In the wake of the Easter Rising, and after other failed attempts to find a compromise on the question of Irish self-government, the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George summoned a gathering of representative Irishmen to an Irish Convention to establish a basis for a settlement of the ‘Irish question’. The newly re-energised Sinn Féin party refused to participate. This week was the centenary of the Irish Convention which was held at Regent House in Trinity College Dublin a hundred years ago. It commenced on July 25th 1917, and intense deliberations continued until April 1918. To mark the centenary, Trinity hosted a two-day Symposium to examine what the Convention hoped to achieve, and the reasons why it failed. The Symposium addressed the Convention’s legacy, particularly in terms of how all-party talks shaped the recent history of this island.
The symposium opened with a round table discussion with two former Taoisigh, Bertie Ahern, John Bruton, joined by historian and former Fianna Fáil deputy, Martin Manseragh as well as historians, Dr Margaret O’Callaghan, Professor of Irish Contemporary History at Trinity, Eunan O’Halpin, and the Attorney General for Northern Ireland John Larkin QC.
The eminent Trinity historian RB McDowell (1913-2011) argued in his history of the Irish Convention that while it may be dismissed as ‘a failure’, we should consider it ‘a brilliant’ one. To test McDowell’s conclusion, as well as examining what the Convention hoped to achieve, the symposium will consider the political thinking of those who took part and also of those who did not at that key time in 1917-18.
The symposium’s contributors also included historians, Ian d’Alton, David Dickson, Anne Dolan, Patrick Geoghegan, Michael Laffan, Conor Morrissey, Patrick Maume, Fionnuala Walsh, Bernadette Whelan and Padraig Yeates.
Commenting on the significance of the Irish Convention and its relevance to today, Professor Eunan O’Halpin said:
“Historians may differ on the achievements of the Convention, but not on its significance particularly for Unionists outside North-East Ulster, and for an institution such as Trinity College which had long aspired to remain under imperial rule even after some form of Home Rule was introduced, and for John Redmond’s Parliamentary Party. It is arguable that, had such an all-party Convention been held in advance of the Government of Ireland Act of 1912 which granted Home Rule on an all-island basis, it could have achieved a workable settlement of the Irish question. But Ulster’s preparations for armed resistance to Home Rule, the Curragh mutiny of March 1914, the outbreak of the Great War, and the 1916 Rising, had completely redefined the interlinked issues of Nationalist demands for all-island self-government, and Unionist refusals to accept any form of Dublin government. In short, the Convention came years too late for its strongest supporters including John Redmond, who died suddenly in March 1918 having despaired of the Convention’s proceedings.”