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The 1914 Buckingham Palace Conference: Illuminations


Illuminations:  The 1914
Buckingham Palace Conference

By:  J. Michael Finn

“… a matter which to English eyes seems inconceivably small and to Irish eyes immeasurably big.”

The year 1914 was a pivotal year in Irish history. Events had been coming together in Ireland that would define the future of the island and its on-going struggle with England. The single catalyst for these events was the Government of Ireland Act 1914, also known as the Home Rule Act.

The Government of Ireland Act 1914 was an Act passed by the Parliament of the United Kingdom, intended to provide Home Rule (self-government within the United Kingdom) for all of Ireland. It was the third such bill introduced by the Liberal government during a twenty-eight-year period in response to agitation for Irish Home Rule by Irish Nationalists in Parliament. 

The English Prime Minister, Herbert H. Asquith, introduced the Bill on April 11, 1912. It allowed more autonomy for Ireland than its two predecessors. The bill included: A bicameral (2 chamber) Irish Parliament to be established in Dublin, with powers to deal with most national affairs; each province of Ireland would be represented by ten senators elected by proportional representation; a reduced number of Irish MPs would continue to attend Parliament; and, the Dublin Castle administration would be eliminated, although the position of Lord Lieutenant would be retained.

The Bill was passed by the House of Commons by a majority of ten votes in 1912, but the House of Lords rejected it by 257 votes in January 1913.  It was reintroduced later that year, and again passed by the House of Commons and again rejected by the Lords, by 238 votes.

In 1914, after the third reading, the Bill was passed by the Commons on May 25, 1914 by a majority of seventy-seven votes. After being defeated a third time in the Lords, the Government used the provisions of the Parliament Act to override the Lord’s veto and sent it forward for Royal Assent, making the law effective.

Prior to giving Royal Assent to the bill, King George V called for a conference in an effort to defuse the crisis that surrounded the Home Rule Bill. It was the first formal peace conference on Ireland involving both Nationalists and Unionists

Signers of the billThe conference began on July 21, 1914 at Buckingham Palace in London. Those attending the conference were Prime Minister Herbert H. Asquith; David Lloyd George; the Irish Parliamentary Party leader, John Redmond; and his deputy, John Dillon. Across the table, representing the Ulster Unionists was the leader of the Irish Unionist Alliance, Edward Carson, together with Andrew Bonar Law, James Craig and Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice.  Presiding over the conference was James Lowther, Speaker of the House of Commons.

picture of John Redmond and John Dillon_1914
John Redmond and John Dillon_1914

King George V opened the conference by saying, “For months we have watched with deep misgivings the course of events in Ireland. The trend has been surely and steadily towards an appeal to force, and today the cry of Civil War is on the lips of the most responsible and sober minded of my people.

The Partition of Ireland
But, King George V was too late in expressing his concern. Several events had already occurred in Ireland, beginning with the 1912 introduction of the Home Rule Bill that would have clearly signaled that “an appeal to force” had occurred before 1914. The most incendiary of these events were:

First, on September 28, 1912, nearly 237,368 Unionists signed the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant, in protest against the Home Rule Bill. The signatories vowed to resist England “by any means necessary” to prevent any implementation of Home Rule in Ireland.  They vowed to fight England in order to stay united with England.

Second, on January 13, 1913, the Ulster Volunteers Force (UVF), a Unionist paramilitary force, was established by the Ulster Unionist Council. The UVF’s declared goal was to maintain Northern Ireland’s status as part of the United Kingdom, by force, if necessary.

Third, on November 25, 1913, the Irish Volunteers were founded in Dublin. This nationalist paramilitary organization was founded “to secure the rights and liberties common to all the people of Ireland” and to counter the threat posed by the foundation of the UVF.

Fourth, the Curragh Mutiny occurred on March 20, 1914. Officers of the British army in Ireland mutinied and refused to take part in any government action to use the army to quell Home Rule related violence in Ulster.

Fifth, on April 24-25, 1914, the Ulster Volunteer Force landed a shipment of 35,000 rifles and five million rounds ammunition at Larne in County Antrim.

The Buckingham Palace Conference ended on July 24, 1914, without any agreement being reached. Neither the Unionist nor the Nationalist side would budge from their positions. Prime Minister Asquith wrote, “I have rarely felt more helpless in any particular affair, an impasse with unspeakable consequences, upon a matter which to English eyes seems inconceivably small and to Irish eyes immeasurably big.” Asquith’s view that the Irish problem was “inconceivably small” may have also contributed to the failure.

The Partition of Ireland
Although it ended in impasse, the 1914 conference was historic because it was the first occasion where the partitioning of Ireland was officially discussed as a political option. The conference considered the question of defining all of the Ulster province, or a defined Unionist area within Ulster, that would be excluded from the implementation of Home Rule.

On September 18, 1914, the Home Rule Bill was granted Royal Assent by King George V. However, an amending bill, the Suspensory Act, postponed the introduction of Home Rule until the end of World War I, which had begun on August 15, 1914. The Suspensory Act also gave assurances to the Ulster Unionists that a geographical exception excluding Ulster, or a portion of it, from implementation of Home Rule would be granted.

Home Rule, as defined in the approved Home Rule Bill, was never implemented. In 1916, King George V’s vision of civil strife in Ireland was soon reflected in the 1916 Easter Rising, followed by the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921).  Some speculate that both events may not have happened had Home Rule been adopted in 1914 as it was approved.  One hundred six years later, Ireland remains geographically divided and hoping for re-unification.

*J. Michael Finn is the Ohio State Historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Division Historian for the Patrick Pearse Division in Columbus, Ohio. He is also Chairman of the Catholic Record Society for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. He writes on Irish and Irish-American history; Ohio history, and Ohio Catholic history. You may contact him at FCoolavin@aol.com.

Conference Visitors to Buckingham PalaceBuckingham Palace

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