The change of Government did nothing to alter the attitude of the Nationalists, unless, indeed, the return of Carson to high office added to the fierceness of their attacks. On the 26th of February 1917—just when “unrestricted submarine warfare” was bringing the country into its greatest peril—Mr. Dillon called upon the Government to release twenty-eight men who had been deported from Ireland, and who were declared by Mr. Duke, the Chief Secretary, to have been deeply implicated in the Easter rebellion of the previous year; and a week later Mr. T.P. O’Connor returned to the charge with another demand for Home Rule without further ado.
The debate on Mr. O’Connor’s motion on the 7th of March was made memorable by the speech of Major William Redmond, home on leave from the trenches in France, whose sincere and impassioned appeal for oblivion of old historic quarrels between Irish Catholics and Protestants, who were at that moment fighting and dying side by side in France, made a deep impression on the House of Commons and the country. And when this gallant officer fell in action not long afterwards and was carried out of the firing line by Ulster soldiers, his speech on the 7th of March was recalled and made the peg on which to hang many adjurations to Ulster to come into line with their Nationalist fellow-countrymen of the South.
Such appeals revealed a curious inability to grasp the realities of the situation. Men spoke and wrote as if it were something new and wonderful for Irishmen of the “two nations” to be found fighting side by side in the British Army—as if the same thing had not been seen in the Peninsula, in the Crimea, on the Indian frontier, in South Africa, and in many another fight. Ulstermen, like everybody else who knew Major Redmond, deplored the loss of a very gallant officer and a very lovable man. But they could not understand why his death should be made a reason for a change in their political convictions. When Major Arthur O’Neill, an Ulster member, was killed in action in 1914, no one had suggested that Nationalists should on that account turn Unionists. Why, they wondered, should Unionists any more turn Nationalists because a Nationalist M.P. had made the same supreme sacrifice? All this sentimental talk of that time was founded on the misconception that Ulster’s attachment to the Union was the result of personal prejudice against Catholics of the South, instead of being, as it was, a deliberate and reasoned conviction as to the best government for Ireland.
This distinction was clearly brought out in the same debate by Sir John Lonsdale, who, when Carson became a member of the Cabinet, had been elected leader of the Ulster Party in the House of Commons; and an emphatic pronouncement, which went to the root of the controversy, was made in reply to the Nationalists by the Prime Minister. In the north-eastern portion of Ireland, he said: