Ronan Fanning took the theme for his most recent book from David Lloyd George in the House of Commons in 1919, “there is a path of fatality between the two countries and makes them eternally at cross purposes“.
In the Irish Times Fanning takes John Bruton to task for suggesting that the Home Rule Bill be commemorated this September, for the very specific reason that (like the unified island it was supposed to presage) it never properly or fully came into force. He notes:
…the inescapable historical reality was that the apparent achievement of home rule was illusory: the Suspensory Act disguised but could never reverse the British government’s commitment to the principle that Ulster’s unionists had rights of self-determination comparable to Ireland’s nationalists.
Mr Bruton, in short, is calling for the commemoration of a settlement that never was: the 1914 Act was a fudged compromise that could never have been implemented as it was enacted.
In his introduction to The Fatal Path Fanning quotes Bernard Lewis warning to those who…
… would rewrite history not as it was, or as they have been taught it was but as they would prefer it to have been… [Their] purpose of changing the past is not seek some abstract truth, but to achieve a news vision of the past better suited to their needs of the present and their aspirations of the future. Their aim is to amend, restate, to replace or even to recreate the past in a more satisfactory form.
…those who are in power control to a very large extent the presentation of the past and seek to make sure that it is presented in such a way as to buttress and legitimise their own authority.
This is usually talked about almost exclusively in connection with Sinn Fein’s rather obvious attempts to control the narrative around more recent troubles. By these lights, the ‘two narratives’ meme is a mere teleological device to get around the unsatisfactory outcome of a long war against the British state.
But it is also holds water for those wanting to shift the light in order to cast awkward kinks in the historic narrative for constitutional neo Redmondists into shadow or forgetfulness.
In that 1919 speech Lloyd George first pronounces the final demise of Gerald Balfour’s killing Home Rule with kindness policy (abandonded 13 years earlier with the landslide victory of the Liberals), and then shifts his attention to why his government will commit, wholeheartedly, to partition:
In the North-East of Ireland we have a population —a fairly solid population, a homogeneous population—alien in race, alien in sympathy, alien in religion, alien in tradition, alien in outlook from the rest of the population of Ireland, and it would be an outrage on the principle of self-government to place them under the rule of the remainder of the population. In the North-East of Ireland, if that were done, you would inevitably alienate the best elements from the machinery of law and order. I do not say you would produce the same result, but it would recreate exactly the same position which we have tried to eliminate in the South.
Interestingly, the British PM quotes Fr Michael O’Flanagan, then a vice President of Sinn Fein…
If we reject Home Rule rather than agree to the exclusion of the Unionist part of Ulster, what case have we to put before the world?
We can point out that Ireland is an island with a definite geographical boundary. That argument might be alright if we were appealing to a number of island nationalities that had themselves definite geographical boundaries. Appealing, as we are, to Continental nations with shifting boundaries; that argument will have no force whatever.
National and geographical boundaries scarcely ever coincide. Geography would make one nation of Spain and Portugal; history has made two of them. Geography did its best to make one nation of Norway and Sweden; history has succeeded in making two of them.
Geography has scarcely anything to say to the number of nations ‘upon the North American continent; history has done the whole thing.
If a man were to try and construct, a political map of Europe out of its physical map, he would find himself groping in the dark. Geography has worked hard to make one nation out of Ireland; history has worked against it.
The island of Ireland and the national unit of Ireland simply do not coincide. In the last analysis the test of nationality is the wish of the people.
It’s a ‘fatal path’ that had barely outworn Independence/Partition, never mind the latest, longest and most bitter troubles in the history of Northern Ireland between the two sovereign governments, leaving the constitutional route as the only long, hard way forward for Irish republicans.
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