Devlin, Joseph (1871–1934), nationalist leader, was born 13 February 1871 at Hamill St., Belfast, fourth son of Charles Devlin, car driver, and Elizabeth Devlin (née King), both recent migrants from the Lough Neagh area of east Co. Tyrone. Educated to elementary level from the age of 6 at CBS, Divis St., Devlin proceeded to employment in Kelly's Cellars public house near the city centre. From this unpromising background (throughout his life opponents made condescending references to him as a Belfast bottle-washer) Devlin rose through a combination of ability, connections, and ambition to journalism with the Irish News (1891–3) and Freeman's Journal (1895) and political position.
Early political career: the AOH The young Devlin was active in various local debating societies, where his associates included Cathal O'Byrne (qv); they always retained a personal friendship despite later political differences. A committee member of the Belfast branch of the Irish National League in 1890, Devlin joined the anti-Parnellite faction during the O'Shea divorce scandal (1891), becoming local secretary of the Irish National Federation. His political model at this time was Thomas Sexton (qv), MP for Belfast West, whose campaign he organised at the general election of 1892.
Although Healyism was strong in catholic Ulster (where catholic lay elites were weaker, and clerical political leadership correspondingly stronger, than elsewhere in Ireland) Devlin aligned himself with the faction led by John Dillon (qv) and – from 1899 – with the United Irish League, founded by William O'Brien (qv). From the late 1890s this brought Devlin into conflict with the Catholic Representation Association of Dr Henry Henry, bishop of Down and Connor (1895–1908); this organisation, though sometimes regarded as Healyite, was essentially based on the view that mass nationalist political mobilisation in Belfast could only bring trouble and ostracism, and that catholic interests were best represented by allowing a small group of lay and clerical notables to broker concessions from the unionist majority. After a series of local election contests in catholic wards and controversies between the pro-Devlin weekly Northern Star and the clerically controlled Irish News, Devlin succeeded in marginalising the politically maladroit Henry by 1905; in the process, however, he took on some of the qualities of his ‘catholic establishment’ opponents. (The Irish News came to be dominated by Devlin, who eventually served as one of its directors.) At the same time, Devlin moved onto the national political stage.
Returned unopposed for Kilkenny North (1902–6), he was appointed secretary of the United Irish League of Great Britain (1903) and of the parent body in Dublin (1904). A speaking tour of the US in 1902–3 convinced him of the organisational potential of catholic fraternal organisations, and in 1905 he took over the presidency of the Board of Erin faction of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (1905), a specifically catholic body which Devlin proceeded to develop as an organisational arm of the nationalist party. Under his tutelage the AOH expanded from 10,000 members in 1905 to 60,000 in 1909, despite opposition from some catholic bishops (notably Cardinal Logue (qv)) who distrusted it because of its close affiliation to Dillonism, its secrecy, and its habit of staging dances and other entertainments without paying what they regarded as due deference to local priests. Devlin's AOH also faced opposition from a rival separatist body, the Irish-American Alliance AOH; though far less numerous, this group was able to draw on the support of separatists within the American AOH and hinder Devlin's attempts to mobilise the American organisation in his support. The AOH expanded further after 1910, and was strengthened by becoming an approved society under the national insurance act of 1911.
Belfast was where Devlin's political career began and where it ended. Organisational skill contributed substantially to his hold on the largely working-class seat of Belfast West, which he won in 1906 on a platform that sought to transcend religious boundaries by combining labour issues with the home rule demand – a platform born of Devlin's acute social conscience, and consistent with the nationalist party's efforts to forestall the independent political mobilisation of Irish labour through incorporating its concerns within the party's agenda. A lifelong bachelor, Devlin, though short in stature (he was known in Belfast as ‘Wee Joe’ – and by Tim Healy (qv), less affectionately, as ‘the duodecimo Demosthenes’ (Brown, 155)), was apparently highly attractive to women, and took a special interest in their problems, no doubt mindful of the influence they might have on the political behaviour of their spouses. He was to found a holiday home for working-class women. When the scholar Betty Messenger interviewed former Belfast linen workers in the late 1960s and early 1970s, she was startled to discover the extent to which Devlin was remembered as a champion of the workers decades after his death; this image persisted among protestant workers as well as catholics, and he was generally credited with various ameliorations of workplace conditions even when he had not in fact been responsible for them.
Organiser of the Irish party Possessed of great oratorical skills and even greater organisational ability, Devlin effectively became the key organiser of the nationalist party from the early years of the twentieth century, relieving the party leader, John Redmond (qv), of a great deal of the administrative burden of party affairs, and becoming well known abroad through fund-raising trips, especially in North America. His personal geniality made him a great favourite at Westminster, and Irish socialists were dismayed at the willingness of British Labour MPs to accept him as an authentic Labour representative. Several MPs elected after 1906 can be identified as his protégés, and groups of Hibernian strong-arm men upheld the party leadership in such contests as the 1907 Leitrim North by-election and the 1909 ‘baton convention’ which witnessed the final departure of William O'Brien and his supporters from the UIL. He was the only post-Parnellite MP to be admitted to the tight leadership group around Redmond (to the dismay of some party intellectuals such as F. Cruise O'Brien (qv) and Francis Sheehy-Skeffington (qv), who regarded him as a ‘brainless bludgeoner’ and a Tammany Hall boss). In 1913 Devlin was a leading organiser of the Irish National Volunteers.
When William O'Brien embarked on his personal initiative to deal with the Ulster problem through conciliation in the early Edwardian period, he found a stern critic in Devlin and in turn demonised the ‘Molly Maguires’ as sectarian corruptionists – though it has been suggested that O'Brien's denunciations, and their exploitation by unionists, actually assisted the Order's growth by associating it with loyalty to Redmond's leadership. Personally non-sectarian, Devlin, like other party leaders, endorsed the shibboleth that home rule would prove a panacea for Ireland's problems, including Ulster, and used his credentials as a labour representative to dismiss popular unionism as a mere product of elite manipulation – a position more excusable for southern nationalists, with only a limited knowledge of the province, than it was for him. In a period when the Vatican's Ne temere decree on religiously mixed marriages was heightening protestant fears about the ‘tyranny’ of Rome, Devlin seemed to be oblivious to how his integration of Hibernianism and nationalism was exacerbating that problem (as seen in the attempts of Frederick Oliver Trench (qv), Lord Ashtown, to use the AOH's alleged foundation by Rory O'More (qv) as ‘proof’ that the Irish party wished to repeat the 1641 massacre of protestants). As the third home rule bill passed through parliament and the Ulster Volunteer Force mobilised, Devlin encouraged the Irish party leaders in the view that the Ulster unionist campaign was a gigantic bluff, dismissing contrary opinions even when held by other nationalist MPs. During these years the AOH clashed with the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union during the Dublin lockout (though there was some overlap between AOH and trade union membership in provincial centres such as Sligo), and from late 1913 the AOH spearheaded the Redmondite attempt to take over and dominate the Irish Volunteers.
War and partition Devlin endorsed Redmond's support for the British war effort and engaged in extensive recruiting activity (leading his old opponent James Connolly (qv) to denounce him as ‘a recruiting sergeant luring to their death the men who trusted him and voted him into power’ (Connolly, Collected works, 364–5). He seems to have been motivated, at least in part, by the belief that after the war nationalist ex-soldiers could be used to overawe the Ulster unionists by the threat of force. According to Stephen Gwynn (qv), Devlin wished to apply for an officer's commission but was asked not to do so by Redmond on the grounds that the party needed his organisational skills.
Devlin's career was decisively shaped by his decision to use his influence to persuade northern nationalists to accept temporary partition, in fulfilment of the flawed agreement arrived at between Lloyd George, Sir Edward Carson (qv), and Redmond in the aftermath of the 1916 rising. Devlin later claimed he had been decisively influenced by the prospect that under this agreement the excluded area would be governed directly from Westminster, rather than by a local Orange-dominated parliament. Other motives may have included personal loyalty and deference to Redmond. Devlin forced the agreement through a Belfast-based convention despite protests from west Ulster nationalists, but the proposals collapsed after it transpired that Lloyd George had made incompatible commitments to nationalists and unionists. Northern nationalism immediately split between west and south Ulster dissidents and Devlin's loyalists (predominant in Belfast and east Ulster), and the next year saw massive secessions of AOH members outside Ulster to Sinn Féin. Although Devlin retained a core of loyal supporters, he was reduced from a national to a sectional leader. As a member of the Irish convention (1917–18) Devlin sided with Bishop Patrick O'Donnell (qv) against Redmond on the issue of seeking a compromise settlement with southern unionists on the basis of home rule without fiscal autonomy. Devlin was offered the leadership of the nationalist party on Redmond's death in 1918, but conceded the honour to his long-standing mentor, John Dillon.
Devlin held Belfast West till 1918, and easily swept aside an attempt by Éamon de Valera (qv) to displace him from the Falls division of Belfast at the general election of that year, though the electoral decimation of the nationalist party elsewhere left him leading a rump of only seven MPs (five from Ulster, one from Liverpool). In the ensuing parliament he was an outspoken critic of government policy towards Ireland, and highlighted sectarian violence against northern nationalists. Clearly discouraged and with boundary changes militating against retention of the Falls seat, Devlin unsuccessfully contested the Exchange division of Liverpool (which had a large Irish population) as an Independent Labour candidate in 1922. Elected for Co. Antrim and Belfast West to the parliament of Northern Ireland in 1921, he eventually took his seat (Belfast West) in 1925, holding it till 1929, when he combined representation for Belfast Central with that for Fermanagh and South Tyrone at Westminster.
Last years; death and legacy Only after the boundary commission ended the border nationalists’ hopes of speedy incorporation in the Irish Free State was Devlin able to assert leadership of northern nationalism as a whole on the basis of attendance at the northern parliament; even then he was considerably handicapped by recriminations over the events of 1916–25. He embarked on his last significant political campaign in 1928, when he sought to unite minority politics through the agency of the National League of the North. The initiative, emphasising social reform, was unsuccessful. Devlin's own political baggage was a hindrance to the unity of the factions that minority politics had thrown up over the previous ten years, while the minority community itself was politically demoralised by the fate that had overtaken it, and the unionist government showed itself unwilling to make concession to Devlin. The project, moreover, coincided with the onset of the gastric illness (exacerbated by heavy smoking) that would take Devlin's life on 18 January 1934. For some time before his death he had ceased to attend the Northern Ireland parliament.
Devlin's political career was one of great promise only partially fulfilled, its ultimate realisation undermined firstly by the fallout from the Easter rising that destroyed the vehicle of his political ambitions, and secondly by the sequence of events that led to the creation of a constitutional entity so constructed that all nationalist politicians, regardless of talent, were effectively denied a route to power. Only at his death did the unionist regime adequately acknowledge Devlin's political stature. His funeral was attended by at least three Northern Ireland cabinet ministers, together with representatives of the government of the Irish Free State. Northern nationalism never again produced a leader of his ability in the Stormont era; his ability to use Westminster to promote the interests of Ulster nationalists is comparable to John Hume's use of Europe for the same purpose from the mid 1970s. After his death the nationalist party in Belfast grew increasingly reliant on middle-class leadership and was eventually displaced by nationalist labour splinter groups, some of whose prominent activists, such as Harry Diamond (qv), had begun their careers as election workers for Devlin. A portrait of Devlin by Sir John Lavery (qv) is held by the Ulster Museum, Belfast. His papers are in the PRONI.