When the Third Home Rule Bill was introduced in the Commons 100 years ago, in April 1912, it seemed a triumphant vindication of the tradition of parliamentary constitutional nationalism. Parliamentary arithmetic gave Home Rulers the whiplash on Asquith’s Liberal government – the prize, Home Rule.
“If I may say it respectfully, I personally thank God for having lived to this day,” John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, told fellow MPs. Within reach, the dream. . .
But on the streets of Belfast and Dublin, another story was being written that would overshadow democratic politics at its moment of supposed triumph. Carson joined Ulster; he marched, protested, took solemn oaths of defiance and finally armed himself to the teeth.
And in the founding of the Ulster Volunteers, nationalists would see an excuse and legitimization – though little doubt they would have done so anyway – for their own army, the Irish Volunteers.
In the Commons, the debate would become mere numbers, an echo, of the new forces on the ground in Ireland. The king got confused. The army mutinies. The bill would eventually pass, but its implementation would be suspended due to the World War and an uprising that would change the whole picture. Home Rule would come, but, ironically, only in part of Ulster; independence, to the rest of the country.
The drama of the Home Rule Bill was to be an extraordinary curtain raiser for a decade that changed the face of modern Ireland, ushering in new forces on the stage of Irish history, a new caste of characters, villains and hero, while eclipsing the former with all the tragic finality of the Greek drama.
This supplement, with recent coverage in The Irish Times of the Titanic centenary, is an attempt to capture the context and magnitude of this drama, and its many conflicting tales, a pivotal moment in our collective history. These are the first of many decade-long reports to be collated on a planned website, “Century”, with contributions from many other groups, official and unofficial, North and South, to the national commemorations.