By John Bruton
Ronan Fanning (Irish Times 16 August) is right to say we should not propagate a “bland, bowdlerised and inaccurate hybrid of history”. I agree.
But commemorating the 1916 Rising, as we do every year and are about to do on a grand scale in two years time, and simultaneously refusing to commemorate the enactment of Home Rule 100 years ago next month would be to present an unbalanced version of history. It would be to celebrate violent struggle and, by omission, denigrate peaceful parliamentary struggle.
That would be a distortion and would be wrong.
Ronan Fanning argues that there should be no commemoration of Home Rule because , as well as passing Home Rule into law, there was also an Amending Act prepared, which would provide for the possible exclusion of some Ulster counties. In other words, his complaint is that the Home Rule package did not guarantee a United Ireland.
But, as he should remember from the event we both attended in the Irish Embassy in London in July, I said clearly that I did not make such a claim.
I am realist enough to know that Home Rule would not have extended to more than 28 counties. I said so in my submission to the Government seeking a commemoration next month. But , on its own merits, the enactment of Home Rule on that basis is still an Irish parliamentary achievement well worth commemorating.
When the Home Rule Bill received the royal assent on 18 September 1914, it was the first time that a Bill granting Ireland Home rule had EVER passed into law.
The struggle to achieve such an outcome had gone on since the 1830’s. Neither O Connell, Butt, nor Parnell achieved what Redmond and Dillon achieved. O Connell did not achieve Repeal, and Parnell did not get Home Rule passed. Yet they are rightly commemorated .
As I said in my submission, the opposition to being under a Dublin Home Rule Parliament was so strong among Unionists in Ulster that, no matter how hard the Home Rulers might have tried to persuade them, at least four Ulster counties would have stayed out of the Dublin Parliament.
John Redmond, himself told the House of Commons that “no coercion shall be applied to any single county in Ireland to force them against their will to come into the Irish Government”.
This was a sensible policy.
Attempts to coerce Northern Ireland into a United Ireland, whether by the attempted incursions across the border in 1922, by the propaganda campaign in the late 1940s, or by IRA killing campaigns in the 1950’s, and from 1969 to 1998, have all failed miserably, because they were based on a faulty analysis of reality
Ronan Fanning may regard Asquith’s refusal to coerce Ulster as “explicitly partitionist”, but , if so, we are all “partitionists” now.
To win Home Rule the Irish Party had to accomplish three things:
* Get the House of Lords veto abolished.
* Have the Home Rule Bill passed three years in a row, in the House of Commons, in accordance with the Parliament Act.
* Have Home Rule signed into law on 18 September 1914.
All that was done by tough parliamentary tactics, including:
* Declining to support the 1909 budget unless there was a Parliament Act abolishing of the House of Lords veto ( a huge achievement when one considers how little House of Lords reform there has been since).
* Holding the threat of an election over the head of the Liberal Government unless Home Rule was passed three times to comply with that Act.
Under the Home Rule arrangement, any excluded parts of Ulster would have been under direct rule from Westminster. There would have been no Stormont.
And, at least for the initial period, there would have been continuing southern Irish representation in the House of Commons. These two safeguards would have ensured that there would have been none of the discrimination that Northern Nationalists suffered from 1921 to 1966.
The irreversibility of Home Rule is well illustrated by a comment , quoted by Ronan Fanning in his excellent book “Fatal Path”(p 68), of one of its staunchest opponents, the Conservative leader, Andrew Bonar Law who said
“If Ulster, or rather any county, had the right to remain outside the Irish Parliament, for my part my objection would be met”.
The implementation of the Home Rule Act was irreversible politically and would have come into effect if the violence and abstentionism of the 1919 to 1921 period had not made it impossible.
As Ronan Fanning points out in “Fatal Path” (p.189),he Lloyd George Coalition Government’s re election manifesto in the December 1918 Election stated bluntly “Home Rule is upon the statute book”. There was thus no going back on it.
My argument is that , at that time, instead of launching a policy of abstention from Parliament and a guerrilla war, Sinn Fein and the IRA should have used the Home Rule Act as a peaceful stepping stone to dominion status and full independence, in the same way as Treaty of 1921 was so used, but only after so much blood had been shed.
Eamon O Cuiv (Irish Times 7 August) does not agree with me on this. He believes Home Rule would not have been a stepping stone to greater independence, as the Treaty proved to be in the hands of successive Irish Governments from 1922 up to 1949.
I think he is mistaken because I believe Irish politics under Home Rule would have evolved quickly once the Great War was over. Ireland would have benefitted from the loosening of ties as Canada, Australia and the rest did. In the absence of violence, relations between Dublin and the counties in Ulster not under Home Rule, would have been less fraught than North/South relations were from 1922 to 1998.
Sinn Fein and the Irish Labour Party, or a combination of the two, could easily have won a majority in the Home Rule Parliament in the 1920’s, and would certainly have pressed for Dominion status or more. They would have had support from the British Labour party and the Asquith Liberals who had, I believe, already espoused Dominion status for Ireland as early as the 1918 Election.
If Eamon O Cuiv wants an example of what a determined Dublin Government can negotiate even from A Conservative Government, he can look at the successful handing over of the ports in 1938.
This is counterfactual history and unprovable. But so also is Eamon O Cuiv’s pessimistic view. What is provable is that, 100 years ago next month, against huge pressure and prejudice, Irish parliamentarians, unpaid and far from home, by sheer persistence were able to force A British Parliament to put Irish legislative independence on the statute book, without firing a shot.
It is worth commemorating.
John Bruton, a former Teachta Dála in Ireland’s Dáil Éireann, served as the nation’s Taoiseach (Prime Minister) from 1994 to 1997, and as Ambassador of the European Union to the United States from 2004 to 2007. He is currently President of IFSC Ireland. A graduate of University College Dublin, with degrees in economics and law, he is a passionate student of history. John has graciously agreed to write book reviews on occasion for The Wild Geese. You can get more of John's perspectives on Irish -- and world -- affairs at www.JohnBruton.com.