Why the Republic of Ireland needs a new John Bruton…

With the death earlier this month of former Taoiseach John Bruton, we have lost an important and courageous voice in the Republic of Ireland. We will need a new John Bruton to appear from somewhere: a nationalist leader who will not allow people to forget Sinn Fein’s continuing support for the murderous violence of the Provisional IRA and who goes out of his way to try to understand the concerns of unionism. Bruton bravely went even further: he criticised this country’s near-sacred foundation myth, that the bloodshed of the Easter Rising was justified and necessary for the birth of the independent Irish state. Not even Micheál Martin, another rare Southern politician to regularly remind us of the unacceptability of the IRA’s campaign, has ever gone as far as that (he would immediately lose the Fianna Fail party if he did!).

Interestingly, the unionist Belfast News Letter marked Bruton’s death by reprinting his 2016 anniversary of the Rising speech: ‘The 1916 Rising was not a Just War’.1 Bruton argued this on a number of grounds. Firstly, he noted that Rising was launched on a platform that left no room for compromise or democratic negotiation. The Irish Republic was proclaimed on the steps of the GPO not in the name of “a living Irish people” but in the name of “God and the dead generations.” But obviously neither God nor the dead generations were there to be consulted. “The rights of the proclaimed Republic were not conditional on consent, but were ‘sovereign and indefeasible’. By definition, the Irish people would thus have no right to compromise the ‘sovereign and indefeasible’ rights of the Nation, which was treated, in the chosen wording of the Proclamation, as something separate from the people.”

It was in the pursuit of this “absolute and unqualified claim” that thousands of people then continued to be killed in the War of Independence, the Civil War and the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’. Bruton quoted P.S. O’Hegarty, a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood’s Supreme Council at the time of the Rising, in 1924: “We turned the whole thoughts and passion of a generation upon blood and revenge and death; we placed gunmen, mostly half educated and totally inexperienced, as dictators with powers of life and death over large areas. We derided the Moral Law and said there was no law but the law of force.”

Bruton noted that for every Irish Volunteer killed in the Rising (including those executed afterwards) three Dublin civilians died as a result of the fighting. “The first casualty to die on Easter Monday was James O’Brien, an unarmed DMP policeman from Limerick, shot in the face at the gate of Dublin Castle. Another early unarmed DMP casualty of the Volunteers was Michael Lahiff, a 28 year old Irish speaker from the West of Ireland, shot in cold blood on St Stephen’s Green. Michael Cavanagh, a Dublin carter who tried to retrieve his cart from a Volunteer barricade, was executed by the Volunteers. These were not ‘Brits’. They were Irishmen. They were the first to die. Their pictures adorn no public building this Easter in Dublin, but they should.”

Bruton asked if the decision to take up arms in 1916 was in accordance with the Catholic Church’s natural ‘Moral Law’ with its emphasis on the ‘just war.’ “It is especially important to ask that question now, because the Irish State has chosen to place such a huge emphasis on implanting the 1916 Rebellion as the supposed foundation event of our democracy in the minds of today’s schoolchildren. Given that one of the purposes of education is to pass on a moral sense to the next generation, it is vitally important that the morality of that decision, to initiate killing and dying in 1916, be examined by, and for, those schoolchildren. That is the responsibility of the Irish State, and if it fails to discharge it, is is failing the next generation.”

Bruton then outlined some ‘just war’ principles to ask ‘Who is entitled to launch a war?’ “Only a competent authority, or popular representatives, has the right to start a war or insurrection….By no stretch of the imagination could that criterion said to have been met before the killing was started on Easter Monday.” “War required a just cause: armed aggression or governmental policies (e.g. genocide) threatening the civilian population”. Bruton pointed out that Ireland was not being attacked in 1916; in fact the Volunteers were allowed by the authorities to drill freely, something that would not be allowed today. The British government’s policies had been in many ways beneficial to Ireland: old age pensions and social insurance, from which Ireland was a net financial beneficiary, had been introduced, and the unjust landlord system had been overturned to a significant extent. “Furthermore, the principle of legislative independence had already been won from the Imperial Parliament in September 1914 by the passage into law, and signature by the King, of the Home Rule Bill.”

“Another criterion for a just war, is that war should be a last resort, not a first recourse. All other methods of redressing grievances ought to have been first exhausted. Given that the principle of Irish legislative independence had already been conceded, in a Bill passed into law only a year and a half previously, it is hard to argue that starting a rebellion in 1916, and the War of Independence of 1919 to 1921, were, either of them, a “last resort”. In fact much of what was being sought had already been conceded, in principle and in law. Home Rule was law and there was no going back on it. For example, Home Rule was accepted even by the Conservatives as a ‘fundamental fact’, the only issue outstanding being that there be no ‘forcible coercion of Ulster’ to go in under it.”

The only open question, said Bruton, was whether Home Rule might apply or not to Antrim, Down, Armagh and Derry (and perhaps to Fermanagh and Tyrone, which had narrow nationalist majorities). “But after all the killing and dying of the 1916 to 1923 period, and the Treaty of 1921, the Free State did not have jurisdiction over those counties…Nor after the ‘armed struggle’ from 1970 to 1998 does this State have such jurisdiction today. Indeed, under the Good Friday Agreement we no longer claim it, and respect the right of the people of Northern Ireland to decide their own future in that regard.”

The 1916 rebels knew only too well the fierce opposition of Protestant Ulster even to a Home Rule administration, let alone a republic. “But in what they wrote in their Proclamation, this reality was swept aside, as it if did not matter at all…The wish of Ulster Unionists not to be governed from Dublin, was assumed by the Proclamation’s signatories not to have been a conclusion they had come to freely themselves, but only the result of ‘careful fostering’ by an ‘alien government”.

Bruton expressed his strong belief that “if we ever do have a United Ireland, it will not be achieved by the methods used in 1916.” Canada and Australia had proceeded to full sovereignty “without the suffering and bitterness of war.” He said it was not credible to say that the UK would have denied to a Home Rule Ireland the powers it freely granted to those countries under the 1931 Statute of Westminster. “The suffering of the War of Independence was thus not needed to achieve Dominion Status”, which is what Michael Collins, Arthur Griffith and the Irish negotiators got in 1921 (and which had been the policy of the Irish Parliamentary Party, heavily defeated by Sinn Fein, in the 1918 general election).

Why does all this matter 108 years after the event, when what might have happened differently is just a matter of conjecture? It matters because Sinn Fein may be heading the next government in Dublin, and they are fanatically attached to the belief that the Provisional IRA were the rightful inheritors of what they call the ‘physical force’ tradition in Irish nationalism/republicanism, and thus the violence of their late 20th century campaign of killing and bombing was fully justified. For obvious reasons, Sinn Fein are constantly linking that campaign to the War of Independence, with its democratic legitimacy rooted in old Sinn Fein’s victory in the 1918 election, and the central involvement in that guerrilla war of the founders of the two largest constitutional (or ‘slightly constitutional’) parties in the independent state, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail.

It matters because even the most moderate of unionists trace the violence of the Provisional IRA against their community back to the 20th century’s first upsurge of republican violence in 1916 (and continue to believe that Irish republicans “stabbed Britain in the back” at a time when tens of thousands of Irishmen, unionist and nationalist, were fighting side by side in the First World War). And because all parties in the Republic who claim to want a peaceful ‘new Ireland’ still agree on celebrating that anti-British rebellion, supported by a small minority of Irish people at the time, as their state’s foundational act. In the words of that most liberal and pro-Irish of unionists, former rugby international and reconciliation activist Trevor Ringland: “If you take the ambitions of the violent republican movement a hundred years ago, they certainly weren’t about including those Irish who also feel British as part of the island. The identity they drove at that time was very much an exclusive identity, as opposed to the one promoted by John Redmond and the Irish Parliamentary Party.”

It matters because the ‘north blindness’ of the 1916 revolutionaries led to successive mistakes which set back the cause of Irish unity: the almost complete absence of the North from the 1922 Dail debates on the Treaty; the development of the Free State along Catholic and Gaelic lines with zero reference to how this would affect partition; the rejection by De Valera of the 1940 offer by Churchill of a British declaration accepting the principle of a united Ireland and a North-South body to work out the practical details in return for the Free State joining the Allies in the war against Nazi Germany (future Unionist prime minister Basil Brooke said that if the choice was between Western civilisation and Irish reunification, he would accept unity); and the idiotic 1949 departure from the Commonwealth, a year before India declared itself a republic and stayed in the Commonwealth. The continuing popularity of Sinn Fein’s simplistic anti-British imperialism stance in the Republic (particularly among young people), rather than a more nuanced understanding of the historical intermingling of the peoples of these islands, makes me think that more such mistakes are on the way under a Sinn Fein-led government.

I may be a hopeless voice in the wilderness, but I would love to see one of the non-nationalist parties in the Republic – the Greens, Labour or the Social Democrats – having the courage to break with the overwhelming consensus in the South that ‘physical force’ republicanism played a unique and noble role in gaining Irish independence, and with the less overwhelming – but growing – consensus (again, particularly among the young) that the inheritors of that tradition can lead the way to unity. Knowing the ferocious opposition to Sinn Fein by unionists as I do, I believe this is fundamentally mistaken. I would like them to argue that such violent republicanism was always the wrong way to unite the peoples of this island, and to recognise that power-sharing in Northern Ireland along with close cooperation with the Irish Government is the way forward for the foreseeable future: the Good Friday Agreement model, in other words.

In a period of political consolidation and economic growth, I would like to see that party (or parties) adopt a policy of ‘from cooperation to confederation’, recognising that – as the Northern business leader, the late Sir George Quigley, put it – there are in Northern Ireland “two mutually opposed ‘principles of legitimacy’ which are strongly held – one nationalist and one unionist – and that some common ground would have to be found on which the divergent aspirations are transcended in a general consensus….If there is ever a new constitutional configuration for the island, my guess is that the model by far the likeliest to secure consent is the confederal model…On this basis the final agreed Ireland would be a joint, equal venture between North and South, with each having its own governance structure, and with policies related to the powers to be specifically delegated to confederal level by representatives from North and South.”

I put this argument to a meeting of Social Democrats some years ago, but it was clear from the blank faces that greeted me that it was going nowhere. Perhaps it would be electoral suicide to put such a policy to “republicanism is good” Irish voters, who recent opinion polls have shown are not willing to give up one iota of nationalist iconography (changes to the flag and anthem; re-joining the Commonwealth) in exchange for unity. I suggest that electorate also haven’t given one iota of serious thought to how the party of the Provisional IRA are going to bring about a harmonious ‘new Ireland’ that will include hundreds of thousands of abandoned and alienated unionists.

However, those non-nationalist parties might be surprised by the number of people who would vote for a party which proposed putting some distance between the Republic and the troublesome North, while maintaining a strong all-island framework for partnership and mutual action. Similarly, I believe there will be open-minded unionists who would be attracted to the confederal model as the least worst option as Britain’s commitment to the North declines.

1 https://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/other/full-version-of-a-2016-speech-by-the-late-john-bruton-the-former-taoiseach-the-1916-easter-rising-was-not-a-just-war/ar-BB1hSuJP

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