John Dillon served as a Member of Parliament (MP) for over 35 years and was the last leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party. By political disposition Dillon was an advocate of Irish nationalism, originally a follower of Charles Stewart Parnell, supporting land reform and Irish Home Rule.
He became a leading land reform agitator as member of the original committee of the Irish National Land League, spearheading the policy of “boycotting” advocated by Michael Davitt with whom he was allied in close friendship. He entered the Parliament of the United Kingdom in 1880 as member for Co Tipperary, and was at first an ardent supporter of Charles Stewart Parnell.
His views on agrarian reform and on Home Rule led him being branded an extremist, which resulted in his arrest from May until August 1881 under the Irish Coercion Act. Again imprisoned for agitation in October 1881 together with Parnell, William O’Brien and others in Kilmainham Gaol, he signed the No Rent Manifesto in solidarity although not fully in agreement with it. Parnell sought to end the Land War by agreeing to the Kilmainham treaty after which they were released from prison in May 1882. Shortly afterwards they received the freedom of the city of Dublin.
He was one of the prime movers in the Irish Land League’s famous Plan of Campaign, and in 1888 when he defended Munster farmers he was again imprisoned for six months under the provisions of the new Criminal Law Procedure Bill, or Coercion Act. In all he was imprisoned six times.
With the outbreak of the Great War Dillon accepted Redmond’s decision to follow Britain’s support of the Allied war effort, but he abstained from recruiting for the Irish divisions. The 1916 Rising took the Irish Party by surprise. He intervened with David Lloyd George to halt the 90 sentences of execution pronounced by “field court-martial” (in camera without defence or jury) under martial law by General Maxwell after he declared the rebellion “treason in time of war”.
Dillon attempted to persuade the Government in July 1918 to implement Irish self-government by introducing a motion for self-determination in the Commons. He made clear in September that the goal of Home Rule could only be “the establishment of national self-government, including full and complete executive, legislative and fiscal power”, and that national solidarity was essential. But he completely underestimated the need to offer provisions for Ulster concerns, a fatal misjudgement shared by most Nationalists and Republicans alike.
It was left to Dillon to fight a last campaign in the general election of December 1918. After a failure to reach a pact with Sinn Féin, his party was swept into oblivion. He was defeated in East Mayo by Éamon de Valera’s 8975 votes to his 4514. Retiring from politics, Dillon was not spared witnessing the violent epoch of the War of Anglo-Irish War, the implementation of Home Rule in Northern Ireland, the ensuing Partition of Ireland endorsed by the Irish Free State and the resulting Irish Civil War.
Dillon died in a London nursing home at the age of 76, on 4 August 1927, and was buried four days later in Glasnevin cemetery, Dublin. There is a street named after him in Dublin’s Liberties, beside the old Iveagh Market.