John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas

Category: Books Page 1 of 2

THE HISTORIC ROOTS OF CONFLICT IN THE GREATER MIDDLE EAST

News headline are occupied almost every day by a story of conflict in what was once the Ottoman Empire, an Empire that existed for over 400 years and once ruled all of the Middle East, North Africa and much of SE Europe.

We hear of

  • ethnic cleansing in the Balkans,
  • conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, 
  • sectarian conflict in Iraq and Syria,
  • tension and rivalry between Turkey and Egypt,
  •  civil wars in Libya and Lebanon, and 
  • the appalling fate of Yemen.

 All these conflicts, in what was once the Ottoman Empire, have deep historical roots that go back to the time of the Empire.

 As long as the Ottoman Empire existed, these tensions were imperfectly contained by the stratified and devolved structures of the empire. That calm did not survive the end of the empire in 1922.

Western attempts, at the end of World War  1, to restructure the territories of the defeated Ottomans on the basis of western style nation states, have not brought peace. The unresolved tensions, dating back to Ottoman times, have fed Islamic terror and fuelled migration flows into Europe.

The origins of all of this can only be understood if one takes a deep dive into how the Ottoman Empire was brought down by the outcome of the First World War, a war for which the Ottomans bore much less responsibility than did most of the other protagonists.

This is brilliantly described in “The Fall of the Ottomans”, the Great War in the Middle East 1914-1920” by Eugene Rogan. Rogan is also the author of a book on the Arabs and a lecturer on history in Oxford University.

This book is much more than a narrative military history. The political origins and consequences of the war are explained.

 In 1914, the Ottoman Empire had had a long term conflict of interest with Russia. Russia had supported its enemies in the Balkans, coveted its territories in the Caucasus, and had earlier expelled Ottoman subjects from the Crimea. 

Russia also wished to control the Dardanelles straits, so as to have access to the Mediterranean. Russia, then as now, saw itself as the defender of the Orthodox Christian faith which had been supplanted in Constantinople by the Ottoman conquest of that city in 1483.

In the nineteenth century, Ottoman interests had been defended against Russia by Britain and France. But, in the early twentieth century, France allied itself with Russia, in order to counterbalance the rising power of Imperial Germany. That left the Ottomans isolated. 

Then, on 1 August 1914, at the very moment of the outbreak of the War, Britain refused to deliver warships, built in Britain for the Ottoman Navy, and already been fully paid for by public subscriptions of Ottoman citizens. The Ottomans had to find new allies so, the day after the British refusal to hand over the battleships, they secretly allied themselves with Germany.

 They then formally entered the War on the side of Germany in November 1914.

Rogan’s book is full of insights into a world that was very different from today.

 The First Arab Congress, which sought to resist the “Turkification” and centralisation of the Ottoman Empire, took place in Paris in 1913.

 23 Arab delegates attended- 11 Muslims, 11 Christians and one Jew. 

The presence of a Jewish Arab at an Arab Congress seems remarkable nowadays, but the Arab identity at the time seems to have been based on a shared language, and not on ethnicity or religion.

The Armenian genocide by the Ottomans during the First World War is described.  It was the result of suspicion and fear. Armenians were to be found in both the Ottoman and Russian Empires. Many lived in the Ottoman capital, Istanbul.

With modest justification, the Ottomans suspected the loyalty of the Armenians and sought to move them by force to Syria, as far as possible from the Russian frontier. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians died. 

Assyrian Christians also suffered from similar suspicions, and a third of their pre war population perished during World War I.

The British attempt to knock the Ottomans out of the war by an attack on the Dardanelles in 1915 was an attempt to help the Russians, whose forces were thought to be in danger of being encircled by Ottoman forces in the Caucasus. In fact, this information proved to be false but the attack went ahead anyway, with disastrous results. 

The tenacity and loyalty of the Ottoman forces was underestimated here and on other fronts in this terrible war. The attack on the Dardanelles in fact strengthened the Ottoman/ German alliance and prolonged the war.

Rogan also describes the warfare between the Ottomans and the British in modern day Iraq(where the British suffered severe defeats) and in Palestine. There were in fact three battles in Gaza before the British eventually broke through there to capture Jerusalem and Damascus in late 1918.

In order to win Arab support in August 1915, Sir Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Egypt,  had pledged British support for 

“the independence of Arabia and its inhabitants together with our approval of the Arab khalifate when it should be proclaimed”

Obviously Arab aspirations had moved some distance from the non sectarian demand of the Arab Congress of 1913. The notion of a khalifate was, as we know, taken up by ISIS in recent times.

As we know, these promises were not kept, and British and French protectorates were established in the conquered Arab lands (Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Lebanon) after War under the Sykes/Picot Agreement.

But it did not stop there.

 At the Peace Conference, the terms imposed on the Ottoman Empire by the Allies also required it to surrender territories in modern Turkey to Greece, to Italy, and to new Kurdish and Armenian entities. 

The acceptance of these terms by the last Ottoman sultan was too much for the Turkish Army led by Kemal Attaturk. He drove the Greek and Italian forces out of Turkey,  deposed the Sultan and proclaimed a Turkish Republic. 

Eugene Rogan’s book is well written and helps us understand some of the fears and resentments that are causing deaths up to this day.

Tom McIntyre, RIP

Cavan County Council and Cavan Arts Office pay Tribute to Tom McIntyre

I wish to pay tribute to the life and work of the poet and playwright Tom McIntyre.

Tom was a noted athlete in his youth, playing for Cavan as a goal keeper.

I first encountered him when he taught me English and History in Clongowes.

He opened my mind to a new view of the world. He was unconventional, irreverent and also a very kind person, whose personality inspired many of his students to explore the world of poetry.

I attended some years ago when he was honoured by Cavan County Council.

He was very proud of Cavan and returned to live there.

JACOBITE SCOTLAND……..ECHOES FROM HISTORY

I recently enjoyed “Jacobites, a new history of the 1745 Rebellion” by Jacqueline Riding.

Recently I visited Scotland and was at Glenfinnan, where Prince Charles Edward first raised the standard of his father, James III, as the legitimate King of the UK on 19 August 1745.

 I also saw and the battlefield of Culloden, near Inverness where his attempt to reclaim the throne came to bloody end on 16 April 1746.

 This was the last pitched battle fought on British soil, and ended a struggle that had involved Ireland at the battles of the Boyne in 1690 and Aughrim in 1691.

Riding’s book is timely, as it illustrates the close connection of Scotland with continental Europe, something the English sometimes fail to appreciate, as we see nowadays as Brexit unfolds.

There was also considerable Irish involvement in Charles Edward’s campaign.

The bulk of the small number of French troops, sent to aid him, came from Irish regiments in the French Army. The leading financiers of the campaign were French based Irishmen, Antoine Walsh and Walter Ruttledge. Of the small party that landed in Scotland with the Prince in 1745, the majority were Irish.  

Charles Edward was only 25 when he set out on what must have seemed a reckless endeavour, with little chance of success. French military help was modest, and designed more to create a diversion from other theatres of war (mainly in present day Belgium) that were more vital to French interests than was securing the British throne for James III.

Initially, Charles Edward had astounding success. He took Edinburgh (except its castle) without firing a shot. He then defeated a British army at Prestonpans.

He held court in Edinburgh for a few weeks, promising, among other things to grant religious toleration to all, and to repeal the Act of Union of 1707 between England and Scotland. While there he enhanced his mainly highland Scottish Army with lowland Scots recruits.

He then decided to lead a winter invasion of England, crossing the border at Carlisle, and heading for Lancashire where there was considered to be support for the Jacobite cause. But there was just one small, easily suppressed, rising on his behalf, by Catholics in the vicinity of Omskerk near Liverpool. The Catolic clergy advised their flock not to get involved. He was able to raise a force in Manchester, mainly among local Catholics, but practical English support for his cause proved very disappointing.

After an agonising debate, it was decided in December, at Derby, that he should not continue with his invasion but should lead his Army back to Scotland, and await more substantial help from France.  Most of the Scottish forces, on which he depended and who had much to lose, preferred to fight for their cause in their native country than to wait to be overwhelmed by superior forces gathering in what was, for them, in a foreign land.

The Prince himself wanted go on to London. But that endeavour could only have worked if there was a simultaneous invasion from France, which could not be guaranteed.

Prince Charles Edward’s army could move much faster than the more cumbersome English forces, and so evaded them to get back safely to Scotland, where he did indeed prove to have more solid support.

Once back in Scotland, he got local more recruits and help from France, and won another military victory at Falkirk.

But his position was never secure.

Hanoverian forces still held too many of the strong points in Scotland and the Prince’s Highland clansmen were more suited to short aggressive campaigns, than they were to a war of attrition. Money was also in short supply. And French help did not always get through because the Royal Navy was so strong.

He was finally defeated at Culloden, near Inverness, by the Duke of Cumberland, the son of King George II, and, like Charles, in his mid twenties. Large numbers of highlanders were massacred in cold blood after the battle, while those fighting for the Prince in French uniforms were spared.

The Prince eventually escaped to France, but was ejected from there when France made peace with England.

He had to return to Rome and the protection of the Pope and of his brother, Henry Stuart, who had become a Cardinal. He continued to seek a way to win back the throne, and in 1749 he became a Protestant, presumably to make himself more acceptable to English opinion.

He was a leader of immense flair, courage, and charisma when things were going well. But seemed unable to hide his feelings when things went wrong, which demoralised his supporters.

He lived out his life in Rome, never giving up on the hope of a return to the throne. He had a daughter, Charlotte, Duchess of Albany, who survived him by only two years. In terms of public achievement, his life was over, almost before it had begun.

NIGERIA….a troubled history but a hopeful future

I greatly enjoyed reading “The Nigerian Civil War” by John de St Jorre, first published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1972, shortly after the war itself ended.

The origins of the war of the war are complex.

The Igbo, a tribe in SE Nigeria, thanks to good education and entrepreneurial spirit, tended to be disproportionately influential in post independence Nigeria. This led to resentment.

An army Coup d’ Etat in January 1966, in which members of the Igbo tribe took a prominent part, led to retaliatory killings of Igbos in other parts of Nigeria. This, in turn, led to an exodus of Igbos back to their ancestral lands in South Eastern Nigeria, in what was to become Biafra, and is now part of the Rivers State. These killings, mainly in Northern Nigeria, fed fears of a wider genocide against Igbos.

Even before Biafra formally seceded from Nigeria, the Nigerian Army was decentralised. Its commander in what was to become Biafra, Emeka Ojukwu, was thus free to make preparations for independence, while still technically in the Federal Nigerian army. This scope for autonomy of military commanders was also a factor in the Spanish and Irish Civil Wars.

At 2 am on the morning of 30 May 1967, Ojukwu declared Biafra to be independent of Nigeria.  Thanks to the fear of genocide, and to considerable international assistance (notably from France, Portugal and South Africa), Biafra survived militarily, until it suddenly collapsed in January 1970.

Thanks to the statesmanship of the Nigerian leader, General Yakubu Gowon, there was no genocide at the end of the war.

In contrast, leniency was shown and former supporters of Biafran secession were encouraged to take part in Nigerian political life. This is in marked contrast to the way in which the Spanish Civil War ended. Indeed the gradual realistion that, as the Federal army advanced into formerly Biafran territory, there was in fact no retaliation against former supporters of  Biafran secession, contributed to the collapse of secession.

In a sense, this Nigerian Civil War discouraged later attempts to re draw colonial boundaries on more “logical” tribal lines, elsewhere in Africa. An exception is the independence of Southern Sudan, which has not proven to be a great success.

It is difficult for an outsider to judge the legacy of the Civil War within Nigeria itself.  But this book tells a tragic story well.

TWENTY FIRST CENTURY CHALLENGES FOR NIGERIA

Family, religion and ethnicity are still important loyalties rivalling loyalty to the state of Nigeria itself.

There are 350 different local languages.

The birth rate is higher in the Muslim north of the country and this could gradually change the balance of power within the country. Warfare with Boko Haram in the North displaced 2 million people in 2017.

In another book I read, “Nigeria, what everyone needs to know” by John Campbell and Matthew Page it is claimed

‘“politics is more important in Nigeria than in the US or Europe because there are few other alternatives for elite competition or enrichment”.

Members of the National Assembly are very well paid.

Democracy has become stronger in recent years. The 2015 national elections were seen as credible and fair.

Patronage is still a key to re election. But UNICEF estimates that as many as 40% of Nigerian children aged between 6 and 11 do not attend school any many educated Nigerians(including priests and doctors) tend to emigrate.

Finding a workable development model, that will keep talent at home and give opportunities to those currently excluded, is still a huge challenge for this large and powerful African country.

 

SICILY, ANOTHER OFFSHORE ISLAND

I have just finished reading “Sicily, a Short history from the Ancient Greeks to Cosa Nostra” by John Julius Norwich.

A former British diplomat, Lord Norwich has also written a comprehensive history of the Byzantine Empire, and other historical and travel works, concerning the peoples of the Mediterranean.

Sicily, like Ireland, is an offshore island of Europe, but its history has been more varied.

A thousand years ago, Sicily was much more prosperous than Ireland.

For over the two thousand years it was at the crossroads of the known world. It was a key to the control of the Mediterranean.

Not surprisingly it was fought over many times, by the Greeks, the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Arabs and the Normans. All left their mark on the architecture of the island.

The Greek influence is still predominant on the eastern side of Sicily, and the Arab in the west of the island. Greek was the predominant language in Sicily until the sixth century.

In more recent times, the Habsburg and Bourbon dynasties fought the control Sicily.

At times Sicily was part of one political unit with Naples, at others it was independent.

Garibaldi started his military campaign to unify Italy in Sicily, and the Americans started their invasion of Europe in Sicily in 1943, an event which led to the fall of Mussolini.

Al these stories are told in a colourful way by Lord Norwich, who brings the characters of the protagonists vividly to life.

In ways, the history of Sicily is the history of Europe seen from a southern angle.

Sicilians have suffered from their strategic location. Outsiders interfered so much, that Sicilians never developed a sound, predictable and efficient political and civic system of their own. This weakness left a space for the growth of organisations like the Mafia.

In some respects, Italy, as a whole, faces a similar challenge today of building a lean state, that can govern economically, without avoidable delays or fuss.

 

THE ROAD TO IRISH INDEPENDENCE

Ireland will soon be entering the period of commemoration of the conflict that took place in this country between 1919 and 1923.

It is customary to refer to the conflict between 1919 and 1921 as the War of Independence, and that between 1922 and 1923, as the Civil War.

In fact, both were Civil Wars. In the 1919 to 1921 war, the first victims were Irish members of the RIC, and Irish members of the Judiciary.

The first police victims were RIC constables James McDonnell and Patrick O Connell, killed at Soloheadbeg Co Tipperary on 21 January 1919.  Both were Irish born Catholics, as were many RIC victims.

The first Magistrate to die was James Charles Milling, a Mayo native, shot through the front window of his home in Westport in March 1919. He was a member of the Church of Ireland is buried in the Holy Trinity cemetery in Westport.

These Irishmen were supporting the then existing legal order as they saw it, and paid the supreme sacrifice in so doing.

The tragedy of these conflicts is reflected in two books I read recently.

One is “The Irish War of Independence” by Michael Hopkinson, published by Gill and Macmillan.

The other is “The Redmonds and Waterford, a political dynasty 1891 -1952” by Pat McCarthy published by Four Courts Press.

Hopkinson’s book shows how the threat of the introduction of conscription in Ireland, in March 1918, radicalised Irish opinion and laid the foundation for the Sinn Fein electoral victory over the Irish Parliamentary Party nine months later,  in the General Election which took place when the Great War was over.

Sinn Fein won the election on a manifesto of abstaining from Westminster and seeking recognition for Irish independence from the Peace Conference in Versailles.

The Manifesto claimed that

“the right of a nation to sovereign independence rests on immutable natural law and cannot be made the subject of compromise”

This rejection, on principle, of compromise was reckless. It made conflict of some kind inevitable.

But the Sinn Fein Manifesto did not seek an explicit mandate for armed insurrection, although it did speak of the

“use of any and every means available to render impotent the power of England to hold Ireland in subjection”.

It is hard to argue that, by voting for Sinn Fein in 1918, the Irish people gave a clear democratic mandate for the waging of war.

From the beginning, the preferred IRA tactic was the shooting of policemen (whether armed or not, whether on or off duty) and of Magistrates.

Policemen and Magistrates were, and still are, the executors of state authority in every locality. Killing them was designed to undermine that authority.

Hopkinson claims that both Griffith and de Valera were opposed to the shooting of policemen and would have preferred more conventional warfare. But their policy of appealing to the Versailles Peace Conference yielded no results, despite de Valera’s efforts to rouse opinion in the US.

The struggle was evenly balanced.

Despite many IRA successes, by July 1921, there were 4500 IRA internees, compared to around 2000 active in the field. Shortage of ammunition was a problem for the IRA.

Shortage of manpower was a problem for the authorities. The British had other military priorities, in places like Egypt.

The possibility of Partition had been a main reason for the rejection, by Sinn Fein and wider Nationalist opinion, of the Home Rule policy of John Redmond in the 1916 to 1918 period.

But when it came to negotiation a Truce to end the hostilities in 1921, partition was no longer so central. Hopkinson claims that Lloyd George was told through intermediaries that

“the Dail would accept the exclusion of the six counties provided that fiscal autonomy was granted to the twenty six”.

This is, in fact, how things turned out. Ireland got fiscal independence but partition remains.

The key issue in fiscal independence was the ability to impose tariffs.

One of the perceived inadequacies of the Home Rule proposal had been that Home Rule Ireland would have remained in the UK Customs Union, and would not have been able to impose tariffs on British goods. Fiscal autonomy, under the Treaty of 1921, enabled the Free State to impose tariffs.

When the war was started in January 1919, Home Rule was on the statute book, but remained unimplemented because of differences over the exclusion of some Ulster counties.

But Northern Ireland had not been created, and partition had not been formalised.

That happened in 1920, when the UK Parliament passed a  new Government of Ireland Act, creating two Irish Home Rule Parliaments in place of one , a Parliament  for Ulster (which became Stormont) and another for the rest of Ireland(which was boycotted by Sinn Fein and was stillborn).

This is where the theme of Pat McCarthy’s book, on the Redmonds, intersects with Hopkinson’s book on the Civil Wars.

When the new Government of Ireland Act, setting up Stormont, came before Parliament in London, there were very few Irish Nationalist MPs there to oppose or amend it. This is because the constituencies in Southern Ireland had elected Sinn Fein MPs, who declined to take their seats.

There was one exception, Captain Willie Redmond, who had defeated the Sinn Fein candidate and  won his father John’s old seat in Waterford City.

Along with TP O Connor, who represented a Liverpool constituency Patrick Donnelly (Armagh South), Joe Devlin (Belfast West), Edward Kelly (East Donegal), Jeremiah McVeagh (South Down), Thomas Harbison (Tyrone NE), he was there to speak against the Government of Ireland Act.

But this small Nationalist Party in Westminster did not have the votes to insist on amendments that might have protected the minority in Northern Ireland from what were to be the discriminatory excesses of the Unionist dominated Stormont Parliament.

Pat McCarthy’s book explains how it came about that a city in the south east of Ireland could resist the Sinn Fein tide that swept over the rest of the South in December 1918.

It was due to a devotion to John Redmond in Waterford City that lasted long after his death.

John Redmond had protected the economic interests of Waterford City, bringing it funds for housing and bridge building. He forged an alliance with the local pig buyers association and with the trade unions. Like Redmond, Waterford City had remained loyal to Parnell unlike most of rural Ireland and this Parnellism added to Redmond’s appeal in Waterford.

After 1922, Captain Willie Redmond was elected to Dail Eireann and founded his own party, the short lived National League.

He later was re elected as a Cumann na nGaedhael TD in 1932. He died later that year and his young widow, Bridget Redmond continued to represent Waterford City in the Dail as a Fine Gael TD until she died at a young age in 1952, just after having got her largest ever vote in the 1951 Election.

Because it is concerned with a particular family and locality, Pat McCarthy’s book is full of human interest. But is also a serious and balanced work of history.

Hopkinson’s narrative and analysis of the War of 1919 to 1921 is necessarily more superficial, but it is well worth reading too.

COMPETITION IN THE WESTERN PACIFIC…..A THREAT TO WORLD PEACE?

“Asia’s Reckoning, the Struggle for Global Dominance” by Richard McGregor certainly has an ambitious title.

It chronicles the growing competition in East Asia between China on one side, and the United States and Japan on the other. This competition has economic, military, and resource dimensions.

China aims to again become the dominant power in East Asia, a position which it had until about 200 years ago. Until then, other Asian countries acknowledged the preeminent position of the Chinese Emperor.  This history partly explains why China still has such  seemingly extravagant ideas about how far Chinese territorial waters extend.

Since 1945, through its network of alliances and military bases, the United States has held the position of dominant power in East Asia and in the western Pacific. But its hold is weakening, especially since both Trump and Clinton foolishly decided the United States should pull out of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would have provided an economic and trade under pinning to the US military position.

The United States position needed the economic strengthening TPP would have given it, because of dramatic changes that have occurred in relative economic power since 1990.

Since 1990,

  • the Chinese economy has increased thirty times in size, whereas
  • the US economy has only tripled in size. Meanwhile
  • the Japanese economy has only grown by 23%!

Countries like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the Phillipines, depend on US military guarantees to defend their territorial integrity. Communist Vietnam has also moved closer to the United States for this reason. This worked well when US global dominance was visible for all to see, as it was in the wake of the first Gulf War. But subsequent US military reverses, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and isolationist rhetoric from President Trump has created new doubts.

While China has settled land based territorial disputes it had with its neighbours, highly emotional and unresolved issues remain with Japan, the Philipines, and Vietnam about uninhabited islands,  territorial waters, and exclusive air space. And, of course, China claims Taiwan.

China takes these issues very seriously.

For example, in 2012, Japan had 50 coast guard vessels to China’s 40. Now China has 120, to Japan’s 60.

Economic growth has enabled China to invest heavily in its military and naval strength.

China may not be seeking global dominance, as this book’s title suggests, but it is determined never again to be dominated by outside powers, as it was between the 1830’s and 1945. Memories of these past humiliations are fresh in China, and are reinforced by propaganda.

It growing economic and military power has increased China’s diplomatic weight.

The opening by South Korea to North Korea around the winter games may well be an example of Chinese influence replacing the belligerence of Donald Trump.

As time goes by, the United States will find its dominance of the western Pacific harder to maintain, but this may not lead to military conflict.

Thanks to its one child policy, quite soon, China will become an elderly country. Japan is already elderly. Elderly countries are prone to be cautious.

On the other hand, as this book laboriously demonstrates, both China and Japan have become increasingly nationalistic. They have radically different understandings of history, and this shapes their sense of what is important, and of who they are. Accidents and miscalculations can lead to war, as happened in Europe in 1914.

This book gives a detailed account of the twists and turns on the triangular diplomatic relationships of the United States, China and Japan since 1951. Some of this is hard to follow.

It does not deal with economics at all, so the reasons for Japan’s decline are unexplored. Shifts in United States perceptions of Asia are also largely unexplained.

This book deals with an important topic, but it could be better.

 

 

LORD EDWARD FITZGERALD

Over Christmas, I greatly enjoyed reading “Citizen Lord, Edward Fitzgerald 1763-1798” by Stella Tillyard.

Lord Edward Fitzgerald was one of the leaders of the 1798 Rebellion in Ireland. He was arrested and fatally wounded before the rebellion got fully underway, but he had done much of the ground work and planning for it.

Early in his life he became alienated from his father, the Duke of Leinster.

He was very close to his mother, who ensured that he, and his siblings, were educated in accordance with the principles of Rousseau. Much of the material in the book comes from letters he wrote to his mother. Later, he was inspired in a revolutionary direction  by the ideas of Thomas Paine, author of the “Rights of Man”.

For someone who was dead by the age of 35, Lord Edward led a very varied life.

A younger son of the Duke of Leinster, he joined the Army as many younger sons of aristocratic families had to do. He had some land at Kilrush Co Kildare but not enough to support an aristocratic life style.

He fought on the British side in the American War of Independence and this meant that he was one of the few 1798 leaders who actually had some prior military experience.

He was wounded at the battle of Eutaw Creek in South Carolina in 1781, one of the last battles of the war, and his life was saved by a young African American, who subsequently became his employee and friend, who eventually accompanied him back to Ireland. The two of them subsequently trekked across North America from Nova Scotia to New Orleans.

Like many on the Whig or Liberal side of UK politics, he initially supported the French Revolution. Most of these initial supporters moved away from it as a result of the execution of the King, the Reign of Terror, and French military advances into neighbouring countries. Not Edward Fitzgerald.

He even went to Paris in 1792 to observe the Revolution, and it was there that he had his first conversations with Henry Sheares about the possibility of bringing the Revolution to Ireland.

Although this is an excellent book, it does not fully explain the progression of thought which led a leading aristocrat, like Edward Fitzgerald, to become a violent revolutionary. Clearly, for him, the power of ideas over rode economic and class interests.

Another aspect of the 1798 Rebellion, not within the scope of this book, is why so many Catholic priests became involved in a Rebellion in Ireland in 1798, in support of the French Revolution, notwithstanding the fact that French Revolutionaries had suppressed Catholic religious practice and, in 1796, put down a pro Catholic Rebellion in the Vendee with exceptional brutality.

Tillyard’s book is exceptionally readable and illuminates the subject’s personal, as well as his political, life. I recommend it.

THE STRUGGLE FOR SUPREMACY IN EUROPE 1453 TO THE PRESENT

I recently greatly enjoyed reading “Europe, the Struggle for Supremacy 1453 to the Present” by Brendan Simms.

He writes from a perspective that sees continuing conflict as the determining force in European politics. Military and strategic considerations are paramount.

This emphasis would not be shared by all historians. Peter Wilson’s “The Holy Roman Empire, a thousand years of European history” lays stress, instead. on a long surviving effort to build a European  legal order, that curbed and contained conflicts, under a shared allegiance to an elected Emperor and to a commonly accepted set of mutual expectations. This thousand year old arrangement only ended in 1806, after 1000 years.

Indeed, Simms own book throws light on later attempts to reconstitute a common European Home with common European set of house rules.

In the 1920s, the French leader Aristide Briand was prepared to trade French sovereignty for permanent restraints on German power. The UK stood aside from this because it relied instead on guaranteed of military support for its position from Australia, New Zealand, and Canada at the Imperial Conference of 1925. Although the Irish Free State was at that Conference, it offered no similar guarantee.

After the Second World War, a meeting, chaired by Winston Churchill, took place in the Hague in 1948 in a second attempt to build a structure for unity in Europe and avoid another war.

It could not agree on a model for European unity. Most countries were prepared to pool some sovereign powers, but the UK insisted that it would only work on an intergovernmental basis, which maximised its freedom of action. Even when it eventually joined the European Common Market, which did contain some sharing of sovereignty, UK politicians, and public opinion continued to see “Europe” as something apart from the UK, with which the UK would do business on a transactional case by case basis. Therein lay the seeds of Brexit.

In their hearts, many English people never joined the European Union at all.

While Simms may over emphasise the geostrategic conflicts in and around Europe, others ignore these at their peril.

Russian pressure on the Baltic States and Ukraine harks back to conflicts that last came to the surface at the end of the First World War. Rumania feels threatened by Russian pressure in Moldova, which was occupied by Stalin in 1940 under cover of his pact with Hitler.

I do not think there is a true European Union consensus on how to deal with any escalation of these types of conflicts, notwithstanding the mutual defence assurances NATO members have given one another. There is still an implicit reliance on the United States to save Europe.

But, unless there is a crisis, European defence policy will evolve very slowly.

The EU is not a state and is not about to become one. It is, instead, a habit of consultation and common action between states, underpinned by legal and institutional arrangements that are evolving in response to needs as they arise.

Ireland will remain within that structure with some influence on its evolution. The UK is turning aside, which is unfortunate because the security of much of Ireland’s infrastructure is dependent on links through the UK and its territorial waters. The sea is not the barrier to interference by hostile forces that it was in 1939. Increased interdependence has brought  increased vulnerability

Brendan Simms writes very well and there is new insight or angle on European history to be found on every second page.

I recommend this book, and also Peter Wilson’s book too (although I am only a quarter way through it!).

WILLIAM T COSGRAVE…FOUNDER OF THE IRISH STATE

I recently read “Judging WT Cosgrave” by Michael Laffan.

Published by the Royal Irish Academy this is a very well written, and entertaining, account of the life of the founder of the Irish state.

It is illustrated with a great collection of photographs, of people who figured in William Cosgrave’s life, and of documents on the time, including of the death sentence passed on him for his participation in the 1916 Rebellion in Dublin.  The sentence was commuted but he did go to prison.

WT Cosgrave was born in James Street in Dublin and his family had roots in Kildare and Wexford.

He joined the Sinn Fein Party of Arthur Griffith and was first elected to Dublin Corporation for that party in 1909 for the area in which he lived.  He took a deep interest in housing policy, at a time when many Dubliners lived in terrible conditions.

Released from jail after the Rebellion in early 1917, he was selected to stand in the by election for the Kilkenny City  seat in the House of Commons, that arose from the death of John Redmond’s closest friend and Parliamentary colleague, Pat O Brien.

Such was the dominance of Redmond’s Party until then, that O Brien had been re elected unopposed in the two previous General Elections. The Kilkenny City constituency was the smallest in the country, with less than one tenth the population of the largest (East Belfast).

The by Election took place 100 years ago on 10 August 1917. WT Cosgrave defeated the Irish Party candidate, a member of Kilkenny Corporation, John McGuinness , by  772 votes to 392.

Interestingly, notwithstanding the 1917 defeat, the McGuinness family are still prominently involved in Kilkenny politics at both local and national level.

In accordance with Sinn Fein policy, WT Cosgrave did not take his seat in the House of Commons. He did continue to be an active member of Dublin Corporation.

In his book, Michael Laffan deals with Cosgrave’s work in the shadow government established by Dail Eireann in 1919. This government was illegal in the eyes of the authorities, and its members lived in constant fear of arrest.

WT Cosgrave took no direct part in the negotiation of the Treaty of 1921, which provided the legal basis for the establishment of the Irish state. But within the Dail Cabinet, his vote tipped the balance in favour of acceptance of the Treaty, much to the disappointment of Eamon de Valera, who had been close to Cosgrave up to that.

During the subsequent Civil War over the Treaty, Arthur Griffith died, and Michael Collins was killed. As the most experienced surviving political leader the role of leading the pro Treaty government fell to WT Cosgrave. He prosecuted the Civil War to a successful conclusion and built a strong and stable state, on what appeared at the time to be very unpromising foundations.

He abandoned Collins’ policy of destabilising Northern Ireland.

As early as 1922, according to Laffan, Cosgrave

argued that military or economic pressure against the Belfast government would not bring about reunification, while a peaceful policy had at least some chance of protecting Northern Catholics.

During the Civil War, pro Treaty members of Dail and Senate were targeted by opponents of the Treaty. 37 houses belonging to Senators were razed. Cosgrave’s own home was burned. His uncle was murdered.

Even after the Civil War was officially over, on one night in 1926, 12 Garda barracks were attacked by the IRA. The cost of security and reconstruction after the Civil War made austerity in other areas of government spending inevitable.

Cosgrave was a constitutional democrat who accepted the results of elections, unlike many who held power in other European countries in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

As President of the Executive Council (Taoiseach), he had less power than one might expect. Under the Free State constitution, he could not, at his own sole initiative, sack Ministers, who were supposed to serve for the life time of the Dail. He did persuade a number of them to resign.

Cosgrave wanted to stamp out jobbery in the public service, and was responsible for the setting up of the Civil Service and Local Appointments Commissions, which provided for recruitment on merit rather than on the basis of political connections. This was vitally important, as recent experience in other countries, like Greece, shows.

While Cosgrave was a robust and witty election campaigner, right up to the time he eventually stood down as Fine Gael party leader in 1944, he was not much interested in the details of party organisation.

He stuck rigidly to the terms of the Treaty, and did not use it as a stepping stone to further independence as his successor, de Valera, did.

After his retirement, he served as a member of the Racing Board. He was a man of deep religious faith and counted members of the clergy among his closest friends.

This is an excellent book and well worth reading.

A Commemorative lunch to mark the centenary of WT Cosgrave’s victory in the Kilkenny City by election on 10 August 1917 will be held in Langton’s Hotel, John Street, Kilkenny  on Saturday 15 July.

The guest of honour will be WT Cosgrave’s son, Liam Cosgrave.

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