Friday, April 6, 2012

April 2012 is a major Irish historical milestone

This week marks the centenary of a series of events that were major milestones in Irish history, a beacon for the future as we contemporaneously know it.

It was on Monday 11 April 1912 that the British Liberal Prime Minister, Herbert Henry Asquith introduced the 3rd Home Rule Bill into the House of Commons. The effect of the legislation would have been to establish a devolved parliament in Dublin with 164 members and a nominated Senate with 40 members.

The Home Rule movement reflected a desire for the repeal of the Act of Union of 1800 which shuttered the Irish Parliament in College Green. The first Home Rule Bill was passed in the House of Commons in 1886 but never introduced in the House of Lords. The second Home Rule Bill was passed in the House of Commons in 1893 but defeated in the House of Lords. William Gladstone was Liberal Prime Minister in 1886 and again from 1892 to 1894. He had also been Prime Minister from 1868 to 1874 and from 1880 to 1885.

The Third Home Rule Bill (1912) was passed with Royal Assent but never came into force due to the start of World War I. The fourth Home Rule Bill became the Government of Ireland Act 1920 which established the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and resulted in the political partition of the island.

There were 103 MPs in the House of Commons representing Ireland in the 31st Parliament which had been elected in December 1910. The Bill proposed to reduce this number to 42 Irish MPs – one MP for every 100,000 citizens. This would have brought about a realignment of constituencies with the merger of some boroughs and counties ad the grouping of some counties which previously had an MP of their own. Three boroughs would remain with Belfast having 4 MPs, Dublin 3 MPs and Cork 1. The representation for party purposes would have consisted roughly of 8 Unionists and 34 Nationalists. Ireland had been contributing £2 million per annum to the Imperial Exchequer in the 1890’s but by 1912 it was the recipient of somewhat less than £2 million and there was agitation by British MPs about Ireland accounting for 103 of the 670-member House but not being a contributor the Exchequer.

The idea behind the Bill, which was the first-ever devolution initiative by Parliament, was to devolve local affairs to local bodies while the House of Commons would represent the common interest of the constituent elements of the United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland and discharge corporate trust to the Empire as a whole.

There were three components of Irish nationalism in the House of Commons (Irish Parliamentary Party, All-for-Ireland Party and Independent Nationalists) and they accounted for 84 of the 103 Irish seats. The Irish Parliamentary Party held 74 of these seats with just 90,416 general election votes (11% of the seats with 1.8% of the votes). The total number of votes cast in the election was 4,870,409. All Irish nationalists accounted for just 121,649 votes in a region with a population of 3,140,000.

The Bill was rejected by the Unionists whose leader Captain James Craig (1871-1940) MP for Down East from 1906. He later became the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland and in 1918 he was created the 1st Viscount Craigavon by King George V. Craig’s career in politics was helped by the £100,000 legacy that he inherited from his father, a distiller.

Craig was aided and abetted by Sir Edward Carson MP for Dublin University (1854-1935) and Leader of the Unionist Alliance and Ulster Unionist Party. Carson was born in Harcourt Street Dublin (named after 1st Earl Harcourt, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in October 1772). He was the barrister who defended the Marquis of Queensberry in a criminal libel action against Oscar Wilde in 1895 concerning Wilde’s homosexual relationship with the son of the Marquess, Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde abandoned this case when Carson indicated that he intended to present male prostitutes as witnesses who would testify that they has sex with Wilde.

The 31st Parliament represented an era of considerable change. Asquith (1852-1928) MP for East Fife was a Yorkshire native and Prime Minister from 1908 TO 1916 and was the longest serving prime minister until his longevity was eclipsed by Thatcher in 1988. His grand daughter is actress Helena Bonham Carter (b1966).

The Liberals abandoned their laissez faire philosophy of minimal government intervention replacing it with a collectivist approach. This found expression in the introduction for the first time of non-contributory old age pensions in 1908. Approximately 170,000 persons in Ireland over 70 years of age qualified for a pension which was worth five shillings (€0.32) for single people and seven shillings and six pence (€0.48) per week for married people. There were more old age pensioners in Ireland in 1908 than in Scotland and Wales combined where the population of pensioners was 86,745. The total population of old age pensioners in 1908 was 596,038 and Ireland accounted for 43% of the total.

Asquith’s Government also introduced the National Insurance Act 1911 which introduce health and unemployment benefits for the first time. Those who earned £160 per years paid 4 pence per week to which the employer added 3pence and the State 2 pence. This meant that sick workers could be paid 10 shillings for the first 13 weeks of an illness and 5 shillings for the next 13 weeks.

The unemployment benefit was financed by a weekly contribution of 2½ pence each from the worker and employer and 3 pence from the State. After a week of unemployment a worker would be eligible to receive 7 shillings for up to 15 weeks in a year.

A land tax was proposed as an element of the Parliament Act 1911 which impacted large land owners but when the Conservative dominated Lords voted this Bill down Asquith called a general election in May 1910 from which he formed a minority government. The Lords voted this Bill down again and Asquith called a second general election in December 2010, this time calling for a mandate for constitutional change. King Edward VII died in 1910 and his successor King George V indicated that he would create 100 new Liberal peers to neutralise the Conservative majority in the House of Lords.

The Irish Parliamentary Party MPs became Asquith’s coalition partners after the December 1910 general election. They supported the Parliament Act in the belief that if the veto of the House of Lords vanished it would be possible to achieve Irish Home Rule as this had been rejected by the Lords in 1893 and the passage of the Parliament Act did lead to the passage of the Third Home Rule Bill in 1914, known as the Government of Ireland Act 1914.

Asquith also had to deal with the issue of women and the right to vote. This issue was championed by the Suffragette Movement and eventually succeeded in 1918. But during the 31st Parliament Asquith passed the Cat and Mouse Act 1913 which allowed a jailed suffragette on hunger strike to be released from prison in an attempt to divert embarrassment for the government if that person died from starving by attributing blame for the death to the victim of it. Their hunger strikes were declared legal by this legislation.

When the Government of Ireland Act 1914 was passed it became the first law ever passed to establish devolved government in the United Kingdom.  The implementation of it was postponed for 12 months after the outbreak of World War I. Unionist opposition led to further postponements.

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