Free State left UK at just the right moment

Garrett FitzGerald argues that some revisionists have taken the re-drafting of history too far. In particular, he argues that the southern state got out of the UK before it was economically too late (subs needed) to kick out for economic independence, “at a moment when the cost of the break was still bearable, involving as it did only a small reduction in public service salaries and in the very limited social welfare provisions of that period”.

It is true that the IRA and Sinn Féin have sought to use 1916 as an excuse or cover for their violence against the unionist community in Northern Ireland, and far too many people have allowed them to get away with that tactic. But the truth is that neither the often sectarian motivation of the IRA in Northern Ireland nor the ruthlessness of their campaign against its unionist community find any parallel whatever in the 1916 Rising. It is not difficult to imagine the horror with which the 1916 leaders would have greeted today’s attempts by the IRA to justify their past actions by reference to what happened in Dublin 90 years ago.

Another case often made against the Rising is that it was unnecessary. We are told that Home Rule would have been conceded after the first World War. That may well be true, but it does not follow that Home Rule would then have led peacefully onwards to Irish independence. That is frankly most unlikely. Indeed, I would describe this thesis as alternative history gone mad.

Firstly, there is little reason to believe that Britain would have permitted Ireland to secure independence peacefully at least until many decades after the second World War. Secondly, long before that point could have been reached, the growth of the welfare state within a United Kingdom of which Ireland remained a part would have involved a scale of financial transfers from Britain to Ireland that would have made the whole of our island even more financially dependent upon Britain than Northern Ireland is today.

By the time that Britain might finally have been prepared peacefully to concede independence to our part of Ireland, the financial cost of such a separation would have been so great for our people – probably entailing a drop of 25 per cent or more in living standards – that it is highly unlikely that the Irish people would have been prepared to accept such a sudden and huge drop in their standard of living.

The truth is that we got out from under British rule just in time – at a moment when the cost of the break was still bearable, involving as it did only a small reduction in public service salaries and in the very limited social welfare provisions of that period. And, of course, without the independence thus secured in the aftermath of the Rising we could never have become a prosperous and respected state and member of the EU. For it is only because we became politically independent that we have enjoyed the power – which Northern Ireland lacks today – to adopt policies enabling us, somewhat belatedly, to catch up with the rest of Europe, including Britain, in terms of national output and living standards, and to join that Union in our own right, rather than as a subordinate region of the eurosceptic UK.

Without the impetus to early Irish independence provided by the Rising, it seems to me impossible to make a credible case for the emergence of a successful Irish State by the end of the 20th century. Indeed, I have never heard anyone even attempt to make a case for a successful Irish economy being achieved on the basis of a move to Home Rule rather than independence in the early 1920s.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty