And yet, when the Prime Minister at last put his cards on the table on the 9th of March, in moving the second reading of the Home Rule Bill—which now entered on its third and last lap under the Parliament Act—it was found that his much-trumpeted proposals were derisory to the last degree. The scheme was that which came to be known as county option with a time limit. Any county in Ulster, including the cities of Belfast and Derry, was to be given the right to vote itself out of the Home Rule jurisdiction, on a requisition signed by a specified proportion of its parliamentary electorate, for a period of six years.
Mr. Bonar Law said at once, on behalf of the Unionist Party, that apart from all other objections to the Government scheme, and they were many, the time limit for exclusion made the whole proposal a mockery. All that it meant was that when the preparations in Ulster for resistance to Home Rule had been got rid of—for it would be practically impossible to keep them in full swing for six years—Ulster should then be compelled to submit to the very thing to which she refused to submit now. Carson described the proposal as a “sentence of death with a stay of execution for six years.” He noted with satisfaction indeed the admission of the principle of exclusion, but expressed his conviction that the time limit had been introduced merely in order to make it impossible for Ulster to accept. Ulster wanted the question settled once for all, so that she might turn her attention from politics to her ordinary business. The time limit would keep the fever of political agitation at a high temperature for six years, and at the end of that period forcible resistance would be as necessary as ever, while in the interval all administration would be paralysed by the unworkable nature of the system to be introduced for six years. Although there were other gross blots on the scheme outlined by the Prime Minister, yet, if the time limit were dropped, Carson said he would submit it to a convention in Belfast; but he utterly declined to do so if the time limit was to be retained.
The debate was adjourned indefinitely, and before it could be resumed the whole situation was rendered still more grave by the events to be narrated in the next chapter, and by a menacing speech delivered by Mr. Churchill at Bradford on the 14th of March. He hinted that, if Ulster persisted in refusing the offer made by the Prime Minister, which was the Government’s last word, the forces of the Crown would have to be employed against her; there were, he said, “worse things than bloodshed even on an extended scale”; and he ended by saying, “Let us go forward together and put these grave matters to the proof." Two days later Mr. Asquith, in answer to questions in the House of Commons, announced that no particulars of the Government scheme would be given unless the principle of the proposals were accepted as a basis of agreement.