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Explainer: The Third Home Rule Bill is 100 years old today. What did it do?

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the introduction of the Third Home Rule Bill to Westminster. But what was it?

Herbert Henry Asquith, the Liberal prime minister who introduced the Third Home Rule Bill in 1912.
Herbert Henry Asquith, the Liberal prime minister who introduced the Third Home Rule Bill in 1912.
Image: Bridgeman Art Library/Press Association Images

A SMALL NUMBER of events are being held across Ireland today to mark the centenary of the Third Home Rule Bill – legislation which is seen by many as essentially being the first legislation thta ultimately created the Irish state we know today.

But what was that bill – and why is it considered so momentous? Let us try to explain the history behind it all.

We should start with the basics.

In 1800 both the Parliament of Ireland (as it was then) and the Parliament of Great Britain passed the Act of Union, legislation which merged the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland into the United Kingdom.

The countries had (partially) shared a head of state since 1541 – when Henry VIII quashed Silken Thomas’ rebellion and upgraded Ireland from a Lordship to a Kingdom, and proclaimed himself King of Ireland.

If at first you don’t succeed…

The Act of Union, which kicked in in 1801, remained in effect throughout the 19th century, despite a number of Irish nationalist movements – with Charles Stewart Parnell successfully convincing the then-prime minister, William Gladstone of the Liberal Party, to table a bill which would have undone most of the Act of Union, recreating a Kingdom of Ireland with its own parliament (albeit one with limited power) – a concept called ‘Home Rule’.

Despite Gladstone’s appeals – culminating in a now-famous three-hour speech to the House of Commons – this Home Rule Bill was defeated by 341 to 311 in June 1886, thanks largely to the rebellion of 93 backbench Liberals who opposed the Bill because Gladstone had drafted it in secret and without their input.

Bruised by the rebellion of his MPs, Gladstone called a general election later that month and lost power. He returned in 1892 and gave it another crack – but again decided to draft his bill in secret, even excluding his own ministerial staff and cabinet from having any input.

Despite this, the bill cleared the House of Commons in September 1893, but it was already being seen as damaged goods. Gladstone’s secret drafting had resulted in a catastrophic financial error, massively underestimating how much money Ireland should contribute to the British budget, while tensions between the Conservatives and the nationalist Parnellite wing of the Irish Parliamentary Party resulted in regular fist-fights on the opposition benches.

When the Bill was then sent to the House of Lords, the Conservative majority – being firm supporters of Unionism – was in little mood to be open-minded. The Lords obliterated the Bill by 419 to 41 and the movement was defeated again.

Change at home…

In the meantime, though nationalist feelings remained high in Ireland, British politics underwent larger changes. A dispute arose in 1909 when the Liberals – again in power – had a Budget passed by the House of Commons but blocked by the House of Lords (which due to its make-up had a firm Conservative majority), a move considered a break with precedent.

Two general elections were held in 1910 in an effort to allow the public to decide whether the Liberals or Conservatives should prevail, each with inconclusive results. In the end, the only way the Liberals could hang onto power was to strike a deal with the Irish Parliamentary Party, exchanging the support of the IPP’s 74 MPs for a new attempt at introducing Home Rule.

What followed was a fundamental shift in the British political system: knowing that the only way to break the Conservative majority in the Lords was to flood it with new lifelong Liberal members, the Liberals secured the support of King George V to appoint hundreds of new peers and ensure their majority.

The Conservatives backed down – happier to keep their majority in a weakened House of Lords than to give up their stranglehold on power – and the Liberals pushed through new laws which meant the House of Lords could no longer veto legislation, but only delay it. The Lords could now only vote against legislation twice: if the Commons approved it three times, it would be sent straight to the King to be signed into law.

With this done, prime minister Herbert Henry Asquith presented the Third Home Rule Bill to the House of Commons on 11 April 1912 (100 years ago today). That bill created a bicameral parliament, with a 164-member House of Commons and a 40-member Senate, and also allowed Ireland to continue electing MPs for Westminster (though the size of Irish constituencies would become far larger, meaning fewer MPs).

Although the Lords continued to oppose it – and with significant opposition from Ulster-based Unionists, who feared becoming a powerless minority in a country led by Dublin and not the more industrial Belfast – the Commons successfully passed the Bill three times.

…and abroad

There was only one problem: by the time it was passed a third time, and could be sent to the King, there was a bigger issue on the horizon – the United Kingdom was now part of the Great War.

Assuming that the war would be brief, Asquith rushed through a new Suspensory Act which put the provisions of the Home Rule Bill and another law, giving Wales an independent church, on hold until the end of the war.

The legislation was then overtaken by events. The Great War rolled on and on, and nationalism instead expressed itself through the Easter Rising of 1916. Britain then opted to try and implement Home Rule immediately, but agreed not to do so unless an agreement was reached on the status of Ulster within the new jurisdiction.

As World War I continued into 1917 and 1918, Britain found itself short of manpower and tried to link Home Rule to mandatory conscription – something rejected by all nationalist parties – and when the US joined the war, averting the crisis, the conflict was soon ended.

A blank page

But with the Liberals now having kept power for over eight years, and having delayed elections until the end of the war, a general election was called. The Irish Parliamentary Party lost almost all of their seats to Éamon de Valera’s fledgling Sinn Féin, whose members boycotted Westminster and formed their own revolutionary assembly. That assembly became the First Dáil, and declared an independent country called the Irish Republic, a move which led to the Irish War of Independence.

In 1920, the still-not-enacted Third Home Rule Bill (now known as the Government of Ireland Act 1914) was replaced by a Fourth Home Rule Act which partitioned Ireland into two jurisdictions, Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland.

Elections were held to the parliaments of both countries, but De Valera’s Sinn Féín rejected Britain’s right to pass laws for the Irish Republic. Sinn Féin ran candidates in the new election, but those candidates formed the Second Dáil instead.

Eventually a truce was called in the War of Independence, and the Second Dáil sent a team led by Michael Collins to negotiate what became the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which the Dáil ratified by 64 votes to 57.

The outcome was the creation of a 26-county Irish Free State – which slowly excluded the role of the King and eventually became the modern Republic of Ireland we know today – and the Irish Civil War, fought between supporters and opponents of the Treaty.

Read: Anthem composer and tricolour creator honoured at Glasnevin

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