“In the last analysis the test of nationality is the wish of the people.”

Fatal PathRonan 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.

, ,

  • Niall Chapman

    Geography did its best to make one nation of the Island of Britain, history has agreed, the future however…

  • Chris Donnelly

    All very well, except for the ghosts at the feast, the nationalists of the north.

    Self-determination was not for them.

    A fatal error indeed.

  • Michael Henry

    The Bruton Bluff has been played out in my opinion -he asked for a Commemoration for the 1914 home rule bill -but it looks like he has done nothing to help set one up-( well-I have heard of none yet )-

    Is Bruton’s great plan to call for no 100th Anniversary Commemoration’s in 2016 for the Easter Rising because he could not get one for the Home Rule bill-

  • mickfealty


    I think Lloyd George was concerned with the capacity to prosecute the legal business of the state with consent of the people.

    In doing settling in the way he did LG was able to hive off the larger trouble faced in Ireland by setting a granite face against northern nationalist’s political interest.

  • mickfealty

    History is an ongoing argument as we continue to make it Niall.

  • Ulidian Realist

    As it wasn’t for southern Unionists.

  • chrisjones2

    A fatal error indeed.

    Perhapos ….but then there would have bneen an even bigger 3 way civil war which the Prods might just have won

  • MainlandUlsterman

    As to the headline of the piece, that kind of nails it – as did the Lloyd George quote. It’s ultimately a numbers game and so it should be.

    Drawing borders is about minimising minorities. This is why the border was a good decision – as belatedly acknowledged by all parties North and South in 1998. Funny how some people still carry on as if partition was an injustice, when they have unequivocally accepted the morally correct basis of it in the GFA.

  • Morpheus

    Northern Ireland was formed down the barrel of 25,000 guns against the democratic will of the people. It went down hill after that. The GFA was about trying to bring balance and equality to the people of Northern Ireland.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Like I say, some people still act like partition was wrong in 1921 – while agreeing in 1998 that NI’s existence is legitimate. You can’t support the GFA and also say you think partition was some kind of injustice. It’s completely contradictory.

  • Morpheus

    Really? Because I can do it with consummate ease. As I said partition was against the democratic will of the people and forced down the barrell 25,000 illegally imported guns and 5m rounds of ammunition which were to be used against British forces. After that we had a century of misrule when anyone who didn’t subscribe to the Orange Order or a ‘Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people’ was hammered into the ground though discrimination, unfair policing and electoral abuses.

    1998 was a referendum when the people of Northern Ireland voted to accept NI as part of the UK as long as the people wanted it that way putting the power into the hands of the people. It gave us relative equality, provided a representative police force, it got soldiers off our streets and brought an end (relatively speaking of course) to Republican, Loyalist and State violence. I voted for it then and I would vote for it again because I believe it to be the most important document in irish history, even if there are chunks of it which have not been implemented all these years later .

    The two are not even remotely comparable and the history books will not look favorably on the last 100 years of NI history.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    But the Northern Ireland you said was legitimate in 1998, you talk about being illegitimate in 1921, because it was “against the democratic will of the people”. The status of NI within the UK was legitimate and recognised all the way through, on the basis of the choice of the people living there. What happened in 1998 was Nationalist Ireland once again recognising what it had already recognised in 1921 when the treaty was signed, in 1925 at the time of the Boundary Commission, again in 1985 to great fanfare, then continuously after that, including in the Framework Document in the early 90s and the Downing Street Declaration. I’m glad you joined the party in 1998 – as I said at the time, the GFA was partition for slow learners 😉 It is great that Nationalist Ireland now accepts the border, or at least says it does. But it still wants to have it cake and eat it by grousing about the border simultaneously as some kind of Great Wrong done to the Irish people. Well which is it?

    I get your argument – the border became legitimate when the “Irish” people agreed to it. Problem is, it’s wrong, because its legitimacy depends only on the wishes of people in Northern Ireland – it’s called the principle of self-determination. The same principle to which the 26 county Republic owed its right to secede from the UK.

    The point is, the question of sovereignty technically has nothing whatsoever to do with any improvements in politics and community relations inside the polity, welcome though they are. (I agree the period of self-government up to 1972 wasn’t a great model of doing things and left the Nationalist population in a disempowered situation which, though not unfair in itself – they couldn’t expect to get their way on their core demand of getting rid of the state – was fertile ground for unfairness to flourish and it did.)

    The border is never going to stand or fall on how well or not NI is governed – it’s purely and simply down to the choice of people living there on what country they want to be part of. For example, the Bush administration in the US was pants – and African Americans have often had a raw deal in the US – but neither of those makes any difference to the legitimacy of America’s borders. They cannot be connected issues, it would make no sense.

    The all-Ireland vote in 1998 was a fig leaf to allow the more doctrinaire Irish nationalists to do the right thing and accept the border, while pretending to themselves they hadn’t just been wrong all along. We just thought it was funny.

  • Morpheus

    “The GFA was partition for slow learners” – classy. Tell me, if it was indeed game, set and match to unionism then why were the DUP so set against it? Why did only 57% of Protestants vote Yes? Why do 4 in 5 Protestants believe that Catholics got more from the GFA? Are they slow learners and just don’t see the ‘fig leaf’? I am guessing that they don’t just think it was ‘funny’.

    The democratic vote of the people in 1998 was perfectly legitimate – the people got a chance to speak and they spoke and the GFA passed. Forcing the creation of Northern Ireland with the threat of violence against the democratic will of the people was not legitimate but NI as a state obviously continued to exist. I don’t see your issue with that. You may see what happened to force partition as some glorious act of ‘self-determination’ and what followed as being justified in some way but the history books won’t remember it that way.

    Political Unionism fecked up – they had 100 years to turn this place into something all the citizens would be happy to call their home and their own but the political leaders chose to take it down a much darker path and now the mechanism is in place to change that path if the people want to. And if they do choose another path then it is obvious where to look when apportioning blame.


  • MainlandUlsterman

    “Why were the DUP so set against it? Why did only 57% of Protestants vote Yes? Why do 4 in 5 Protestants believe that Catholics got more from the GFA?”
    Because the DUP are negative pessimists and doom-laden thinking is a strong strand within the P/U/L community – and when they saw Nationalists crowing as if they’d won some kind of victory, they were dumb enough to think that must be happening. It’s a fair rule of thumb that if SF support something there must be something wrong with it – and it led to error by a minority of unionists in 1998. The other big thing was the prisoner releases – a lot of people thought that looked like some kind of legitimisation of the terrorists’ causes (which it wasn’t). And the spirit of the accord meant that the UUP didn’t go around shouting about how much they had snookered traditional nationalism. Rightly, they talked up the agreement in positive terms: a new beginning etc. But I think the critics of Trimble were right to say he didn’t “sell” the GFA well. If you strip away the guff around the GFA and look at what it says, it was the end for traditional nationalist project – not only recognition of the border but that “it would be wrong” to change it without an NI majority; recognition that Britishness is entitled to equal respect to Irishness and that it is incumbent on everyone to accept others’ choice of national identity – i.e. that you can’t simply tag everyone “Irish” any more. Since 1998, it’s been firmly established there are two legitimate national identities on the island, not one. Ireland is no longer about the “Irish people” shaking off the shackles of the British; it’s about sharing the island between British and Irish, with both given equal respect. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s completely inconsistent with Irish nationalist tradition – and it was right and good that that kind of nationalism was brought to a logical end in 1998. The shame is that some people are still pretending it didn’t happen; and we haven’t all moved on from it.

    Actually I think the DUP realised pretty quickly after it happened it was a good deal and if they switched to supporting it, they could have their cake and eat it – getting credit both for going with it and for being skeptical towards it. And that did work for them.

  • tmitch57

    I couldn’t agree more with you. Although politics is basically a pragmatic business and most of the nationalists and republicans who voted for the GFA were accepting that this was the best that they could reasonably hope for in the short term. The majority in the Republic have shown that they are willing to stop treating the unionists like the Turks treat their “mountain Turks,” it is about time that the nationalists in NI do the same. Once there is a demographic majority in favor of union with the South, then the nationalists can set about rewriting history once again.

  • Tacapall

    “then the nationalists can set about rewriting history once again”

    Surely you meant righting history. I like your Turks analogy though, its like modern day Australians telling the
    Aborigines if they ever get a majority they’ll let them decide how to run the country.

  • Morpheus

    MU, I find your interpretation of the GFA as some sort of Unionist Machiavellian masterstroke incredulous, verging on comical. How can you possibly believe that it was “the end for traditional nationalist project” when here we are almost 2 decades later with nationalist parties and their pro-UI agenda holding 40% of the seats at Stormont and in local councils, 45% of the NI seats at Westminster and topped the European polls by a country mile?

    “The UUP didn’t go around shouting about how much they had snookered traditional nationalism” for the simple reason that it was not even remotely true and they would have been laughed out of the place if they had – it was a new beginning for everyone, a formalized process for bringing peace, equality and a way forward. It was neither a win for unionism or nationalism but a big win for the people of Northern ireland.

    I don’t buy this paranoid “now you’re all irish, get over it” BS that Alex Kane talked about in his piece this week and you elude to about above. It’s a false prophecy that was never going to happen. I would love to know who his mysterious person is that will go around telling the British that they are no longer British. Do they take their passports etc. Will they be telling the Americans here that they are no longer American? The Polish are no longer Polish? Newsflash: being British, Irish, American oir Polish is not something that anyone can take away from you and since they all are an integral part of Northern Ireland they will continue to be an integral part in a UI.

    Your assertion about the DUP is so out of kilter that it verges on the ridiculous – they are there because the British Government told them the lay of the land which Paisley himself confirmed in his “Plan B” interview. They are reactionary, they played no part in creating this new beginning as they are incapable of leading change:

  • MainlandUlsterman

    “Nationalist” parties prosper, but the nationalist project is dead intellectually, that was my point. And while nationalist (i.e. let’s face it, Catholic) parties do well, the numbers wanting a change of sovereignty, which is what we are discussing, remains low. People appear to vote for parties that look after their community, as before, but Irish nationalism as an idea lacks relevance and credibility to many of those it aims to convince. And that is partly because the balance and fairness in the GFA settlement made it look one-sided and small-minded by comparison. I do think also the GFA sealed nationalist parties into working within a NI setting and making the polity work – something which was previously regarded as undesirable, lest it cement the union. I’d say they were pretty snookered.

    On the DUP point, I really don’t see what you’re disagreeing with.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    no he meant rewriting. Though actually most of the academic historians these days are too smart for any traditionalist nationalist narrative, so good luck with that

  • Morpheus

    The nationalist project is no more dead than the unionist project MU,you need to start appreciating that. Remember than unionism is not dealing with ‘the great unwashed’ or whatever derogatory term is used these days…nationalism is filled Doctors, Professors, Academics, Business leaders, highly qualified people who will all have an input on the future. They are not deluded, they want a UI to happen and will do what they can.

    Of course nationalist parties are in Government, they were voted there and will continue to be voted there. It no more makes them unionist than being partners with them makes the DUP/UUP unionist.

    But if you ever wanted proof that nationalist project, in theory or in practise, is not dead then simply look at the rise of SF. The further they get from violence the more acceptable they become to the electorate – they straddle both side of the border and have uniquely positioned themselves in such a way that they will have a seat at the table whatever happens – Plan A or Plan B

  • Morpheus

    Honest question – how do you think the last 100 years of Unionism will be viewed by the history books 100 years from now?

  • Jude42

    ” It’s a fair rule of thumb that if SF support something there must be something wrong with it” – now that’s what I call an open mind at work…

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Jude, you’re familiar with the term ‘rule of thumb’? I hope my mind isn’t closed entirely 😉 There’s always a chink of an opening even for the least promising people to pleasantly surprise me – and I hope they do. Not holding my breath though.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    The point about the unionist ‘project’ is that there is no project. There is no attempt to create a utopia, it’s just arguing for reality to be recognised. Unionism and nationalism are not mirror images of each other: nationalism goes too far, in my view, in seeking to apply some kind of moral meaning to nationality. This has the effect of asserting (formerly) or suggesting (these days) that there is something better about being Irish in Ireland than being British.

    Unionism has used some of that language in the past, true, but such assertions are not central to unionism’s needs. Unionism does not require nationalists to change their ethnic identity or embrace a nationality they are uncomfortable with – just to live and let live and accept the choice of the majority on national sovereignty, as they have to anyway. It doesn’t need to culturally convert people or change their sense of their own ethnicity, which is patronising and pointless. This has been a big weakness of nationalism over the years, though I do recognise many nationalists do now get it. Perhaps fewer on Slugger than elsewhere 😉

    The rise of SF though does not seem to equate for a rise in support for a UI. As I mentioned, all the polls point to a big hole within the ‘nationalist’ vote, of around a third – people who may vote for nationalist parties but are not rushing for a united Ireland. That’s the main reason not to get over-excited about a UI any time soon. The nationalist project needs to persuade people like that that it’s about more than just winning a breeding race.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I think they’ll not be kind to a lot of unionist politicians; but I think what will change – and is changing – is the way ordinary people of unionist persuasion have been elided. I hope future histories of the last 50 years will reflect the lives of most people, and there may be less focus purely on the juicy stuff – the violence and the extremists. If that happens, people will smile on ordinary unionists, even if it is still unimpressed by much of our leadership.

    But I think if you read Alvin Jackson or Henry Patterson, though they differ in emphasis in places, they represent probably what the historical view is likely to be – Jackson’s work on the first 50 years certainly already looks very sound; and Patterson’s work on the last 50 years or so I think is hard to beat. I’m glad the future of the Union doesn’t depend on unionist politicians anyway – though some of them have been good enough public servants. I think Trimble will be very positively viewed, for one.

  • Morpheus

    Your first 2 paragraphs scream ‘blind paranoia’ to me MU. Being Irish isn’t any better or any worse than being British and I don’t know of anyone who thinks differently. No one, repeat no one, is trying to tell you that you are not British and no one is trying to ‘covert’ you into something you’re not….it is not within anyone’s power to do such a thing. Hell my kids are proudly both. I don’t know how to make that any clearer but if you still believe that some mysterious bogeyman will force you to be Irish some time in the future then the issue is yours I’m afraid, it is not based in any reality.

    Few are under any illusion that a UI is coming any time soon so I don’t think too many are getting carried away, In fact I – like you – don’t know if there ever will be a UI but it is a legitimate aspiration and if the majority ever want it then the majority will get it – it really is as simple as that.

    It might be that the end of The Orange State is enough to ensure that Catholics will vote for NI to remain part of the UK. Maybe not. We’ll see.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    The old ‘unionist paranoia’ trope again. Are you really denying the way nationalism has approached British nationality on the island up to 1998 – and I would argue, since? And are you really so sure we’ve heard the last of “sure, we’re all Irish”?

    I just randomly Googled and in 2 seconds found this post: it happens to come from someone on politics.ie, 2007:

    “If they are not Irish then what nationality are they? British is not a nationality … I’m not sure how anyone in the North can describe themselves as British in any sense … They are essentially a people who have lost their identity in the pursuit of ascendancy. Lost souls without a nation. It’s sad really.”

    This is not isolated stupidity. I could pick out thousands of these kind of posts – and similar stuff from politicians over the years, though they tend to avoid the subject mainly these days. Clearly it is not paranoia on our part. This kind of demeaning stuff gets said all the time and it’s been going on for as long as I’ve been around. It used to be the standard line of all the nationalist parties and the Dublin government after all. It’s a bit insulting – and provably ridiculous – to be told we are imagining it. And that’s not even getting onto the more extreme views.

  • Tacapall

    What nationality were all those forefathers of OO members who supposedly fought at the battle of the Boyne then MU ?

  • Zeno1

    I think you are kind of proving his point there Tac.

  • Tacapall

    What point would that be Zeno ?

  • Morpheus

    No, not unionist paranoia, your paranoia. Far be it for me to assume that I can talk for all of unionism but I don’t think the Britishness of too many is so paper thin that it can be dictated by what they read on a nameless, faceless internet forum. Despite what “Sam Lord” says being British, Irish, American or Polish cannot be simply taken away by someone else. You need to bring your thinking into 2014

  • Zeno1

    His point was, That Republicans keep insisting that the British people here are really all Irish.

  • Tacapall

    There was Irish, English, Scotch, Welsh and a host of other nationalities from around the world who fought at the Boyne Zeno but I dont think there was a British army there.