6 March 1918: John Redmond M.P. died on this day. Ireland’s foremost politician of 1914 died in a London Hospital a forgotten and discredited man. He had brought Ireland to the brink of Home Rule (his lifetime ambition) only to see fate take a different turn and it all to slip through his fingers.
He was born in 1856 in County Wexford to a family with strong and active interest in constitutional politics. His father was a member of Parliament. He was educated at Clongowes College, a boarding school that many of the Irish middle class sent their sons to. He then went on to study Law in the Anglo - Irish bastion of Trinity College Dublin but his studies were cut short by his father’s ill health. He went over to London to help him out and became a follower of Charles Stewart Parnell the formidable Leader of the Irish Party in Westminster. He finally won a seat for New Ross in 1881 and entered Parliament. He did great fund raising work in Australia and the USA for the Party and eventually returned and completed his Law studies to become a Barrister.
When Parnell was forced to resign over the Kitty O’Shea affair in 1890 he emerged as the leader of the rump of the Party - the Irish National League - that remained loyal to their old leader. Redmond lacked Parnell's oratory and charisma but did demonstrate both his organisational ability and his considerable rhetorical skills. He raised funds for the Parnell Monument in Dublin. When in 1900 the different factions re united Redmond was elected Chairman of the Irish Parliamentary Party- which he held till his death. Redmond's low-key and conciliatory style of leadership gave the impression of weakness but reflected the problem of keeping together a factionalised party.
He kept up the pressure in Westminster for Home Rule but while the Liberal Party was generally sympathetic the Conservatives were totally opposed and the House of Lords was seen as an insurmountable obstacle. But when the Lords' veto was abolished under the Parliament Act 1911, Irish Home Rule (which the Lords blocked in 1894) became a real possibility. By 1914 the Lords could no longer block legislation passed by the House of Commons on Home Rule and in the next session of Parliament it would become a reality. However in the North the Ulster Loyalists had armed themselves to the teeth and were determined to resist it. The British Government dithered and was unsure if they could even rely on the Army to enforce it on Ulster. The Country stood on the brink of a huge Constitutional Crises and the distinct possibility of Civil War.
But events abroad changed everything. In August 1914 the First World War began and Britain mobilised for War on an unprecedented scale. Redmond was unsure how to play it. He first offered the Irish Volunteers to hold Ireland against invasion by an outside enemy [Germany] but this met with little recognition in the corridors of Power in London. All parts of the Empire were expected to play their part. Edward Carson the Leader of the Irish Unionists had immediately offered the Ulster Volunteer Force [UVF] to join up and fight at the Front. This put Redmond on the spot. He could not stand idly by but he had to have something halfway tangible to sell back home to his supporters if he was to throw in his lot with the War Effort. This came in September when the Home Rule Bill was eventually given the Royal Assent - but with the proviso that it was suspended for the duration of the War. This was enough to satisfy Redmond and he encouraged the Volunteers to join up and fight. Tens of thousands did so at his behest and at first all went well and it appeared his gamble had paid off.
However a rump remained that did not follow him and Redmond’s followers became known as the National Volunteers while those who disavowed him remained the Irish Volunteers. A rump within that organisation organised the 1916 Rising that brought Revolution to the streets of Dublin. Redmond was aghast and condemned it. But his own Party was split and as the months rolled by the prospect of a United Ireland under Home Rule became more and more unlikely. The War was not going well and the horrendous casualties caused many to wonder if it was all worth it. The Ulster Unionists were as implacable as ever. Recruitment declined and Sinn Fein started taking seats at bye elections from the Irish Party - change was in the air and Redmond and his Party were increasingly isolated from National opinion.
The Conscription Crises of 1918 united all of Nationalist Ireland against the British and Sinn Fein was the growing power in the land. Redmond had become yesterdays man. When he died he was confined to the dustbin of History and viewed as a Traitor by many. It is only in recent times that he has been somewhat rehabilitated as a man who did his best for Ireland but who was a victim of circumstance as much as his own Blunders - particularly in backing Britain’s War Effort in 1914 that cost so many Irishmen their lives to no avail.