Opinions & Ideas

Category: Irish Independent


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.


Introducing a law, that would say that a threat of suicide a ground for abortion, is not something that should be done under the pressure of artificial deadlines.

I know of no other area of law, where a threat of suicide is sufficient to make legal, what would otherwise be illegal. 
The notion that a simple threat of suicide would make right, something that would otherwise be wrong, is a really dangerous principle.

We must think long and hard about where it might lead.
We should also think carefully about the legitimating effect, that giving a threat of suicide  this sort of  high level statutory recognition, might have on attempts to reduce the incidence of suicide, or of threats of suicide. 

The abortion question boils down to whether one believes an unborn child is a separate human, with human rights of his/her own, or not. 
Some believe the unborn child is not a human with human rights, but just a part of the mother. If it is a part of the mother and not another life, then of course logically, the mother could make her own decisions. But the Irish constitution says something different.

The Irish people formally rejected that view when they decided in 1983 on an amendment to the constitution, now Article 40,(3)(3), which says that the unborn child has an “equal right to life” with its mother. This is being forgotten in some recent discussions.
The word “equal” is crucial here. A possibility is never equal to a certainty. The particular sentence in the constitution  would have made sense if the word “equal “ had not been put before “right to life”, but it WAS put in. That must be respected in any law the Dail may pass. 

In Article 40, the Irish constitution, in recognising his or her right to life, recognises the basic humanity of the unborn child, and grants the unborn child human and constitutional rights. 
Thus I believe that an unborn little girls life cannot, constitutionally, be taken away by a decision of 2,4,6 8, or any number of doctors, along with her mother, because the Irish people have said that she has rights of its own, separate from all of them.

At the very least, the unborn child, whose life may be about to be ended, must have separate representation in any process that might suppress her life. That should be a fundamental and uncontroversial legal principle.

Allowing medical certificates of suicidal intent to suffice to authorise the taking away the otherwise healthy life of an unborn child, would also be put great stress on the system of medical ethics. Medical certification is sometimes fallible, as we know in regard to the certification of illness for absence from work. 
The fact that leading psychiatrists are reluctant to be involved in certifying suicidal intent, in the context of ending the life of an unborn child, and the fact that many of them assert that abortion is never a cure for suicidal feelings, shows how impractical and mistaken was the original Supreme Court majority decision in the X case, in so far as it allowed suicide ideation on the part of a mother to override the equal right to life of an unborn child.

The only way out of the present dilemma is either

1.Address the medical decision making process relating to physical threats to the life of the mother, but  leave suicidal intent out as a ground for abortion, and let anyone, who wants to test the present constitutionality of this aspect of the X case ,  apply directly to the courts, or 

2. an option I do not favour, have a constitutional amendment to remove the equal right to life of the unborn from the constitution.

Some may argue against these options on the ground that the X case is settled law, and is thus is a reliable basis for proceeding with legislation to allow abortion where suicide is threatened. I believe this is wrong.

Irish constitutional law has changed considerably since 1992, when X was decided. There are two particularly relevant examples.
The first is the development by the Irish Courts of what is called the “proportionality test”. This test, first adopted by the High Court in 1994 (2 years after the X case), but now well entrenched, is used by the Courts when deciding cases, where there is a clash of rights. 
This test involves the Court in a much more searching examination of the evidence than happened  in the X case – when a majority of the Court agreed to the deliberate ending of an unborn life on the basis of a report by a single psychologist. Critically, the proportionality test requires someone, who is seeking to interfere with another individual’s rights, to prove that there is no other way of resolving the matter. 
If a new X case were to come up, the Court would be required by the proportionality test, to take account of the sort of evidence, heard by the Oireachtas Committee recently, to the effect  that there are plenty of other things that could be done to prevent a suicide in such a case. As a result of the improvements in legal procedure and in psychiatric medicine, I believe Courts would decide an X case differently today.
The second way in which things have changed since the X case, is the amendment made by the people in 2001,which is now Article 15 (4) of the constitution, which bans the state imposing a  penalty of death, in any circumstances.

This ban cannot even be suspended in an emergency like a war. This added constitutional commitment to the inviolability of every human life, because it was passed after the X case was decided, could not have taken into account then.  In a future case, all the different articles in the constitution would be interpreted together, and the argument would surely be advanced that it would be incongruous, constitutionally, to allow an unborn and innocent child, with explicit rights to life under Article 40, to be deprived of her life, while protecting, in every situation, the life of an adult who had committed a very serious crime . 

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén