An occasional correspondent emails me to ask about this passage from the memoirs of H.H. Asquith, the British prime minister, of 24 July 1914 (which I have transcribed on my website:
Later we had a meeting at Downing Street – Redmond [the Irish Nationalist leader], Dillon [Redmond’s deputy], Ll[oyd] G[eorge], Birrell and I. I told them that I must go on with the Amending Bill, without the time limit: to which, after a good deal of demur, the Irishmen reluctantly agreed.’
I should explain that for some enthusiasts of Irish history, rerunning the partition of the island is a favourite pastime, and the most significant point of departure is the conference held at Buckingham Palace in July 1914, to try to get agreement on what parts of Ulster should be excluded from the jurisdiction of an autonomous Home Rule government in Ireland. Unionists wanted the permanent exclusion of all nine counties of Ulster; Nationalists were prepared to accept the temporary exclusion of the four counties with Protestant majorities. Asquith, as prime minister, rapidly settled on the six-county unit we have today as the obvious compromise, largely because the Unionists indicated that they too would settle for it. But the passage above indicates that on the day the negotiations broke down, Asquith was instead heading for “county option” the holding of referendums in each county. My correspondent asks:
As I read this, Redmond and Dillon were prepared to agree to ‘County Option’ permanently, rather than for only 6 years. I think that, if implemented, this would have led to a 4-county Northern Ireland. It does seem strange that this concession was not revisited when Lloyd George carried out his negotiations in 1916 [when he was asked to find a way of implementing Irish Home Rule immediately after the Easter Rising, but failed]. I would be interested in any comments you might have.
I think it’s pretty clear that Carson et al – the Unionists in Ulster – were prepared to go to civil war – which they would have won – rather than give up Tyrone and Fermanagh. So Asquith would have been unable to sell such a deal to them and the British Conservatives in 1914. In any case I wonder how solid Redmond and Dillon’s agreement was – I don’t read it as more than assent that Asquith should try this course, but they had probably made the same calculation as I do above, ie that it would not fly with the Unionists. Having said that, of course your interpretation may be correct; there was a Nationalist delusion that any Northern Ireland state of any size would be economically unviable and would wither away. (Similar arguments were successfully used in Cyprus in the 2004 referendum campaign, but in both cases they proved incorrect.)
To be honest I think it was a lucky escape for all of us. The experience of such referendums elsewhere has not been happy. The very prospect of the vote would have been a spark for horrible violence, probably not restricted to Fermanagh and Tyrone. Since the UVF were better prepared than the Nationalists or the British Army in 1914, a referendum proposal would certainly have triggered mass displacements of Catholics by Loyalists from all over what would probably have become the Six (or Five and a Half) counties. The Upper Silesia plebiscite of 1921 shows what can happen. The Unionists had no interest in allowing due process to separate Tyrone and Fermanagh from the other four counties. The border as it was established reflected the balance of potential coercive force at the time it was drawn – as do most borders.
You also ask about 1916. Lloyd George was after a quick fix, and holding six county option referenda in the middle of a war is not a quick fix. He needed something that the leaders could agree to, and implement, right away. I imagine that if he had succeeded, there would have been no elections until after the war was over but Redmond would have been put immediately in charge of a 26-county administration of some kind.
That was my reply to my correspondent. The one point I should have added, of course, is that Asquith was rather prone to changing his mind, and what he thought he would do on 24 July might well have been a different matter the following week, even without the distraction of war breaking out in Europe.