When the Ulster leaders returned to London on the 14th they were met by reports of differences in the Cabinet over the Amending Bill, which was to be brought before the House of Commons on the following Monday. Nationalist pressure no doubt dictated the deletion of the amendments made by the Peers and the restoration of the Bill to its original shape. A minority of the Cabinet was said to be opposed to this course. Whether that was true or false, the Prime Minister must by this time have realised that he had allowed the country to drift to the brink of civil war, and that some genuine effort must be made to arrive at a peaceable solution.
Accordingly on Monday, the 20th, instead of introducing the Amending Bill, Mr. Asquith announced in the House of Commons that His Majesty the King, “in view of the grave situation which has arisen, has thought it right to summon representatives of parties, both British and Irish, to a conference at Buckingham Palace, with the object of discussing outstanding issues in relation to the problem of Irish Government.” The Prime Minister added that at the King’s suggestion the Speaker, Mr. James Lowther, would preside over the Conference, which would begin its proceedings the following day.
The Liberals, the British Unionists, the Nationalists, and the Ulstermen were respectively represented at the Buckingham Palace Conference by Mr. Asquith and Mr. Lloyd George, Lord Lansdowne and Mr. Bonar Law, Mr. Redmond and Mr. Dillon, Sir Edward Carson and Captain James Craig. The King opened the Conference in person on the 21st with a speech recognising the extreme gravity of the situation, and making an impressive appeal for a peaceful settlement of the question at issue. His Majesty then withdrew. The Conference deliberated for four days, but were unable to agree as to what area in Ulster should be excluded from the jurisdiction of the Parliament in Dublin. On the 24th Mr. Asquith announced the breakdown of the Conference, and said that in consequence the Amending Bill would be introduced in the House of Commons on Thursday, the 30th of July.
Here was the old deadlock. The last glimmer of hope that civil war might be averted seemed to be extinguished. Only ten days had elapsed since Carson had gloomily predicted at Larne that peace was impossible “unless something happens, the evidence of which is not visible at present.” But that “something” did happen—though it was something infinitely more dreadful, infinitely more devastating in its consequences, even though less dishonouring to the nation, than the alternative from which it saved us. Balanced, as it seemed, on the brink of civil war, Great Britain and Ireland together toppled over on the other side into the maelstrom of world-wide war.
On the 30th of July, when the Amending Bill was to be discussed, the Prime Minister said that, with the concurrence of Mr. Bonar Law and Sir Edward Carson, it would be indefinitely postponed, in order that the country at this grave crisis in the history of the world “should present a united front and be able to speak and act with the authority of an undivided nation.” To achieve this, all domestic quarrels must be laid aside, and he promised that “no business of a controversial character” would be undertaken.