Last month marked the one hundredth anniversary of the foundation of one of the most unusual yet significant political groups in Irish political history. It has not been commented upon by the mainstream media (even in these times where the clamour for alternative news to the current saturation coverage of the fiscal crisis has been deafening), nor has its impact on Irish politics ever been truly examined. I wish in the remainder of this letter to sketch out a brief history of the All-for-Ireland League and to briefly examine its influence on Irish politics and society.
The All-for-Ireland League was officially founded at a meeting at Kanturk, Co. Cork, on March 21st 1909. The grouping consisted of all bar two of the nationalist Members of Parliament for Cork city and county and was headed by the charismatic yet erratic journalist and politician William O’Brien (1852 – 1928). A native of Mallow, O’Brien had been centrally involved in the land wars at the end of the nineteenth century and was a trusted lieutenant of Charles Stewart Parnell. Upon Parnell’s death in 1890, O’Brien was selected to replace him as MP for Cork city, thus beginning a thirty year relationship with the people of Cork. Founder of the United Irish League in 1898, he played a key role in the reunification of the Irish Party in 1900, under the chairmanship of John Redmond.
A parallel desire for settling the question of land ownership in Ireland led representatives of landlords and tenants meeting at the Mansion House Dublin, over December 1902 and early January 1903. The Land Conference, as the gathering was called, left an indelible impression on O’Brien; landed unionists were also apparently impressed by O’Brien’s practicality and desire to settle the question fairly. The report of the conference led to an important act of parliament, the Wyndham Land Act, being passed in August 1903. The fallout among nationalists in the Irish Party over the implementation of the act, allied to the reluctance of the majority of the leadership to alter the policies of the party to take cognisance of the apparent shift in the political landscape, thus scotching any real attempt to confer with and conciliate unionists with respect to both the land question and the thornier question of Home Rule, led to O’Brien tendering his resignation as a Party member in November 1903. From that point on can be traced the genesis of the AFIL.
The policies of the AFIL were clear: a return to “the spirit of the Land Conference” in settling questions of common concern among both Irish unionists and nationalists, and a determination to gain the consent of the minority groups, both in Ulster and in the rest of the island of Ireland, to any proposed Home Rule settlement. This set of policies attracted an unusual cross-section of support: from landless labourers in Cork county (attempting to profit from the repeal of the Birrell Land Act of 1909, which had heavily revised the terms of the Wyndham Land Act), to unionist advocates of a federal solution to the question of Home Rule (whereby Ireland would gain its own legislature, but be linked to Scotland, Wales and England by a relationship similar to that enjoyed by states in the USA). The unique and unusual schemes being proffered by these disparate groups deserve to be examined on their own merits and contrasted with the schemes of Home Rule laid down by the government of Herbert Asquith. In particular, the complete absence from the AFIL schemes of a physical division of the island of Ireland should be noted.
The AFIL was not a political party in the contemporary sense of the term. Rather, it seemed a throwback to the years of the Independent Irish Party of the 1850s, and, as O’Brien himself once argued, a direct descendant of the League of North and South, founded by Gavan Duffy in the mid-nineteenth century. Though it elected a president – James Gilhooly of Bantry - it had no whips, and member MPs had complete freedom to vote whichever way they chose in any issue outside the land and Home Rule questions. In addition, outside of the Land and Labour Association in Cork, it did not have a clear grassroots structure, though ‘clubs’ did spring up, particularly in Cork city, where one such club had a room at Emmet Place, opposite the site of the present Opera House. These clubs also functioned as social and cultural centres, and O’Brien addressed a large gathering of these clubs infrequently, mostly on topics ranging from ‘The influence of Thomas Davis’ to the Home Rule situation.
In 1918, the AFIL decided not to contest the general election, instead supporting the new Sinn Fein party. Many of its leaders retired from public life. O’Brien retired to his house at Bellevue near Mallow, but Tim Healy (who had been associated with the AFIL, though never formally, through his relationship with O’Brien, which had strengthened since the Home Rule Crisis of 1912 – 14) continued to appear in the public eye. When the Treaty was signed in 1921, many of the ex-AFIL members and supporters opposed the settlement (the second strand in a two-pronged solution, the first being the Better Government of Ireland Act in 1920) on the grounds of partition. These anti-Treatyites eventually joined the fledgling Fianna Fail party upon its foundation in 1926. In his last public utterance, before the general election of June 1927, O’Brien condemned the partition of the country and wholeheartedly endorsed the programme of Fianna Fail.
In a paper presented at the UCC History Department conference on Jack Lynch in late 2008, the political editor of the Irish Times, Stephen Collins, drew attendees attention to the political education of Lynch; his father, Daniel, a tailor originally from near Bantry, was an O’Brien supporter. Frank O’Connor, in his autobiography, mentioned his father as being an O’Brienite, though for reasons musical as well as political. The influence of the AFIL upon early Fianna Fail policy, particularly with regard to “the national question”, is a topic that deserves further exploration. The influence of the group on many aspects of Irish politics and society has yet to be uncovered. Indeed, one may – if one so wishes – argue that, with the demise of the Progressive Democrats and the advent of the Good Friday Agreement, it is only very recently that one half of the programme the AFIL advocated in embryo has been achieved. As for the other half, pertaining to social reform, it is the sole preserve of the people of Ireland to work to bring this about. Irish people should cease the incessant whining about the condition of the country, as they have done for so many decades, and bring themselves to a point where they can realistically aspire to the goals set – in theory at least – by the founders of this unique movement.