CHAPTER XI. THE MOVEMENT FOR DEVOLUTION AND ITS DEFEAT

The vital declaration of the objects of the Irish Reform Association was contained in the following passage: -

"While firmly maintaining that the Parliamentary Union between Great Britain and Ireland is essential to the political stability of the Empire and to the prosperity of the two islands, we believe that such a Union is compatible with the devolution to Ireland of a larger measure of self-government than she now possesses. We consider that this devolution, while avoiding matters of Imperial concern and subjects of common interest to the kingdom as a whole, would be beneficial to Ireland and would relieve the Imperial Parliament of a mass of business with which it cannot now deal satisfactorily. In particular we consider the present system of financial administration to be wasteful and inappropriate to the needs of the country."

And then the manifesto proceeded to enumerate various questions of national reform "for whose solution we earnestly invite the co-operation of all Irishmen who have the highest interests of their country at heart."

The enemies of Home Rule had no misconceptions either as to the purpose, scope or object of the Reform Association. They saw at once how absolutely it menaced their position - how completely it embodied in substance the main principle of the constitutional movement since the days of Parnell - namely, the control of purely Irish affairs by an Irish assembly subject to the supremacy of the Imperial Parliament. From debates which followed in the House of Lords (17th February 1905) it became clear that the new movement had no sinister origin - that it was honestly conceived and honestly intended for Ireland's national advantage. But the Irish, whether of North or South, are a people to whom suspiciousness in politics is a sort of second nature. It is the inheritance of centuries of betrayals, treacheries and duplicities - broken treaties, crude diplomacies and shattered faiths. And thus we had a Unionist Attorney-General (now Lord Atkinson) asking "whether the Devolution scheme is not the price secretly arranged to be paid for Nationalist acquiescence in the settlement of the Land Question on gracious terms"; and The Times declaring (1st September 1904): "What the Dunraven Devolution policy amounts to is nothing more nor less than the revival in a slightly weakened and thinly disguised form of Mr Gladstone's fatal enterprise of 1886"; whilst on the other hand those Irish Nationalists who followed Mr Dillon's lead attacked the new movement with a ferocity that was as stupid as it was criminal. For at least it did not require any unusual degree of political intelligence to postulate that if The Times, Sir Edward Carson,The Northern Whig and other Unionist and Orange bravoes and journals were denouncing the Devolution proposals as "worse than Home Rule," Irish Nationalists should have long hesitated before they joined them in their campaign of destruction and became the abject tools of their insensate hate. Sir Edward Carson wrote that, much as he detested the former proposals of Home Rule, he preferred them to "the insidious scheme put forward by the so-called Reform Association." So incorrigibly foolish were the attacks of Mr Dillon and his friends on the Reform Association that Lord Rathmore was able to say in the House of Lords: "Not only did the Unionist Party in Ireland denounce the Dunraven scheme as worse than the Home Rule of Mr Gladstone, but their language was mild in comparison to the language of contempt which a great many of the Irish Nationalist patriots showered upon the proposals of the noble earl."

It is the mournful tragedy of all this period that a certain section of Nationalist opinion should have seen in every advance towards a policy of conciliation, good will and understanding between brother Irishmen, some deep and sinister conspiracy against the National Cause, and in this unaccountable belief should have allowed themselves to become the dupes and to play the game of the bitterest enemies of Irish freedom. But so it was, to the bitter sorrow of Ireland; and many a blood-stained chapter has been written because of it. Whether a fatal blindness or an insatiate personal rancour dictated this incomprehensible policy Providence alone knows, but oceans of woe, and misery and malediction have flowed from it as surely as that the sun is in the heavens.

After Mr O'Brien's retirement, as I have already remarked, the country was left without a policy or active national guidance. The leaders of the revolt against the authorised policy of the nation went abroad "for the benefit of their health." (What a lot of humbug this particular phrase covers in political affairs only the initiated are aware of!) No sooner was the Cork election announced than Mr Dillon returned from his holiday, ready "to take the field" against the Irish Reform Association and anyone who dared to show it toleration or regard. He declared in a speech at Sligo that its one object was "to break national unity in Ireland and to block the advance of the Nationalist Cause," and he went on to deliver this definite threat: "Now I say that any attempt such as was made the other day in the city of Cork to force on the branches of the national organisation, or on the National Directory itself, any vote of confidence in Lord Dunraven or any declaration of satisfaction at the foundation of this Association would tear the ranks of the Nationalists of Ireland to pieces."