Thomas DArcy McGee Summer SchoolHistory does not repeat itself, but it can teach us lessons.

Theresa May will face a similar problem in 2017, to the one faced by John Redmond and the Irish Party in the 1910 to 1918 period.

Theresa May is trying to gain independence for her country from a bigger Union. But a geographically concentrated minority of her people want to stay in that Union, in this case, the people of Scotland and Northern Ireland.

John Redmond wanted independence for Ireland from another Union. In his case, a resolute, and also geographically concentrated, minority wanted to stay in that Union. They were a majority in Down, Antrim, Derry and Armagh.

Similar problem, 100 years later.

Theresa May wants access to the market of the Union she is leaving, and to get it she may have to continue to accept some of the rules of the Union.

John Redmond had to do likewise, although he, unlike Theresa May, under the deal he won would have continued to have some input to those rules.

Each represent, or represented, smaller entity seeking separation from a larger one.

So, to get a good deal for exit, both need, or  needed, to know, understand, and work the politics of the Union they wanted to leave.  In this task, The Irish Parliamentary Party, of 100 years ago, did a markedly better job, than the British Conservative Party has done so far.

As the Brexit negotiation continues, Theresa May even may have to contemplate a partition of the UK.

This partition might exclude Scotland from some, or all aspects of UK law, if Scotland insists on remaining in the EU. This could be a price Theresa May might have to pay for willing consent by Scotland to the rest of the UK leaving the EU. Again similar to the problem John Redmond faced.

But, all in all, Theresa May’s challenge is the easier one.

Hers is a purely political problem. Her country is at peace, and the possibility of consent to Scotland going its own way has been conceded by her predecessor.

John Redmond had to contend, on the other hand, with the existence of two private armies in Ireland on either side of the debate.

He had to contend with a wider world in the midst of a World War.

He also had the difficulty that the principle of consent (the legacy of a more recent peace process) had not yet been invented.

I will explore these parallels further in this paper.

WHAT SHOULD WE COMMEMORATE?

Turning back to our own decade of centenary commemorations, we should reflect on something President John Kennedy once said.

He said a “nation reveals itself” by the events it chooses to commemorate.

This state is a rule of law based, parliamentary democracy, which has integrated itself with its European neighbours by peaceful negotiation and compromise. It is militarily neutral, and the military power is subordinate to the civil power.

 If we decide that we were to pick from our history a “foundation event”, and choose as that foundation event the 1916 Rebellion and Proclamation, does that accurately reflect, or reveal, who we really are today in 2016?

 Is the 1916 story a practical inspiration for Irish people as we navigate a process of reconciliation within Ireland, and of shared sovereignty, within Europe?

SHOULD WE NOT PRIORITIZE PARLIAMENTARY AND PEACEFUL ACHIEVEMENTS?

 Perhaps we should instead seek inspiration from the non violent achievements of a century ago,

  •  the enactment of Home Rule,
  • the ending of landlordism,
  • the establishment of the National University
  • the introduction of old age pensions and
  • National Insurance….

all parliamentary, and non violent  achievements, in which the Irish Parliamentary Party of John Redmond, John Dillon,  Joe Devlin, and, at times, of the North Louth MP, Tim Healy played a big part.

If one scrutinises the record of debates in the House of Commons, now available on line, one gets a sense of the practical patriotism of the (unpaid) Irish MPs who travelled to London to represent their constituents and their country.

Tim Healy’s successor as North Louth MP, Augustine Roche, was particularly busy on the land question, seeking new holdings for those who had lost their farms, and looking for a larger grant for road works for Louth County Council.

His successor, the 22 year old Irish Party MP, Paddy Whitty, elected in February 1916 and  the last person representing this area to sit in Westminster, raised questions about the conditions of post 1916 detainees, the tragic collision of two ships in Carlingford Lough in 1916 because of poor wireless communications, and the poor pay rates of carpenters in the GNR railway works….not the stuff of poetry, but practical matters, still relevant today.

Constitutional nationalist politics in Louth was far from dull, because of the split at national level between Tim Healy ( up to 1910 the North Louth MP) and William O Brien on one side, and the majority of constitutional nationalists, led by Redmond and Dillon, on the other.

For example, in 1910 Healy, having been defeated in North Louth by a Redmondite, Richard Hazleton, launched an election petition, alleging bribery and intimidation of voters, and demanding his opponent be unseated.

He won this case, and a Healy supporter, Augustine Roche, won the seat in the re run.

The Catholic Church exercised a strong influence in Louth politics, usually in favour of nationalist political unity rather than on religious matters as such.

The hotly contested character of elections in Louth actually strengthened constitutional nationalism in the county, and explains why constitutional nationalism held its own here against Sinn Fein, even in the 1918 General Election and in the 1920 local elections.

I now turn to the Irish Party’s response to the Rising.

After the Rebellion, on 11 May, John Dillon MP spoke in the House of Commons of his opposition to it, and of how Irish Party MPs had persuaded some of their constituents not to take part.

 He said nine out of every ten Irish people were opposed to the rebellion.

 But he condemned the house searches in parts of the country where there had been no trouble at all.

 He said his prime object was to stop the executions. He said the river of blood was undoing the work of reconciliation on which he and his party had worked so tirelessly. His party’s success, in ensuring the passage of Home Rule into law  after 40 years of  peaceful agitation, had created a new atmosphere between Britain and Ireland, and he argued that that was being undone by the repression.

 He recalled that when the American Civil War ended, Abraham Lincoln did not execute anyone. He said Premier Botha had put down a pro German rebellion in South Africa without any executions. This was an apt comparison in many respects.

 To put the Easter Rising in its proper context, one must draw attention to a few important points.

IRSH PARTY STOPPED CONSCRIPTION, PASSED HOME RULE, AND ENDED LANDLORDISM

Earlier in 1916, the Irish Party had, by political methods, prevented conscription being applied in Ireland, while it was being applied on the entire island of Britain.

A year and a half earlier, on September 18th 1914, it had had another vital parliamentary achievement which invalidated the case for a Rebellion.  The principle of Irish legislative independence for Ireland was won, by the passage into law of the Home Rule Bill. That centenary was not properly commemorated by the state in 2014

That happened BEFORE any rebellion here, and, as Conservative leader Bonar Law subsequently admitted, there was no going back on Home Rule.

The principle of Irish legislative independence was won, without a shot being fired.

 Likewise, before a shot was fired in 1916, the effective ownership of the land of Ireland into the hands of those who were working it, and landlordism abolished. In terms of land ownership, the Cromwellian conquest had been reversed….peacefully.

 Indeed it was the Irish Party’s achievement of land reform, which created an Irish rural middle class, something that enabled Ireland to remain democratic in the 1920’s and 1930’s, when so many other new European states, where landlordism had not been abolished, became authoritarian.

 The only open questions in 1914 were whether, or how, Home Rule might apply to Antrim, Down, Armagh and Derry (and perhaps Fermanagh and Tyrone). If some counties were excluded, would the exclusion would be temporary or permanent.

 But if that exclusion was once accepted, there was no barrier in the way of the rest of Ireland progressively winning ever greater degrees of sovereignty, starting from the platform of Home Rule.  Just as the 1921 Treaty turned out to be a stepping stone to greater sovereignty by peaceful negotiation, so too could Home Rule have been, if that was what the voters here wanted.

HOME RULE APPROACH WOULD HAVE BEEN BETTER FOR NORTHERN NATIONALISTS

 Home Rule, in the form passed into law in September 1914, did not guarantee a united 32 county Ireland. The question of exclusion of 4 or 6 counties from Home Rule was left open to be decided by a vote of the people in each county.

But all subsequent attempts to coerce Northern Ireland into a United Ireland, whether by the attempted incursions across the border in 1922, by the propaganda campaign in the late 1940s, or by IRA killing campaigns in the 1950’s and from 1969 to 1998, all failed, because they were based on a faulty analysis of the Ulster Unionist mind.

Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, I do not know how Irish nationalists, of any persuasion, really thought rule from Dublin could ever have been workably imposed on Unionists in places like Antrim and North Down. Did they expect

 + the British to coerce the Unionists,

 + did they expect to be able to coerce them themselves, or

 + did they  think these Unionists were just bluffing?

All three of these scenarios are politically unreal, and building a national ideology on something unreal is not healthy. They are the great unexamined questions at the heart of Irish nationalism.

An unwillingness to accept the real answers to these questions persists widely to this day.

John Redmond’s policy was one of attempting to persuade Unionist to accept a United Ireland, not to coerce them. His support for recruitment to the British army in 1914 was part of a (probably naive) attempt to persuade Unionists that they would not be sacrificing all their loyalties by taking part in Home Rule.

But, under the arrangements being considered in 1914, if an Ulster county opted out of Home Rule, they would have continued under direct rule from Westminster.

There would, under the formula being considered in 1914, have been no Stormont Parliament, no “Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people”, no B Specials, no discrimination and no gerrymandering of local government, because that would have been prevented by direct rule.

The concept of a separate Northern government and parliament only came onto the agenda in late 1919, after most of the rest of Ireland had rejected Home Rule and voted for complete separation and abstentionism in the 1918 General Election.

That closed the door on compromise, although I am not sure that all those who voted for Sinn Fein, and against the Irish Party, in December 1918 really understood all that would follow, between the opening of hostilities at Soloheadbeg in January 1919, when RIC members James McDonnell from Belmullet and Patrick O Connell from Coachford were shot, and the eventual end of the agony in 1923.If they had known or been told what would follow, would they have made the same decision?

BALANCING THE LIMITATIONS OF HOME RULE AGAINST THE COSTS OF VIOLENCE

Many of the limitations on the Home Rule powers could have been removed by negotiation. They were not of a character that justifies all the suffering that flowed from the decision to take the path of violence in 1916. That is, of course , a value judgement, but one must be able to make value judgement about history.

Some of the limitations (eg. The exclusion of Marriage law and tariffs) were only put therein the original bill, to reassure Ulster Unionists, when it was envisaged that all 32 counties would be fully included from the outset.

Other limitations would have been financially beneficial to a new Irish Administration, such as the exclusion of the financing of Old Age pensions and of Land Purchase Acts. This is because of their net financial cost, as Ernest Blythe was to discover in 1924 when he had to reduce Old Age Pensions, and Eamonn de Valera found in the economic war over land annuities.

Home Rule was not brought into force immediately on its passage into law in 1914 because it was felt that it would distract from what was expected to be a short duration war effort.

That postponement was not controversial in Ireland at the time. Indeed John Dillon had said “No rational man would expect the government to set up an Irish Parliament while war was raging”.

That said, Home Rule could have a come into effect in late 1916, and Carson had agreed to it on the basis that the six counties would be excluded for the time being, and would be administered directly from Westminster.

It did not happen because some Conservative members of government, Lansdowne, Selborne, and Long, objected because of the disturbed state of the country, a predictable consequence of the Rising, and the fear that Germany might again exploit the situation, as they had attempted to do earlier that year.

The effect of the Rising on wartime British opinion probably helped the objections being made by Long, Selborne and Lansdowne.

This disappointment, and the radicalisation brought about by the Rebellion, led to a hardening of the position of the Irish Parliamentary Party, so that by March 1917 they were unwilling to accept Home Rule involving any form of partition(temporary, indefinite or otherwise).

The  alternative path of violence, started upon by Pearse, Connolly, Clarke  and others in 1916, and followed from 1919 to 1923 by their imitators, was traversed at a terrible price.

I believe the Irish Parliamentary Party knew this, and so did the majority of the Irish people who opposed the Rising at the time, and by those who continued to support constitutionalism in the 1918 Election.

The Dundalk Democrat described the Rising as “an act of madness”.

The local authorities in Louth took a similar view. They would have realised that once violence is introduced into the blood stream of politics, it is very hard to get it out again. So it has proved.  Even those who initiated the violence began to recognise their error.

As early as 1924, a member of the IRB Supreme Council at the time of the Rebellion,  PS O Hegarty said of the decision to use violence in 1916.

“We turned the whole thoughts and passions of a generation upon blood and revenge and death; we placed gunmen, mostly half educated and totally inexperienced, as dictators with powers of life and death over large areas.” [1]

AN APPRAISAL OF THE WORDS, AND ASSUMPTIONS, OF THE 1916 PROCLAMATION

Violence, once initiated, tends to persist because of psychological as well as political factors.

Psychologically, once one has killed, or seen colleagues die, in a particular cause, it is very difficult to stop pursuing that cause, without feeling one has somehow betrayed the dead.

Politically, the absolutist wording of the 1916 Proclamation itself, made compromise almost impossible for some.

The Proclamation said the Republic existed, once  it was declared outside the GPO. The proclaimed Republic was a “Sovereign Independent State”, presumably of 32 counties.  No room for compromise there. The Rising was not to fight FOR a Republic, which would have left some room for compromise, but to  DEFEND one that had been proclaimed to exist already.

 Such a state does not even NOW exist.

Yet its existence was declared to “indefeasible” in the words of the Proclamation. That proved to be a recipe for endless conflict.

 It is on the strength, and in pursuit, of that  unqualified claim in the Proclamation, that people continue to be killed, including Adrian Ismay earlier this year.

The phrases used in the Proclamation, which our schoolchildren are now being asked to regard as the founding stone of our democracy, left little or no room at all for democratic negotiation or compromise. Therein lay the seeds of Civil War because, in politics as in life, compromise and negotiation are essential.

The men in the Four Courts in 1922,resisting the Provisional Free State government,  and those who resisted compromise in the more recent peace process,  all felt themselves sincerely bound by the absolutist and uncompromising words of the Proclamation, and the oath they had taken to defend what it has proclaimed.

Rather than the Republic being proclaimed in the name of a living Irish people, whose opinions had first been taken into consideration, it was proclaimed in the name of

“God and the dead generations”,

 neither of whom could, of necessity, be consulted about what they meant.

 The rights of the proclaimed Republic were not conditional on consent, but were

 “sovereign and indefeasible”.

 The Nation, was treated, in the wording of the Proclamation, as something separate from the people, or their views.

Many of the 1916 participants had taken an oath of allegiance to the Republic, which again made compromise difficult and conflict interminable.

THE ULSTER PROBLEM WAS CULPABLY IGNORED IN THE 1916 PROCLAMATION

Home Rule could have been in effect, possibly from the 1880’s on, were it not for the resistance to it in North East Ulster. John Redmond and other had wrestled with this problem for years, and, in Easter Week of 1916, it was the only unresolved issue concerning the implementation of the Home Rule Act.

These Ulster difficulties were fully known to the signatories of the Proclamation. But they were not addressed in a serious way in the Proclamation.

 The only oblique reference to the Ulster problem was the promise to cherish all the ”children” of the nation equally, and to be “oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government”.

 It is worth reflecting on the words used here.

Ulster Unionists were “children” of the nation, and normally children, in that era were expected to be obey.

 The wish of Ulster Unionists not to be governed from Dublin, was assumed by the Proclamation’s signatories, not to be something they had decided  themselves, but only the result of “careful fostering” by an “ alien government”. This did not show much respect for the seriousness, or the  reasoning powers, of those who had signed the Ulster Covenant, only five years previously.

 The problems of Ireland, as it was at the time, were not thought through by the authors of the Proclamation. That was a serious omission, particularly when it is followed by the taking of human life.

WAR SHOULD ALWAYS BE A LAST RESORT

Given the value Irish people place on each human life, those who take a life, have the primary burden of proof to discharge. It was for them to prove that no other way was open.  Other options must have been exhausted.

 That that test was not passed by those who initiated the Rebellion in 1916. The possibilities of Home Rule, already law, had not been exhausted ,or even tested.

 The use of force should always be a last resort.  It was not.

For every Volunteer killed in 1916 (including those executed afterwards), three Dublin civilians died.

The first casualty to die, on Easter Monday, was James O Brien, an unarmed DMP policeman from Limerick, shot in the face at the gate of Dublin Castle.

Another early unarmed DMP casualty of the Volunteers was Michael Lahiff, a 28 year old Irish speaker, from the West of Ireland, shot in cold blood on St Stephens Green.

Michael Cavanagh, a Dublin carter, who tried to retrieve his cart from a Volunteer barricade, was executed by the Volunteers.

The only casualty, on any side, in County Louth in 1916 was Charles McGee, an RIC constable, and also a native Irish speaker, who was from Donegal, who was accidentally shot dead on 24 April while a captive in the care of the Volunteers at Castlebellingham.  He is buried in Gortahork and has recently been the subject of a biography in Irish by his grand niece Madge O Boyle

 These were not “Brits”.

 They were Irishmen.

WHY HOME RULE WOULD HAVE BEEN A STEPPING STONE TO GREATER INDEPENDENCE

 The Home Rule Parliament, if it had come into being in 1916 or at the end of the Great War in 1918, would probably have been elected under the wider suffrage that applied in the 1918 General Election (all men over 21 and women over 30).

With this wide electorate, not only the Irish Party of John Dillon, but also Sinn Fein, the Irish Labour Party, and the group led by Tim Healy, would have got seats.

 All four groups would have pressed for ever greater degrees of independence, going beyond the Dominion status, negotiated after such loss of life in the Treaty of 1921.

TREATY OF 1921 ADOPTED DILLON’S POLICY OF 1918

In the 1918 General Election, which Sinn Fein won, the policy of the Irish Party, led by John Dillon, was Dominion Status for Ireland.

That was the policy on which Richard Hazleton contested the Louth constituency for the Irish Party against the Sinn Fein candidate JJ O Kelly. Hazleton lost by only a tiny margin of 1% in an electorate of 30000. That is what Dillon and Hazleton would have worked for if they had been elected

 The policy of Sinn Fein in that Election was, in contrast, immediate and complete separation of the 32 counties from the UK, on the basis of the 1916 Proclamation.

Sinn Fein won the election, on this “no compromise” agenda, but, after all the killing in the War of Independence, all they ended up with, under the Treaty, was Dominion status, the very policy of their John Dillon and Richard Hazleton in the election three years before.

It is said that Home Rule would have left British forces on Irish territory. But so also did the Treaty. It left the UK military in control of ports on Irish territory.  But these ports were handed back in 1938, through entirely peaceful negotiation.  The fact that those ports could be won back by purely peaceful negotiation on the eve of World War Two, shows that the limitations on Home Rule could also have been negotiated away, peacefully.

The use of force in 1916, and from 1919 to 1923, did not serve the interests of northern nationalists.

If a nation is to learn anything at all from history, it must be willing to examine, using all it knows now, what might have happened, if a different historical choices had been made. Otherwise there is little point studying history.

 The choice to use force in 1916, and again in 1919, must be subjected to reappraisal, in light of what  we can now  see  could have been  achieved without the taking of life .

[1] PS O Hegarty, The Victory of Sinn Fein (Dublin Talbot Press 1924) page 91

Speech by John Bruton, former Taoiseach, at a Seminar on “1916 and Revolutionary Republicanism” at the Thomas D’Arcy Magee Summer School in Carlingford, Co Louth at 10 am on Monday 22 August

Print Entry

Please share:
RSS
Twitter
Facebook
Google+
http://johnbruton.com/the-irish-party-response-to-the-rising/
LINKEDIN