrymen. No one can accuse my colleagues or myself of any desire to evade that claim. Several of my colleagues are themselves in the Army. One of my colleagues who joined the Army at the commencement of the War died in the Service very soon after. An ex-colleague of ours, a brilliant young Irishman, Professor Kettle, died the other day on the Somme. At least twenty Irish Nationalist Members have sons in the Army. One of my hon. Friends here has four sons in the Army. Two of my colleagues in this party have had their sons killed in this War. There are very few of us on these benches who have not some near and dear relatives taking all the risks side by side with you.

What I feel about these Irish soldiers is this: I feel that by their gallant deeds they have already won a new place for Ireland before the world, a new place in the policy and councils of the Empire. My conviction is that it is for Ireland in her own interests to keep that place, and it is for the Empire in the Empire’s interests to enable her and to help her to keep it. How? By removing once and for all all this fog of bad faith and bad management, and by settling Ireland on a basis of freedom and responsibility. I put on one side for the moment the question of Conscription in Ireland. All I will say of that, at this stage—we may have to speak about it later on—is that it would be not a remedy but an aggravation, and I cannot bring myself to believe that any man responsible for the government of Ireland, either in the civil or in the military sphere would, at this moment, recommend it. What, then, you say, can nothing be done? I will state what in my opinion can be done—done, first of all, by the authorities I am speaking of. I will refer to the responsibility of the Government later on. From the first it seemed to us in Ireland as if there had been a distinct desire to deplete the 16th Division. Drafts have been sent to my personal knowledge from the 16th Division since they went to the front to English Divisions. Three hundred men of one of our reserve regiments in Ireland were the other day put into kilts and sent to a Highland regiment. A similar draft was only the other day sent from another of our reserve regiments to an English regiment. My hon. Friend the Member for Galway had a question about the 10th Dublins.

Let the House bear with me for a moment while I tell them something about the history of the 10th Dublins. At the commencement of the War a battalion called the “Pals Battalion” of the Dublin Fusiliers was raised in the City of Dublin. It was composed of young university men, athletes, and young professional men, and so on, who went in their hundreds and enlisted as privates in this regiment. They went out to Gallipoli, and in two days 75 per cent. of that gallant regiment was destroyed. One would think that would have damped the ardour of the City of Dublin. Not at all. The men in the City of Dublin thought the best monument they could raise to their sons who had died so gallantly in Gallipoli was to raise a new “Pals Battalion,” and so they raised the 10th Dublins, one of the finest battalions ever raised in Ireland. I met them two months ago, by chance, at Holyhead; I was on the platform when the ships came sailing in, with Irish war pipes playing Irish national airs. I saw them filing down; they marched past me almost all carrying a little green flag on their bayonets. They recognised me and greeted me warmly, and I said to them, “Well, you are going to the front. I am sure you will maintain the traditions of your gallant Irish regiment.” Yes, but where did they go? What right has the War Office to reproach us with not keeping up the Irish Divisions when they send a battalion like that, not to an Irish Division, but to a new Division called the Naval Division, made up, I suppose, of Marines. I demand, as a right, when we are told we are not keeping up our 16th Division, that that magnificent battalion, which was raised for the purpose of doing honour to the Irish Army at the front, should go to the 16th Division.

Let me say something more that the authorities can do. One of the most encouraging things that I have heard about the War is the large proportion of the casualties which are slight wounds, so that the men in a month, perhaps more or less, are able to return. My information is, so far as the 16th Division is concerned, that hundreds and hundreds of these wounded men from the ranks sent to the base hospital at Boulogne or elsewhere, on recovery, are sent, not to the 16th Division, but to English Divisions. So long as these things happen, what a mockery it is to us to reproach us with not keeping up our Division! Then I complain of the persistent refusal, notwithstanding Army Orders I see published in the newspapers, of recruiting officers in Great Britain to send Irish recruits to the Irish regiments to which they desire to go to. Men ask to be sent to Irish regiments and are put, against their will, into English and Scottish regiments. I was talking today to an officer who called my attention to the fact that there are twenty times more Irishmen in English, Scottish and Welsh battalions in the Army than there are Englishmen, Scotsmen and Welshmen in Irish regiments. Why persisently refuse to transfer these men? I have had scores on scores of letters from these Irishmen in British battalions asking me to get them transferred to the Connaught Rangers or the Dublins. I have never succeeded in a single case in getting them transferred. Why should they not be allowed to do it? Why should not any man who chooses be allowed to volunteer to go from the Gordon Highlanders or the Seaforth Highlanders to join the Connaught Regiment?

I pass from individual men to the battalions. There are many, very many, entirely Irish battalions raised in this country. I spoke a moment ago of the five Tyneside battalions. In all nearly 100,000 Irishmen have joined the Colours in Lancashire. There are in Liverpool battalions called the Liverpool Irish. Why not allow one or two of these battalions to join the 16th Division? Let me take a case in point. There is a gallant regiment here in London called the London Irish. I remember at the commencement of the War, when a notice appeared in the “Gazette,” leaving out the word “Irish.” When I questioned the War Office about it in this House I was told that they had no such right to be called the London Irish as the London Scottish had to be called the London Scottish, as they had no records; they were a new battalion. When I enlightened the ignorance of the War Office by showing them the records of this battalion, going back for nearly 100 years and containing the names of most distinguished soldiers, then an assurance was given me that once again they would be allowed to call themselves the London Irish. You know what the London Irish have done in the War; they are the regiment who captured Loos, who dribbled a football in front of them. You know what they did on that occasion and on others. Now the London Scottish have been attached to the Gordon Highlanders. Why will you not allow the London Irish to be attached to the 16th Division? Is not that a reasonable request? But no, that request has been refused, and they have been attached to the Rifle Brigade. I say if the London Scottish have a right to be attached to the Gordon Highlanders, the London Irish have a right if they choose—and they are anxious for it—to be attached to the 16th Division. In these ways the authorities may do a great deal—a very great deal indeed—to help us in this matter of the Irish Division.

But I recognise fully—I would not be honest if I did not say so plainly—that these expedients cannot fully meet the case. The case can only be met by boldly grappling with the situation in Ireland itself. So long as the present state of government exists in Ireland, so long will the present excited and irritating national public feeling exist there, and so long as that feeling exists, everything will be wrong. So long as the Irish people feel that England, fighting for the small nationalities of Europe, is maintaining by martial law a State Unionist Government against the will of the people in Ireland, so long no real improvement can be hoped for. Let the Government withdraw martial law, let them put in command of the forces in Ireland some man who has not been connected with the unhappy actions of the past. Let the administration of the Defence of the Realm Act be as stringent as you like, but let it be animated by the same spirit and carried into effect by the same machinery as takes place in Great Britain. Let the 500 untried prisoners be released, let the penal servitude prisoners be treated as political prisoners, and, above all, and incomparably more important than all, let the Government take their courage in both hands and trust the Irish people once and for all, by putting the Home Rule Act into operation and resolutely, on their own responsibility, facing any problems that that may entail.

One hon. Gentleman who has notice of an Amendment to my Motion on the Paper speaks of this as a matter of purely domestic controversy. But this is not a matter, if I may respectfully say so to him, which concerns only Ireland and Great Britain. It concerns the highest interests of the Empire and of the War. I have myself intimate personal knowledge of how injuriously the Irish situation is affecting the interests of England and the best interests of victory for England all through the Continent of America. It is having, as the Government themselves well know—and there is not a man who does not know it—the same effect in the Dominions, and especially is it having its effect in Australia. As one who has honestly done his best, and who is prepared to continue honestly doing his best, no matter what the risk to his popularity or his influence, to help you to win this War I do beg of the Government to hearken seriously to my warning and my advice.


I beg to second the Motion