Ronan Fanning and the resonances of the history of a century ago

A few years ago at a conference in King’s College London, the Irish historian Ronan Fanning who has just died could still  get hot under collar about  how the British politicians Asquith and Lloyd George exploited Irish Home Rule for their own political ends.  We were about to  enter the decade of commemoration culminating in the centenary of the anniversary of the Easter Rising, when  these tumultuous events were being relived and tested for their relevance to the Troubles and today.

In the nicest possible way Fanning rejected the John Bruton thesis and cast the Irish party leader John Redmond as the dupe rather than the hero of the hour. The Rising was necessary to break the cycle of prevarication and the war of independence was necessary to achieve full Irish self determination.  Even here, the Irish were let down over partition.

Here we get into the counterfactual controversy. Had a  Home Rule parliament however feeble demanded greater powers, how could they have been denied? Fanning’s point  (which I think stretches reality) was that there was no intention to grant Home Rule despite the forked tongue promises to the Unionists on the one hand and the Irish party on the other.

But British political interests were hardly trivial and they extended well beyond party.  Civil conflict was possible in the Ulster Crisis in 1914 and knowing deceit was the time honoured method of trying to avert it. In 1916 after the executions, Lloyd George nearly pulled off a deal but did not press it on Carson and his other Conservative coalition colleagues, as he needed their support to replace the ineffectual Asquith as war leader a couple months later.  At the time Carson himself was a possible diehard candidate for the premiership. Will history today judge that Lloyd George made the wrong choice?

A great insight of Fanning’s in its last major work Fatal Path was his depiction of the 1919 to 1921  period as “ the imagined state.” This was when a Dail government was set up with all the panoply of state authority as if the British administration simply didn’t exist. It started as posture but gradually became partial reality as Dail courts began to supplant the regular courts, the RIC started to crumble and the county councils became Sinn Fein vehicles. “The imagined  state” remains a republican strategy  up to today but has never been repeated so successfully.

Fanning himself said: “Fatal path is simply a case study in the high politics of how physical force can prevail over democracy. It explains rather than condemns the behaviour of ministers in the governments led by Herbert Henry Asquith and Lloyd George as they sought a solution to Irish unionist and nationalist demands for self determination—behaviour for the most part neither better nor worse than that of politicians in other parliamentary democracies.”.

Well, at King’s he was a little less neutral than that. But he did not extend the point to justify Sinn Fein’s “ armed  struggle” in our own time. He was content to let history well told to speak for itself.

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  • file

    Hi Brian – some time back I read a great essay on the consequences of partition. I think it was on the CAIN site, but I cannot find it now and I want to reference it here. Any chance you would know the essay I am talking about? Or know where I might find it again? It’s conclusion was more than northern Ireland = failed entity, it was also that Republic of Ireland = failed entity because there are northern qualities (as there are in all countries) that the southern state cannot do without.

  • Eamon Hanna

    Very sorry to hear of Ronan Fanning’s death. His ‘Fatal Path’ is one of the core “must-reads” for anyone trying to get a modicum of understanding of our political/historical situation. Incidentally, Brian, another ‘must read’ is the late ATQ Stewart’s ‘The Narrow Ground’. When I told Tony Stewart that John Hume had referred to Stewart’s book in very favourable terms, he-a bit dourly, for he was a strong unionist- refused to believe me.

    That’s at least three good men down since the start of the year: Ken Whitaker, Dermot Gallagher, and now Ronan Fanning. I can almost feel the wafting breeze from the wings of the Angel of Death. In terms of unfortunate deaths 2017 may do for the Irish public affairs scene what 2016 did for popular music.

  • Brian Walker

    A bit too random a clue to identifyI fear!

  • Brian Walker

    Well, the fact has to be faced that we boomers are thinning out. Tony was an important historian and no mere propagandist. Hume was bound to haved learned from him..

  • AntrimGael

    For an ‘historian’ he was never particularly sympathetic or understanding towards Northern Nationalists and seemed content to let the boundaries of the ‘Irish nation’ remain within the 26 counties. His Independent column was always particularly dismissive and vitriolic towards Northern Nationalists.

  • articles

    http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/roy-foster-the-irish-argue-about-history-all-the-time-1.2812032
    Another milestone of sorts, Roy Foster has stepped down from Hertford and the Carroll professorship of history. An appropriate headline/quote in the link above. It was ever thus but that’s dialectics (if you’re lucky).

  • AntrimGael

    ATQ Stewart was very much a Unionist but i found he still tried to approach history trying to view events from different angles and not merely act as a propagandist. He said something once which I very much agreed. He said that in any ethnic conflict there always had to be one winner ultimately for stability to proceed. One side had to totally lose or be subjugated by the other completely. He was right.

  • file

    maybe written in the 1930s or 1940s?

  • Cináed mac Artri

    So not all bad then.

  • AntrimGael

    Oh he was very much the champion of the right wing, partitionist, self loathing Unionist Free Staters.

  • Cináed mac Artri

    So not all bad then.

  • SDLP supporter

    A pretty bleak outlook, AG. Surely nobody in their sane senses could contemplate a resumption of the ‘armed struggle’?

  • AntrimGael

    I know but it’s true all the same.