An unscrupulous, ill-timed election

An unscrupulous, ill-timed election Prime Minister David Lloyd George
100 years on…
The once dominant home rulers had no answers to the big questions facing Ireland in 1918, writes Gabriel Doherty


We now know that the armistice of November 11, 1918 marked the end of hostilities of World War I, even if legally the conflict did not end until the ratification of the final peace treaty (which, in the case of the war involving the Ottoman empire, occurred as late as the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne).

For a short time after that date, however, there was an air of uncertainty lest the peace negotiations falter and the fighting re-commence at short notice. A clear sign that this transitional period was coming to a close was contained in the ‘Rome letter’ column of The Irish Catholic of November 30, 1918.

This contained details of a decree issued days before by Pope Benedict XV through the Sacred Consistorial Congregation, the purpose of which was to remedy defects that had become manifest in the condition of the clergy in several of the belligerent nations – most notably those that had forcibly conscripted such clergy into the ranks of their armed forces.

The decree contained a range of measures designed to address the various problems associated with those clergy whose “religious hearts [had] become soiled with the dust of the world” during the conflict, and who, as a consequence, had “not preserved the spirit of their vocation in all its integrity”. These irregular situations ranged from the relatively minor to the (literally) deadly serious.


A summary of the relevant provisions will help to indicate the scope of the problem. To begin, those priests who had suffered serious injury during the fighting, and who, as a consequence, were unable to say Mass, or perform their other priestly duties with due “decorum”, were (with the permission of their bishop) absolved of their duty to do so.

More seriously the edict drew a distinction between religious who had violated the commandment not to kill as a result of having been conscripted, and the small number who had volunteered for service – the former could be absolved by their bishop, whereas the latter had to seek a dispensation from Rome (and were also considered to have renounced any ecclesiastical office they had held prior to their enlistment).

The role of bishops, not surprisingly, was central to the process, with all clerics having to report to their ordinary within 10 days of their return from service, or face suspension. They could extend the obligatory eight day’s minimum period of retreat for all returnees, and could direct, where necessary, that egregious cases subsequently spend time in a religious house or perform acts of piety.

Bishops were also entitled to temporarily consolidate parishes where, as a result of the war, the number of priests had fallen below that necessary to maintain the requisite level of service.

In the case of ordained priests who had “fallen into some greater crime” (such as apostasy) during their military service, the penalties specified within Church law were to be applied consistently, firmly and equitably.

Above all, the bishop was enjoined to be mindful both of their duty to act as the good shepherd to these lost sheep, but also to ensure that such “bad apples” would not become “a source of scandal and ruin for others”.

Few of these issues, of course, applied to the Catholic Church in Ireland, as those of its priests who had served in the British Army during the war had done so voluntarily and solely as chaplains rather than as frontline soldiers (though the British Government had contemplated such service by clerics when the application of conscription to Ireland had been mooted earlier in the year).

A more immediately relevant sign that the problems of conducting a war were about to be replaced by the difficulties of sustaining peace came with the announcement of the dissolution of the Westminster parliament, and the holding of a general election in December.

The newspaper was scathing in its criticism of the decision, which it felt smacked of sharp practice on the part of the Prime Minister David Lloyd George. It suggested that his proposal to continue with the war-time coalition arrangement (with him at its head) was designed to create the impression that peacetime opposition to the Government was as tantamount to treachery as if such criticism had been made public during war.

The editor discerned that Lloyd George’s self-centred, “ambitious” and “unscrupulous” nature was driving him to seek a “personal dictatorship”, one that would be marked by “a note of arrogant triumph, a suggestion of menace to all who do not see eye to eye with him” – a verdict that few modern historians would dispute.

The one part of the UK where business was not likely to resume as normal was, of course, Ireland. In May 1915 John Redmond, the now-deceased leader of the Irish party, had turned down the opportunity to join the then newly-formed coalition (ostensibly to maintain faith with party traditions, but more likely because even at that point the war was going very badly), and since the 1916 Rising and the failed conscription scheme of 1918, the cause of home rule had found itself eclipsed by republicanism as embodied in the Sinn Féin party.

While no one at this stage could be sure how many seats this new force would win at the expense of the Irish party, it clearly had the wind in its electoral sails, and this may also have been a factor in the paper’s criticism of the decision to call the election at the earliest opportunity.

A measure of The Irish Catholic’s dilemma can be gauged by the marginal influence exercised by those public figures whose views echoed its own. One such was Sir Horace Plunkett. A Protestant and member of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, he had a well-earned reputation as a champion of Irish interests, and his achievements over the previous quarter of a century in the promotion of both land reform and the co-operative movements could not be gainsaid.

As with so many other home rulers, however, his standing had been waning for some time, and his role as chairman of the failed Irish Convention did not endear him to the younger, radicalised generation about to cast their ballots for the first time.

Plunkett’s view was that moderate opinion on the island was being “ground between the millstone” of Ulster unionism and republicanism, with the pre-war fostering of the former by the Conservative party ultimately to blame for the rise of the latter.

Sceptical as to the merits of abstentionism, he did not address the fundamental flaw in the position of his own party (and of The Irish Catholic) – that with a satisfactory Home Rule Act supposedly secure on the statute book, and only awaiting the legal end of hostilities to become effective, what function would be served by Irish representatives at Westminster?

And if that Act was not secure, and would not become law (as, in fact, turned out to be the case), on what basis had the party’s support for the war been justified? They were questions that admitted of no satisfactory answer, and Plunkett’s silence on them spoke volumes as to the growing marginalisation of what had once been the dominant force in Irish politics.

Gabriel Doherty teaches in the Department of History, UCC, and is a member of the Government’s expert advisory group on the Decade of Commemorations.