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.