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Plunkett, Horace Curzon, Sir, 1854-1932 / Dominion Self-government (1919)

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TO THE EDITOR OF “THE TIMES”

Sir—You are still opening your columns to all who are seriously trying to disentangle the Irish situation, notwithstanding the prevailing belief that nothing can be done now. If proof of urgency be needed, it will surely be supplied when, on Tuesday of this week, the Lord Chancellor introduces a measure in the House of Lords to compensate military and civil officers and their dependants, if they are injured or killed in the task of upholding the existing régime. Considerations, however, of a much deeper and more far‐reaching character move me to send you some thoughts upon the subject from a point of view at once deeply interested and yet comparatively detached.

I have differed widely from the majority of my fellow‐countrymen upon three political issues. (1) I felt and said that, no matter what our grievances against Britain might have been, we should go into the war to our last man, though I knew well the formidable case which could be made for demanding first a political settlement in accordance with the principles for which we were fighting. At the beginning of the war a large number of Irish Nationalists, mostly dead, acted as I felt. (2) While I hold that an Irish settlement is an essential foundation of a lasting peace, I do not think the Peace   [p. 4]   Conference can be relied upon to settle it. Such a body might, for example, favour partition in an unthinkable form. (3) I believe in a much wider measure of self‐government than might formerly have sufficed, but not in an Irish Republic. I do not, therefore, presume to speak for my countrymen: but life‐long relations with them at home and abroad justify me in speaking frankly to them, or to others about them, in moments of national crisis.

I have exercised this privilege lately in America without, so far as I know, having done harm even to myself. In London, before I sailed, I had been assured by those whose duty it was to know outside opinion that the Irish failure to follow the United States enthusiastically into the war had completely changed the American attitude to our national demand. I knew it had done so to some extent, but I expected to find—and did find—that, on a review of all the circumstances, the major part of the blame was placed upon the shoulders of the British Government. If upon the main issue American opinion has changed, it is only that it has been driven by the closely‐watched course of British government in Ireland during the war into sympathy with extreme Irish opinion and its new demand. This latest swing of American opinion is, I am convinced, quite open to reconsideration; but not until something definite and irrevocable is done, in proof of good faith towards an Irish settlement. And I assert emphatically that not only is the Irish question more active in the domestic politics of the United States than at any time since the early “eighties,” but that it is also a dominant factor in their foreign policy. It is felt that, in the Peace settlement, President Wilson’s principles must be applied to the Irish case.

On my way home I spent last week in London. I found the common attitude towards Ireland one of cultivated indifference. The problem being obviously incapable of solution, the less thought or   [p. 5]   said about it the better! But, while I was there, there was an Irish debate on the motion of Mr. T. P. O’Connor, who tried to make the House realize the urgent importance of removing American doubts of British sincerity—the inevitable consequence of the present Irish situation. A new Chief Secretary had to put before a new Parliament and an expectant world the latest British policy for my country. In his speech I have no doubt he quite accurately reflected the official mood. He did not speak until near the end of the sitting, nor approach the vital question of the Government’s intentions until near the end of his speech. “I know,” he then said, “I am expected to say a few words about general Irish policy.” The words were few, as he had only two things to say. The first was that: “No outside authority can interfere with us by intervention or otherwise in the solution of our own Irish problem.” In other words, “Hands off, America!” Then he heralded “the solution of our own Irish problem.” “No steps,” said Mr. Macpherson, “can safely be taken by the Government to alter the present system of government” on account of the lawless condition of the country, with which he proposed to deal firmly. Of all the declarations of Irish policy in my life it was both the most familiar and yet, in the circumstances of the time, the most amazing. The rest of the speech was a catalogue of outrages—presumably to demonstrate the safety of leaving things as they are—with the final avowal that “a generous settlement” of the problem was “never more pressing than to‐day!”

Let me take the Chief Secretary’s two points in order. When I said above that it is felt in America that, in the peace settlement, President Wilson’s principles must be applied to the Irish case, I did not mean to suggest that the American delegates would themselves raise the matter in Paris—it would be very helpful if they could do so, but I can quite understand that they cannot. What I had in mind   [p. 6]   was the paramount importance of friendly co‐operation between the democracies of the United States and of the British Empire. I have personal knowledge of the extreme injury which is done to these relations by keeping open the Irish sore. Moreover, if President Wilson’s world policy means anything, it is that the public opinion of the world is in future to support the rule of right rather than the rule of force, and that it may be focused even upon internal questions where this principle seems to be contravened.

I pass now to Mr. Macpherson’s second point. I returned to Ireland, where, since I left its shores, a Republic has been set up alongside of “the Castle.” So far the two have not come into more than verbal conflict. Throughout the country grave symptoms of unrest are almost universal, and there are sporadic outrages which Sinn Féin cannot desire and the Government cannot control. Meanwhile, there is the inevitable demand for more coercion, and more troops to back it. I still meet old Unionists who confidently assert that nothing is required but firm and consistent government to end the present political agitation. They cite the agrarian agitation of a generation ago, which died down, albeit after a longer drawn out agony than would be tolerated now by the British people. These optimists forget one half of their precedent. British statesmen, beginning with Gladstone and ending with Wyndham, conceded the whole of the agrarian demand. In the present case none of the political demand has been conceded, unless the creation of an Irish Parliament and its internment in the Statute book can be called a concession. At best, we have been asked what we would like not to get. In the result those of us who are striving to concentrate the best thought of Ireland upon the problems of reconstruction, against the time when representative and responsible government can be set up, are paralysed. Unless an immediate settlement is reached, the country will shortly become ungovernable either by England or by Ireland itself.

  [p. 7]  

I realize that I must not raise my voice in protest against leaving things as they are without saying very definitely what I think ought to be done, and why it should be done now. I know that every postponement of the inevitable reform makes its enactment and operation more difficult; and the successive postponements during the war were exceptionally exasperating. Often, half in jest, in the last quarter of a century, I have said that nothing but a world war would settle the Irish question, and when that calamity befell I did think that some reality was going to be given to the phrase, “the one bright spot.” The opportunity came in April of last year, when the Coalition Government and the Ulster Unionist leaders together threw it away. Let there be drift, said Sir Edward Carson, and there was drift.

It was a bitter disappointment to all who worked for an Irish settlement during the war. It could then have been based not upon necessity but upon good will. I decline to abandon the hope that such a settlement may yet be within the resources of British statesmanship. A year ago the penultimate opportunity was lost; in my view the ultimate opportunity is now ripe. It may hearten those who persist in this great endeavour if I point out that the peace value of an Irish settlement may be vastly greater than any possible war effect it might have had. So let me, in conclusion, state what I believe to be the most hopeful path for those who have the statesmanship to follow it.

A year ago an Irish Parliament might have been set up with all the powers granted by the Act, and with any reasonable safeguards demanded by Ulster. The further powers demanded by the majority in Ireland could have been postponed, without prejudice, for consideration after the war, when the mere fact of North and South having come together in the war might have made a settlement by consent immeasurably easier. As things are now, it is useless   [p. 8]   to offer a restricted form of self‐government. Ireland must be given the status of a self‐governing Dominion. Upon the strategical questions raised by the propinquity of the two islands the Peace Conference in being, and the League of Nations to come, will make it easy to avoid conflict between British and Irish opinion. The Convention was clear and unanimous upon the necessities of Imperial defence as long as there is any Empire. As to fear of a hostile fiscal policy in Ireland, my own belief is that a contented self‐governing Ireland would at once enter into commercial arrangements with Great Britain which would be tantamount in practice to the present system of Free Trade.

I will not say that the course to be followed in the ultimate settlement, which every sane man must desire to bring about at the earliest possible moment, is a choice of evils; but I admit it is a choice of difficulties. The direction of the greatest difficulty, and certainly of the greatest resistance, is leaving things as they are. The most hopeful course is to give to the Irish people as nearly what they are asking for as the interests of that people (which I, personally, believe are almost identical with the interests of the other peoples in the British Isles) permit. Partition, in the only thinkable form of county option, I believe to be neither desirable, nor anywhere in Ireland desired. I admit fully the claim of part of Ulster to special consideration based on the difference of its economic life from that of the rest of Ireland. Within the scope of a Dominion there is ample room for provincial rights; but, if one thing has been made clear by all that has happened in the recent attempts to deal with the Irish problem, it is that, while there may be many solutions, there is but one Ireland.—Your obedient servant,

HORACE PLUNKETT.

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