John Redmond, John Bruton and the Irish Parliamentary Party March 28, 2008Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish History, Irish Politics.
It’s funny, I had been thinking last week that in some respects Fine Gael remind me of nothing so much as the Irish Parliamentary Party – the reasons for that observation I will get to in a moment. And what happens? Why here comes John Bruton. For we learn in the Irish Times yesterday that ‘Bruton salutes the historic legacy of John Redmond’. Now I should state that for my money were FG to look for serious inspiration they could do no better than actually engage a bit more with the reality of what Michael Collins sought and did. But… to each their own.
Anyhow the article continues:
HISTORY HAD not “done justice” to the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, John Redmond, the EU ambassador to the US and former taoiseach John Bruton said at the Mansion House in Dublin last night.
Speaking at the launch of Redmond: The Parnellite, the first in a two-volume biography by Dermot Meleady (published by Cork University Press), Mr Bruton said he had “very strong feelings” on the book’s subject.
And Bruton recounts some of his achievements…
“He was, as the book tells you, regarded as the greatest parliamentary orator of his time; John Redmond’s capacity to hold the House [ of Commons] in his hand was equalled only by Gladstone,” Mr Bruton said.
“He won the consent of people all over the world for the idea that the Irish were capable of ruling themselves . . . The crowning achievement came on September 18th, 1914, when the Home Rule Bill was placed on the statute book.”
Which is great if one counts as a crowning achievement one which doesn’t actually have any effect. Or to rework Enoch Powell’s acerbic observation that all political lives end in failure… well yes, this one sure did…Because as the Irish Times notes:
However, Home Rule was suspended for the duration of the first World War.
Coming in the wake of the 1916 Rising, the general election of 1918 rejected Redmond’s legacy and his “policy of engagement and negotiation” in favour of “abstention and violence”.
Now, this is a significant rewriting of history. Because it elides a number of events and ignores others in order to present us with a highly misleading interpretation. The 1916 Rising was a direct consequence of the failure of Home Rule to be implemented. Many of those involved had been supportive of the Home Rule campaign but had become disillusioned when that campaign was not successful (in 1912 Pearse had shared a platform with Redmond demanding the implementation of Home Rule). These were not people instinctively wedded to violence. Their next political port of call? Why advanced nationalism otherwise known as Republicanism. The campaign for Home Rule had stretched across more than a century since the Act of Union. The suspension of Home Rule was not in itself an isolated issue, but also occurred in the context of the aversion of the British state to face down the political response of Unionism.
Nor is it unreasonable to suggest that the support for Republicanism in the period after 1916 was a direct result of the lack of Home Rule. The response to the Rising by the British demonstrated the reality of their authority – perhaps in a way that had not been seen in at least a generation at that time. And in such a context it is unsurprising that as with those involved in 1916 itself there would be a shift of sentiment towards a harder edged identification with Republicanism.
Nor would it be correct to suggest that the shift to violence was in some sense external to the Home Rule project (a sort of Republican import as it were). For the militarisation of the struggle was a response to Unionist militarisation in Ulster and the foundation of the original Ulster Volunteer Force. And it was Home Rule in the broader sense which mobilised in response, not Republicanism, in the shape of the Irish Volunteers in November 1913. Redmond ignored, then intervened in the Volunteers forcing their Provisional Committee to accept his nominees. This is not to ignore the fact that former Fenians and the IRB rapidly took a commanding role in the Volunteers, but that in the words of Alvin Jackson in Home Rule: An Irish History 1800 – 2000, ‘Redmond’s belated annexation of the Volunteers looked like weakness, and a panicked reappraisal of his most deeply cherished strategies’.
Indeed a better argument can be made that Home Rule in and of itself was the issue which led to not merely 1916, but 1919-1921 and thereafter. The point at which the British state was willing to concede self-government, limited as it was, was one which would lead to a backlash from Unionism. That backlash was in a paramilitary form utilising the threat of force and this was met with an equal and opposite response from Nationalism of the Home Rule variety, rapidly appropriated in part by advanced Nationalism.
So therefore to present it in bald terms as some sort of ‘rejection’ of negotiation in favour of ‘violence’ is simply wrong. It was the near-inevitable outworking of processes which the lack of implementation of Home Rule, indeed the previous aversion to even engaging on the issue, by the British political classes led almost directly to. And just as violence is implicit in all state-building, it is also implicit in secessions. We have seen how ugly the post-Yugoslav dispensation has been, why would it be different in 1914 or 1921, particularly if the state concerned was the then leading global power?
And while Redmond might well have won consent internationally that ‘the Irish were capable of ruling themselves’ this was a very partial sort of rule, one constrained by the structures of a British political system. I find it curious that the former Taoiseach of an independent and sovereign Republic of Ireland would see in Redmond a political hero. I don’t mean that in a lazy sort of ‘John Unionist’ way, but simply that while Redmond did indeed seek a non-violent way to ‘self-rule’ (although as we have seen that was tempered by the experience of the Irish Volunteers, and let us not even consider his role in recruitment to the British Army) the end he sought was surely very different from that Republic (indeed arguably his vision was less radical than that of O’Connell) and was directly incompatible with the Republic or indeed even the Irish Free State which did emerge in 1922. In fact it is difficult not to regard Home Rule as a political cul-de-sac which diverted energy away from independence, and which even had it been instituted in 1914 would still have seen partition of sorts, and then eventual independence probably sooner rather than later. The counter argument is that this might have been achieved without bloodshed. But, one wonders.
Consider this quote from Jackson, where he notes that…
Redmonds grief on military questions reflected, perhaps, not just the ambiguities created by the suspension of Home Rule but difficulties with the measure itself… under the terms of the suspended Home Rule Act an Irish leader had no direct jurisdiction over military matters. There is little doubt that the Home Rule Act could not – indeed should not – have been a final and complete expression of Irish national aspirations. But the war raises a question about even its short-term viability as a settlement. If Home Rule had been enacted, and Redmond had been Irish Prime Minister in late 1914, then under the terms of the Act he could have exercised no more authority over the critical issue of Irish recruitment than he already did as leader of the Irish Party… it is hard to resist the suspicion that the Home Rule Act of 1914 could have been no more than a provisional settlement of the historic Anglo-Irish antagonism.
More to the point even what support there was for the Irish Parliamentary Party, and it was on one level near-hegemonic, was built on shifting and contradictory ground. Jackson also notes that when the 1915 wartime coalition government in Britain took power and offered cabinet seats to Edward Carson (as attorney general) and Redmond. Redmond refused. As Jackson relates ‘Irish nationalism had traditionally been deeply opposed to the notion of its commanders accepting ministerial positions under the English Crown’. Granted the situation had changed to the extent Redmond could seek recruits to the British Army, but that he did not suggests that the alternative history of a gentle slide towards peaceful autonomy (or independence) during this period is largely aspirational.
This is not to say that, as John Regan in The Irish Counter-Revolution has noted that ‘notions of an Irish teleological history and republican predestination – that is to say that all Irish history was seen as a continuous process leading to independence, the republic and rule by Fianna Fáil’ were in and of themselves correct. Merely that so many of the elements that fed into the ultimate shape of the post-1916 conflict were well beyond the control of Redmond, or indeed anyone on the island (or the other island directly to the east). The First World War, Unionist dissent, the development of a small, but not insignificant band of dissenters within Nationalism itself (as early as September 1914 12,000 Irish Volunteers from the 170,000 original members followed Eoin MacNeill in direct opposition to Redmond). Each of these was in place soon after Redmond was forced to bend to the will of the Westminster Parliament and delay once more in the implementation of his ‘crowning success’. And that was largely that. His route was far from ignoble, but predestination aside, it seems more than likely doomed – certainly from 1913 or so.
Once one factors in 1916 one is left with a situation in which, as Jackson argues:
The Easter rebels had exposed the limitations and inconsistencies of the Irish Party’s rhetoric and actions – a party that celebrated the achievements of earlier insurgents, and yet which daily compromised the ideals of Irish self-government. The rebels had also exposed the distance that the party had travelled since the death of Parnell – the extent to which his great coalition of militant and constitutionalist had degenerated into a party of tough-talking but sedentary and ageing gentlemen. In the very act of purloining the rebels’ sanctity [by a speech following the Rising in which he denounced the executions and praised the courage of Pearse et al], Dillon underlined the integrity of their case.
And I wonder too if in the most benign scenario of a Home Rule government extant from 1914 pressure from a recalcitrant Northern Ireland, presumably behind a border, would not have fed precisely the sort of appetites that those like Bruton believe that Redmond might have shielded this different Irish history from. After all, in the relative calm of the late 1940s the Anti-Partition campaign saw a final flourish of near mass enthusiasm for direct (political) intervention in the North with frankly disastrous results. Add to this a younger generation impatient with the compromises and conciliations of a Home Rule administration and we see something approaching the counterfactual detailed in British Ireland (an essay by Jackson in Niall Ferguson’s interesting albeit right of centre Virtual History).
Ireland emerges as a dominion, loosely bound to the British empire. The inclusion of Ulster has little bearing on this counterfactual fantasy… however it should again be emphasised that an independent Ireland with a strong Unionist representation need not have been – in the long term – a politically and culturally settled polity. There is, in fact, some justification for supposing the reverse. It seems unlikely that had Home Rule been enacted in 1912, there would have been an Anglo-Irish war; on the other hand it is not improbable that advanced seperatists would have staged a revolt against a Home Rule administration which seemed to be (in MacSwiney’s metaphor) joining the Carnival of Empire.
And Jackson continues that in a further counterfactual there is the possibility of an Ulster provisional government emerging (this contention supported by some plans proposed by Carson and the UVF) which would either have been put down by force by the British or Irish, or transition to a near-civil war scenario and either a sort of half-life of autonomy within the Home Rule context or otherwise. Would any of these have been substantially better than the situation that did in fact emerge? Would they have been more stable? Would any of them have provided the sort of outcome that Redmond sought? And would any of them vindicate the faith John Bruton places in Redmond as the great lost leader who could have negotiated Ireland safely through the crucible of international and domestic events during this period? Could any leader do that?
Because the problem is that once we accept that the elements existed, were in place and required no internal activity to bring them into play it is clear that even had Home Rule been granted in 1914 the exigencies of the broader environment would place it under almost identical pressures to that endured by the protagonists of our actual history. Whether Redmond and his peers in the Irish Parliamentary Party were capable of dealing with such pressures is a very interesting question indeed. The brute reality is that despite his seeming altitude above the messy compromises political and military that the post-1914 era would necessitate Redmond was in actual fact deeply involved in attempting to bridge the same gaps that others who Bruton would find much less congenial later sought to do so. He is no more the untainted white knight of Irish political life than any other individual and his record, and indeed project, is vastly more contradictory than is presented by John Bruton.
And finally, to my mind there is an unhappy echo of the Redmond legacy today. For watching the assembled Fine Gael TDs recently the unkind thought struck me that they were being essentially true to their now distant roots in the Irish Parliamentary Party as they sat in an assembly with no direct influence, whatever their numbers. Indeed Michael Taft has noted that:
If Fianna Fail is one of the most successful parties in Europe then Fine Gael, as the main opposition party, is one of the least successful. Since its formation in 1933 it has been in office for only 18 out of 75 years. But, more to the point, Fine Gael is solely reliant upon Labour to lead a government. It’s not that they are inflexible: they have coalesced with Democratic Left while making it clear prior to the last election that both Greens and the PDs were acceptable partners. However, without Labour, they cannot hope to lead a government. Were Labour to permanently withdraw support, it is very hard to see Fine Gael ever recapturing that office.
I think it is unlikely that that latter scenario might come to pass, but it does speak of a serious structural problem for Fine Gael as it is currently positioned within our political system. The events of the last day have been triggered not by opposition activity but by ‘disquiet’ and ‘unease’ amongst the government parties. Events are made by those who can shape events (even if they sometimes propose that they are supernumerary to requirements). That’s as true of 2007 as it was in 1914.