Considering the Past: “Too comfortable a zone and we stop looking towards a ‘better’ future.”

we insist that politics is imagination and mind, we will learn that imagination and mind is politics, and of a kind we will not like…

– Lionel Trilling

John Bruton has published an interesting apologia for John Redmond and his achievements in securing the Home Rule Bill in September 1914.

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, post 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.

It’s a fair point, but such an analysis ignores the failure of Redmond’s long parley with Carson to find some form of equitable solution to ‘the Ulster Question’.

Perhaps it’s a mistake to use violence as the significant marker between what was acceptable political action and what wasn’t. In this case, it’s use by Bruton in this regard may betray a preoccupation with an uncomfortably position the muscular entry of Sinn Fein into constitutional Irish politics creates for its erstwhile incumbents.

As this exchange between Redmond and Carson his old friend from the southern court circuit suggests that the home rule bill itself set up a irresolvable fault line within the all island polity:

Men do not make sacrifices or take up the attitude these men in Ulster have taken up on a question of detail or paper safeguards. I am not going to argue whether they are right or wrong in resisting. It would be useless to argue it, because they have thoroughly made up their minds, but I say this: If these men are not morally justified when they are attempted to be driven out of one Government with which they are satisfied, and put under another which they loath, I do not see how resistance ever can be justified in history at all.

Redmond’s constitutionally legitimate plan effectively meant the co-option of a large northern Protestant minority largely against their will. In seeking to serve the greater good of the large majority of the island, The interests of that politically and numerically significant minority were to be unnegotiated or dispensed with [in] any serious sense.

A point drilled home by Carson in the same exchange…

You probably can coerce her—though I doubt it. If you do, what will be the disastrous consequences not only to Ulster, but to this country and the Empire? Will my fellow countryman, the Leader of the Nationalist party, have gained anything? I will agree with him—I do not believe he wants to triumph any more than I do.

But will he have gained anything if he takes over these people and then applies for what he used to call—at all events his party used to call—the enemies of the people to come in and coerce them into obedience?

No, Sir, one false step taken in relation to Ulster will, in my opinion, render for ever impossible a solution of the Irish question, I say this to my Nationalist fellow countrymen, and, indeed, also to the Government: you have never tried to win over Ulster. You have never tried to understand her position. You have never alleged, and can never allege, that this Bill gives her one atom of advantage.

Interestingly the Belfast born Sean MacEntee noted in 1970 (quoted in Stephen Kelly’s Fianna Fail, Partition and Northern Ireland) of his own party’s response to the subsequence passage of partition into permanence (if we can call nigh on 100 years permanent)…

Maybe we were far too rigid in our approach, too tenacious in our point of view, too proud to temporise or placate… whatever may have been the reason, we made no headway: so our successors must start from “square one”.

The first significant move off square one came almost thirty years later, and was a substantive attempt to reset political relationships within the island and between the islands of the larger archipelago in the form of the Belfast Agreement.

But, as the Taoiseach who presided over that agreement acknowledged on his way out of office, Redmond’s model of a single all island administration remained a long ways off …

That can only happen in the long term future. How long that will be I don’t know. If it is done by any means of coercion, or divisiveness, or threats, it will never happen. We’ll stay at a very peaceful Ireland and I think time will be the healer providing people, in a dedicated way, work for the better good of everyone on the island.

If it doesn’t prove possible, then it stays the way it is under the Good Friday Agreement, and people will just have to be tolerant of that if it’s not possible to bring it any further.

Interestingly though, the move away from square one has been accompanied by a queer fight over truth and legitimacy, which is also reflected elsewhere in some of the most desperate of struggles in Israel/Palestine, Syria, Eastern Ukraine, and even the increasing polarisation of debate in the US.

Perhaps, as this column in the Economist suggests, everything old is new again. But as David Amerland argues this does not have to end in military or other forms of destructive conflict…

The past was never halcyon. Although in retrospect we can mythologize it, it too was full of tumult, change, challenge and uncertainty. That, is as it should be. Too comfortable a zone and we stop looking towards a ‘better’ future. We stop evolving.

In harking back to the mores of the past we seek to capture not its substance (because it too had ignorance, sectarianism and intransigence) but its essence.

A sense that together we are stronger than alone. That differences should not be the defining factor for our enmities. That survival and value and evolution, work best in a setting where we align our purpose, with that of others.

That all depends of course, on your political intentions, or what imaginative nostrums you have in mind to foist upon (or co-create with) your neighbours?


  • Ernekid

    If John Redmond wasn’t so complacent and didn’t fail to under estimate the forces of Carson and unionism who knows what might have happened? Maybe today there would be a 32 County Ireland team participating in the Commonwealth games under the gold harp on a green banner? I feel bad for John Redmond he’s unfairly maligned by many. Maybe the SDLP can pick up the fading torch of constitutional nationalism in Ulster before Sinn Fein finally snuff it out?

  • John Ó Néill

    “Redmond’s constitutionally legitimate plan effectively meant the co-option of a large northern Protestant minority largely against their will. In seeking to serve the greater good of the large majority of the island, The interests of that politically and numerically significant minority were to be unnegotiated or dispensed with any serious sense.”

    Is there a word missing here [am not sure ‘dispensed with any serious sense’ reads the way it is intended]?

    Applying this logic, though, northern nationalists in the likes of Derry, Tyrone, Fermanagh etc had their interests unnegotiated and dispensed by an unconstitutional threat. In the self-deterministic logic northern unionists demanded for themselves, a minority in the same area where to be denied the same rights as part of that process. Arguably, the biggest strategic mistake made by nationalists and republicans (to riff of the other thread as well here) was to treat the northern government area as a single entity rather than to pursue secession on a piecemeal local basis. Either way, the unconstitutional means Unionism adopted to obtain its political goals, and its demand to incorporate areas which had demonstrably endorsed the constitutionally legitimate plan simply can’t be airbrushed from history, no matter what way it is spun.

  • mickfealty

    Missing word is ‘in’, one of several typos.

    As for the ‘strategic mistake’ of not going for a piecemeal approach, we might say that with the benefit of 20/20 of hindsight, but even partition was not a serious option during the period in which Home Rule was a current issue up to and including the enactment of the bill.

    Ireland was assumed by the Act if not by individual Home Rulers themselves, even in the teeth of thirty years of a determined and powerful unionist rearguard, to be as united as Tone had both hoped and worked for just over a century earlier.

  • “No, Sir, one false step taken in relation to Ulster will, in my opinion, render for ever impossible a solution of the Irish question, I say this to my Nationalist fellow countrymen, and, indeed, also to the Government: you have never tried to win over Ulster. You have never tried to understand her position.”

    No change there then.

  • kensei

    Carson’s “not one atom of advantage” is often quoted but (1) it is very much more true of the Nationalists in “Ulster” and (2) there is no indication that it would have made one blind bit of difference – as supported by his previous quotes. Plus you need to factor in the insanity of the times – if for argument’s sake there is was a popular majority in Scotland for independence but a large loyal minority in the Shetlands, it is fairly unimaginable that the threat of armed resistance would be not just supported by David Cameron, but stoked. Carson could promise no compromise because he has some serious backers up to an including the British cabinet. You can’t discuss this rationally without factoring that in.

    It was considered that the boundary commission would probably make the North unviable by giving large sections of it to the South. That was a reasonable guess, at the time and there’s the small matter of the Civil War going off at the same time. Who knows what Collins would have done?

    I read that that Unionists were offered all 9 counties (not sure where, but maybe someone can supply a citation) but rejected it on the grounds of including too many Cafflicks to control. Paradoxically, the partition of Ulster was probably worse than the partition of Ireland. A 9 county North in a 2 house PR system would have been much harder to gerrymander, and the demographic clock probably would have made a UI more likely. There would have still been a considerable time lag to 50%+1, nevermind winning a vote and it’s hard to imagine a second partition being supported with the same fervour.

    We should, of course, take the time to note the irony that Mick is berating Nationalism for being too stubborn because Unionism wouldn’t move an inch.

  • John Ó Néill

    Any retrospective discussion is bound up with hindsight. Contemporaries regarded the concept of partition as faintly ridiculous, even after the effective collapse of the Boundary Commission. No-one took it serious enough in either constitutional nationalism, or in the physical force tradition (the IRA was largely focused on challenging the southern government until 1940, and even after then, internal IRA politics can be mostly read as a conflict over the locus its strategic focus up to January 1970).
    Obviously, the ethnogenesis and heimat themes in more recent Unionist thinking jar somewhat with the clear artificiality perceived in the border when it was concocted.

  • mickfealty


    “Contemporaries regarded the concept of partition as faintly ridiculous…”

    Exactly. But I’m not sure how they would have pursuaded the United Kingdom to serve tiny slivers of itself to the Free State/Republic, like the pig that wants to be eaten?

    I think history confirms that they didn’t take it seriously as a possible outcome and after Redmond continued with the game of hardball paying no heed to Carson’s warning.

    In truth it was probably too late by then. The battlelines had been set for a generation, and in the process Irish republicans had lost whatever bonds of sympathy between north and south which had been much more apparent under Tone.

  • John Ó Néill

    Once Redmond had persuaded a generation of nationalists to enlist and be slaughtered on the battlefields of the Great War only to see his constitutional achievement disregarded in the face of physical force Unionism, the dynamic had changed beyond recognition. Ironic, given Unionisms grievance mythology.

  • AMS2013

    Carson started to demand a 9 County Ulcer.
    After all the Ulcer Covenant would have been sold to people in Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan..But those Unionists were abandoned.. Funnly enough when the Belfast Telegraph reported on the 100th Anniversary of this. It was never mentioned.
    There is a thought that Carson was never serious in his attempts to gain a 9 County Ulcer.

  • mickfealty

    He did that to show good faith to unionists and to tie Ireland in common cause with Britain in the liberation of Belgium and the release of other small countries which (like Ireland) gained their freedom after the war, but he did so in advance of the promised Home Rule actually taking place.

    He did not suspect that in two years time the revolutionaries of the IRB – who had always kept their own council on Volunteer politics – would pitch a revolution at the very forces he’d allied himself to leaving poor Redmond with little to defend his own patriotic honour other than a ‘promissory note’ in the form of the 1914 Act.

    In fact all shades of Republicanism and Nationalism shared the same assumption, ie that the Protestants of Ulster were something that could be accommodated at a later date. That’s one reason why I don’t think the division between violence and nonviolence is a significant marker of nationalist failure here.

    Neither had a functional plan for dealing with them. And 100 years later, I’m not sure I yet see a plan which is substantially different in any substantial manner from the original. Ulster Unionism was the axiomatic detail that Nationalism’s strategic mathematicians failed to account for.

    In his great book Special Relationships, Paul Arthur has a cornucopia of great quotations, one of my favourites is from Byron Bland, who said…

    Transcenders are many things – people, actions and events, gestures, dreams, and visions… The form is not important. It is the task they accomplish that is significant; they connect what violence has severed.

    Revisiting the past in substance is not really an option, other than for those still keen to keep revisiting the ‘ignorance, sectarianism and intransigence” of our past. It’s the essence of history we all need to learn from, in order not to keep making the same mistakes over and over again. Nationalism after all was hardly alone in making key strategic mistakes.

    But it is the only one of the two still holding an unredeemed ticket for the completion of its political dreams…

  • John Ó Néill

    There is a classic failing in mathematics where a formula is created with two different units of measurement on either side.

    Perhaps Redmond’s mistake was to imagine that showing good faith to unionists would be reciprocated. I think that the line of argument is completely asymmetrical here since what you are saying still jars completely with the underlying historical message that can be inferred from this. Constitutionalism, good faith measures, misplaced loyalty even (on Redmond’s part), all failed. Physical force and unconstitutional means, on Unionism’s part, succeeded. I don’t think it is possible to divorce that context from discussing Redmond. To discuss any of this while focusing on nationalism is to disregard the other contextual side of the debate, which is in the nature of Unionism, both in the tactical forms Redmond faced and the subsequent incarnations over time.

    If you far follow this through to its logical conclusion then you have to define Unionism’s political dreams to identify it’s completion. Is it flags? Monarchy? Orange marches wherever you want, whenever you want? A northern government (without D’Hondt or other fail-safe mechanisms)? Not a Catholic about the place?
    That seems to be the narrow consensus platform Unionism stands for, judging by their actions and behaviours, rather than rhetoric. Is that what Unionism has achieved? Is it bristling sectarianism in society, instability, contrarian unwilling participation in any form of cross-community governance?

    Ironically, in all of this, the dedication to ‘cherish all children of the nation equally’ was made in 1916, not by Redmond and certainly never by Unionism.

  • kensei

    Can we also just pause for a second for the fact Redmond’s “good faith” measure was to help convince a good portion of Irishmen to go to be slaughtered in an Imperial bunfight?

    You might accuse me of being facetious, but I think it highlights a serious point of the dangers of accommodation above principle. Yielding can be worse than being obstinate, depending on the circumstances. Plus it also highlights how “constitutional” often means “restricted to approved forms of violence”.

    I think the lessons of the period are somewhat more complex than Mick’s range manages.

  • mickfealty


    Constitutionalism, good faith measures, misplaced loyalty even (on Redmond’s part), all failed. Physical force and unconstitutional means, on Unionism’s part, succeeded. I don’t think it is possible to divorce that context from discussing Redmond.

    But if you perform a calculation with a large part of the population unrepresented within it, and they subsequently tell you, and the ruling government to get stuffed (which is effectively the argument outlined by Carson above), it’s the axiom that’s faulty.

    The rebellion of the Unionists by and large succeeded, Republicanism’s multiple efforts at the same methods have not.


    Puts me in mind of Kenny Rogers, The Gambler

    You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
    Know when to fold ’em
    Know when to walk away