“There are things stronger than parliamentary majorities”, said the Tory party leader.
That was Andrew Bonar Law, leader of the Tory opposition, speaking about Irish Home Rule in July 1912.
He added: “We shall not be guided by the considerations or bound by the restraints which would influence us in a normal constitutional struggle…
“I can imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster can go in which I should not be prepared to support them”.
He accused the Liberal government of “lighting the fires of civil war”, or, in other words, declared himself ready to use the fires of civil war against it.
He encouraged the formation of a rebel army in the north-east of what was then a united Ireland under British rule, to resist by force the granting by Westminster to all-Ireland of “Home Rule”.
The Tories and their Irish allies made plans for a provisional government in north-east Ireland that would resist Dublin rule, if it was granted by Westminster.
“Home rule” was little more than local government autonomy. It was not independence. But the Anglo-Irish Protestant wealthy class throughout Ireland, and the compact Irish Protestant population of all classes in the north-east, saw it as a threat of “Rome Rule”.
In April 1912 Bonar Law and others reviewed 100,000 militia volunteers in Belfast.
They had been rallied under an old law authorising local Justices of the Peace to organise drilling. In January 1913 the militiamen were formally organised into the Ulster Volunteer Force.
In March 1914 senior officers of the British Army in Ireland declared that they would refuse to act against “Ulster”, and in April 1914 a large gun-running operation smuggled arms to them from Germany (with which Britain was soon to go to war).
The crisis was defused for the time being in August 1914, when World War 1 broke out. The Liberal government agreed to pass the Home Rule Act into law but suspend it for the duration. The Tories joined the Liberals in a coalition government in May 1915.
After 1916, when British government efforts to impose conscription in Ireland roused mass opposition there, and after the end of World War 1, the conflicts revived, but in different form.
After the Irish war of independence, they would be resolved for the time being by another Tory-Liberal coalition government. In late 1921 it partitioned Ireland into a more-or-less independent Irish Free State (26 counties) and a Northern Ireland Home Rule state of six counties, the maximum area compatible with a clear (two-thirds) Protestant majority.
The resulting border ran (and runs) for almost all its length through majority-Catholic, anti-Partition populations on both sides.
The botched and undemocratic character of the settlement led to the Northern Ireland state breaking down into 25 years of simmering civil war from 1968-69. It is central again to the Brexit issue today, with the dispute over the “backstop” which bars the re-erection of a “hard” border where decades of integration of both the UK and Ireland into the EU have softened it into near-invisibility.
Along the road in 1912-14 the Tory leadership had tried other ploys. They wanted the King to refuse Royal Assent to the Home Rule Bill after it passed through Parliament. They got the King to demand from the Liberal prime minister that the Bill not be passed until after either a new general election or an “all-party conference” to amend it. The “all-party conference” took place in July 1914, produced no agreement, but was soon overtaken by the outbreak of World War.
The story shows us that Boris Johnson’s poundshop-Mussolini act has roots in Tory tradition, and shows us what the Tory party would do faced with a left-wing working-class Parliamentary majority which threatened capitalist wealth and power.
Bonar Law’s moves were not even about a threat to capitalism, but about a deep division within bourgeois politics.
Socialists supported national rights for Ireland, as socialists today support migrant worker rights, lowering of borders, and “Remain and Transform”. But Home Rule for Ireland was not a threat to capitalism as such, any more than Remain is, as such.
Since the First Home Rule Bill of 1886, the Liberals had been committed to Home Rule as the way to pacify rebellious Ireland.
Then there were splits from the Liberals by the “Liberal Imperialists” and “Liberal Unionists”. The Tory party was taken over, after 1906, by advocates of a tariff-walled British Empire as against the decades-long British policy of general Free Trade.
Those developments sharpened the divisions.
The divisions in English politics slotted into, reinforced, and were reinforced by, the communal divisions within Ireland between the Protestant “British-Irish” and the Catholic “Irish-Irish”.
Potential for an agreement between the two Irish communities — for something like the “Home Rule within Home Rule” for the north-east of Ireland advocated by the British Marxists of the SDF and by some bourgeois politicians — was destroyed. Each community thought it could get its way and bypass the need for compromise with the “other Irish” by relying on a powerful English ally — the Liberals for the Catholic nationalists, the Tories for the Protestant Unionists.
For decades after 1886 the issue was kicked down the road. The Tories ruled from 1886 to 1892, and 1895 to 1905. The Tory-majority House of Lords vetoed the Liberals’ Second Home Rule Bill in 1893. When the Liberals were elected to government in 1906, they sought to put the issue off.
It came to crisis in 1912 and after because the Liberals had lost seats in the general elections of 1910, and so came to rely on Irish Nationalist MPs for their majority. And now the Lords could only delay a Home Rule Act, not stop it altogether. The Liberals had removed the Lords’ absolute veto in 1911 after the Lords had blocked the Liberal “People’s Budget” of 1910, introducing old age pensions.
As with Brexit, the crisis came through a series of contingencies sharpening and focusing a longstanding rift in politics.
The labour movement had little independent role in the crisis of 1912-14. The Labour Party had been founded in 1900, and won only 42 seats in the December 1910 general election. It was not yet even nominally socialist, and operated largely as a tail of the Liberals.
The labour movement today should respond with robust resistance to all Johnson’s “poundshop Mussolini” ploys, and with a fight for a broader and more responsive democracy.