Claiming the parliamentary tradition? The legacy of the Irish home rule party and Anglo-Irish relations in the 1930s

Our Parliaments, Politics and People seminar is back for the autumn term! At next week’s seminar Dr Martin O’Donoghue of the University of Sheffield, will discuss the legacy of the Irish home rule party and Anglo-Irish relations in the 1930s.

The seminar takes place on 1 November 2022, between 5:30 and 7:00 p.m. You can attend online via Zoom. Details of how to join the discussion are available here

In the 1930s, governments in Dublin and London clashed frequently over one state’s role in an international community of nations, argued over questions of sovereignty, the border with Northern Ireland, and the constitutional relationship of both islands.

Such issues may now seem frustratingly familiar – the 1930s saw a trade dispute break out and a tariff war which lasted almost six years. However, the contentions of the period and the debates in parliaments in Dublin and Westminster had their roots not just in the 1930s but also in the nineteenth century — a time when Irish politicians had to go to London rather than a native parliament as they sought to make their case for self-government.

While the Irish party of that era – the Irish Parliamentary Party – never saw their dream of ‘home rule’ realised in quite the way they intended, their major achievement in an Irish context was the passage of a number of significant land reforms by British governments which transformed the Irish economy and society. This legacy along with Ireland’s winding road to self-government informed many of the debates and the rancour of Anglo-Irish relations in the 1930s.

Annuities dispute

After his election victory in 1932, Éamon de Valera’s decision to withhold Land Annuities payments (though they were still to be collected from Irish farmers) and the beginning of his efforts to redefine the constitutional relationship with Britain with the removal of the oath of allegiance convulsed not just Anglo–Irish relations, but domestic politics. Fianna Fáil and Cumann na nGaedheal remained the main standard-bearers for the traditional pro- and anti-Treaty sides from the Civil War (1922-3). The pro-Treaty Cumann na nGaedheal had, however, absorbed different elements over the course of the 1920s to a greater extent than de Valera’s party and by 1932 included politicians and supporters from the home rule tradition as well as those from unionist backgrounds.

The opposition in Dublin regularly invoked the promises made by Irish home rule politicians to pay back land annuities in an earlier generation. In the senate, former minister Patrick McGilligan declared that not only John Redmond, but also Charles Stewart Parnell and Tim Healy had rejected the idea that the Irish farmer would not pay the annuities. Defending the farmers against charges of default, Cumann na nGaedheal leader (and the first leader of the Free State) W.T. Cosgrave insisted the State’s record in paying annuities ‘was their vindication and the vindication of the undertakings and words of Parnell, Redmond, Dillon, Davitt, Healy and the others’.

Black and white portrait photograph of Charles Parnell in a suit and tie. Parnell has short hair, a moustache, and a beard.
Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-1891) CC Library of Congress

Debates in Dublin and London

As was the case in the Dublin parliament, much time in the House of Commons was spent on rehashing the debates around the 1921 Treaty and the wider Commonwealth context. This, however, did not preclude considerations of longer histories. Speaking on the motion to introduce tariffs on Irish goods if the Free State did not pay on 4 June 1932, Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs J.H. Thomas referenced Dillon, Redmond, Healy, and Parnell in speeches that insisted the Free State’s liability in the matter of Annuities. Furthermore, Thomas added that the government had no ‘complaint against the farmers of Ireland’ but instead ‘those who withhold our money’.

Portrait photograph in black and white of James Dillon. Dillon is wearing a three-piece suit and has round glasses. He has short hair and is clean shaven.
James Dillon (1902-1986) CC Wiki

There was also a prominent member of the old Irish Parliamentary Party still in the Commons in the person of Joe Devlin who retained great support in Northern Ireland and represented Fermanagh and Tyrone. However, on an all-Ireland basis, his influence was greatly diminished. As he admitted in the Commons on 8 July 1932, he had little influence over de Valera. Devlin did, however, record his agreement with de Valera’s position on the dispute and questioned Thomas’s view that the argument was an Anglo-Irish one rather than an imperial one when the British government insisted the Commonwealth was the only possible forum for arbitration.

Domestically, others from home rule traditions remained outside the two major parties. James Dillon and Frank MacDermot had promised to move politics away from Civil War divisions with the establishment of the National Centre Party in September 1932. Yet, within a year, both were vice–presidents of another new party formed from an alliance with the pro-Treaty Cumann na nGaedheal movement and the extra-parliamentary Blueshirts — Fine Gael: the United Ireland Party.

Portrait photograph in black and white of Frank MacDermot. He is wearing a three piece suit and has short hair. He is clean shaven.
Frank MacDermot (1886-1975), Irish Independent, 10 Sept. 1933

Towards a settlement

There was a wider context to the dispute – de Valera was intent on pursuing greater sovereignty, changing aspects of the 1921 Treaty which were most unpalatable to him and his supporters, and resolving the issue of partition. The reality of tariffs and their effects also saw changes in stance. The first ‘Coal-Cattle Pact’ was concluded between the Irish Free State and Britain in December 1934 as discussion moved towards constitutional matters rather than the annuities. There would, however, be no final end to the ‘Economic War’ until the Anglo-Irish Agreements of 1938 – a settlement which finally resolved the Annuities dispute as de Valera agreed to a one-off payment of £10 million. By the time the Commons debated the Éire (Confirmation of Agreements) Bill on 5 May 1938, the atmosphere towards the agreements and home rule was generally positive from members across the political spectrum.


Domestically, the insistence of James Dillon and Frank MacDermot that debate return to the constitutional status of the Free State and whether a republic, a dominion, or a reunited state was preferable, undoubtedly owed much to their home rule backgrounds. The home rule party acted both as a long shadow over the Anglo-Irish trade dispute and as a rhetorical device summoned by a range of actors.

However, away from Westminster or Leinster House, the issues of a parliamentary tradition and the Irish Parliamentary tradition proved most complicated. As farming organisations and the Blueshirt movement threatened refusal to pay annuities to the Dublin government, the difficulties of historical legacies was laid bare. While applying the methods of direct action from the 1880s to the 1930s could in one sense be seen as taking up the Land League tradition of the early Irish Party, it was problematic, if not simply undesirable, for men like MacDermot and Dillon who cast themselves as avowed constitutionalists.

Martin’s seminar takes place on 1 November 2022, between 5:30 and 7:00 p.m. You can attend online via Zoom. Details of how to join the discussion are available here

Further Reading

Dáil Debates, vol. 44, cc. 1928–29, 17 November 1932.

Deirdre McMahon, Republicans and imperialists: Anglo-Irish relations in the 1930s (New Haven, 1984)

Hansard Commons, 5 June 1932, col. 52

Hansard Commons 8 July 1932, col. 862-3

Hansard Commons 5 May 1938

Mike Cronin Cronin, ‘The Blueshirt Movement, 1932–5: Ireland’s Fascists?’, Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 30, no. 2 (1995), pp 311–32.

Seanad Debates, vol. 15, cc. 557–8, 28 January 1932.

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