How Ireland was lost in the 1918 conscription crisis
by Dr. William Murphy
The historian of revolutions Charles Tilly has pointed out that, in general, revolutionary movements find it easier to mobilise popular support against a perceived threat or injustice rather than in favour of a vision or an ideology. Ireland’s revolution offers considerable evidence to sustain this idea. Unionists were able to mobilise the Ulster Volunteers when the Third Home Rule bill immediately threatened the Union, while nationalists were motivated to counter-mobilise because that Home Rule bill was, in turn, endangered. The nationalist public did not respond, in the first instance, to the ideals of the Proclamation of 1916, but rather to the executions and imprisonments that followed the Easter Rising. Thomas Ashe became a national hero, whose name brought tens of thousands onto the streets of Dublin in 1917, not because he was president of the Irish Republican Brotherhood but because he died as a consequence of forcible feeding in prison.
And, arguably, nothing illustrates better the relevance to the Ireland of Tilly’s argument than the conscription crisis of the spring of 1918.
Within weeks of the World War One beginning in the summer of 1914, there were already some who, fearing that conscription was likely, emigrated from Ireland. From the summer of 1915 compulsory military service had become a live possibility. By then, pro-conscription Conservatives and Unionists had joined the Liberals in a war-time coalition, while it was increasingly clear that volunteers would not provide enough manpower for the war effort. The Irish Party under John Redmond supported the war effort, however, in late 1915 Redmond warned Prime Minister Herbert Asquith that the ‘enforcement of conscription in Ireland is an impossibility’.
As a result, the country was excluded from the Military Service Act of January 1916, which introduced compulsory military service to the rest of the United Kingdom, for most unmarried men between the ages of 18 and 41. But the war went on, and the demand for fighting men continued. Further Acts extended the liability to the married, and narrowed the range of medical conditions and occupations that qualified a man for an exemption.
None of this seemed sufficient in March 1918 when Germany launched another major offensive. Consequently, David Lloyd George’s administration introduced a bill which proposed to extend conscription to men up to the age of 51 and, crucially, to Ireland. The government did this despite strong opposition from the new leader of the Irish Party, John Dillon, and they persisted against the advice of senior civil servants and army officers in Ireland. The sceptical response of Lord Midleton, the leader of southern unionism, was particularly insightful. ‘The Government’, he wrote, ‘have in this case as in many others been so busy with other troubles that they have not had time to think out their scheme’. Nonetheless, the government proceeded, fearing, on the one hand, that the ongoing exclusion of Ireland would alienate British public opinion while, on the other, relying on the advice of Field Marshall Sir John French, who insisted that conscription could be enforced in the country.
Mindful that there was strong anti-conscription feeling in Ireland, and of the mortal danger this posed for the Irish Party, Lloyd George attempted to soften the blow by promising that Home Rule would quickly follow.
The Irish Party regarded this as entirely inadequate. They were fully aware of the strength of feeling at home and knew that their energetic radical competitor, Sinn Féin, was ready to exploit the turn of events. As the bill was debated one sympathetic journalist warned Dillon that ‘the idea that the alternative to resistance is death or mutilation . . . in Flanders . . . is universal’. Upon the bill’s passing on 16 April, the Irish Party withdrew from Westminster to return to Ireland to oppose conscription on the ground. They had little alternative but it would not be enough to save them. The failure of their opposition at Westminster on this key issue had confirmed many Irish voters in the calculation that Sinn Féin’s abstentionist policy was not such a risk after all. This certainly made voting for them an easier choice at the general election of later that year.
The Military Services (No.2) Act, 1918, became law on receiving the King’s assent on 18 April. On the same day, at the Mansion House in Dublin, the Lord Mayor, Laurence O’Neill, chaired a conference of representatives from Sinn Féin, the Irish Party, the All-for-Ireland League (a Cork-based political party) and Labour. Their task was to attempt to agree a strategy to marshal, what the County Inspector of north Tipperary described as, the ‘hostility, indignation and fury’ of the populace.
First, they decided that a campaign should be launched around an anti-conscription pledge which read: ‘Denying the right of the British Government to enforce Compulsory Service in the Country we pledge ourselves to one another to resist by the most effective means at our disposal.’ Then, representatives of the conference quickly moved to secure the support of the Catholic hierarchy, who were meeting at Maynooth on the same day. This they achieved. The bishops condemned the new law as ‘oppressive and inhuman’, though worried by the prospect of violence, they stated that ‘the Irish people have a right to resist by every means that are consonant with the law of God.’
What followed within days were large meetings across the country at which defiant speeches were made and the pledge was administered. In parallel, church gate collections were organised to raise what was called a National Defence Fund, while, in theory, a Local Defence Committee was established in every parish.
During the succeeding weeks detailed instructions were issued to these committees, advising as to the forms that passive resistance should take, and the public subscribed £250,000 to the fund. On Tuesday, 23 April, Labour made its most significant contribution to the campaign by calling a one-day general strike that was widely observed outside of Ulster. On 20 April, Michael Collins, who was in Sligo Gaol awaiting trial for giving a seditious speech, was instructed to give bail as he was needed to help prepare the Irish Volunteers for the possibility of resistance in arms. This did not occur because, in the face of the response, the government decided not to use the powers it had acquired to conscript in Ireland. In this way, it succeeded in triggering most of the negative outcomes of introducing conscription without accruing any of the benefits for the war effort.
If British governance in Ireland and the Irish Party were both damaged by the crisis, then Sinn Féin and the Irish Volunteers were the winners. It was they, in minds of many among the nationalist public, who had offered the most credible and consistent opposition to the threat. They had always opposed the war effort and they had consistently warned that conscription was coming. Membership of both organisations surged during April and May. Further, Sinn Féin’s association with the Catholic hierarchy and clergy during the campaign gave them a new respectability and probably facilitated at least some mainstream nationalists in transferring their allegiance to the party.
The government indicated who they blamed for the failure of their policy when they arrested, and interned without trial, 69 leading Sinn Féin activists on the 17 and 18 of May. These included all their MPs and the majority of the national standing committee.
In doing so, however, they provided Sinn Féin with another cause to mobilise around and exploit. Ireland, they insisted, had been wronged again. As William Sears, the president of North Wexford Sinn Féin, put it at a meeting in Enniscorthy, ‘England wanted Ireland’s loyalty by kicking her before breakfast, kicking her before dinner, and spitting on her at night. Did those present think that England had won any loyalty in Ireland by arresting the leaders . . . who were dearer to the Irish people today than they had ever been?’
Dr. William Murphy lectures in the School of History & Geography, DCU. His latest book, Michael Collins: the man and the revolution (with Anne Dolan) will be published by Collins Press in 2018.