Sir Edward Grey's statement to Parliament took Britain and the Empire into war with Germany.

If the decision to advocate a suspension of the Home Rule Act came as a surprise to political Ireland, that was nothing compared with John Redmond’s pro-war-and-empire commitment given in the House of Commons at the end of Sir Edward Grey’s epoch-ending speech on 3 August 1914. [1] The unanswered question is why did Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary, or Home Rule Party, spring to his feet and commit Ireland to the Imperialist war? Some commentators have praised his spontaneity. [2] Forget that. It was preplanned, for sure. In a letter to  prime minister Asquith’s wife Margot the day before Sir Edward Grey’s warmongering speech, Redmond indicated that he hoped to speak with Asquith ‘before the House meets if only for a few moments, and I hope I may be able to follow your advice?’ [3] It transpired that Margot had written to him advising that ‘he had the opportunity of his life of setting an unforgettable example to the Carsonites in the House of Commons and in a great speech, offer all his soldiers to the Government’. [4] And indeed he did. Do you imagine that this took place without the Secret Elite’s prior approval? Next day, The Times saluted Redmond’s ‘singularly happy and weighty words’. [5] They would.

John Redmond toured Ireland in 1914 urging young Irishmen to enlist in the British Army.Redmond was an Empire loyalist who at times, seemed to have more in common with Sir Edward Carson than he did with the mass of Irishmen he presumed to represent. Sinn Fein, the minority nationalist movement formed in 1905 by Arthur Griffith, accused him and his party of being subservient to English considerations detrimental to the best interests of Ireland. [6] He maintained great faith in the British Empire and steadfastly refused to recognise its capacity for brutality. [7] Happy to play the parliamentary game, constrain radicalism and acknowledge the king emperor, Redmond danced to a Secret Elite air. [8] But let’s not forget that Redmond’s pledge that the government in London should leave the defence of Ireland’s shores to the Irish National and Ulster Volunteers, came in response to an amazing claim by Sir Edward Grey.

The Secretary for Foreign Affairs declared in his afore-mentioned statement that: ‘the one bright spot in the whole of this terrible situation is Ireland. The general feeling throughout Ireland – and I would like this to be clearly understood abroad – does not make the Irish question a consideration which we feel we have now to take into account.’ [9] From which sources had he conjured this concept? Sir Edward Carson? Certainly not. Ulster had not been consulted. Carson suspected that Redmond’s contribution was ‘calculated to humbug and deceive.’ [10] Indeed Redmond’s own party knew nothing about his intentions. Those who might have cautioned a more considered response were absent on that fateful day; John Dillon was in Dublin for the inquest on the murders at Batchelor’s Walk, and Joe Devlin, another Home Rule leader, in his constituency in Belfast. Fortuitously, perhaps? It was a pledge that changed Irish history; a pledge which historians have too readily accepted at face value.

Recruitment of Irishmen into the British Army was at least as heavy as any other part of the country

The Munster Express [11] claimed that Redmond’s speech had wrought a miracle in changing Irish attitudes’. Understandably optimistic, perhaps, but that claim was published five days after the event and in the wanton euphoria that attends many a declaration of war. But there was no miracle change. War in Europe did not bring a complete end to the factions inside the British Parliament over the future of Ireland. Writing confidentially to the love of his life, Venetia Stanley, an exasperated prime minister Asquith declared on 31 August: ‘The Irish (both sets) are giving me a lot of trouble, just at a difficult moment. I sometimes wish we could submerge the whole lot of them and their island, for say 10 years, under the waves of the Atlantic’. [12]

Both John Redmond and Sir Edward Carson, wanted guarantees which stood poles apart. Asquith introduced a moratorium and suspended the Home Rule Act until the war was ended, just as The Times, ever an organ of the Secret Elite, had advocated. In a most acrimonious Commons meeting the bile of bitter mistrust focused on the fact that an Amending Bill which would have dealt with the future of Ulster separate from independent Ireland, had been dropped. [13]  At the end of his speech, the Conservative opposition walked out en masse behind their leader, Andrew Bonar Law. If it was supposed to be dramatic, it leaned more towards the pantomime that is Westminster.

To the Irishmen in the South, nothing was resolved. How much more damage had been inflicted on Irish hopes? Was this simply an interim solution to push Home Rule off centre-stage? [14] Was Redmond corrupt, deluded or just downright naive? [15] Flushed by his success in having the Home Rule Act steered through parliament, did he honestly think that by throwing the Irish Volunteers into the Empire’s war, he would reap a joyous reward for the nation? Had his head been turned by the Asquiths who seemed to make a habit of keeping him secretly informed as it suited, putting ideas into his head when they wanted him to follow their direction and, when he himself came forward with proposals, agreeing with him without delivering on their promises? Was he flattered by their attention to a degree which blinded him from the obvious – he was being used – the Home Rule party was being used.

John Redmond awards colours to the Irish Volunteers in December 1914

The charge of corruption holds no water save in the sense that he was so comfortable amongst parliamentarians and gullible when it came to the Asquiths, that he believed the imperialist promise. He hoped for, indeed, expected a quick military victory in Europe, a reconciliation between Ulster and the South based on their common ‘blood sacrifice’ in the field of battle and the final reward of a devolved Irish parliament from a grateful British Empire. Why, if it all worked out, Ireland might even end the war with an army trained and equipped by the imperial government. [16] He also wanted to convince the Ulstermen that their acceptance of Home Rule did not mean that they had to abandon  their loyalty to Britain. Surely they would see Irish Nationalism in a different light if Nationalists stood shoulder to shoulder with them to defend Belgian neutrality and the rights of small nations? [17]

To that end, Redmond willingly became a recruiting agent for the British army and urged the Irish Volunteers to join up. At a well publicised address to the East Wicklow Brigade of the Irish Volunteers at Woodenbridge on 20 September 1914 he stated:
‘The interests of Ireland – of the whole of Ireland – are at stake in this war. This war is undertaken in defence of of the highest principles of religion and morality and right and it would be a disgrace for ever to our country if young Ireland were shirking from the duty of proving on the fields of battle that gallantry and courage which has distinguished our race all through its history… account for yourselves as men, not only for Ireland itself, but wherever the fighting line extends in the defence of right, of freedom and religion in this war.’ [18] How many later contemplated the value of their ‘rights, freedom and religion’ in Ireland?

Incredibly, the vast majority of the Irish Volunteers, like well intentioned men throughout the land, swallowed the propaganda. The initial response to recruitment in Ireland was equal to anything seen in the whole of Great Britain.

With hindsight it is easy to ridicule Redmond as an establishment lackey. If he was, the following four years disabused him of the notion that a ‘miracle change’ had taken place in the attitude and behaviour of the British ruling-class. He was not alone in his misplaced faith. John Dillon, his colleague in the Irish Parliamentary party, reconciled his anti-war instincts and made what was considered the pragmatic decision to stand with Redmond in the belief that it would pay to be on the winning side when the war ended. If Ireland stood against the rest of the Empire, as it had in the Boer War, the cause of Home Rule would be fatally undermined. [19] He was probably right.

We should remember that though the Home Rule Act had been passed, it remained suspended, and thus was unfinished business dangling like a golden carrot before Irish eyes. Ireland had been wounded many times before, but its resilience in 1914 was boosted by an injection of hope, an expectation of justice and a naïve belief in political honesty.

The Irish Volunteer

Early in December 1914 four Dublin newspapers were suppressed by the military authorities under the Defence of the Realm Act. All available copies of Irish Freedom, Sinn Fein, Ireland and The Irish Worker were seized by police and newsagents were warned neither to sell the offering papers nor exhibit placards displaying their headlines. Manuscripts and other documents were seized and the printing type and sections of the printing plant were removed to Dublin Castle. Steps were also taken by the postal service to prevent the circulation and sale of the Gaelic American newspaper. [20] There were dissenting voices. Unlike mainland Britain, where the press blindly supported the war, some Irish newspapers continued to attack the war and Ireland’s involvement in it.

British Intelligence Officers compiled the names and particulars of those who spoke out against recruiting, [21] including twenty-four catholic priests in various parts of the country. There was to be no miracle change in Irish attitudes – that was a self- serving mirage. A small but vocal minority opposed the sending young Irishmen to serve as cannon fodder for the army of their hereditary enemy. They saw through the warmongering, the empty promises and the British government’s intentions. They looked around at the continuation of injustice in Ireland and took stock of their nation’s future. They determined that only direct action could bring about permanent change and set themselves the objective of gaining full independence for Ireland, by force if necessary.

[1] Statement by Sir Edward Grey, Hansard, House of Commons Debate, 3 August 1914, vol. 65, cc1809-32.
[2] Catriona Pennell, A Kingdom United, Popular Responses to the Outbreak of the First World War, p. 178.
[3] Margot Asquith, The Autobiography of Margot Asquith, p. 164.
[4] Ibid., p. 163.
[5] The Times, 4 August, 1914, p. 5.
[6] Warre B. Wells, John Redmond: A Biography, p 122.
[7] Diarmid Ferriter, The Transformation of Ireland, 1900–2000, p. 125.
[8] Gerry Docherty and Jim Macgregor, Hidden History, The Secret Origins of the First World War, p. 312.
[9] Statement by Sir Edward Grey, Hansard, House of Commons Debate , 3 August 1914 vol 65 cc1809-32.
[10] The Irish Times, 7 Dec 2015
[11] The Munster Express, 8 August 1914.
[12] Michael and Eleanor Brock, HH Asquith, Letters to Venetia Stanley, p. 209.
[13] Suspensory Bill, Hansard, House of Commons Debate, 15 September 1914 vol 66 cc881-920.
[14] Jonathan Bardon, A History of Ireland in 250 Episodes, p. 442.
[15] Ferriter, The Transformation of Ireland, p. 129.
[16] Pat Walsh, The Great Fraud of 1914-1918, p. 21.
[17] John Bruton, September 1914: John Redmond at Woodenbridge, Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 101, No 402 (Summer 2012) p. 240.
[18] Charles James O’Donnell and Brendan Clifford, Ireland in The Great War, p. 41.
[19] Pat Walsh, The Great Fraud of 1914-1918, p. 19.
[21] Dublin Metropolitan Police Report, 13 December, 1914, signed by Patrick McCarthy. National Archives of Ireland, CSO RP 1914.