Joseph Devlin, journalist and nationalist leader, is born on February 13, 1871, at Hamill Street in the Lower Falls area of Belfast, fourth son of Charles Devlin, car driver, and Elizabeth Devlin (née King), both recent migrants from the Lough Neagh area of east County Tyrone. He is educated at St. Mary’s Christian Brothers’ Grammar School in Divis Street until he is twelve. He proceeds to employment in Kelly’s Cellars public house near the city centre. From this unpromising background, he rises through a combination of ability, connections, and ambition to journalism with The Irish News (1891–93) and Freeman’s Journal (1895) and political position.
In his early years, Devlin is active in various local debating societies, where his associates include Cathal O’Byrne, who he retains a personal friendship despite later political differences. A committee member of the Belfast branch of the Irish National League (INL) in 1890, he joins the anti-Parnellite faction during the O’Shea divorce scandal (1891), becoming local secretary of the Irish National Federation (INF). His political model at this time is Thomas Sexton, MP for Belfast West, whose campaign he organises at the 1892 United Kingdom general election.
Although Healyism is strong in Catholic Ulster, Devlin aligns himself with the faction led by John Dillon and, from 1899, with the United Irish League (UIL), founded by William O’Brien. From the late 1890s this brings Devlin into conflict with the Belfast Catholic Association of Dr. Henry Henry, bishop of Down and Connor (1895–1908). This organisation, though sometimes regarded as Healyite, is essentially based on the view that mass nationalist political mobilisation in Belfast can only bring trouble and ostracism, and that Catholic interests are best represented by allowing a small group of lay and clerical notables to broker concessions from the unionist majority. After a series of local election contests in Catholic wards and controversies between the pro-Devlin weekly Northern Star and the clerically controlled The Irish News, Devlin succeeds in marginalising the politically maladroit Henry by 1905. In the process, however, he takes on some of the qualities of his “Catholic establishment” opponents. At the same time, he moves onto the national political stage.
Returned unopposed for North Kilkenny (1902–06), Devlin is appointed secretary of the United Irish League of Great Britain in 1903, and of the parent body in Dublin in 1904. A speaking tour of the United States in 1902–03 convinces him of the organisational potential of Catholic fraternal organisations, and in 1905 he takes over the presidency of the Board of Erin faction of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), a specifically Catholic body which he proceeds to develop as an organisational arm of the Nationalist Party. Under his tutelage the AOH expands from 10,000 members in 1905 to 60,000 in 1909, despite opposition from some Catholic bishops who distrust it because of its close affiliation to Dillonism, its secrecy, and its habit of staging dances and other entertainments without paying what they regard as due deference to local priests. His AOH also faces opposition from a rival separatist body, the Irish-American Alliance AOH. Though far less numerous, this group is able to draw on the support of separatists within the American AOH and hinder Devlin’s attempts to mobilise the American organisation in his support. The AOH expands further after 1910, and is strengthened by becoming an approved society under the National Insurance Act 1911.
Belfast is where Devlin’s political career begins and where it ends. Organisational skill contributes substantially to his hold on the largely working-class seat of Belfast West, which he wins in 1906 on a platform that seeks to transcend religious boundaries by combining labour issues with the home rule demand. A lifelong bachelor, though short in stature, he is apparently highly attractive to women, and takes a special interest in their problems, no doubt mindful of the influence they might have on the political behaviour of their spouses. He founds a holiday home for working-class women. When the scholar Betty Messenger interviews former Belfast linen workers in the late 1960s and early 1970s, she is startled to discover the extent to which Devlin is remembered as a champion of the workers decades after his death. This image persists among Protestant workers as well as Catholics, and he is generally credited with various ameliorations of workplace conditions even when he had not been responsible for them.
Possessed of great oratorical skills and even greater organisational ability, Devlin effectively becomes the key organiser of the Nationalist Party from the early years of the twentieth century, relieving the party leader, John Redmond, of a great deal of the administrative burden of party affairs, and becoming well known abroad through fund-raising trips, especially in North America. His personal geniality makes him a great favourite at Westminster, and Irish socialists are dismayed at the willingness of British Labour Party MPs to accept him as an authentic Labour representative. Several MPs elected after 1906 can be identified as his protégés, and groups of Hibernian strong-arm men uphold the party leadership in such contests as the 1907 North Leitrim by-election and the 1909 “baton convention” which witnesses the final departure of William O’Brien and his supporters from the UIL. He is the only post-Parnellite MP to be admitted to the tight leadership group around Redmond. In 1913 he is a leading organiser of the National Volunteers.
When William O’Brien embarks on his personal initiative to deal with the Ulster problem through conciliation in the early Edwardian period, he finds a stern critic in Devlin and in turn demonises the “Molly Maguires” as sectarian corruptionists. Personally non-sectarian, Devlin, like other party leaders, endorses the shibboleth that home rule will prove a panacea for Ireland’s problems, including Ulster, and uses his credentials as a labour representative to dismiss popular unionism as a mere product of elite manipulation. In a period when the Vatican‘s Ne Temere decree on religiously mixed marriages is heightening Protestant fears about the “tyranny” of Rome, he seems to be oblivious to how his integration of Hibernianism and nationalism is exacerbating that problem. As the third home rule bill passes through Parliament and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) mobilises, he encourages the Irish party leaders in the view that the Ulster unionist campaign is a gigantic bluff, dismissing contrary opinions even when held by other nationalist MPs. During these years the AOH clashes with the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU) during the Dublin lock-out, and from late 1913 the AOH spearheads the Redmondite attempt to take over and dominate the Irish Volunteers.
Devlin endorses Redmond’s support for the British war effort and engages in extensive recruiting activity. He seems to be motivated, at least in part, by the belief that after the war nationalist ex-soldiers can be used to overawe the Ulster unionists by the threat of force. According to Stephen Gwynn, Devlin wishes to apply for an officer’s commission but is asked not to do so by Redmond on the grounds that the party needs his organisational skills.
Devlin’s career is decisively shaped by his decision to use his influence to persuade northern nationalists to accept temporary partition, in fulfilment of the flawed agreement arrived at between David Lloyd George, Sir Edward Carson, and Redmond in the aftermath of the 1916 Easter Rising. He later claims he has been decisively influenced by the prospect that under this agreement the excluded area would be governed directly from Westminster, rather than by a local, Orange-dominated parliament. He forces the agreement through a Belfast-based convention despite protests from west Ulster nationalists, but the proposal collapses after it transpires that Lloyd George has made incompatible commitments to nationalists and unionists. Northern nationalism immediately splits between west and south Ulster dissidents and Devlin’s loyalists predominant in Belfast and east Ulster, and the next year sees massive secessions of AOH members outside Ulster to Sinn Féin. Although he retains a core of loyal supporters, he is reduced from a national to a sectional leader. As a member of the Irish convention (1917–18) he sides with Bishop Patrick O’Donnell against Redmond on the issue of seeking a compromise settlement with southern unionists on the basis of home rule without fiscal autonomy. He is offered the leadership of the Nationalist Party on Redmond’s death in 1918, but concedes the honour to his long-standing mentor, John Dillon.
Devlin holds Belfast West until 1918, and easily sweeps aside an attempt by Éamon de Valera to displace him from the Falls division of Belfast at the general election of that year, though the electoral decimation of the Nationalist Party elsewhere leaves him leading a rump of only seven MPs. In the ensuing parliament he is an outspoken critic of government policy towards Ireland and highlights sectarian violence against northern nationalists. Clearly discouraged and with boundary changes militating against retention of the Falls seat, he unsuccessfully contests the Liverpool Exchange constituency as an Independent Labour candidate in 1922. Elected for Antrim and Belfast West to the Parliament of Northern Ireland in 1921, he eventually takes his seat in 1925, holding it until 1929, when he combines representation for Belfast Central with that for Fermanagh and South Tyrone at Westminster.
Only after the boundary commission ends the border nationalists’ hopes of speedy incorporation in the Irish Free State is Devlin able to assert leadership of northern nationalism as a whole on the basis of attendance at the northern parliament. Even then he is considerably handicapped by recriminations over the events of 1916–25. He embarks on his last significant political campaign in 1928, when he seeks to unite minority politics through the agency of the National League of the North (NLN). The initiative, emphasising social reform, is unsuccessful. His own political baggage is a hindrance to the unity of the factions that minority politics had thrown up over the previous ten years, while the minority community itself is politically demoralised by the fate that has overtaken it, and the unionist government shows itself unwilling to make concession to him. The project, moreover, coincides with the onset of the gastric illness, exacerbated by heavy smoking, that takes his life on January 18, 1934. For some time before his death he ceases to attend the Northern Ireland parliament.
Devlin’s political career is one of great promise only partially fulfilled, its ultimate realisation undermined firstly by the fallout from the Easter Rising that destroyed the vehicle of his political ambitions, and secondly by the sequence of events that led to the creation of a constitutional entity so constructed that all nationalist politicians, regardless of talent, were effectively denied a route to power. Only at his death does the unionist regime adequately acknowledge his political stature. His funeral is attended by at least three Northern Ireland cabinet ministers, together with representatives of the government of the Irish Free State. Northern nationalism never again produces a leader of his ability in the Stormont era. His ability to use Westminster to promote the interests of Ulster nationalists is comparable to John Hume‘s use of Europe for the same purpose from the mid 1970s. After his death the nationalist party in Belfast grows increasingly reliant on middle-class leadership and is eventually displaced by nationalist labour splinter groups, some of whose prominent activists, such as Harry Diamond, had begun their careers as election workers for Devlin.
A portrait of Devlin by Sir John Lavery is held by the Ulster Museum, Belfast. His papers are in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI).
(From: “Devlin, Joseph” by James Loughlin, Dictionary of Irish Biography, http://www.dib.ie, October 2009)