History

Irish Parliamentary Party leader John Redmond (Getty Images)

John Redmond

John Redmond was an Irish nationalist MP who achieved the passing of an act in 1914 that granted 'Home Rule' - a devolved parliament - to Ireland.


He sought only limited self-government, believing his country should not be wholly separated from the British Empire. His lifelong aim was to reconcile unionists with nationalists and Ireland with England.


Home Rule was never implemented due to the outbreak of World War One. Ireland was instead partitioned into two separate states.


Photo: John Redmond (Getty Images)

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Ulster Covenant
Ulster Covenant

More information about: John Redmond

The Redmonds of Wexford

John Redmond was born into the Catholic gentry of County Wexford, Ireland. The Redmond family tree was a mixture of rebels against and supporters of the British establishment. A Redmond ancestor had fought with the United Irishmen in the 1798 rising.

Redmond's father was the Home Rule Party MP for Wexford. His mother was from a Protestant unionist background, she did not convert to the nationalist views of her husband and sons.

Early Life

Redmond studied at Trinity College, Dublin. This was unusual for a Catholic because Trinity was regarded as an overwhelmingly Protestant institution.

His interest in politics strengthened when, in 1876, he became his father's assistant in Westminster.

Parnell

While working in Westminster Redmond was impressed by the charismatic Irish MP Charles Stewart Parnell. Parnell was the leader of the Nationalist Party (which from 1882 was known as the Irish Parliamentary Party). Parnell's aim was to sweep away absentee English landlords in Ireland who charged their Irish tenants exorbitant rents.

As a country gentleman himself, Redmond had no wish to ruin the landlords. He wanted them to transfer their estates to the people, but retain enough income to stay in Ireland.

Parnell supported Redmond's candidacy for the parliamentary seat of New Ross (in his native County Wexford). Redmond won the seat in 1881 when he was just 24 years old.

Crisis

The Irish Parliamentary Party was thrown into crisis when its leader, Parnell, was named as co-respondent in a divorce case. He had been having an affair with Katherine O'Shea, the wife of a fellow MP.

Redmond was in the minority who remained faithful to the disgraced Parnell, leading his fellow pro-Parnellites throughout the 1890s when the party split into two factions.

In 1900, he was elected chairman of the now re-united Irish Parliamentary Party.

Political leverage

Nineteen ten was a year of political upheaval in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Two general elections resulted in a hung parliament in which the Liberal Party, under HH Asquith, had the largest number of seats. Only with the support of Redmond's Irish Parliamentary Party could Asquith form a government.

The price for Redmond's cooperation was to be Home Rule.

Home Rule

Asquith brought the third Home Rule bill to parliament in April 1912.

It was proposed that purely Irish questions would be dealt with by an Irish parliament in Dublin, but the people of Ireland would still be represented by members of parliament in Westminster.

On the introduction of the bill, Redmond addressed the House of Commons with evident emotion:

"If I may say so reverently, I personally thank God that I have lived to see this day."

Unionist resistance

Redmond did not foresee the furious resistance to a Dublin parliament from the north of Ireland where Ulster Unionists were galvanised by their charismatic leader, Edward Carson.

The idea of Home Rule was abhorrent to a staunch Unionist like Carson, who feared that it would serve the interests of the rural, Catholic south and threaten those of the industrial, Protestant north.

On 28 September 1912, nearly half a million people signed the Ulster Covenant – a pledge to defend their way of life from the growing threat of Home Rule.

In the hope of finding a solution that would mollify the Ulster Unionists, Prime Minster Asquith drafted a variety of partition proposals. Redmond was vehemently against the idea of Ireland being divided into north and south:

"Irish nationalists can never be the assenting parties to the mutilation of the Irish nation. The two nation theory is to us an abomination and a blasphemy."

Brink of civil war

By 1914, two opposing militias existed in Ireland. The Irish Volunteers in the south of Ireland were adamantly in support of Home Rule, while the Ulster Volunteer Force in the north passionately against it. Both were armed and ready to fight for their cause.

Concerned at the worsening situation, King George V brought unionists and nationalists together for a conference at Buckingham Palace in July 1914. It was a last ditch attempt to broker a deal between Redmond and Edward Carson. It failed.

Carson later described a moment between the two fellow politicians and barristers:

"I remember Mr John Redmond coming up to me and saying 'For the sake of the old time on the circuit let us have a good shake hands'."

World War One

Many believe that civil war was only averted in Ireland because of the outbreak of World War One. The factions fighting over Home Rule temporarily set aside their differences in the face of a common enemy.

In August 1914, German troops began to pour across the Belgian border. John Redmond rose to his feet in the House of Commons:

"I say to the Government that they may tomorrow withdraw every one of their troops from Ireland. The armed Catholics in the south will only be too glad to join arms with the armed Protestant Ulstermen."

By urging his followers to enlist in the British Army, Redmond hoped to strengthen the case for Home Rule by showing nationalists' loyalty to the empire.

But some were angered by what they saw as Redmond's subservience to Westminster. In 1916, they rose in rebellion.

Easter Rising

The Easter Rising was an Irish republican rebellion in Dublin during Easter Week of 1916. Britain was locked in a world war and the rising was seen as a treacherous act. The ringleaders were shown no mercy. They were quickly court-martialled and executed.

Many in the south of Ireland were initially angry with the rebels, but the executions caused widespread resentment. Fatally for his political ambitions, Redmond supported the British government. Many of his supporters turned to a new anti-British political party called Sinn Féin.

Redmond foresaw anarchy "when every blackguard who wants to commit an outrage will simply call himself a Sinn Féiner and thereby get the sympathy of the unthinking crowd".

Sinn Féin

In the December 1918 general election, the Irish Parliamentary Party was wiped out at Westminster. Sinn Féin swept the polls with the promise of an Irish republic.

Redmond was spared the spectacle of his party's annihilation. He had died nine months earlier.

Last word

The contradiction of Redmond's career is that after 17 years of leadership he left the Irish people with greatly improved material circumstances, yet the prevailing view seems to be that he failed.

Redmond appears to have agreed. He wrote:

"... the people have grown tired of the monotony of being served for twenty, thirty, ...or forty years by the same men in parliament ... Let the Irish people replace us, by all means, by other, and, I hope, better men, if they so choose."