Shortt, Edward (1862–1935), politician and chief secretary for Ireland, was born 10 March 1862 at Byker, Newcastle upon Tyne, the second son of Edward Shortt, vicar of St Anthony's church, Byker (whose family originally came from Co. Tyrone), and his wife, Josepha (née Rushton). He was educated at Durham School and studied classics at Durham University, where he was Lindsay scholar and rowed for the university for two years. (In 1920 he received an honorary DCL from Durham.) Having graduated in 1884 he entered the Middle Temple in April 1887, was called to the bar in January 1890, and joined the north-eastern circuit. He developed a large junior practice in civil and criminal cases and served as recorder of Sunderland (1907–18). Shortt became a KC in 1910 and was elected a bencher of the Middle Temple in May 1919 and reader in 1928. In later life he served on the general council of the bar. In 1890 he married Isabella Stewart, daughter of A. G. Scott of Valparaiso; they had one son and three daughters.
Shortt is alleged to have been a liberal unionist in his early career, but he first entered politics in 1908 when he unsuccessfully contested the Newcastle upon Tyne parliamentary seat as a liberal. However, he was elected MP for Newcastle upon Tyne in January 1910 and retained the seat until 1918, when he became MP for the newly created western division of Newcastle (1918–22). He spoke frequently in support of the Third Home Rule Bill and was regarded as a competent but not outstanding debater.
In 1916 Shortt became a member of the parliamentary committee which supervised the Royal Flying Corps (later the RAF). When the Liberal Party split over deposing Asquith as prime minister in December 1916, Shortt sided with Lloyd George's coalition liberal faction (though the division was not clear-cut at first and for some time afterwards he was suspected of residual Asquithian sympathies). In June 1917 he was appointed chairman of a select committee to review the general administration of the military service acts; his work in this capacity (including the transfer of medical examinations from the War Office – which might have been felt to be prejudiced against applicants for exemption from conscription – to a civilian authority) gained him the reputation of being firm but tactful and brought him to the attention of Lloyd George.
In April 1918 Lloyd George gave Shortt his first ministerial office, as chief secretary for Ireland, and he was sworn of the British and Irish privy councils. He had voted against the extension of conscription to Ireland, and his appointment reflected a desire to show that the implementation of conscription did not represent a complete abandonment of concessions to nationalist Ireland. (He safeguarded himself from unionist attack by seeking the approval of Walter Long (qv) for his acceptance of the office.) Almost immediately he oversaw the arrest of most of the Sinn Féin leadership in connection with the so-called German plot; the subsequent failure of the Irish executive to provide the cabinet with evidence of the existence of this plot led Shortt to become increasingly assertive on policy matters. During his tenure of the office he was constantly at odds with the lord lieutenant, John, Viscount French (qv). It was widely believed (not least by French) that the lord lieutenant, as a senior military man, had been given charge of the Irish administration in order to implement conscription by measures amounting to martial law, and that the inexperienced chief secretary was very much his subordinate. French (supported and inspired by Long) also believed that it might be possible to satisfy the demand for home rule with a limited measure of administrative devolution involving unionist and conservative nationalist notables. Shortt, on the other hand, was firmly committed to the implementation of full home rule (shortly before the 1918 general election he warned Lloyd George that any postponement of the measure would cause most north of England liberals to desert the coalition. After the deferral and eventual abandonment of the attempt to extend conscription to Ireland, Shortt became increasingly clear-cut in asserting his preference for the ‘normal’ state of affairs, whereby the chief secretary ran the Irish Office and the lord lieutenant's functions were largely ceremonial. French attempted to implement his version of devolution by creating a seven-member viceroy's advisory council of grandees (including one former home rule MP), which he expected to exercise a statutory executive role in Irish government. Shortt, however, prevented the council from acquiring any executive powers and ensured that it remained purely advisory. Shortt and French also clashed over Shortt's view that the UVF should be disarmed along with the Irish Volunteers and over French's opinion that conscription should be enforced in October 1918.
In January 1919 Shortt was transferred to the Home Office, where he remained until the fall of the Lloyd George coalition in October 1922. His conciliatory but ultimately firm handling of an attempt to create a trade union for policemen, the National Union of Police and Prison Officers (NUPPO; which staged strikes for recognition in March and August 1919), led to its disintegration while earning him a certain popularity with the Metropolitan Police. As chairman of the cabinet committee on industrial unrest (February–September 1919) he took the view that the government should maintain a defensive position towards trade union excesses rather than actively seeking conflict.
Shortt advocated the maintenance of a distinctive liberal identity within the coalition rather than seeking merger with the conservatives; within the cabinet he advocated liberal policy on such matters as health and housing, and he annoyed conservative diehards by claiming at coalition liberal conferences that the coalition was almost indistinguishable from a liberal government. In general he favoured a conciliatory attitude on Irish matters. At the end of 1919 he blithely predicted that the centre party organised by Horace Plunkett (qv) and Stephen Gwynn (qv) would become a rallying point for moderates in Ireland, and that ‘Sinn Fein won't be formidable six months hence’ (O'Halpin, 179). Shortt joined the most radical of Lloyd George's liberal ministers, Addison and Fisher, in opposing the banning of Sinn Féin; he always insisted that it was a composite movement and that it would sooner or later be necessary to negotiate with its more moderate elements. However, in 1920 he declared himself opposed to any proposal to release the hunger-striking Terence MacSwiney (qv).
Despite the importance of his cabinet office, Shortt was undermined by his negligent attitude towards administration, by his favouritism towards people from the north-east in official appointments, and by his colourless personality. In April 1921 there was some talk of giving him a judicial position and appointing Hamar Greenwood (qv) home secretary, but this came to nothing. Shortt left office with Lloyd George and did not contest the 1922 general election. The fact that he did not obtain a peerage may reflect a personal view that such a title would be barren, since his only son had been killed in action in 1917.
Shortt chaired the committee on the rating of machinery in 1926 and was also chairman of committees on trusts, on heavy motor traffic, and on the Agricultural Marketing Act. He was a member of the defence of the realm (losses) royal commission. However, his later career is best remembered for his activities as a heavy-handed and repressive president of the British board of film censors (1929–35). He died 10 November 1935 at his home, 140 Oakwood Court, London, of septicaemia following influenza. Some of his correspondence is in the British Library (Howley Manuscripts, MS 46084, ff 193–5) and in Nuffield College, Oxford. His correspondence with Lloyd Geroge and Bonar Law may be found in their papers in the House of Lords Record Office, and his letters to Walter Long are in the Long Papers in the Wiltshire Record Office, Trowbridge.