This year 2014 we will be commemorating the centenary of the start of the First World War, which, appropriately, will overshadow many other centenaries. Nevertheless, apart from the war, a centenary event of relevance to Irish Australia is the 100th anniversary of the enactment of the Third Home Rule Bill, which had been introduced into the Westminster parliament in April 1912. It gave Ireland limited domestic self-government within the United Kingdom and under the Crown. In the course of the ensuing two years the House of Commons voted three times in favour of the bill, but on each occasion the House of Lords rejected it. However, under the terms of the Parliament Act 1911 the bill could become law without the consent of the Lords if it had passed the House of Commons three times in the same form in three consecutive sessions of parliament. Accordingly, on 18 September 1914 King George V signed the bill into law, but with a suspensory bill that delayed the commencement of the Home Rule Act until the end of the war or twelve months, whichever was the later.
The home rule bill’s passage from 1912 to 1914 had caused a political and constitutional crisis that almost plunged Ireland into civil war, with Ulster unionists, urged on by the Conservative Party opposition, pledging to resist home rule at all cost. Australia was not spared from the fallout of the crisis, with discussion of the bill becoming mixed up with the local issue of state aid for Catholic schools, amplifying chronic sectarian tensions between the British Protestant majority and the Irish Catholic minority. For almost 40 years the Australian Irish had been strong supporters of Irish home rule, particularly following the visit of John and William Redmond in 1883. Thereafter a procession of delegates sent from Ireland sustained antipodean support for the cause, particularly of the financial kind.
One of those visits occurred one hundred years ago when William Redmond arrived in Australia in late 1913. Following William’s tour of Australia with his brother in 1883, he had married Eleanor Dalton of Orange, NSW in 1886 and thereafter had made several trips to Australia. On one of them, in 1905, William was instrumental in persuading Hugh Mahon to shepherd through the Australian parliament resolutions in support of home rule. Almost nine years later William made his next and final visit. On his arrival in Fremantle on 1 December 1913 Redmond was upbeat about the prospects for home rule, telling journalists, “Ulster will not fight. The whole affair is a gigantic bluff in an attempt to frighten the English people. I am confident that home rule will become law in June of next year”. It was a message that he repeated many times during his stay of two months. On 9 February 1914 the Redmonds departed Australia so that William would be back in London in time for the third and final introduction of the Home Rule Bill in the House of Commons.
In the end Ulster did not fight, but for reasons neither William Redmond nor anyone else could have predicted in early 1914. The outbreak of the war in August saw home rule put on the backburner and, instead of fighting each other, as many had feared, Irishmen, nationalist and unionist, found themselves in the same uniform fighting a common enemy, Germany. Before war’s end both William and his brother John would be dead along with the cause to which both had devoted themselves for more than 40 years. By then home rule was too anaemic a proposition to satisfy the desire of the Irish people to govern themselves. While many in Australia would continue to espouse the Redmondite cause, in Ireland a new generation of activists with aspirations for a separate, republican Ireland was by then in command of the nationalist movement.