What we saw in Windsor Castle this week was a delayed act of official reconciliation that should have taken place fifty years ago but was held up by the Troubles. It was in reality the unfinished business of closing a sequence of turmoil that began over a century ago, whose shadow is finally lifting only now. Carping like that below fails to recognise that such formalities can only be afforded when the reconciliation they celebrate is safely secured. So what now? Let’s rewind a sec.
“The centenary commemorations for the outbreak of the Great War have overshadowed the events which preceded it, and which go a long way to explaining how we got where we are now. It is the reason why the Irish question wasn’t resolved a hundred years ago by parliamentary means .It’s the centenary of the passing of the Third Home Rule bill, which was nullified from the outset by the political classes’ capitulation to militant Unionism.”
Melanie McDonagh in the Spectator reminds readers of 1912 -14, the period of the Home Rule crisis when it seemed Britain was on the brink of civil war over Ulster. In his new book Fatal Path from which she quotes, the historian Ronan Fanning is still cross about this. Plenty of people were at the time and since. But however widely held, this orthodox view doesn’t seem to me to give fair weight to the Unionist case or to recognise the substantial differences which set them apart from the island majority – differences a good deal greater than they are today. In 1910 -14 it wasn’t all about British Conservatives cynically playing the Orange Card. In a polity which was not quite yet a full democracy, Conservative diehards deeply felt that the Liberals had violated the basic tenets of the unwritten British constitution by whittling down the power of the House of Lords and then assenting to an internal break-up of the Union.
I’m puzzled when Irish historians harrumph about the Ulster rebellion while politely defending their own. Why shouldn’t the Ulster Unionists have had the same rights to fight to remain within the UK as the nationalists had to leave it? What act of primordial nature made Ireland an indivisible political entity and one naturally separate from Britain? It took a further 84 years for that point to win acceptance, in what is easily the most important political outcome of the Troubles, far surpassing the politicisation of Sinn Fein.
Of course had the miracle happened and some sort of deal had been done over Home Rule, it would have been wonderful in the eyes of posterity. But this would have meant the Nationalists accepting what they were still in denial about in June 1914,that partition on some basis was inevitable. The War intervened and that game was never played out. The Nationalist party leader John Redmond can today safely be regarded as too trusting and honourable a figure. But to republicans he became and remains the very archetype of constitutional nationalism – a loser with great contacts.
People still argue the toss over whether it took force to achieve independence. Fanning believes force was necessary. But the contrary is appealing, just as it can be argued that the armed struggle massively held back reform rather than won it. But revolutions are not made in text books. The violence factor is seldom absent in human affairs. The desire to fight for freedom rather than wait on someone to grant it is not completely rational even when it is calculated, as it was in 1916.
The value of the counterfactual is not to commit the futility of denying what happened but to explore the alternatives which were real and present before the events took a different turning. The aim of pursuing them is to try to forestall the undesirable repetition. In the words of the splendid old cliché : “s/he who does not know history is condemned to repeat it.”
So there’s lots to chew over about this formative period just before the whole world darkened. Three issues in particular fascinate me. Why did nationalists make so little effort to try to persuade unionists into Home Rule over the decades, relying instead on negotiating over their heads with the British? This error was to be repeated in harsher conditions by the Provos’ failed strategy of bombing the Brits out of Ireland.
Secondly isn’t it odd that Home Rule (which still provided for Irish MPs at Westminster although many fewer) was taken for granted as bringing the Union to an end , whereas today, devolution is regarded as the Union is new form. And to be really counterfactual, would the State and the Unionists have really come to blows in the North in 1914 any more than they did in the South that year (the minor bungled incident at Batchelors’ Walk notwithstanding)? It took a very determined act of aggression at the height of the war by the IRB cell of the Volunteers to achieve it in 1916, not any act of the distracted government.
What has all this to do with today? The historical theme still has great resonance, as the Republic honourably wrestles with how to incorporate Unionism into its story of Ireland without damaging its own creation myth. The answer lies in its recognition of the colonial transplant as an intrinsic part of the body of Ireland, a transformation that suits post-revolutionary republicanism as nicely as everybody else, allowing for a twinge or two of unease from perennially suspicious unionists.
It’s intriguing to see how the Irish government are tasking their Advisory Group on the Decade of Commemoration – to treat Unionism fairly and indeed generously but not going so far as to be neutral.
The commemoration will be measured and reflective, and will be informed by a full acknowledgement of the complexity of historical events and their legacy, of the multiple readings of history, and of the multiple identities and traditions which are part of the Irish historical experience. There must be full acknowledgement of the multiple identities and traditions which are part of the overall story and of the different ideals and sacrifices associated with them. Official events must within reason be inclusive and non-partisan, but the State should not be expected to be neutral about its own existence. The aim should be to broaden sympathies, without having to abandon loyalties, and in particular recognising the value of ideals and sacrifices, including their cost.
It would be great to see unionism displaying this sort of confidence in return. The missing players of course, are the new best friends, the British. After the state visit what sort of walk-on parts are contemplated for them in the Irish commemorations? There’s been talk of it but have I missed the detail? The welcoming approach of the Dublin establishment deserves serious consideration and is an ideal peg for launching a new exploration along the path of our history to discover where it might take us.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London