The Irish Cause and "The Irish Convention"/Correspondence with the prime minister


The following correspondence has taken place:—

10 Downing Street,
Whitehall, s.w.

13th June, 1917.

Dear Mr. O'Brien—Pursuant to my statement in the House of Commons on the 11th instant, I now have the satisfaction of requesting you to nominate two representatives of the Party under your leadership who may be invited to serve as members of the Convention.

With the terms of reference you are familiar. I stated them in my letter to you of the 16th May in these words:—

"Would it be too much to hope that Irishmen of all creeds and parties might meet together in a Convention for the purpose of drafting a Constitution for their country which should secure a just balance of all the opposing interests, and finally compose the unhappy discords which have so long distracted Ireland and impeded its harmonious development."

I further referred to them in the House of Commons as follows:—

"The Government, therefore, propose to summon immediately, on behalf of the Crown, a Convention of representative Irishmen in Ireland, to submit to the British Government a Constitution for the future government of Ireland within the Empire."

I shall be glad to learn as soon as may be convenient to you the names of the gentlemen to whom invitations should now be sent.

Yours very truly,

William O'Brien, ESQ., M.P.,
House of Commons, S.W.

June 18th, 1917.

Dear Mr. Lloyd George—To my deep disappointment, the details of how "The Irish Convention" is to be composed confirm the apprehensions which I endeavoured to express in the House of Commons. The rejoicing excited by the courageous Amnesty for the Insurrection of last year cannot be allowed to blind the country to the danger.

1. While the Government have nominally adopted the principle of allowing the future Constitution of Ireland to be settled by agreement among Irishmen themselves, they have done so under conditions which render that principle a nullity. There can be little or no hope that a Convention constituted as the Government have directed can arrive at any decision except some hateful bargain for the partition of the country under a plausible disguise. To attribute the blame for such a decision or for the failure to arrive at any better one to the Irish people would be little short of an outrage upon Ireland, and would be a gross imposition on the credulity of friendly nations abroad.

2. The proposed Convention would both be too large to make a prompt and carefully-considered agreement practicable, and too small for a National Assembly purporting to represent all the great interests concerned. The fact that the scheme excludes from any direct representation whatever the 400,000 Ulster Nationalists whom any Partition proposal hitherto contemplated would cut off from their country; the agricultural and urban labourers, comprising one-third of the Irish population; the great farming interest in the area of the Rural District Councils, and the Universities and other teaching professions—must surely make it unnecessary to emphasise the latter point.

3. While the politicians' organizations are in appearance restricted to a delegation of five apiece, the pretence is, to the knowledge of everybody in Ireland, a misleading one. The twin organizations of the Irish Parliamentary Party—the most powerful of the two being of a secret and rigidly sectarian character—would command a majority of the Convention as disciplined as if directly delegated by these organizations, and, in the event of "a deal" with the Ulster Unionist body of at least twenty-five delegates, would represent an overwhelming vote for some scheme of Partition, such as the two Nationalist organizations referred to strove hard last year to force upon the Nationalists of Ireland, and have never since categorically pledged themselves to renounce. Their leaders have, on the contrary, on more than one recent occasion expressed their regret that the Partition bargain of last year did not succeed.

I do not impugn the sincerity of those who may believe any compromise would be better than failure to secure an agreement, but am absolutely convinced, for my own part, that Partition under any disguise would mean the destruction of the ideal of Ireland a Nation, and could not, indeed, be enforced at all without bloodshed and disorder.

4. The solid majority—apart even from the aid of the direct nominees of the Government—which the Irish Parliamentary Party would thus be able to cast in favour of any such Partitionist compromise—would consist principally of Mayors and Chairmen of County Councils, all of whom were the choice of the Board of Erin wing of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and of the United Irish League, and could not have been elected without the imprimatur of these organisations. This fact might not be material if the Board of Erin Hibernians and the United Irish League could still pretend to enjoy the confidence of the country; but their leaders have owned that the contrary is the truth, and, as a matter of fact, have not attempted to hold a free public meeting anywhere throughout the country for more than a year past. The local governing bodies, like the Irish Parliamentary Party themselves, have outstayed their mandate from the country by several years. The greater number of those whom the Government arrangements will constitute a majority of the Convention would quite certainly be defeated if they were obliged to face their constituents at the polls. The will of the people is, therefore, rendered powerless to control the secret deliberations of the Convention, and would be forced to find other and regrettable means of resisting any such Partitionist compromise, as there is only too substantial reason to apprehend.

5. On the other hand, while my friends and myself would welcome the most generous representation of the unofficial Unionist population of Ireland, the Government scheme ensures to the official Ulster Unionist Council a full third of the voting power of the Convention—under the direction, moreover, of a Committee not present at the Convention, but specially nominated by the Council to supervise its proceedings from outside. The terms of the Resolution under which the Ulster Unionist Council consented to enter the Convention make it clear that they have only done so as a War measure, and, relying upon the assurances of the Government that they need fear no Parliamentary pressure if they should adhere to their demand for the exclusion of the six counties as a minimum—a demand, indeed, which was conceded to them last year by the Irish Parliamentary Party. It is consequently obvious that the chances of any agreement by the Ulster Unionist Council other than one based on the separation of the six counties are all but hopelessly handicapped from the start, and the temptation dangerously increased to those Nationalist politicians who have already committed themselves to dismemberment.

6. As you are aware, my friends and myself have long since urged upon the Cabinet a constructive proposal, by which alone, in our judgment, any agreement involving a genuine settlement of the Irish difficulty can now be obtained, viz., a small Conference of responsible Irishmen, on the Land Conference model, to draft the headings of a project of Self-government for Ireland such as would guarantee a future of the fullest security and power to the Unionists of Ulster and of the South as well in the government of our common native land; such agreement, if arrived at, to be submitted to a vote of the people of Ireland by way of Referendum.

Recent experience has convinced me more deeply than ever that it is to a small Round Table Conference of thoughtful and competent Irishmen, and not to a heterogeneous assembly, mostly composed of pre-committed partisan politicians, we must look for the materials on which the country might with confidence be called upon for a judgment, and that a Referendum, giving the whole mass of the population a direct and influential voice, would be the only means of eliciting a decision so overpowering as to put an end to all further controversy among rational men.

It is because I am driven to the conclusion that the Government scheme, while making a specious appearance of adopting the Conference method, in reality adopts it only to destroy its efficacy—because it forbids all reasonable hope of any agreement other than one which could only inflame and intensify Irish discontent, and because it would most unjustly cast upon the Irish people the blame for a failure of the Government's own producing—that I have made up my mind, with reluctance, and, indeed, with poignant personal sorrow, that I must decline to undertake any responsibility in connection with a Convention so constituted.

Yours very truly,

Right Hon. D. Lloyd George, M.P.,
Prime Minister.