It needed no gift of prophecy to be certain that such a speech would be popular in the House of Commons, and many Unionists that day were almost aggrieved that Sir Edward Carson had not risen at once to reply to the offer in the same spirit. They did not realize the difficulty of the Ulster leader’s position. To admit and welcome the unity of Ireland was to give away Ulster’s case. To accept the Nationalist leader’s utterance as sincere, still more to assume that Ireland as a whole would endorse it, was to weaken, if not to give away, Ulster’s best argument, and from that hour to the end of the war Sir Edward Carson was most loyal to Ulster’s interests.
Further, it is conceivable that by some who cheered it the speech may have been misunderstood. Yet it is not probable that many who heard Redmond believed that in order to serve England he was flinging away Ireland’s national claim, to the successful furtherance of which his whole life had been devoted. The Unionist party as a whole certainly understood that to accept Redmond’s offer in the spirit in which it was made meant accepting the principle of Home Rule: and on that afternoon in August they were not unready to accept it. They felt, for the speech made them feel, that a great thing had happened. Yet they might well be pardoned for some scepticism as to how the utterance might be taken in Ireland, and how it would issue in action. A famous Nationalist said some ten days later: “When I read the speech in the paper, I was filled with dismay. Now I recognize that it was a great stroke of statesmanship which I should never have had the courage to advise.”
Redmond’s instinct had been right. He trusted in the appeal to national pride and to the sense of national unity. Ireland was perfectly willing, and he knew it, to give loyal friendship to England on the basis of freedom. But the test of freedom had now come to be the right to bear arms, and this was a proposal that Ireland should undertake her own defence. Ireland was sick of the talk of civil war, and this was a proposal that Ulstermen and the rest should make common cause. It was an appeal addressed by an instinct, which was no less subtle than it was noble, to what was most responsive in the best qualities of Irishmen. None the less it was a statesman’s utterance addressed to a people politically quick-minded; Ireland saw as well as Redmond himself that what stood in the way of Ireland’s national aspiration was the opposition of one section of Irishmen. To that extent, and to that extent only, was the speech political in its purpose. Whatever made for common action made for unity; and whatever made for unity made for Home Rule. That is the key to Redmond’s attitude throughout the war—perhaps also to Sir Edward Carson’s.