John Redmond’s life-long struggle was to achieve Irish self-government and to reconcile unionists with nationalists and Ireland with England. After a distinguished career in public service he died in the bitter knowledge that his efforts had ended in unrelieved failure.
Redmond was born in County Wexford, the son of an Irish nationalist MP. Like his father, he was educated by Jesuits at Clongowes Wood and proceeded to Trinity College, Dublin. He qualified as a barrister but devoted his life to politics, sitting as an Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) MP for New Ross, 1880-1885, North Wexford 1885-1891, and Waterford City, 1891-1918. Throughout his long political career he was deeply opposed to the use of physical force, committed to political change by constitutional means, and a zealous admirer of the British House of Commons. He sought only limited Irish self-government, considering it undesirable that Britain and Ireland should be wholly separated and had no wish to see the dismemberment of an empire which Irishmen had helped to build. When his party split over the O’Shea affair in 1890-91, he backed Parnell and after his leader’s death led the rump of his supporters during the 1890s. In 1900, he was himself elected Chairman of the re-united party.
The outcome of two general elections held in 1910 was that the Irish nationalist MPs held the balance of power at Westminster. Redmond used this leverage astutely to ensure that the Liberal administration in April 1912 introduced a bill granting Ireland self-government. But he gravely miscalculated the intensity of Ulster’s opposition to it. He advised British ministers to stand firm and make no concessions because he believed the opposition would crumble. Instead unionist militancy increased and the Liberal leadership began to waver under this pressure. Recognising that they had miscalculated, even moderate nationalists came to favour the formation of a paramilitary force, the Irish Volunteer Force (IVF), to strengthen their bargaining position and reinforce their demand for home rule. Redmond appeared weak and overly dependant on the Liberal alliance.
When war came, Redmond agreed to the postponement of an Irish settlement until hostilities ceased. He supported the British war effort and encouraged the IVF to enlist in the British Army, appealing for its members to go ‘wherever the fighting line extends’; a delighted southern unionist said of one of his speeches that it had ‘united Ireland’. Redmond’s responses stemmed from a genuine sense of loyalty and a wish to help unite Irishmen of both traditions; he also hoped through his actions to earn Britain’s gratitude. Ultimately, the outcome for his party was politically disastrous. Even before the war a more militant and uncompromising spirit had been emerging amongst nationalists in Ireland. During the European conflict, the Easter Rising helped to heighten anti-English sentiment and build support for an independent Irish republic. Redmond failed to react effectively to the British executions of the leaders of the Rising and in negotiations (mid 1916) softened his position on partition. In the December 1918 General Election, his party’s representation at Westminster collapsed resulting in a Sinn Féin triumph. Redmond however had died nine months earlier aware that the laudable goals which he had set himself had not been attained and there seemed little prospect that they would be.