By Eoin Purcell.
Today marks the anniversary of an event that is largely forgotten in Irish history. It’s forgotten, mostly because it was a failure or, if not a failure, certainly not a success.
Failure of course is not always a barrier to being remembered in Irish history, after all the stories of revolt and rebellion that Irish republicanism and nationalism offer as the basis of our national story are stories of failure and defeat.
The Irish Convention though, which had its first session today in 1917, was failure of a different colour. For one thing, had it been successful it might have resulted in a totally different Ireland to the one that has emerged. For another, it was at the instigation of the British. Finally, radical factions on all sides made even a successful outcome mostly irrelevant.
Personally I only discovered the convention a few years ago, while working at Mercier Press. I wrote the following blog post about it then over on my sometime history blog, Uncovered History:
What you learn
Reading history books is pretty impressive. For instance, yesterday as we worked through some issues in an upcoming Mercier title, The Donegal Awakening (A fine book by Liam Ó’Duibhir), I stumbled across a reference to the Irish Convention, a body I had not known anything about:
The new Prime Minister, David Lloyd George accepted Redmond’s suggestion for an Irish Convention to resolve the problem of Home Rule and to draft a constitution for Ireland within the British Empire. The convention met in July 1917 but had made little headway when Redmond died suddenly on 6 March 1918. Later that year, in the general election of December, Redmond’s party’s representation at Westminster collapsed, resulting in a Sinn Féin triumph.*
In July 1917 an Irish Convention representing a broad spectrum of interests met in the vain hope that Irishmen might work out a political settlement satisfactory to all. Here the Anglo-Irish were represented and participated in an attempt to decide the destiny of their country.*
So where can I read more?
Reading about it on the pages of wikipedia and UCC’s wonderful multi-text project I was intrigued and did some digging, discovering (on LibraryThing) that there is only one text published on the Convention. That is R.B. McDowell’s The Irish Convention 1917-18.
So unless you want to dig into the bowels of Abebook and pay for postage as well as the book, you can’t. Though maybe the libraries …
Overall this little tale just serves to remind us how the real story of our history is yet to be properly told and popularly.
Then strangely enough today, as I worked to digitize Garret Fitzgerald’s Ireland in the World: Further Reflections (1) (published by Liberties Press in 2005), I found this section:
In May 1917, Lloyd George initiated a further attempt at a settlement, proposing to Redmond Home Rule with six counties excluded, subject to reconsideration by Parliament after five years, and a Council of Ireland with equal North/South membership, and with the power to extend, or to initiate the ending of, the area of exclusion. When this proposal failed to evoke a positive response from Redmond, Lloyd George set about establishing an Irish Convention – the first meeting of which took place in Trinity College, Dublin, on 25 July 1917. The chairman of the Convention was Sir Horace Plunkett, a southern Protestant who had pioneered the agricultural cooperative movement in Ireland and who was himself an anti-partition Home Ruler who favoured a united Ireland – but one that would play an active role in the Empire.
The Convention had little chance of succeeding. Sinn Féin, which by that time had already defeated the Irish Party in three crucial by-elections and was well on its way to becoming the party representing the vast majority of Irish nationalists, was excluded from the Convention and was hostile to it. The Ulster Unionists attended the Convention but were determined to wreck it by demanding the permanent exclusion of all nine Ulster counties. Had the southern unionists known that this would be the position of the northern unionists, they would not have taken part in the Convention.
The outcome, as eventually reported to Lloyd George by Plunkett in April 1918, was that agreement had been reached between the Irish Party and the southern unionists on all-Ireland Home Rule – with disagreement, and therefore postponement, of the issue of control of Customs. But this was accompanied by a flat rejection from the northern unionists – and, of course, by the equally flat opposition of Sinn Féin from outside the Convention.
The failure of the Convention did not worry Lloyd George too much. It had helped to calm opinion in the United States and the Dominions, which was probably as much as he ever hoped would come from it.
Giving some great insight and interesting asides on the event. Of course none of that would be relevant if today didn’t mark the anniversary of the opening day of the convention, a fascinating piece of the jigsaw in Ireland’s slide towards war, a war charted by John Dorney in his The Story Of The Irish War Of Independence if you are interested.