It is almost as if Augustine Birrell is one of the forgotten men of Irish history, having, like the Liberal Party he served and the Home Rule Ireland he sought to create, been swept away by the tide of history. That is perhaps unfair, and to misread the history of Ireland before 1916.
Birrell came form a nonconformist background in the vicinity of Liverpool, when a chance legacy enabled him to read law at Cambridge and thus make a living as a barrister and as Professor of Law at University College, London. He was no less accomplished as a literary critic. Though he lost his faith, he retained the Liberal tradition of his nonconformist background, to which he was temperamentally suited to as well.
The great Liberal landslide of 1906 saw Birrell enter parliament for the second time. He was immediately sent to the Board of Education, where he saw an attempt to reform the 1902 Education Act mauled to death in the House of Lords. However, he showed considerable skills as a negotiator, and won the respect of Catholic opinion. It was probably that which saw him sent to be Chief Secretary for Ireland in 1907.
He took the post with some reluctance. For a British politician, Ireland was a political backwater, but a difficult and dangerous one. The system of government, like the old Scottish Office, or the Northern Ireland Office in more recent times, was an unhappy hybrid in which Ireland voted for a nationalist party whose only say in the Westminster government was conversational. The particular problem Birrell faced in his first three years was that despite his being a part of a Liberal government committed to Home Rule, there was no chance of Home Rule actually happening there and then. For a start, the government itself had other priorities, and were lukewarm: they well knew that Home Rule was one issue that might revive Tory passions, and prove unpopular at home, while they had other political fish to fry (such as the introduction of Old Age Pensions). Most of all though, whilst the House of Lords retained its powers of veto, there was no way a Tory dominated upper house would let Home Rule through.
In that hiatus, Birrell won the trust of John Redmond and John Dillon, the leaders of the Irish Parliamentary Party, and introduced some of the most far-reaching reforms in Irish history. One of the most important was the 1908 Irish Universities Act, which created the new national University of Ireland. Despite an intransigent Lords, Birrell made the 1903 Wyndham (Land Purchase) Act workable, allowing many Irish tenants to acquire their own land.
Then, the House of Lords vetoed Lloyd George’s 1909 People’s Budget, and the ensuing constitutional crisis led to two general elections in 1910. The outcome was that the Lords lost their right of veto. Just as important, the Liberals needed the support of the Irish nationalists to stay in office: the quid pro quo was that the Liberals introduced a Home Rule Bill. Once that bill was introduced, Birrell had wanted to resign (his wife was terminally ill). As the Home Rule crisis developed, Birrell saw Irish policy controlled by Asquith, Lloyd George and Churchill, as the political fall out threatened to overwhelm the state. From that moment on, partly from personal circumstance, Birrell was increasingly on the side-lines.
It is also fair to say that from that point the hand on the hold of Dublin Castle was less secure. Unionist gun running was allowed; nationalist gun running saw a cack-handed attempt to stop it. When the Curragh Mutiny happened, it appeared that the government could not even control its own.
With the coming of war, Birrell’s priority was to not rock the Irish boat. The Easter Rising took Birrell, and the government, by complete surprise. Birrell, later in life, took a Yeatsian view (as befits someone whose portrait is in the Lane collection): “Irish literature and drama’ were more important than police reports. Had he paid more attention to intelligence and security, the small band of revolutionaries who started the Easter Rising may well have never had the chance. Given that failure, Birrell did the honourable thing: he accepted responsibility for the failure of the government to anticipate the rising, and resigned.
That he did amounted to a tragedy, in the form of General Maxwell and his firing squads. It was at that moment that Birrell, perhaps like the reform minded Liberal policy in Ireland he had stood for was, to coin his own phrase, condemned to ‘that great dust heap called history’. The dust heap left him hidden from view. But what Birrell achieved, notably in education and land reform was more far reaching than anything done by the Irish nationalist governments that followed. What he wanted, a Home Rule Ireland, a united Ireland in the United Kingdom, was not necessarily doomed to failure by the great tides of history. As such, he does service for an honourable tradition of British goodwill which, for no fault of his own, was lost in the dust.