As predicted, the war is continuing, and shows no sign of abating. By “war”, I mean the ongoing battle over interpretation of Ireland’s past, and how and whether certain historical figures deserve particular attention and commemoration. The latest campaign in this conflict unfolded at the Royal Irish Academy on Dublin’s Dawson Street. A quartet of speakers, including former Fine Gael Taoiseach John Bruton, discussed the contribution and significance of John Redmond, Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) leader in 1900-1918, whose crowning achievement, the 1914 Government of Ireland Bill, received the Royal Assent exactly a century ago.
I have already touched, here on Slugger, on the extraordinary historical symmetry of this event occurring precisely a hundred years before Scottish voters decide whether their country should become independent. For his part, the ex-Taoiseach was not slow in recognizing the same:
‘The Scots are exercising full national self-determination. That came about because, for the past number of years, Scotland has had a home rule government, and a home rule parliament, and a majority in that parliament was later democratically won by a party that wanted complete independence. All that has happened in Scotland without loss of life, without the bitterness of war. Ireland was given a similar opportunity 100 years ago this week, to move through home rule, towards ever-greater independence, gradually and peacefully, when Home Rule for Ireland became law on September 18th 1914. Ireland could have followed the same peaceful path towards independence that Scotland is now considering taking.’
Essentially, Bruton’s point, which he made in a speech earlier this year, was that the Easter Rising in 1916 was therefore unnecessary:
‘The reality is that, in 1916, Home Rule was on the statute book and was not about to be reversed. If the 1916 leaders had had more patience, a lot of destruction could have been avoided, and I believe we would still have achieved the independence we enjoy today…
‘I believe living for Ireland is preferable to dying for Ireland. 256 civilians died in the Easter Rising. Each year, a Mass is said in the Irish armed forces for those who died in the Rising; it is unclear to me whether those who are remembered include those civilians.’
Bruton added, though, that suggesting that the Easter Rising might have been a mistake was not to deny the heroism or idealism of Pearse, Connolly, MacDonagh and the others. He finished by calling for 18 September to be a national holiday in Ireland, since the 1914 Government of Ireland Act was ‘not a mere addendum to the history of theGreat War – it is a unique parliamentary achievement,’ and asked why Redmond had not been included in the received pantheon of national heroes:
‘On the one end of O’Connell Street there is a statue of Daniel O’Connell, who failed to get the Act of Union repealed; at the other end there is a statue of Charles Stewart Parnell, who failed to get a Home Rule bill on the statute book. Around Leinster House there are monuments to the Rebels of Easter 1916, who failed to achieve a 32-county sovereign republic!’
Joining Bruton in the debate at the RAI were historians Dermot Meleady (Redmond’s most recent biographer), Professor Ronan Fanning (of the UCD, and author of “Fatal Path”) and Professor Eunan O’Halpin (TCD, author of “Defending Ireland”).
Meleady agreed that Redmond had been undeservedly forgotten in the Irish national consciousness, saying it was a “national scandal” that there was no public monument to him in Dublin. He added that the experience of the 1914 Act and the events that would follow it towards partition and independence should serve as ‘a warning against valuing territory over the people who live within it.’
More critical points came from the other two speakers. Professor O’Halpin said that even if Home Rule had been enacted in the summer of 1914, with a measure of exclusion for at least part of Ulster, there would still have been the problem of how Catholics in the North East would be treated (just as there would be little consideration about this among the Free State government after 1922). He reminded the audience that Redmond could, moreover, hardly be viewed as an apostle of liberal politics, in that he was opposed to bringing in old-age pensions, and…
‘Even before Redmond was hit by an axe by a Dublin suffragette in 1912 he was not in favour of giving women the right to vote.’
More searching observations were offered by Professor Fanning, who put it to Bruton that, for all his confidence that Home Rule was bound to be enacted as soon as the war had ended, the 1914 Act nonetheless WAS repealed – in the autumn of 1919, a mere five years after its Royal Assent. This was, after all, part and parcel of the British constitutional set-up, in which, under the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, no parliament can bind its successors, and anything can be repealed – as the Unionists of Northern Ireland were to discover to their alarm at the abolition of Stormont in March 1972. What is more, Professor Fanning argued, the 1914 Government of Ireland Act was put on the statute book precisely BECAUSE it would immediately be suspended, on account of the war. This, Fanning reckoned, is sufficient proof that the Asquith and the Liberals never had any intention of granting Ireland Home Rule – at least not the all-Ireland Home Rule that they wanted, which explains the government’s readiness to offer an Ulster exclusion deal as early as the autumn of 1913.
To the question of whether Redmond merited a more significant place in the Irish national memory, Fanning also added that the death tallies in the Easter Rising and the War of Independence and Civil War that followed it all pale into insignificance when compared to the 30,000 deaths of Irish servicemen in the Great War – for which, he argued, Redmond bore some responsibility, having urged Irishmen to serve in the British Army on the outbreak of war in the summer of 1914.
The debate over John Redmond’s significance to Irish historical memory, and how great an achievement an Act of Parliament that was never actually enacted is, or should be considered to be, will continue. This year is already a politically and historically sensitive one for both Ireland and Britain, and Bruton’s campaign for his hero Redmond has attracted oppobrium, and not just from Gerry Adams. Fianna Fail’s Eamon O Cuiv (grandson of Eamon De Valera) has also weighed in, arguing that the Easter Rising actually saved thousands of Irish lives, since recruitment of Irishmen into the British army dried up in the ensuing months.
It seems possible, however, that some kind of monument to the little-appreciated Mr Redmond will be set up: Bruton told today’s event at the RAI that other members of Fine Gael supported his campaign.