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Introduction of the Third Home Rule Bill

Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Herbert Henry Asquith, a member of the Liberal Party, introduces the Third Home Rule Bill on April 11, 1912, which would provide self-government for Ireland, an apparent triumph for Nationalist leader John Redmond.

As a minority party after 1910 elections, the Liberal Party depends on the Irish vote, controlled by John Redmond. To gain Irish support for the budget and the parliament bill, Asquith promises Redmond that Irish Home Rule will be the highest priority. It proves much more complex and time-consuming than expected. Support for self-government for Ireland had been a tenet of the Liberal Party since 1886, but Asquith has not been as enthusiastic, stating in 1903 (while in opposition) that the party should never take office if that government would be dependent for survival on the support of the Irish Nationalist Party. After 1910, though, Irish Nationalist votes are essential to stay in power. Retaining Ireland in the Union is the declared intent of all parties, and the Nationalists, as part of the majority that keep Asquith in office, are entitled to seek enactment of their plans for Home Rule, and to expect Liberal and Labour support. The Conservatives, with die-hard support from the Protestant Orange Order of Ulster, are strongly opposed to Home Rule. The desire to retain a veto for the House of Lords on such bills has been an unbridgeable gap between the parties in the constitutional talks prior to the December 1910 United Kingdom general election.

The cabinet committee (excluding Asquith) that in 1911 plans the Third Home Rule Bill opposes any special status for Protestant Ulster within majority-Catholic Ireland. In 1913, Asquith writes to Winston Churchill, stating that the Prime Minister has always believed and stated that the price of Home Rule should be a special status for Ulster. In spite of this, the bill as introduced in April 1912 contains no such provision, and is meant to apply to all Ireland. Neither partition nor a special status for Ulster is likely to satisfy either side. The self-government offered by the bill is very limited, but Irish Nationalists, expecting Home Rule to come by gradual parliamentary steps, favours it. The Conservatives and Irish Unionists oppose it. Unionists begin preparing to get their way by force if necessary, prompting nationalist emulation. Though very much a minority, Irish Unionists are generally better financed and more organised.

Since the Parliament Act the Unionists can no longer block Home Rule in the House of Lords, but only delay Royal Assent by two years. Asquith decides to postpone any concessions to the Unionists until the bill’s third passage through the House of Commons, when he believes the Unionists will be desperate for a compromise. Biographer Roy Jenkins concludes that had Asquith tried for an earlier agreement, he would have had no luck, as many of his opponents wanted a fight and the opportunity to smash his government. Sir Edward Carson, MP for the University of Dublin and leader of the Irish Unionists in Parliament, threatens a revolt if Home Rule is enacted. The new Conservative leader, Bonar Law, campaigns in Parliament and in northern Ireland, warning Ulstermen against “Rome Rule,” that is, domination by the island’s Catholic majority. Many who oppose Home Rule feel that the Liberals have violated the Constitution by pushing through major constitutional change without a clear electoral mandate, with the House of Lords, formerly the “watchdog of the constitution,” not reformed as had been promised in the preamble of the 1911 Act and thus justified actions that in other circumstances might be treason.

The passions generated by the Irish question contrast with Asquith’s cool detachment, and he writes about the prospective partition of the county of Tyrone, which has a mixed population, deeming it “an impasse, with unspeakable consequences, upon a matter which to English eyes seems inconceivably small, and to Irish eyes immeasurably big.” As the House of Commons debate the Home Rule bill in late 1912 and early 1913, unionists in the north of Ireland mobilise, with talk of Carson declaring a Provisional Government and Ulster Volunteer Forces (UVF) built around the Orange Lodges, but in the cabinet, only Churchill views this with alarm.

These forces, insisting on their loyalty to the British Crown but increasingly well-armed with smuggled German weapons, prepare to do battle with the British Army, but Unionist leaders are confident that the army will not aid in forcing Home Rule on Ulster. As the Home Rule bill awaits its third passage through the House of Commons, the so-called Curragh incident occurs in March 1914. With deployment of troops into Ulster imminent and threatening language by Churchill and the Secretary of State for War, John Seely, around sixty army officers, led by Brigadier General Hubert Gough, announce that they would rather be dismissed from the service than obey. With unrest spreading to army officers in England, the Cabinet acts to placate the officers with a statement written by Asquith reiterating the duty of officers to obey lawful orders but claiming that the incident had been a misunderstanding. Seely then adds an unauthorised assurance, countersigned by Sir John French, the professional head of the army, that the government has no intention of using force against Ulster. Asquith repudiates the addition, and requires Seely and French to resign, taking on the War Office himself, retaining the additional responsibility until hostilities against Germany begin.

Within a month of the start of Asquith’s tenure at the War Office, the UVF lands a large cargo of guns and ammunition at Larne, but the Cabinet does not deem it prudent to arrest their leaders. On May 12, Asquith announces that he will secure Home Rule’s third passage through the House of Commons (accomplished on May 25), but that there will be an amending bill with it, making special provision for Ulster. But the House of Lords make changes to the amending bill unacceptable to Asquith, and with no way to invoke the Parliament Act on the amending bill, Asquith agrees to meet other leaders at an all-party conference on July 21 at Buckingham Palace, chaired by King George V. When no solution can be found, Asquith and his cabinet plans further concessions to the Unionists, but this does not occur as the crisis in Europe erupts into war.

In September 1914, after the outbreak of the conflict, Asquith announces that the Home Rule bill will go on the statute book as the Government of Ireland Act 1914 but will not go into force until after the war. He adds that in the interim a bill granting special status to Ulster will be considered. This solution satisfies neither side.

(Pictured: H.H. Asquith, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom)


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Birth of Sir James Comyn, Irish-born English High Court Judge

Sir James Peter Comyn, Irish-born barrister and English High Court judge, is born at Beaufield House, Stillorgan, County Dublin on March 8, 1921. Considered by many to be “the finest all-round advocate at the English bar”, he is appointed to the High Court of Justice in 1978, serving on the bench until his retirement in 1985.

Comyn is the son of Nationalist barrister James Comyn KC and of Mary Comyn. Through his father he is the nephew of the barrister Michael Comyn KC. Both his father and uncle had been political and legal advisers to Éamon de Valera, who at one point uses Beaufield House as a safe house. However, the Comyn brothers have a falling out with de Valera shortly before he comes to power in 1932, and Michael Comyn is passed over as Attorney General of the Irish Free State. As a result, James Comyn, who is then attending Belvedere College in Dublin, is sent by his father to attend The Oratory School in England. He spends six months as a trainee at The Irish Times under the editor R. M. “Bertie” Smyllie, but abandons journalism after a joke he added to an obituary is printed in the paper, leading to his demotion to the racing department.

Comyn then matriculates at New College, Oxford, where he reads law, graduating with Second Class Honours. In 1940, he defeats Roy Jenkins for the presidency of the Oxford Union, winning by four votes. After suffering the first of several breakdowns through his life, he briefly works for the BBC‘s Empire Service during World War II.

Comyn is called to the English bar by the Inner Temple in 1942, the Irish bar in 1947, and the Hong Kong bar in 1969. In 1944, he begins his pupillage with Edward Holroyd Pearce KC, later a law lord, and joins his chambers at Fountain Court. He practises in London and on the Western circuit, supplementing his earnings by teaching banking, a subject of which he knows nothing. On one occasion, he rises in Lambeth County court to cross-examine a female defendant in an eviction case. Just as he begins by saying “Madam,” the defendant opens her bag, takes out a dead cat, and throws it at him. The judge’s reaction is to tell the defendant, “Madam, if you do that again, I’ll commit you.” Comyn wins the case.

Comyn takes silk in 1961, and acquires a large practice as a senior, appearing in many high-profile cases. In 1964, he wins damages for libel for the former safe-breaker Alfred George Hinds against a Scotland Yard inspector by convincing the jury that Hinds is in fact innocent. In 1970, he successfully defends the Labour MP Will Owen, who is accused of providing information to the Czechoslovak intelligence services. In 1975, he defeats the government’s attempt to obtain an injunction against the publication of the diaries of former minister Richard Crossman.

Comyn is Recorder of Andover between 1964 and 1971 (honorary life recorder from 1972), commissioner of assize for the Western Circuit in 1971, and a Recorder of the Crown Court between 1972 and 1977. He is elected a bencher of the Inner Temple in 1968, and serves as chairman of the Bar council from 1973 to 1974.

Having refused a previous invitation by Quintin Hogg, Baron Hailsham of St. Marylebone to join the bench, Comyn is again nominated by Elwyn Jones, Baron Elwyn-Jones, in 1977, and is appointed a High Court judge in 1978, receiving the customary knighthood upon his appointment. Initially assigned to the Family Division, he does not take to the work and is reassigned to the Queen’s Bench Division in 1979. He has a reputation for leniency in sentencing, first acquired as Recorder of Andover. In 1980–81, he presides over an unsuccessful libel action by a member of the Unification Church, colloquially known as the Moonies, against the Daily Mail, the longest libel trial in England up to that time. His Irish background makes him the target of Irish Republican Army (IRA) action, and in 1981 the Provisional IRA burns his house in Tara.

Recurring bouts of depression lead to Comyn’s early retirement, on grounds of ill health, in 1985. In retirement, he divides his time between England and Ireland, whose citizenship he has retained. He writes a number of books, including memoirs, light verse, and books on famous trials. He also breeds Friesian cattle. He dies in Navan, County Meath on January 5, 1997 at age 75.