Irish Anti-Conscription Crisis

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Irish Anti-Conscription Crisis  (1918) 
by Daniel Desmond Sheehan

a speech delivered to the British House of Commons, opposing the Military Service Bill, enforcing compulsory Conscription on Ireland, during its Debate on April 12. 1918.

The bill was passed, but not put into operation.

    Captain SHEEHAN:  If any of the speeches made from these benches could carry weight with the Government, it would be the speech of the hon. Member (Mr. Fitzgibbon) who has just spoken, the sincerity of which cannot be doubted, because he, through his own family, has made sacrifices of the heaviest kind in connection with this War. I am afraid that all the arguments and warnings that are addressed to the Government from these benches are not going to bear fruit at the present time. However that may be, we have our duty to our own people and to our own country, and that duty is to assert our distinct and emphatic position in this matter. An hon. and gallant Gentleman who spoke previously asked whether we on these benches had nothing better to do than to mumble excuses. My one reply to that is that we have the right and the duty to assert the nationhood of Ireland. I should have thought by this time that if there was one lesson beyond another which successive English Governments might have learned in their feelings with Ireland, it is that the application of coercion to Ireland will not bring them any good whatever.

    I listened with great interest to the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Barnard Castle (Mr. A. Henderson), who warned the Government that their course was induced more by a spirit of recklessness than one of wisdom. Even if the democracy of England issues these warnings in this respect, we do not see the least evidence of any change of attitude on the part of those who have spoken for the Government. I had hoped that the Chief Secretary for Ireland, who must at least be aware of the strength, force and intensity of the opinion entertained in Ireland in regard to these proposals, would have taken a different attitude from that which he adopted. The only crumb of comfort, and it was not a very big one, he gave us was that this Clause would not be brought into operation until a Home Rule Parliament was sitting in Dublin. That was not very definite. Nothing could be more unfortunate from the outset than that the question of self-government for Ireland should be coupled with the application of Conscription. You have, at this moment, killed all interest in Ireland in any question of self-government. Conscription is the only question with which Irishmen are concerned at the present moment. You have only to read the papers and the resolutions adopted by public bodies, north, east, south, and west, to see that the only question is that of resisting this proposal to the uttermost.

    There can be only one solid excuse for going forward with Conscription in Ireland, namely, that you will find, within a reasonable time, a sufficient body of men to justify its application to that country. I tell you at once that you will not. I have told you already earlier in the course of these Debates that it will take at least three Army Corps to get one Army Corps out of Ireland, and I do not believe that you will succeed even in getting one. If you want to get men out of Ireland, I will tell the Minister of National Service that there is a certain reservoir in Ireland which he is not tapping at the present time. I have most positive information in regard to it, and I challenge denial of the statement that there are at least 50,000 men of military age in Ireland who have gone across from England in order to evade military service. You cannot go to a seaside place or a city in Ireland, where these men are not to be found in their thousands. We had an assurance that they were going to be taken out of Ireland. We do not want them there. They are of no advantage to our country, because men who will not fight for their own county are not wanted any where. I only mention that in passing. I have received several letters within the past few days on this subject. I can assure the Government that feeling in this matter is growing in volume, and the opinion in Ireland is that you mean, since you have not succeeded in destroying nationality there, to decimate the population. One letter says:

"Since Cromwell’s invasion, never was there such a determined attempt to exterminate the Irish nation".

    The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bernard Castle truly said that you are commencing our extermination while destroying our liberties. You state that you are fighting for justice, freedom and liberty. It was in the belief this country was fighting for those principles that I and others offered our services in the earlier months of the War, I ask what freedom, what justice, or what liberty is the Irish conscript going to get? What are you going to do with the Irish conscript when you get him? You will raise him in Ireland. Are you going to keep him in Irish units, and train him in Ireland? If you do set up an Irish Legislature, elected by Irish people, deriving its authority from the Irish voters, then the Irish authority should have the right to raise Irish regiments, to put them under Irish officers, and, when they are sent to the front, put them under Irish command. But what is the present proposal? It is a proposal made by the English War Cabinet, and made under conditions of ferocity unparalleled in history. You are exciting the fundamental hatreds of 700 years that were dying out, and you are throwing out the challenge of English power to the spirit of Irish nationality. I tell you that you may take our men at the point of a bayonet – you will not get them in any other way, but you will not succeed in killing the spirit of Irish nationality, and at the end you will find you have lit a flame which is not likely to die out in our generation. If you get Irish conscripts, what are you going to do with them? You will divide them; you with disperse and scatter them amongst the English regiments. That is what Irishmen know is going to be their fate. Your intention is to brutally maim and manacle Irish nationhood, and forcibly incorporate Irishmen as part of your British Army. What happened in the case of the Irish Division? My hon. Friend (Mr. Devlin) told you how that division was offered. I know it of my own knowledge. The officers were a horde of English Cockneys, who never understood Irishmen, or how to treat them decently., although there was a distinct pledge given to the late Mr. Redmond, when it was about to be formed, that it would be officered and manned by Irishmen. A similar pledge was given in the case of Carson’s army, and it was observed; but it was not observed in the case of the Irish Brigade.

    I warn the Government that they are heading for disaster in regard to the matter. Whilst there is one spark of manhood left in Ireland we will fight against this monstrous attempt to degrade our nation and disperse our people. I had a letter this morning from a gentleman of position and of principle in Ireland who has given his continuous service since the outbreak of the War, and is serving in the Army at present. He says:

"God knows the Irish people have been dispersed enough and yet the remnant are to be lead away into captivity under ferocious and shameful conditions, under a slavery and a tyranny unexampled since the Jews were marched off and dispersed in the days of Babylonian power."

    This is a loyal citizen of the Empire, who was a Unionist before the War broke out, but, under changing conditions, came to take a saner view of the Irish question. He goes on:

"What on earth is a loyal man to do, a man like myself who sees the naked horror of it all? One must not say a word or do anything which might aggravate the position or weaken the power of the Empire, and yet one must do what one can to save Ireland first".

    That is exactly the attitude that I take. We would wish to strengthen your arm, and to support the Allied cause, but we have a duty to our country, which is paramount to everything else in this crisis, and if we are to serve it must be under conditions which we can generously respond to. It must be in response to and in compliance with the demand of a Legislature sitting in Dublin. If this Government had not blundered, if the War Office had not grossly and malignantly mishandled the situation, you would have had Ireland at this moment as loyally on your side as any part of your wide Dominions. You have not trusted Irishmen. You have not dealt fairly with them since this War broke out. You have heaped insults and humiliations upon them. I was not in the country at the time, but I remember reading with horror what I regarded as a butchery of a Labour leader in Dublin in Easter Week. Although he was not able to stand up to be shot, although he was wounded, if he had been a soldier serving in any other part of the world he would have received the honour due to a soldier, but he was brutally butchered, maimed and mangled.

    You are teaching us once again that we cannot trust you, and that if we are to exist as a nation we must fight for our nationality. You will find when you start on this brutal and bloody campaign which you are inaugurating under this Clause, you will have united all Irish Nationalists in violent and vehement opposition to you. You have done this on good service for Ireland. You have already united all Irish Nationalists, and if it comes to take our stand more firmly or more sternly if the occasion should require it, I, and I believe I speak for every Nationalist Member, will be found standing by our people in this day of danger. You are playing Germany’s game when you bring forward a proposal of this kind. Germany went to war because she believed there was going to be civil war in Ireland. You are now going to inaugurate an era of civil strife in Ireland. You are labouring under the wildest and maddest mistake of your lives if you think you will get a single Irishman worth his salt except at the point of a bayonet, and then he will be worth nothing whatsoever to you. Surely the Government cannot have listened to the Debates which have taken place in the past few days without being aware that they are pursuing an insane, wicked and disastrous course.

    I know all the English arguments. I have read them in the papers, and have listened to them here. They only take account of England’s position. It is quite natural that, in the gravity of the circumstances, that they should only take account of England’s position, but they are all founded upon the English delusion that Ireland is a part of England[1]. If there is anything Irishmen resent more than anything in the world, it is that we, with all our pride and the traditions of an ancient Irish nation behind it, are going to be levelled down to a mere province. You cannot apply Conscription to Australia. You have power to do it under your Constitution, but you dare not; and when there was a referendum on the question of Australian Conscription, who voted most strongly against it? It was the Australian soldier serving in the trenches who returned an overwhelming majority against the proposal to conscript their fellow countrymen who remained behind. I dare say they had very substantial reasons for the vote they gave. Only one thing could justify the application of the measure to Ireland – that is, that it should have the authority of an Irish Assembly behind it or the vote of the whole of the Irish people. You have neither the one nor the other.

    I have been wondering all along why this attempt is being made. The right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Henderson) said it was because the Government had a panicky majority behind it. I do not know that I entirely accept that explanation. It appears more reasonable to me that the Government finds itself, because of the accumulation of disasters on the Western Front, in a tight corner, and unscrupulously they want to switch off criticism on to the Irish difficulty. Further, I believe by this Machiavellian policy they want to get out of the Home Rule difficulty. They say they have only brought this proposal forward after giving it the fullest consideration. But what are we to say to a statement of that kind when we remember that three times previously they have considered these proposals, and, after the fullest consideration on each occasion, negatived them? The necessity of the moment is no argument, because at the earliest you could not get these men ready under six months, if you are going to train them properly, unless, indeed, you propose to put them into British regiments and ship them out as they are. If you do the one, it is quite possible you will do the other. One of the lessons you should have learnt is that you cannot apply coercion to Ireland. This is a coercive measure, and if you proceed with it can only culminate in scenes of bloodshed, violence, and ruthlessness up and down the country. You will make our villages shambles, you will convert our towns into places of riot and bloodshed, and you will leave behind you a legacy of hate for generations to come. You profess to have the welfare of small nations at heart. You are not treating an ancient nation in a spirit to justify your profession. This proposal will react upon the Irish cause the world over.

    I ask the Government whether they have ever considered – and this specially appeals to myself – how this proposal is going to react upon the Irishmen who are now serving at the front when they come back home. Do you think anything of that? Do you take into account what their position will be if you apply Conscription, with all its concomitants of bloodshed and riot upon their people at home? What will await them when they come back from the War? You are grossly unjust to them and their splendid sacrifice on your behalf. I sometimes hear people refer to the sacrifice of Ireland in the War, but they have little understanding of the noble way in which the Irish nation responded to the call in the first two years of the War and how gloriously they have served you in many a trying battle in Gallipoli and on the Western Front. You are being brutally unjust to these men. You are destroying the worth of their sacrifice, and if you had taken their opinion you would find that they would not be behind in the course you have now adopted.

    You are purchasing a legacy of hate and pouring out for yourselves seas of trouble. You are not making the path of loyal men in Ireland, who wish you and your Empire well, any easier by this action. You are sowing your seed on a broad pathway of bloodshed and destruction. You will not kill or conquer or subdue the spirit of the Irish race. It may be too late to appeal to the sense of reason on the part of the Government because reason seems to have forsaken them; but I will tell them that they will get no good either for this country or for the Empire from the course they are pursuing. They are soiling the sanctity of the banner under which they profess to fight for the rights of small nationalities. That is a right which we Irishmen are asserting for our people, and if need should arise, we will be ready to seal it with our blood.

1^  Words cited by Sinn Fein on their 1918 election poster.