In defence of John Bruton

It was brave of former Taoiseach John Bruton to chose last week to return to the ultimate Irish counterfactual. He’s taken to task for it in the Irish Times by historian Dr Brian P Murphy OSB

I believe,” said Bruton, “Ireland would have reached the position it is in today, an independent nation of 26 or 28 counties, if it had stuck with the Home Rule policy and if the 1916 rebellion had not taken place.”

the choice to use force in 1916, and again in 1919, must be subjected to severe reappraisal in light of what we can see might have been achieved, without the loss life”.

Murphy goes on to quote Redmond’s later views..

 Redmond himself rapidly came to the conclusion that British politicians, especially Tory Unionist politicians, were not going to allow the evolution of Irish Home Rule in the manner that he had hoped for and which is now envisaged by Bruton.

Redmond expressed his views on the matter after Lloyd George attempted to amend the Home Rule Act, with provision for the Ulster Unionists, and following the declaration by Lord Lansdowne in the House of Lords, on July 11th 1916, that these structural changes to the Act would be “permanent and enduring” and the exclusion of the six counties would be “permanent”.

Redmond responded, on July 12th, by declaring that Lansdowne’s speech “amounts to a declaration of war on the Irish people, and to the announcement of a policy of coercion”.

But Lansdowne cannot be quoted as the ultimate  authority for the UK wartime coalition.  He had been a Diehard opponent of Liberal Lords reform and notoriously argued for exploring a negotiated peace with the Germans.

And notice the date for this exchange – July 12 – after the Rising. The fact is something else had changed utterly as a result.  The legacy of the Rising ended the double dealing  of 1914 about permanent or temporary exclusion from Home Rule for the Ulster Unionists. Ronan Fanning, so often quoted as the ultimate authority  from his  recent book  Hidden Path is even more emphatic.

 John Bruton’s clarion call represents ..an extreme because it flies in the face of two historical realities about the third Home Rule Bill. The first is that the Bill was always an exercise in hypocrisy. Asquith’s government never intended that it should be enacted in the form in which it was introduced.”

Fanning concludes that the Home Rule 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..

The enthusiasm with which John Redmond and his party greeted the announcement of the royal assent to the Government of Ireland Act in the House of Commons, on September 18th, 1914, and which John Bruton now asks us to embrace was as misplaced as the embitterment of the unionists who walked out of the House en bloc.

For the other 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.

Quite so.Why the surprise?   Bruton accepts the reality of partition. Fanning seems to deny it. Home Rule was still there for those who wanted it. Who therefore is being the more fanciful with history?

Ask yourself a few questions.

In Asquith’s position in 1914 and Lloyd George’s  after 1916, what would you have done?

Why does the  nationalist  assumption still survive that Westminster had been morally compelled to deliver a united Ireland to them somehow, even at the cost of using the same physical force  they deplored when used against them?  This was – and perhaps remains – a fond belief that has to be questioned as much as Redmond’s gamble of 1914 when  he pledged the Volunteers to the war effort.

Why is Ulster Unionism dismissed as a false consciousness, the passive tool of the imperialist British?

Why did nationalists make so little effort made in earlier decades to make Home Rule appealing the unionists? Why did  they think they could succeed by appealing over their heads to London?

And the killer question for me. If nationalism had accepted  feeble Home Rule terms and gone on to demand more powers, how could they conceivably have been denied?

Granted, by 1919 and after the lunatic proposal to apply conscription to Ireland at least in theory, everybody was spoiling for a fight. But let’s not dignify it with principle.  Self determination for the North was recognised at last in 1998. Even if disagreement survives over the foundation story, that recognition is the agreed  basis for the future.   Equality cuts both ways!

 

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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