In 1886 Gladstone tried to introduce the Irish Government Bill, 1886 (aka the First Home Rule Bill), but was defeated by a coalition of unionists and their supporters. This started a long and painful period of struggle, opposition, and disruption, during which the 'Irish Question' took up much time and energy in Westminster. As a result of the hardening of opinions on both sides, the informal Irish Unionist Party led to the Ulster Unionist Council in 1905, and moderate nationalist opinion, as expressed via the Home Rule League and Parnell's Irish Parliamentary Party, was overtaken by the more radical voice of Sinn Féin (also founded in 1905).
A Second Home Rule Bill was introduced in Westminster, where the unionist dominance of the House of Lords ensured that it was rejected. Tempers grew worse, and extremists on both sides grew stronger. Only in 1914 did a Third Home Rule Bill pass, thanks to the intervening neutering of the Lords – but the First World War blocked its entry into force. Then 1916, 1918, 1919, 1921 and 1922 happened, and the rest is, of course, history.
So unionists essentially provoked a hardening and an embittering of the 'Irish Question', rather than allow its resolution. And for what? The 1886 First Home Rule Bill envisaged a settlement where Ireland would have:
- A unicameral assembly consisting of two 'Orders' which could meet either together or separately – the first Order was to consist of the 28 Irish representative peers plus 75 members elected through a highly restricted franchise. It could delay the passage of legislation for 3 years, and the second Order was to consist of either 204 or 206 members.
- Executive Powers would be possessed by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland whose executive would not be responsible to either 'Order'.
- And the UK parliament would reserve the powers over a range of issues including peace, war, defence, treaties with foreign states, trade and coinage. Britain would retain control of the Royal Irish Constabulary until it deemed it safe for control to pass to Dublin. The Dublin Metropolitan Police would pass to Irish control.
And yet now we have the leader of the largest unionist party proudly stating: "Let me say from the outset that I am a full-blooded devolutionist", and the second party of unionism stating that: "Ulster Unionists believe that standing up for Northern Ireland means securing devolved government for this part of the United Kingdom".
What has changed since 1886, apart from the unionist position? Certainly not the content of the 'home rule' package – despite two world wars, the discovery of penicillin, the internet, and space travel, that little package has come though virtually unscathed.
The big thing that has changed, and the reason why unionists have done a 180° turn-around on home rule, is simply that home rule is only being proposed for a small part of Ireland in which they have a local majority.
Their opposition to home rule, it seems, was not based upon principle – because the package is the same, so their opposition should be the same. Their opposition was based purely upon prejudice – they did not want to share the administration of the home rule package with nationalists (or, to be more honest, with Catholics). Nothing about the packages on offer in 1886, 1893, or 1914 would have made them 'less British' than they are today. None of the previous packages included compulsory Irish or passport controls. In 1886 they would have remained in 'the Empire', kept their 'pound', their flag, their army and their Imperial Preference. The home rule government would have been a glorified County Council with almost no real powers. And yet unionists were prepared to unleash bloody war to avoid it.
Only to become avid supporters a few generations later!
If proof were ever needed that unionism is merely the politically-acceptable face of religious bigotry, the story of home rule and devolution provides it.