I have come across an interesting passage in Charles Townshend’s new book on the Easter Rising, which perhaps has some relevance for the devolution debate today.
Looking back a century on, it may seem hard to grasp why Home Rule unleashed such passionate hostility. It was a cautious measure of devolution, and the degree of independence it offered Ireland was distinctly limited. (Ireland would not have defence forces, for instance, or the power to levy customs duties.) For Gladstone and his Liberal successors, its central purpose and justification was to strengthen the union, not break it – by reducing Irish discontent to a manageable level. It was presented as heralding a wider scheme of devolution which would give the rest of the regions of the UK similar autonomous powers, so eliminating the sense of Irish ‘exceptionalism’ that had unbalanced British politics since the Union itself. Sadly, the force that might have made this prophetic scheme work, the demand for English self-government, was simply not present. UK federalism, sometimes called home rule all round’, had many intelligent advocates , but it remained a fringe idea; ironically, it was the weakness of English nationalism that made it a political non-starter. Instead of welcoming Irish Home Rule as a way of making the Union work better, Unionists saw it as a a secessionist challenge like that of the Confederacy in the American Civil War. It would destory the integrity of the state, and threaten Britain’s global power. (Easter 1916, The Irish Rebellion, p6.)
Coincidentally, I’ve just come across a similar remark by A.J.P. Taylor made forty years ago, at a time when devolution must have seemed a relatively dead issue.
The victory of the Irish was, in one sense, a misfortune for the Scotch and the Welsh – perhaps even for the English. During the controversies over Home Rule, there was often talk of devolution or Home Rule all round – four separate parliaments for home affairs. The talk grew stronger in the last years before the first World war. With the establishment of the Irish Free State it died away, and the single parliament at Westminster survived, with only Northern Ireland to show how men had once envisaged Home Rule. (English History 1914-1945, p160)
One reason home rule was sabotaged was the role of the Ulster Unionist vote in an evenly divided House of Commons.It will be interesting to see how the balance between the parties affects the relationship between the different parts of the UK in the years ahead.