Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
This thesis explores the role of the Irish people as a dominant force testing and weakening the British Liberal Party in the years immediately preceeding the First World War. The period 1911-1914 is crucial in the development of Anglo-Irish relations, yet it has previously been almost entirely neglected. And though the decline of the Liberal Party has been the subject of considerable historical controversy, the part played by the Irish question has been largely overlooked.
My thesis provides a detailed, analytical study of the Liberal government's response to the Irish crisis from 1911-1914. The main emphasis is placed on the activities of the Liberal cabinet at the centre of power in Westminster, giving particular attention to the influential roles of Asquith, Birrell, Lloyd George and Churchill.
My sources have included cabinet and parliamentary papers, newspapers, Hansard, and relevant secondary material. The thesis is mainly based on about fifty collections of private papers of leading policiticans, back-benchers, and newspaper editors, including several not previously consulted by scholars.
Though the Liberals shelved Home Rule from 1895 until the passage of the Parliament Act in 1911, the party retained a genuine commitment to Irish self-government. During 1911, the cabinet aimlessly considered United Kingdom devolution as a way to settle the Irish question. The scheme was finally abandoned as too ambitious and impracticable, but it remained a convenient panacea which could be used at points of deadlock in 1913-1914, when conciliatory negotiations seemed tactically expedient. The cabinet turned instead to the Gladstonian Home Rule bill of 1893, largely by default, and this provided the somewhat inadequate basis for the 1912 bill.
The central theme of the thesis is the inability of Asquith's government to deal effectively with the Ulster problem. Asquith's failure was all the more tragic, since the years between the Parliament Act and the Easter Rebellion offered a unique opportunity to settle the Irish question. The Parliament Act at last made it a practical possibility, and its provisions allowed Asquith to incorporate special terms for Ulster into the bill during the first parliamentary circuit, without requiring Opposition agreement. But Asquith ignored the Ulster problem while the bill was being drafted, and rejected the appeal of Churchill and Lloyd George in February 1912 that Ulster should be excluded. The majority of the cabinet followed Asquith's lead in refusing to treat Ulster's resistance to HomeRule seriously until autumn 1913, when it was too late to avert the growing crisis.
The parliamentary debates on Home Rule from April 1912 to January 1913 have been analysed thoroughly for the first time, concentrating especially on the reaction to the two significant Ulster exclusion amendments. The thesis then examines the various pressures leading towards conciliation by autumn 1913, and the secret negotiations between the party leaders from September 1013 to March 1914. Asquith's Ulster policy was finally wrecked by the Curragh incident in March 1914, since the government believed thereafter that it could not use the army to impose Home Rule on Ulster.
Asquith's weaknesses as a war-time leader were already foreshadowed in his mismanagement of the Ulster crisis before the war. He relied throughout on a high-risk policy of prevarication, which had clearly failed by May 1914, though the utter hopelessness of the Irish situation was partially concealed by the European conflagration. The Irish problem of 1911-1914 also highlighted the essential problem for Liberalism of coming to grips with the 'progressive' demands of the twentieth century electorate, while still haunted by the traditional consitutional commitments of nineteenth century Gladstonian Liberalism.
Jalland, Patricia, "The Irish Question in Liberal Politics 1911-1914" (1976). Open Access Dissertations and Theses. Paper 2072.