Home Rule & Marconi 1912



Historians view the 1912 Marconi Scandal as an over exaggerated affair faded into oblivion. Closer analysis of these events raises questions about Home Rule. This essay argues that the scandal can be interpreted as a Unionist plot designed to discredit five, later acquitted, highly placed members of a Government determined to grant Home Rule. It gives us an insight into the depth of the Unionist and Nationalist divide at this time. Unionists were determined to sabotage Home Rule by any means including assassinating the integrity of Ministers in coalition with Nationalists, perceived by Unionists, as collaborators in a contemptible cause.

In 1912 Irelands Third Home Rule Bill had something in common with Wireless Telegraphy according to some nationalist newspapers fatalistically reporting, “Home Rule is a farce now ended because some politicians who should have been present when the ‘signal’ was sent were absent.” The article predicts, “So it has always been. So it will always be.”[1] Later at the opening of the House of Commons debate on Home Rule politicians remained absent and one editorial gave a clue as to why, “Clearly some members were thinking about Marconi not Ireland.”[2]

One contributing reason for this ill-timed absenteeism was an attempt to discredit Liberals advocating Home Rule. Asquith’s Party had fought two General Elections, restricted House of Lords powers; enforced revolutionary budgets and constitutional amendments. They were social reformers passing acts in Insurance, Pensions, and Labour Exchanges. They aimed to disestablish the Welsh Church and were determined to grant Ireland Home Rule.[3] But five equally determined Unionists, Joseph Chamberlain, Arthur Samuels, Walter Guinness, Cecil Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc knew how to discredit them.

By 1912 Ulster unionists had become proficient propaganda merchants and conducted a media-blitz against Home Rule targeting the British electorate, “The Home Rule struggle was an ideological battle between two irreconcilable concepts of Ireland, a British vision and an Irish one.”[4] Unionists claimed the high moral ground by denouncing corruption and Nationalists were equally as corrupt as their coalition partners. Liberals quickly acquired an unsavoury reputation. Unionists could then depict themselves as “impending victims” of an apocalyptic society under Home Rule.

The Irish Unionist Party was aligned to The Liberal Unionist Party which had formed a political alliance with Conservatives in opposition to Irish Home Rule. The two parties merged in 1912 with Unionist campaigner Joseph Chamberlain, “known as Judas Iscariot”[5] as Leader. Chamberlain reasoned that Home Rule would lead to the break-up of the British Empire. Chamberlain’s word was law with Unionists and he stated not legislation but, “sentiment makes a nation.”[6] Chamberlain used The Times to publicly appeal for funds to, “bury Home Rule.”[7]

Arthur Samuels was one of the most effective Unionist critics of Home Rule and was criticised by Stephen Gwynn MP as insincere, “he has the misfortune of being a lawyer and uses arguments merely as an exercise of ingenuity.”[8] Gwynn claimed that Samuels was an enemy of Home Rule, “the Bill is good enough for Nationalists but not good enough for this Unionist determined to hinder the progress of Irish freedom. Samuel’s condemns Home Rule because it does not give to Ireland independence enough, because it is not nationalist enough.”[9]

Walter Guinness was a Conservative Anglo-Irish politician and businessman who took the Conservative line on Home Rule.[10]  Guinness was a long-time supporter of the Irish Unionist Alliance and had attended their meetings as far back as 1907.[11] Guinness publicly described Home Rule as a “mad gamble.”[12] By 1912 he was the Editor of ‘Outlook’ magazine which broke the ‘Marconi Scandal’ accusing Liberal ministers of fraud while at the same time demanding that they should, “make a clean breast of it…”[13]

Cecil Chesterton was a controversial anti-Semite journalist who had co-written a contentious book with Anglo-French writer Hilaire Belloc alleging collusion between the front benches to raise funds by selling honours, “a theme which Belloc frequently debated.”[14] Both Unionists enjoyed exposing political corruption. In their book they state, “The Irish are people to whom nothing matters but nationality.”[15] Chesterton’s credibility was frequently questioned. One Marconi Scandal trial observer testified, “There could not be a worse or shiftier witness.”[16]

These five Unionists were key players in revealing and promoting insinuation and rumour in the infamous ‘Marconi Scandal.’ Unionists would later openly speak of their desires to, “Smash Home Rule by means of the Marconi Scandal; a wave of opinion might arise in the House of Commons to destroy the Government that cannot be trusted if the Bill passes.”[17] The Unionists five primary targets were Lloyd George (Chancellor of the Exchequer), Rufus Isaacs (Attorney General), Herbert Samuel (Postmaster General), Alexander Murray (Liberal Party Treasurer) and perhaps most important of all Liberal Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith.

Brilliant politician but incompetent businessman Lloyd George, “Who muddles nearly everything he touches”[18] strongly supported Home Rule believing it would be the best solution for the Empire. George advocated devolution, federalism, and Home Rule and agreed that this Bill was the best option. It is still undecided whether George purchased Marconi shares through corruption or ineptitude but when he expressed contrition for his mistake he was widely acquitted of fraudulent intent and, for him, the scandal died.[19]

Intransigent Unionist arguments against Home Rule were frequently adeptly answered by Rufus Isaacs, a renowned Unionist critic. Isaacs had many times taken them to task, most notably, when he challenged Edward Carson, Irish Unionist politician and barrister, if the Home Rule Bill were submitted to electors and the electors approved the Bill, would Unionists then accept it and whether objection from three Northern Ireland counties should stop the other willing twenty-nine?[20] An irate Carson remained silent but clearly Isaacs proved himself no friend to Unionists and this made him a prime target in their campaign.

Postmaster General Herbert Samuel dismissed Unionist’s finance issues in relation to Home Rule. Samuel favoured Home Rule because, “the burden to the British taxpayer would be decreased and Unionists guaranteed precisely the opposite.” Samuel compellingly argued that the expenses of running Ireland under British laws were too exorbitant. He stated, “No country is willing to exchange its national spirit and self-government for money. We must inform the people of Britain that Unionists only wish to add to the burden of the British taxpayer while those wishing to pass this Bill wish to lighten this burden.”[21]

At first sight the evidence against Chief Government Whip Alexander Murray seemed strong and he resigned. He claimed he bought the shares on behalf of the Liberal Party. When later invited to give evidence he declined stating he was, “abroad on business negotiations.” Murray was indeed involved in very real business transactions and had not personally profited from the shares and had been “indulging in a half guilty flutter.” [22] But Murray’s early resignation gave Unionist allegations enormous credence.

Unionists must have been totally infuriated with Prime Minister Herbert Asquith to learn, as Home Rule loomed, he was openly sympathetic to the demands of John Redmond and his fellow Nationalists, “For the first time in their history, Nationalist members conferred with the Prime Minister in the sacred Cabinet room at Downing Street. The Irish leaders are satisfied with the result of their deliberations. It may be confidently predicted, notwithstanding Unionist hopes to the contrary, that a Bill which has the approval of the Nationalist Party will be accepted at their forthcoming Convention in Dublin.”[23]

Thus, these five men; George, Isaacs, Samuels, Murray and Asquith were clearly in the line of fire of Unionist’s odious contempt. Coincidentally, and very conveniently for Unionists pursuing any ammunition they could lay their hands on, they all had something in common. All five men had recently privately invested in Marconi Shares and one of them, Rufus Isaacs, was the brother of British Businessman Godfrey Isaacs, who had recently become Managing Director of Marconi’s British Company. Furthermore, another, Herbert Samuel, was negotiating with Marconi for a very lucrative Government contract. The pickings for Unionists were far too rich to ignore.

Meanwhile, Ireland’s lacklustre Economy reflected the administrative condition of a nation in a state of political unrest, instability and turbulence in January 1912. Many people, regardless of their political ideology, were not at all optimistic about Home Rule, “the immediate home political outlook is seriously complicated by the coming Home Rule proposals for this country, and until the provisions of this great contemplated political change are before the country and disposed of one way or the other, there can be no reason to anticipate a revival of trust and confidence in the future of Ireland.”[24]

From within this social milieu there emerged success stories that were few and far between. For the wealthier stock-trading members of Irish society this unease was not shared. One of Ireland’s leading publicly owned companies ‘The Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company’ were in a unique position and were announcing increased dividends, optimistic projected business profits for the year ahead and a very positive commercial outlook. At the same time Irish Banks had suffered heavy falls in stock and this disaster was being ascribed to, “sympathy with the existing political unrest over the coming Home Rule legislation.”[25]

It seemed Marconi’s Company was invulnerable to its economic environs. This trend continued for weeks, “Dublin’s Exchange is quiet except for sharp rises in Marconi Shares.”[26] However, things changed when Henry Asquith, announced the Government would introduce the Home Rule Bill. Immediately Ulster’s Liberal Unionists declared that Asquith strengthened Ulster’s resolve, “Ulster will not be relegated to the control of a Parliament under whose impossible constitution and unrestricted powers it is vainly hoped to settle the Irish question.”[27] The battle lines between Ulster Liberal Unionists and London Liberals were drawn.

The Liberal Government were determined to introduce the Home Rule Bill and their resolve prompted Nationalistic endorsement, “This Government means business. While the Opposition present the Government as reluctant the contrary is true. There is Liberal Party enthusiasm for Home Rule. Ministers are anxious to proceed with this legislative task.”[28] William Field MP stated that no matter what opposition, “to obtain an entrance to the harbour of liberty, which we call Home Rule, we shall remain resolute,” and he renounced Unionist suggestions that Catholics would persecute Protestants under Home Rule.[29]

Irish Liberal Unionists were infuriated at speculation about the forthcoming bill and organised a National Convention in Dublin. Invitees included national organisations, public bodies, trades organisations and friendly societies.[30] Coincidentally, Marconi shares began to crash. Clues to any association between Marconi and Home Rule were sparse to unsuspicious observers. Newspapers were aware of a rumoured looming Liberal Government collapse, “the only thing to prevent the Home Rule Bill from becoming law is some unforeseen situation on other questions. But…” the Editorial insists, “All attempts to discredit the Government have failed.” [31]

Liberal Unionists wanted to undermine the Liberal Government and organised public meetings to muster-up support for their cause. A General meeting of Irish County Councils expressed concerns, parallel to those of Joseph Chamberlain, about Home Rule finance. They demanded that under an acceptable Home Rule scheme Ireland should have complete financial autonomy. To many observers these demands were the minimum terms which Ireland could accept Home Rule.[32] Meanwhile, at the Dublin Stock Exchange,   Marconi shares were at an, “excited volume of dealing.” This excitement was caused by Home Rule proposals.[33]

But such criticisms were having little effect on the Liberal Government according to John Dillon who announced that he was not over sanguine as to the present position of Home Rule which, “was now supported by an unbroken Liberal Party. Ireland would not submit to the audacious ascendancy claim by Ulster, or be terrorised by the language of Mr. Bonar Law or Sir Edward Carson.”[34] Consequentially the Nationalist Party, “which is not very cheerful just now,” are pretending to believe that Presbyterians are weakening in their attitude to Home Rule.”[35]

After the Prime Minister introduced the Third Home Rule Bill the Irish Unionist Alliance protested. They argued Ulster enjoyed a booming economy dependant on Britain. Furthermore, the proposed Dublin parliament would have different economic priorities to those of Ulster. Thus, Ulster deserved separate treatment because it was socially and economically closer to Britain. The proposals of the Bill were condemned by the Irish Unionist Alliance who passed resolutions protesting against its implementation in Ireland. They based their condemnation primarily on its financial elements, “If it comes into operation Ireland will be bankrupt within five years.”[36]

Because John Redmond’s Nationalist Party had used their majority leverage to persuade the Government to introduce the Third Home Rule Bill they had reached the pinnacle of their success. Redmond had gone further than any predecessor in shaping British politics to Ireland’s needs. Nationalist objectives were frustrated by Unionist criticisms. Nationalists expected Unionists attitude to be, “Non-negotiable repudiation of Irish Home Rule.” [37] A policy which would have suited Redmond as it ensured the Bill’s speedy transit. Unbeknownst to Redmond and his cohorts Irish Unionist Alliance’s objections had bought crucial time to expose Liberal Party corruption.

After it emerged that Asquith’s Government approved construction of numerous wireless stations by Marconi articles by Unionist sympathisers Chesterton and Belloc appeared in ‘Eye Witness’ magazine. They suggested ‘Marconi knaves’[38], George, Isaacs, Samuels and Murray, under the watchful eye of Herbert Asquith, used insider knowledge to profit in Marconi Shares.[39] Although, “the scandal’s short-term consequences were slight, the long term consequences for Home Rule were catastrophic.[40]

Rumours have sources and conjecture proffers a plausible explanation. For Unionist John Jameson Home Rule presented, “a fearful spectacle.”[41] He led Dublin’s Unionist community.[42] Jameson was a friend and associate of Edward Carson and also related to Marconi’s mother Annie Jameson.[43] Had she inadvertently divulged detrimental information?

Whatever its source the French newspaper Le Matin  turned rumour to allegation and accused Ministers of corruption. Isaacs and Samuels sued and Le Matin apologised. But Isaacs admitted he bought shares in American Marconi and sold some to Lloyd George and Alexander Murray.[44]  The scandal was partly resolved by an investigative committee finding that all involved were not guilty. The Liberal members of the committee exonerated the Ministers while Unionists accused them of “grave impropriety.”[45]

Unionists proposed to indict Liberals because, “Insinuations have impugned the honour of the House.”[46] In Unionist magazine ‘Punch’ a cartoon headed ‘Liberal Pleasure-Party at Sea’ Liberals are sailing aboard ‘People’s Will’ a ship with a gagged peer as a figurehead and containing the emblems of Liberal deception, Marconi and Home Rule.[47] The ships sail bears the inscription ‘Home Rule’, with Asquith turning a wheel marked, ‘Wait and See.’[48]

In fear of the damage done to Liberals many members of Ireland’s Nationalist Party went on the campaign trail and visited the streets of rural towns and villages speechifying Home Rule with an air of gloom, “we may take it for granted that these speeches reflect fears prevalent in higher quarters.”[49] The details of the Bill were essentially unknown but speculation dictated that control of Irish finances remained in England. Consequently, for Nationalists, the Home Rule Bill was unacceptable. This rift between Nationalists and Liberals gave further fuel to Unionist’s vociferous anti-Liberal allegations of corruption.

With the Third Home Rule Bill slipping from nationalists grip it was necessary for staunchly nationalist newspapers to help clean up the mess by defending politicians, even English ones, against malicious speculation. For example, the Leitrim Observer, carefully words its report, “Sinister charges are bandied about in the darkness and there is nothing in them. There is no evidence of corruption and the Ministers deny attempting to profit from insider knowledge. There was a time in History when Ministers should fear an inquiry, but not now. The British Government has for generations been beyond reproach.” [50]

But the Liberals came out fighting. Lloyd George asserted the “corruption” charges were a Unionist attack. He read from transcripts of statements made on Oath by the owner of “Outlook” magazine, Walter Guinness whom George accused of starting malicious rumours, “The charges made by Guinness have long since exploded, but the deadly afterdamp remains and the noxious fumes of these Unionist slanders are at this moment in the air.” He said his mistakes were exploited by Guinness to help achieve Home Rule aims and the House agreed with standing ovations and shouts of “Guinness, Guinness.”[51]

But Walter Guinness backed down and attempted to defend the action of ‘Outlook’ by denying the paper brought charges of corruption against Ministers. It charged the Postmaster General with inefficiency and favouritism and nothing else.[52] Members of the Select Committee claimed much of their time had been occupied listening to irrelevant Unionist witnesses, including procrastination and abuse from an infuriated Winston Churchill. The Select Committee knew there was always a temptation to use the Marconi Scandal for party purposes, and admitted the deliberations of the Marconi Committee were tainted with party prejudice and bias.[53]

Lloyd George insisted that whatever might be said by Guinness, it was the fact that his newspaper which first gave currency to malicious rumours. It was a lie. There was not the smallest justification for the charges which had been made against him. The Attorney General and he had not had a single conversation with respect to these transactions. But there is nothing as paradoxical as politics. The net political result of the Marconi revelations was an actual strengthening of the Liberal Party.[54]

But the Unionists had succeeded in their campaign to frustrate Home Rule. Marconi debates had succeeded in slowing down the progress of the Bill. By mid-Summer 1912 politicians were concerned as to the little time being allotted to the Bill while Marconi was taking up precious parliamentary time. F. E. Smith stated that in 1693 the Home Rule Bill took 93 days but now it was only being allowed two days, “The result of this is that there will be no time to conclude the Home Rule Bill in 1912.”[55] But more was to come.

By the autumn of 1912 new rumours were rampant that the present government would not survive the Marconi Scandal and with their departure Home Rule would fade into oblivion.[56] Dissolution rumours were so widespread that Lloyd George and Rufus Isaacs were, “going about telling everybody that the present Parliament will last until 1915.” But, pessimistic newspapers stated, “These men seem not to recognise the fact that the old-fashioned Gladstonian Liberals are getting very restive regarding Home Rule. The Prime Minister will have a hard task to keep his men together.”[57]

But Asquith rose to the challenge and soon there was a noticeable change in the attitude of Unionists both in the House of Commons and in the Press. They realised their campaign to discredit Liberals was failing. There was no further talk of a Government collapse or of Ministers backing down from their Home Rule pledges, “Instead of indulging in bunkum the enemies of Ireland are now reduced to incoherent horror by the realisation that Mr Asquith and his colleagues are actually determined to do what they have always openly declared was their fixed intention.”[58]

Interestingly this transformation of attitude came in the aftermath of the vindication of the five Liberal politicians. For months the insinuations regarding their honesty was unwaveringly challenged by Tories anxious for a House of Commons debate. When the debate finally arrived there was total silence in the House. Nobody dared to put forward a single charge, contenting themselves with a tissue of paltry insinuations and demanding further investigation. But the Government had already instigated such an inquiry and the so-called ‘Marconi knaves’ willingly supported it, “That must have left their accusers feeling sorry for themselves.”[59]

This Select Committee inquiry into the scandal is often cited as the reason why select committee investigations gave way to independent tribunals. The Committee produced their report in 1913.[60] Any advancement of the Home Rule Bill would only come after a House of Commons debate on their findings.[61]  That took until June 1913 and the House divided on party lines over the report’s conclusions. But, most importantly, Unionists succeeded in delaying Home Rule by over a year.

Meanwhile, the relationship between Nationalists and Liberals deteriorated for two reasons; firstly, because of delays and secondly, a reputation tarnished by corruption allegations. Although Liberals committed to introduce the Home Rule Bill in 1912 they had become reluctant because Conservatives had garnered greater Unionist support. When the Bill was discussed, Conservatives demanded to have the Unionist north-east of Ireland treated separately from the rest of Ireland because Ulster Protestants constituted a separate nation. They hoped this argument would stop Home Rule and suggested it would result in an unstable Ireland containing two national identities. But there was a further problem.

Asquith’s Bill purported to be “final settlement,” and accepted as “the best we can get” by Nationalists. Claiming to be a Bill to establish independence it succeeded by silence. The Irish Party relinquished all right to debate. Former Parnellite politician John Dillon MP’s silence verified this indifference played in the Bill’s construction by powerful Nationalists in London. From start to finish in the debates involving Ireland’s “final” fate her representatives failed to suggest any amendment. Consequently, a defective Bill passed without alteration of one word, “So it has always been. So it will always be.”[62]

Irish citizens had been prevented from discussing the provisions of the Bill or the misconduct of their representatives. They celebrated unknowingly rejoicing the Partition of Ireland. Nationalist and Liberal colluders later professed surprise when young rebels contemplated these insults and sprang to arms in Easter 1916 punishing Parliamentarianism. However, Ulster unionists, determined to sabotage home rule  exaggerated the Marconi Scandal and that proved a brilliant time delaying strategy. It took until 1914 with the outbreak of WWI before the Home Rule Bill was finally enacted. But its implementation was suspended for the duration of the war. So, the Unionists won.


[1] Skibbereen Eagle, 23November 1912

[2] Irish Times, 10 June 1913

[3] George McClellan Harvey, ‘Asquith: The Master Statesman’ in The North American Review, 198, no 695 (1913),  p. 438

[4] Michael Foy, ‘Ulster Unionist Propaganda Against Home Rule 1912-14’ in History Ireland,  4, no 1 (Spring, 1996),  p 51

[5] Anglo Celt, 17 February 1912

[6] Donegal News, 13 January 1912

[7] Freemans Journal, 22 June 1912

[8] Freemans Journal, 20 May 1912

[9] Irish Times, 21 May 1912

[10]Hansard, 5th series, 39, 1129

[11] Irish Times, 31 August 1907

[12] Irish Times, 20 April 1912

[13] Irish Times, 10 June 1913

[14] Irish Times, 20 January 1911

[15] Hilaire Belloc & Cecil Chesterton,  The Party System ,  (London, 1911),  p 21

[16] Irish Times,  1 September 1962

[17] Irish Times, 29 May 1913

[18] Irish Times, 8 June 1912

[19] Henry W. Nevinson, ‘Lloyd George: The Leader of British Liberals’ in Foreign Affairs, 9, no3 (1931), p. 461

[20] Freemans Journal, 7 May 1912

[21] Irish Independent, 16 April 1912

[22] Denis Judd, ‘Lord Reading, Rufus Isaacs, First Marquess Of Reading, Lord Chief Justice And Viceroy Of India, 1860-1835’, (London, 1981), p. 4

[23] Irish Independent, 28 March 1912

[24] Irish Times, 1 January 1912

[25] Irish Times, 1 January 1912

[26] Irish Times, 3 March 1912

[27] Irish Times, 13 April 1912

[28] Irish Independent, 12 March 1912

[29] Irish Independent, 1 April 1912

[30] Irish Times, 3 April 1912

[31] Freemans Journal, 10 April 1912

[32] Irish Times, 4 April 1912

[33] Irish Times, 12 April 1912

[34] Irish Times, 23 May 1912

[35] Irish Times, 8 June 1912

[36] Irish Times, 25 April 1912

[37] Irish Times, 21 May 1912

[38] New York Times, 13 June 1913

[39] Winfried Georg Max Sebald, ‘Tacita Dean’ in October Journal, Autumn, (2003), p. 129

[40] Alvin Jackson, Home Rule: An Irish History 1800—2000,  (Oxford, 2003) pp 10, 3

[41] Alvin Jackson, Home Rule: An Irish History 1800—2000,  (Oxford, 2003) pp 10, 3

[42] Stanley Warren, ‘Montrose House and the Jameson Family in Dublin and Wexford: A Personal Reminiscence’, in The Orogon of the Ui Cinsealaigh Historical Society, no. 28 (2007), p. 97

[43] National Archives of Ireland , www.census.nationalarchives.ie, accessed 8 April 2014

[44] Ian D. Colvin, Carson the Statesman, (Montana, 2005),  p. 179

[45]  W.J. Baker, The History Of The Marconi Company 1874-1965, (New York, 1998 ), p. 146

[46] Irish Independent, 1October 1912

[47] Joseph P. Finnan, ‘Punch’s Portrayal of Redmond, Carson and the Irish Question 1910-18’ in Irish Historical Studies, 33 no. 132 (2003), p. 439

[48] Punch, 2 July 1913

[49] Irish Times, 12 January 1912

[50] Leitrim Observer, 26th October 1912

[51] Irish Times, 19th June 1913

[52] Irish Times, 19 June 1913

[53] Ibid

[54] Writer Uncredited, ‘Asquith: The Master Statesman’, in The North American Review, 198, no 695 (1913), p. 439

[55] Irish Times, 18 June 1912

[56] Irish Times, 2 October 1912

[57] Irish Times, 2 October 1912

[58] Freemans Journal, 12 October 1912

[59] Freemans Journal, 12 October 1912

[60] Special report from the Select Committee on Marconi’ Wireless Telegraph Company, Limited, http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1912/oct/28/marconi-wireless-telegraph-company, accessed on, 10 April 2014

[61] Irish Times, 3 October 1912

[62] Skibbereen Eagle, 23November 1912


About Gerard Hannan

Media Student at MIC/UL in Limerick, Ireland. Worked as a Broadcaster/Journalist in Limerick for over 25 Years and has also published four local interest books.

Posted on April 25, 2014, in Ireland History. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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