Opinions & Ideas

Category: 1914

RESPONSE TO “SUNDAY INDEPENDENT” ARTICLE OF 3 JANUARY

Sunday Independent

An article in the “Sunday Independent” by Gene Kerrigan claimed that it was “nonsense” to claim that Home Rule, enacted into law in 1914 could have led, peacefully to Irish independence. Below is my response to this which the paper published on 17 January

Gene Kerrigan said on Sunday  3 January that does not think John Redmond should have supported voluntary recruitment to the UK Army in 1914, and, from that questionable proposition, he leaps to the conclusion that the 1916 Rebellion was both necessary and right.

These are two separate questions.  The killing, on the western front or at Gallipoli, did not justify the additional killing planned by the 1916 rebels, or vice versa.

Conscription was not imposed in Ireland during the Great War, although it did apply in Britain. All the Irish who fought in the Great War were volunteers. Conscription in Ireland was threatened in 1918, but it was not applied, because of mass political agitation, not because of the use of violence in Dublin two years earlier.

Redmond’s 1914 decision to support voluntary recruitment was made for a number of reasons, one of which was that Home Rule had just been passed into law. It was not just “promised” as Mr Kerrigan says, but passed into law and signed, after a long struggle which required Redmond to threaten to bring down the Liberal Government if it did not abolish the House of Lords’ veto.

It is wrong to describe the tough parliamentary tactics Redmond adopted as mere “mediating between rulers and ruled”. As did Parnell in his time, Redmond was willing to use the ultimate parliamentary weapon, bringing down the government and precipitating a General Election, to achieve his goal , the passage into law of Home Rule for Ireland.

Without that threat by Redmond, the UK Parliament would not have conceded the principle of Irish self government, when it irrevocably did so in September 1914, after three years parliamentary struggle, and in face of threats in Ulster.

Redmond was no mere mediator. He was a tough democratic politician who made the hard choices.

Mr Kerrigan may believe that big powers have no obligation to defend the neutrality of small countries, when the latter are attacked. Redmond did not agree with that approach. He accepted in his Woodenbridge speech that France and the UK had an obligation to defend the neutrality of Belgium when it was invaded, without any provocation at all, by Imperial Germany in August 1914.

Redmond believed Belgian neutrality should be protected.   I wonder what course Mr Kerrigan would have advised the Belgians to adopt, if he had been around in 1914.

He is , of course, right to say that our task today is to understand ” what the choices were for those who created this state”.

If so, the first thing one must do is accept that they did actually HAVE a choice.

They could have chosen not to start the killing and dying in Dublin in 1916. Most Irish people, at the time, did not think they made the right choice, including this newspaper.

The military commander of the Irish Volunteers, Eoin McNeill, also thought it was wrong choice at that time, a “mistake” in other words.

There are other reasons, apart from military discipline, to question the choice made. Mr Kerrigan himself suggested in his article on 3 January that the 1916 leaders, who went ahead against McNeill’s orders, deliberately and knowingly, sought to bring suffering on their own people, in order to achieve their political goals. Mr Kerrigan endorsed this calculated provocation of foreseeable, and foreseen, suffering imposed on uninvolved Irish people.

As Mr Kerrigan put it, the leaders of the rebellion had what he called a “pragmatic belief” that, if they staged a rebellion, the authorities

“would strike back viciously, its oppression undisguised, and thereby inflame nationalist feeling “.

He is not alone in this interpretation, but we should think very carefully about what it really means , before we decide that  the actions of the 1916 leaders are to be treated, from now on,  as  the seminal event of our modern, peaceful,  democracy.

 Mr Kerrigan’s claim is, after all, that the rebel leaders, coldly and calculatedly, to advance their political goals, foresaw, and even sought, the sufferings, that fell on the Irish people as result of their military actions. It would be difficult to reconcile that approach with any known concept of a just war.

The bulk of the suffering in Dublin in 1916 was not by the “Volunteers”,   but by I would call  the “Involunteers”, the  civilians and unarmed police, who did not choose to put their lives at risk, who were  just getting on with their daily work, but were killed  anyway.

The 1916 leaders made what Mr Kerrigan praises as a “pragmatic” choice to set in train events that, with foreknowledge, led to all those deaths, then and later between 1919 and 1923.

Now some will claim that Home Rule was inadequate. It was. In practice, I believe it would only have applied to a maximum of 28 counties.  There would not have been a United Ireland.

 But after three generations of some among our people continuing with   the sort of  “pragmatic” violence, that  your correspondent mistakenly praises, we do not have a United Ireland today either!

The fact remains that, through solely parliamentary methods, the principle of Irish legislative independence had been already won from the Imperial Parliament, in September 1914, BEFORE any rebellion here, and, as Conservative leader Bonar Law subsequently admitted, there was no going back on it.

The same principle of legislative independence was conceded b to Canada, Australia and to the other dominions.  We know now that they all proceeded to full sovereignty, without the necessity of a Civil War.

A Home Rule Ireland would have done the same, if that was the wish of the Irish people. After all, the Home Rule Parliament would have elected under the same wide suffrage that applied in 1918.

I believe Ireland would then have proceeded, by negotiation over time, to full independence on the basis of the votes, not the bullets, of the Irish people.

Commemoration is one of the ways by which a people defines itself, and tells itself what it regards as important now and for future generations.

I believe peaceful democratic achievements, like land reform, the enactment of Home Rule in 1914, the enactment of the 1922 and 1937 constitutions, and the declaration to the Republic in 1949, should therefore be commemorated, with equal or greater prominence than  military actions.

 

AS TENSION MOUNTS OVER UKRAINE…….SALUTORY LESSONS FROM 1914

I have just finished reading  “Sleepwalkers, How Europe went to war in 1914” by Christopher Clark, Professor of Modern History in Cambridge.  He describes the statesmen who stumbled into War in 1914 as “sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the horror they were about to bring to the world”.

A web of interlocking commitments, designed to give individual countries security and peace behind their own borders, ended up tumbling the whole continent into War.

Austro Hungary had a defensive pact with Germany. Russia set itself up as the protector of Serbia. France  gave Russia a blank cheque in the Balkans because it needed Russian assurances against Germany. Britain had a rather more vague understanding with France.  It feared any Russian rapprochement with Germany because Russia could threaten British interests in India.
So, when Franz Ferdinand was murdered in Sarajevo by assassins that had come from Serbia, the possibility that all these dominoes might fall in the  direction of war opened up. But it was only a possibility. 

Serbia could have taken resolute action to root out the conspiracy behind the assassins before Austria issued any ultimatum. Austria could have issued a more temperate ultimatum. Serbia could have given a less evasive response.  Germany could have restrained Austria.

Russia could have held back from full scale mobilization in support of Serbia, and France could have made it clear that it did not wish to get involved in supporting a Russian attack on Austria so long as Germany stayed out too. Britain could have said it would remain neutral in a German war with France, so long as Germany respected Belgian neutrality.
The interlocking commitments between countries that led to war were not, according to Christopher Clark, “long term  features of the European system, but the consequence of numerous short term adjustments” made in the immediately preceding years. 

The War was not inevitable, but suited some leaders to pretend to themselves afterwards that it was, so as to avoid facing the consequences of some their own omissions, ambiguities and evasions.
Some of the issues involved are still current.

How does one pursue a criminal conspiracy launched from another jurisdiction? If the European Arrest Warrant was in place could Austria have obtained the extradition of some of the conspirators from Belgrade without threatening war?

Christopher Clark says Austria’s ultimatum to Serbia was milder than the one NATO issued to Serbia in 1999!

As we see a drift towards a confrontation between Russia and the West over Ukraine, the lesson I draw from this book is that leaders must not just think of the next move, but of the likely counter move, the move after that and so on, bearing in mind that nothing is inevitable until it has actually happened, and that they usually have more choices than they are willing to acknowledge.

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