Wales, Ireland and Lloyd George

Addressing a large and enthusiastic audience at Blaenau Ffestiniog on 12 January, 1886, Michael Davitt, the leader of the Irish Land League, declared:

“I rejoice that there is now a kindlier feeling and a better understanding between the Irish and the Welsh than that which obtained in years gone by.”

The meeting was chaired by Michael D. Jones, passionate land reformer, pioneer of the Welsh settlement in Patagonia and father of modern Welsh nationalism. The contribution of the two Michaels was the subject of an eloquent panegyric by the proposer of the vote of thanks.

“One Michael with his angels”, he said, “had thrown down Satan, what could two Michaels, one Welsh, one Irish, do if they worked in harmony.”

The speaker was David Lloyd George. He was then twenty‑three years old and this, his first major public speech, much impressed Davitt.

“You must get this fellow into Parliament”, he told Michael D. Jones. “He is saying in Wales what we are saying in Ireland.”

Four years later Lloyd George won the by‑election in Caernarfon Boroughs, thus launching his fifty‑five year career as a member of the House of Commons.

That career is full of irony and paradox: the great conciliator vigorously rejecting President Wilson’s suggestion that the First World War should be terminated through conciliation; the Tory‑baiter becoming leader of a coalition with the Tories; the hammer of the House of Lords ending his life as an earl; the Welsh nationalist who conceded nothing of substance to his native land when he enjoyed supreme power. Nowhere is paradox more evident than in his relationship with Ireland: the eulogist of Michael Davitt finding his favourite military adviser in Sir Henry Wilson, and including among his closest associates die‑hard Unionists such as Carson, Milner and F.E. Smith; the champion of the Boer Republics browbeating the representatives of the Irish Republic to accept the British Crown; the Welsh‑speaking leader of the British Empire flaunting his mastery of a Celtic language before the English‑speaking members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

Such ambiguity has characterized the relationship between Wales and Ireland from the earliest times. They had shared something of a common culture in the prehistoric and Early Christian periods, but the Mabinogi hardly portrays two peoples in a close Celtic embrace. Wales was the launching pad for the invasion which led to the seven‑hundred‑year subjugation of Ireland and the threat represented by the Irish caused the Welsh to embrace the rule of the English crown.

In the first half of the nineteenth century Welsh antagonism increased in the wake of Irish migration to industrialised Wales. The Welsh alleged that the Irish were being used to depress the wages of the indigenous population. The increasing respectability of the working‑class Welsh caused them to despise what they perceived to be the social habits of the Irish, a constant refrain in the letters written on emigrant ships and in the columns of the newspapers of the Mersey‑side Welsh.

Although it was an Irishman, Thomas Davis, who first put the case for some form of Home Rule for Wales, Welsh patriots, at least until the later decades of the nineteenth century, found the nationalist activities of the Irish an embarrassment rather than an inspiration. There were, they proclaimed, two kinds of Celtic patriotism: the Welsh which coincided with the warmest loyalty and the Irish which was perfidious and recalcitrant.

Yet in the last decades of the nineteenth century, the Welsh came to realise that being disrespectful won greater concessions than did respectability. By the 1880s, the Irish had won the disestablishment and disendowment of the Church of Ireland, legislation to safeguard the position of the tenants of landed estates and government assistance in the creation of institutions of higher education. These issues Church, Land and Education were central to the political programme of Welsh Liberalism, yet leading Welsh Liberals were reluctant, at least until the late 1880s, to make explicit the comparison with Ireland. Thomas Gee, the editor of Baner ac Amserarau Cymru, the most influential Welsh newspaper, kept his distance. In the early 1880s Thomas Edward Ellis, the rising star of Welsh Liberalism, had little sympathy with the Irish. He considered the Irish Coercion Act of 1882 to be wholly justified. “The lawᾡabiding people of Ireland”, he wrote, have a right to be rid of these ruffians.” Greater sympathy came from the more committed Welsh nationalists, in particular Michael D. Jones, Dr Pan Jones and Emrys ap Iwan. Pan Jones called upon the Welsh in 1882 to oppose attempts to deprive a nation of the same stock as ourselves of its birthright. If the iron heel of English despotism is to be put upon the neck of Ireland, Wales can only expect the same.

Irish issues moved to the centre of the political stage following the announcement in December, 1885, of Gladstones conversion to Home Rule. He received the support of the majority of Welsh Liberals, and in the General Election of 1886, Wales, as Stuart Rendel the M.P. for Montgomeryshire put it, proved to be more national for Ireland than Ireland herself. Joseph Chamberlain, the leader of the radical wing of the Liberal Unionists and an advocate of Welsh Disestablishment and Land Reform, was bewildered by the Welsh approval of Gladstone’s policy. By supporting Gladstone in his obsession with Home Rule, the Liberals of Wales, argued Chamberlain, had postponed the resolution of the issues to which they were most committed.

There were those in Wales who, although swept along by the Gladstonian tide, saw substance in Chamberlain’s arguments. Among them was Lloyd George. Indeed he went to Birmingham with the intention of attending the first meeting of Chamberlain’s Unionist movement but because of a mix-up over dates his journey proved fruitless. The fact that he was not, in the 1880s, an orthodox Gladstonian Home Ruler, was to colour his views on Ireland throughout his career. The essence of his point of view was his opposition to any attempt to make an exception of Ireland. Welsh claims to Home Rule, he considered, were as valid, if not more valid than those of Ireland. Wales, he declared in 1890, is as distinct a nationality as Ireland. More so indeed, because the Irish had lost one of the title deeds of nationality, their language. If it was true that Parliament had neglected Ireland, it was even more true that Wales had been neglected. As to the arguments advanced by the Unionists against Home Rule, they manifestly did not apply to Wales. The possible victimisation of Protestants did not arise, nor would the grant of Home Rule to Wales be the first step towards total separation, nor could it be considered a surrender to political violence. Above all, Wales had no Ulster.

Thus Lloyd George saw himself from the beginning as an advocate of limited ‘Home Rule All Round’, the policy advocated by Chamberlain in the 1880s, by Rosebery in the 1890s and by a number of Unionists between 1910 and 1914. It was a policy which rejected the assumption that Irish nationality was on a par with British nationality, an assumption which Welsh nationalism also implicitly rejects. It was also a policy which rejected what Conor Cruise O’Brien has called ‘sacral islandism’ because it advocated the creation of more than one parliament in the largest of the West European islands, it could accommodate the notion of more than one parliament in the second largest of those islands also.

The Irish Parliamentary Party were sympathetic to Welsh aspirations. Parnell led his followers to vote for Welsh Disestablishment in 1886. The Irish National League, which met in Cardiff in 1887, declared that the early settlement of the Irish question will bring to an early realisation all the reforms upon which the Welsh people have set their hearts. John Dillon wrote a glowing tribute to the Welsh in the first issue of Cymru Fydd, the journal of the Young Wales movement. Welsh Radicals considered that the presence of eighty or more Irish Nationalists in the House of Commons was essential to their aspirations. To Welsh Liberal MPs, the most objectionable feature of Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill of 1886 was that it proposed abolishing Irish representation in the House of Commons. The Home Rule Bill of 1893, which provided for Irish members at Westminster but deprived them of the right to vote on English, Welsh and Scottish affairs, was attacked in Wales; the clause depriving them of that right was deleted following the amendment of Major Jones, member for Carmarthen Boroughs. While the Union lasted, the reliance upon Irish assistance and the hope that Wales would win autonomy on the coat‑tails of Ireland remained central to the strategy of Welsh patriots. In 1917, the veteran nationalist, Arthur Price, viewed with foreboding the settlement of the Irish question. “I fear a dominion solution for Ireland”, he wrote: “this will gravely weaken Celtic influence in the Westminster Parliament.”

But, while the Irish were prepared to support the legislative demands of the Welsh Radicals, they were not prepared to accept that the nationality of Wales had parity with that of Ireland. When the Scottish crofters sought to establish a united Celtic front on the land issue in 1886, Welsh representatives attended the meeting they called, but Parnell refused to send a delegate. When the Scots brought forward a Home Rule All Round Bill in 1895, John Redmond declared his disapproval of the attempt to link the need of Ireland with the somewhat academic claims of other nations. When in 1914 Lloyd George raised again the possibility of Home Rule All Round, John Dillon was asked what the Irish reaction would be. Scott reported: Dillon said he was wholly against anything on that line; any arrangement suitable for other parts of the United Kingdom would involve a great reduction in the terms offered to Ireland.

Yet, although Lloyd George had grave doubts about Gladstone’s policy, he saw the value of the Irish example. Following an aggressive speech by Tim Healey in 1890, he exulted: “The Celts are having their revenge upon the brutal Saxon.” Urging the Welsh MPs to form a disciplined parliamentary party in 1894, he declared: “Ireland was the only nationality which had organised the whole of her progressive forces into one compact league. Ireland is the college of Europe, the college of Liberty which teaches how every wronged and oppressed nationality can secure justice and redress.”

Yet, despite such sentiments, Lloyd George’s sympathy for Ireland was waning by the 1890s. He came to believe that Gladstone, through his Irish policy, had given a decade of power to the enemy. The Parnell Divorce Case shocked Welsh Nonconformists. “The fellow persists in brazening it out,” wrote Lloyd George to his wife. “Isn’t he a rascal. ” While the Irish as nationalists were the natural allies of the Welsh, the Irish as Roman Catholics could appear as opponents, allies of the bishops and the landlords in advocating sectarianism in education. The bitter campaign fought by Lloyd George against Balfour’s Education Act of 1902 brought no Irish support. Furthermore, the Irish Parliamentary Party, which owed much to the patronage of distillers and publicans, felt little sympathy with demands for temperance reform, an issue of central importance to many Welsh Liberals.

The massive majority won by the Liberals in the General Election of 1906 freed the party from the necessity of courting the support of the Irish Nationalists. Although Irish Home Rule remained Liberal policy, it was no longer a priority. In any case, the fate of the 1893 Bill had proved that Home Rule and for that matter, Welsh Disestablishment, were not practical politics while the House of Lords retained its veto. Lloyd George had thanked the Irish for bringing us for the first time face to face with the enemy of the people, the House of Lords, but he was determined that Ireland should not be the issue upon which the frontal attack upon the powers of the Lords would be made. To attack the Lords as the defenders of the Union would be to court disaster. Instead, through his budget of 1909 and his skilful oratory, he manoeuvred the members of the House of Lords into taking their stand as palpable constitution breakers and as rich men trying to evade taxation. One of the results of Lloyd George’s initiative was the neutering of the Lords veto thus removing the last constitutional barrier to Irish Home Rule, another was the need to hold a General Election three years earlier than contemporary practice demanded. The two General Elections of 1910 deprived the Liberals of their majority over the Conservatives and made the government once again dependent upon Irish votes, thus bringing the Home Rule issue back to the centre of politics. In consequence, the Irish Home Rule Act reached the Statute Book on 18 September, 1914, a fortnight after the beginning of the First World War.

Lloyd George had been active during the final stages of the Bill, seeking to find an answer to the intractable question of the Protestant minority in the north‑east. It was he, in 1914, who suggested that four of the counties of Ulster should be excluded from the jurisdiction of the Dublin parliament for a number of years, to allow as he put it, that corner of Ireland once more to put its case before the British electorate. Thereafter, he was not closely involved with the Irish issue until 1916 when Asquith asked him to pick up the pieces following the Easter Rising. The request saved Lloyd George’s life, for, but for his involvement with Ireland, he would have accompanied Kitchener to Russia and would have gone down with the Hampshire off the coast of Norway on 5 June, 1916.

In the summer of 1916, Lloyd George appeared to have achieved the impossible: agreement between Redmond and Carson that Home Rule would be implemented immediately. But Redmond agreed on the understanding that the exclusion of north‑east Ulster (now six counties) would be temporary, while Carson agreed on the knowledge that the exclusion would be permanent. When Lloyd George’s duplicity became apparent, Redmond and his Parliamentary Party lost credibility. In April, 1918, with Lloyd George imposing conscription on Ireland, the party suffered a fatal blow. It was annihilated by Sinn Féin in the General Election of December, 1918. Thus died the parliamentary party which Lloyd George had extolled as an example and a model for the Welsh people.

The years from the Dublin Rising of 1916 to the acceptance of the Treaty in 1922, broadly the years of Lloyd George’s premiership, were a period of trauma for the people of Ireland. There is a tradition of Irish historiography which casts Lloyd George as the source of that trauma, the architect of repression, the author of reprisals, the creator of the Black and Tans, the bully who manoeuvred the Irish delegation into signing the Treaty, the conspirer against the unity and the sovereignty of Ireland, the ultimate instigator of the Irish Civil War. The fact that he was Welsh merely compounded his sins, it was proof that Welshmen were Englishmens’ little butties, the lackeys of imperialism. It is a tradition that is grossly unfair. Although Lloyd George, following the General Election of 1918, appeared to enjoy wider powers than any of his predecessors as Prime Minister, he was in fact dependent upon a Unionist majority in whose bones, as Lord Longford put it, the very marrow was steeped in colonialism. From these men he extracted acquiescence in a settlement which gave to twenty‑six of the counties of Ireland far wider powers of self‑government than Gladstone had dreamed of. The brutal truth is that the sovereignty and the unity of Ireland were incompatible. Yet the treaty, as Collins, Griffith and O’Higgins foresaw, contained all the seeds of future constitutional development. The will‑of‑the‑wisp of immediate sovereignty was pursued at the expense of unity, and in the end, neither was served.

To the Tories in the Coalition Government of 1918 to 1922, Lloyd George almost seemed to be an ally of the Sinn Féin delegation. The Irish, said Austin Chamberlain, were fortunate in having a Celt in the cabinet to put their case against England. Thomas Jones, Deputy Secretary to the Cabinet, ‘the lackey’s lackey’, as Brendan Behan called him, claimed that I was able, as a Welshman, to assess in some measure the magnitude of Anglo‑Saxon blunders in dealing with Ireland. Jones recounts how Lloyd George insisted that Professor MacNeill. the leader of the National Volunteers, should be released from penal servitude. Redmond appealed for MacNeill, “He is our greatest Gaelic scholar...”, whereupon Lloyd George turned to Asquith swiftly and said, “Good God, we mustn’t kill a Gaelic scholar!” and that settled it.

During his discussions with the Irish representatives Lloyd George frequently drew upon Welsh analogies. Ulster is an old province and a recognised unit, like Gwynedd, he said, and proceeded to argue for including as large a part as possible of Ulster in Northern Ireland, because, in order to persuade Northern Ireland to join the South there is an advantage in her having a very substantial Catholic population.... “I think you will get Ulster into an Irish unit by a policy of persuasion”, he continued. “When I began public life, south‑east Wales was out of sympathy with Welsh aspirations, but the people there have been won over by a policy of persuasion and Cardiff today is the home of several of the chief national institutions. Yet a large proportion of the residents of Cardiff and Newport were as different in race from the rest of the inhabitants of Wales as the Protestants of Ulster from the Catholics.” Thus he proceeded day by day until he achieved settlement by typical Lloyd Georgian methods: patient conciliatory discussions, sudden storms of rage, truculence one moment and sweet reasonableness the next, pleadings, wooings, threats, frankness, generosity, guile detaching the Unionist leaders from the diehards, detaching the Irish delegation from De Valera. Robert Barton, that most reluctant signatory of the treaty, was astounded by the mesmeric quality of Lloyd George’s personality, “the solemnity and power of conviction that he, alone of all men I have ever met, can impart by word and gesture.”

The events of 1916 to 1922, while traumatic for Ireland, were also significant for Wales. The victory for Sinn Féin rang down the curtain on Celtic co‑operation. Hopes that Wales would obtain Home Rule on the coat-tails of Ireland disappeared. The refusal of the Sinn Feiners to come to Westminster, followed by the end of the connection between the British Parliament and the Free State in 1922, amply fulfilled the fears expressed by Arthur Price in 1917; it removed issues relating to Celtic nationality from a central to a highly peripheral position in British politics, and Irish representation at Westminster ceased to be a major bulwark of the nationalist left and became a minor bulwark of the unionist right. Furthermore, the departure of the Irish from Westminster greatly helped the Conservative Party, because it meant that henceforth no anti Tory government would be kept in office through Irish votes, the situation in 1892 and 1910.

Following the signature of the treaty in 1921, Thomas Jones suggested to Lloyd George that as he had settled Ireland, he might be satisfied now with going to heaven. Lloyd George, while he would not hear of so dull a destiny, was convinced that he had succeeded in a task which had defeated leading statesmen such as Gladstone and Asquith. Subsequent events were to prove that not even the Welsh Wizard could settle Ireland, for the Treaty created as many problems as it solved.

With Wales now about to have a measure of self rule on the coat tails of Scotland this time it would be useful to look again at our relations with Ireland. The most interesting idea to emerge from the long discussions earlier this year concerning Northern Ireland was the notion of establishing a Council of the Isles.

It is a suggestion which would have given great satisfaction to Lloyd George.

©: Dr. John Davies, author of Hanes Cymru (History of Wales) the first book in Welsh published by Penguin Books.

Dr. Davies delivered this paper in Welsh on Wednesday 6 August 1998 at the National Eisteddfod in Bridgend. One of a series of four lectures about Irish‑Welsh links arranged by the Wales Famine Forum it is an updated version of his article in English published in Planet 67, February / March, 1988 under the same title. We are very much indebted to Dr. Davies for sending us this, his own translation, and for permitting us to publish it.

Published in The Green Dragon No 8, Spring, 1999.

Wales and Ireland in the nineteenth century.
Another article by Dr. Davies.