100 YEARS ON……..AND WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED?
In 2016, there will be extensive commemoration of the centenary of the Rising in Dublin in 1916.
No comparable commemoration is planned for an earlier centenary, that of 18 September 2014, the 100th anniversary of the passage into law of Home Rule for Ireland.
The events of Easter 1916 inaugurated an armed struggle, with many casualties, which continued until 1923.
In contrast, the enactment of Home Rule was achieved by peaceful parliamentary means, without any casualties.
As it is today, Ireland in 1914 was a divided society, with a majority (mainly of one religious tradition) favouring a large measure of independence, and a strong minority (mainly of another religious tradition) opposing this, and favouring integration in the United Kingdom.
Commemorations should be an opportunity to learn from history, not merely to celebrate one protagonist or another.
TOUGH, BUT NON VIOLENT, TACTICS WERE NEEDED TO WIN HOME RULE
Home Rule may have been achieved by exclusively peaceful and constitutional methods, but that does not suggest that those who obtained it, the Irish Parliamentary Party of John Redmond and John Dillon, were mild mannered and non confrontational.
Two previous attempts to obtain Home Rule had failed, one because it was defeated in the House of Commons and another because it was vetoed in the House of Lords.
To get Home Rule onto the statute book, the Irish Parliamentary leaders had to get a majority for Home Rule in the House of Commons, and simultaneously to get the British constitution changed to remove the House of Lords power of veto.
There was a permanent majority against Home Rule in the House of Lords, and the veto could only be removed with the consent of the House of Lords itself. Furthermore, in the House of Commons, the Liberal party, which had been committed to Home Rule under Gladstone, had moved away from that policy under Lord Rosebery and Herbert Asquith. The Liberal Party had first to be won back to a firm commitment to pass Home Rule.
In a masterly exercise of parliamentary leverage and constructive opportunism, Redmond and Dillon achieved both goals, in a very short space of time.
They withheld support for the radical 1909 Budget, unless and until there was a commitment to remove the Lords veto and introduce Home Rule. They also, in effect exercised pressure on the King, because the Lords eventually only passed the legislation to remove their veto, under the threat of the King swamping the House of Lords with a flood of new Lords.
All this was achieved from the position of being a minority party in the House, albeit a party whose votes were needed to avoid a General Election which the Liberal Government feared they would lose.
Considerable brinksmanship was needed, because, if the Liberals lost the election, the cause of Home Rule would also be lost. Redmond and Dillon did not have all the trump cards. They just played the cards they had very well indeed.
If commemorations are about drawing relevant lessons for today’s generation from the work of past generations, this remarkable exercise of parliamentary leverage, to achieve radical reform against entrenched resistance, has much greater relevance, to today’s generation of democrats, than does the blood sacrifice of Pearse and Connolly.
The subsequent turning away, after 1916, from constitutional methods has obscured the scale of this parliamentary achievement. There may have been a fear that too much praise of the prior constitutional achievement would delegitimate the subsequent blood sacrifice
THE ENACTMENT OF HOME RULE IN 1914 CHANGED THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE TWO ISLANDS…..REMOVING ANY JUSTIFICATION FOR VIOLENCE
I hope the commemorations in Ireland in the period 1914 to 1923 will allow us to honestly address the following related questions……
+ Does the use of violence help resolve the problems of a divided society?
+ Were the Ulster Unionists right to threaten violence to resist Home Rule?
+ And were the men and women of 1916 right to actually use violence to achieve their goal of a 32 county Republic?
On 1 July this year I took part in a panel discussion with a number of historians, in the Irish Embassy in London, on the topic of the enactment on the Irish Home Rule Bill into law on 18 September 1914.
The panel discussion was broadcast on the UK Parliament channel.
When the Home Rule Bill received the royal assent on 18 September 1914, it was the first time that a Bill granting Ireland Home rule had ever passed into law. The struggle to achieve such an outcome had gone on since the 1830’s. Neither Butt nor Parnell achieved what Redmond and Dillon achieved.
The Woodenbridge speech of John Redmond on 20 September 1914, urging Irish men to join the Allied cause in the Great War that had broken out six weeks previously, must be seen in the context that Home Rule had been placed on the statute book just two days previously.
Home Rule was law, but the implementation of it was simply postponed until the end of what most people expected would be a short war.
Redmond’s address to the Volunteers at Woodenbridge was not a naive gesture, but reciprocation of the passage of Home Rule. He wanted to show that the passage of Home Rule had inaugurated a new and better relationship between Ireland and its neighbouring island.
Redmond wanted to show everybody, including Ulster Unionists, that things had changed. Irish men fought in the British Army in the Boer War, notwithstanding Redmond and the Irish Party’s opposition to that war, so those many of those who volunteered to fight in what turned out to be the Great War, would probably have done so anyway.
Redmond’s Woodenbridge speech was also designed to show to Ulster Unionists that, in some matters, Unionists and Nationalists were now “on the same side”.
If, Home Rule having been conceded, Redmond had instead still opposed recruitment, he would have handed arguments, to those who had opposed Home Rule all along, to the effect that a Dublin Government could not be trusted.
The Woodenbridge speech also stood on its own merits. The unprovoked invasion by Germany of a small neutral country, Belgium, in order better to be able to attack France, was something that many people at the time, and since, regarded as profoundly wrong and deserving to be opposed.
The case I made in this debate in the Irish Embassy was that Ireland could have achieved better results, for all the people of the island, if it had continued to follow the successful non violent parliamentary Home Rule path, and had not embarked on the path of physical violence, initiated by the IRB and the Irish Citizen Army in Easter Week of 1916.
BAD EXAMPLE DOES NOT MAKE A BAD DECISION GOOD
The use of physical force by the IRB and the Irish Citizen Army in 1916 was not without context.
In their resistance to Home Rule in the 1911 to 1914 period, Ulster Unionists, with the connivance of the Conservative Party, had armed themselves, and threatened to use force to resist Home Rule from Dublin. Parts of the officer corps of the British Army, and in particular General Sir Henry Wilson, cooperated surreptitiously on the Home Rule issue with the Conservative opposition, against the duly elected Government, something that goes against all democratic and constitutional norms.
But bad example by ones opponents does not make a bad decision a good one.
Furthermore, when the decision was made to go ahead with the armed rebellion, Home Rule was already law. It’s implementation was postponed for the duration of the war, but there was no doubt but that it would come into effect once the war was over, either for the whole of Ireland, or, more likely, for 26 or 28 counties.
The irreversibility of Home Rule is well illustrated by a comment that had been made by one of its staunchest opponents, the Conservative leader, Andrew Bonar Law. He had admitted
“If Ulster, or rather any county, had the right to remain outside the Irish Parliament, for my part my objection would be met”.
Another important context in which the decision of the 1916 leaders must be judged is the Great War, in which thousands of Irish soldiers were fighting on the Allied side when the GPO was occupied by force. The 1916 leaders took the opposite side.
In proclaiming the Republic, the 1916 leaders spoke of their “gallant allies in Europe”. These allies were the German Empire, the Ottoman Empire and the Austrian Empire. Although their immediate target was Britain, those, against whom the Irish Republicans went to war , included the French Republic, whose territory had been premptively invaded, and occupied by force, by Germany. The1916 leaders were not neutral. They were taking the side of Germany , Turkey and Austria and said so in their own Proclamation.
I argued, in the panel discussion in the Irish Embassy, that, in all these circumstances, this decision by the IRB and the Citizen army to use violence in 1916 was a bad decision.
I said it would have been wiser to have had patience, and adhered to the Home Rule policy, and to constitutional methods.
HOME RULE WOULD HAVE BEEN A BETTER DEAL FOR NORTHERN NATIONALISTS
I started by conceding that I did not believe that the Home Rule policy would have led to a United Ireland.
The opposition to being under a Dublin Home Rule Parliament was so strong among Unionists in Ulster that, no matter how hard the Home Rulers might have tried to persuade them, at least four Ulster counties would have stayed out of the Dublin Parliament. The leader of the Irish Party, John Redmond, told the House of Commons that
“no coercion shall be applied to any single county in Ireland to force them against their will to come into the Irish Government”.
This was a sensible policy.
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, have all failed miserably, because they were based on a faulty analysis of reality.
John Redmond’s policy was one of attempting to persuade Unionist to accept a United Ireland, and 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 Home Rule arrangement, if Ulster counties opted out, they would have continued under direct rule from Westminster.
There would have been no Stormont Parliament, no “Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people”, no B Specials, no gerrymandering of local government. Stormont was not part of the Home Rule arrangement and it came about because of the threat posed by the nationalist violence of the 1919 to 1921 period, and because the abstention of Sinn Fein from the Irish Convention, and of its MPs from parliament after the 1918 election created an opening for it.
Under Home Rule, there would have been continued, but reduced, Irish representation at Westminster, so any attempts to discriminate against the minority in the excluded area of Ulster would have been preventable in a way that they were not prevented Stormont was left to its own devices after 1921.
The constitutional Home Rule policy would thus have been much better for Northern Nationalists that the policy of violent separatism was to prove to be. Northern Nationalists probably sensed this, for , while the rest of Ireland was plumping for Sinn Fein in the election of December 1918, the electors of West Belfast chose Joe Devlin of the Irish Party to represent them in preference to Eamon de Valera of Sinn Fein.
STICKING WITH THE HOME RULE POLICY WOULD HAVE SAVED THOUSANDS OF LIVES
The Home Rule path would also have been better because it would have saved many lives throughout Ireland. People who died between 1916 and 1923 would have survived and would instead have contributed to Irish life, rather than to Irish martyrology.
All things being equal, in my opinion, living for Ireland is better than dying (or killing) for Ireland.
I would emphasise that the waste of these lost lives need to be weighed, and weighed heavily, in the balance against any supposed advantages secured by the use of force.
Consider the dead for a moment.
256 Irish civilians died during the 1916 rebellion, some at the hands of the rebels and many as a result of British artillery designed to expel the rebels from the positions they had occupied.
These civilians did not have any say in the IRB/Citizen Army action and would all have lived if that action had not take place. We know of the rebels who died, and their deaths have been commemorated repeatedly by the Irish State. Each year the Irish army has a Mass to pray for the souls of those who “died for Ireland “ in 1916. It is unclear to me whether this formula includes the civilians who did not decide to put their lives at risk “for Ireland”, but who were killed anyway because they were in the wrong place.
153 soldiers in UK Army uniforms were killed. Of these, 52 of the dead were Irish.
These Irish men were acting on the orders of a duly constituted Government, elected by a Parliament, which had already granted Home Rule to Ireland, and to which Ireland had democratically elected its own MP’s. Did these men “ die for Ireland”? I would contend that they did. But their sacrifice is not commemorated, nor are their souls prayed for, in official remembrances by the Irish state.
Consider also the dead of the War of 1919 to 1921, and the dead of the civil war of 1922 to 1923.
1200 were killed in the war of 1919 to 1921. Many of these were civilians who had not chosen the path of war. Others were policemen, who had chosen that vocation as a service to their people, and not to become participants in a war. Yet others were supposed or actual informers on behalf of either side.
If, in response to the appeal of the “blood sacrifice” of the 1916 leaders, the Home Rule party had not been rejected by the electorate in the General Election of 1918 in favour of a policy of abstention and separatism, Home Rule would have come into effect, and all those people would have lived.
Many families of minority religions were made to feel unwelcome in Ireland as a result of the violence, and some left. Southern Ireland became a less diverse society as a result of the policy of violence initiated by IRB and the Citizen Army at Easter of 1916.
Around 4000 Irish people were killed in the Civil War. Like those who were killed in the 1916 to 1921 period, many of these were amongst the brightest talents of their generation. Ireland would have been a better place if the policy of violence had not caused their deaths.
Violence breeds violence. Sacrifice breeds intransigence. The dead exert an unhealthy power over the living, persuading the living to hold out for the impossible, so that the sacrifice of the dead is not perceived to have been in vain.
In that sense, the policy of violence, initiated in April 1916, led to the Civil War of 1922/3. The earlier deaths of those who occupied the General Post Office in 1916, seeking to achieve a 32 county Republic, made it harder for those, who occupied the Four courts in 1922, to accept anything less than a 32 County Republic.
Betrayal of the sacrifices of the dead is one of the most emotionally powerful, and destructive, accusations within the canon of romantic nationalism. It exercised its baleful influence in recent times in delaying the abandonment by the IRA of its failed and futile campaign to coerce and bomb Unionists into a United Ireland.
HOME RULE WOULD HAVE LED TO DOMINION STATUS, AND TO THE SORT OF INDEPENDENCE NOW ENJOYED BY CANADA, AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND
I believe Ireland would have reached the position it is in today, an independent nation of 26 or 28 counties, if it had stuck with the Home Rule policy and if the 1916 rebellion had not taken place.
Like all counter factual historical arguments, this proposition is impossible to prove.
But, once the Ulster question had been resolved by some form of exclusion, the path towards greater independence was open. The policy of the Irish Party in the 1918 Election was Dominion Status and I believe they would have achieved that. Perhaps they would not have achieved it by 1921, as was achieved in the Treaty of that year, but it would probably have been achieved by the end of the 1920’s, probably from a Labour Government whose policy already envisaged dominion status for Ireland.
Once Ireland had its own legislature in Dublin , it would have been able to avail of the progressive loosening of ties within the Empire, in the same way as the Irish Free State was able to do so, for example through the Statute o Westminster of 1931.
Some might argue that security and defence considerations would have made this unlikely. I doubt that.
If a Conservative dominated Government was willing, in 1938, to hand over the Treaty ports to Eamonn de Valera who, 22 years previously had been an enemy of Britain and declared ally of Germany, it would surely have been willing to place as much trust in a Home Rule Government in Dublin, whose political antecedents had stood with Britain in its moment of greatest threat in 1914.
To say that a decision was a mistake is not to deny the heroism or sincerity of those who made the mistake. Hindsight enables one to see possibilities that were not visible at the time. But the reality is that, in 1916, Home Rule was on the statute book and was not about to be reversed.
The “Irish Independent”, usually a severe critic of the Irish Parliamentary Party, was unfair when it described the rebellion at the time as “criminal madness”, but if the 1916 leaders had more patience, a lot of destruction could have been avoided, on the road to the same destination, at which we eventually arrived anyway.