Ronan Fanning, on Home Rule and 1916, articles in The Irish Times (16 Aug. 2014 & 10 Jan. 2015).

Ronan Fanning
Commemorating Home Rule

[Sub-heading: The 1914 Act was a fudged compromise that could never have been implemented as it was enacted. The more seditious Ulster’s unionists became, the more persuasive would be the “fresh evidence” and the more likely that “public opinion” would indicate that they must receive “some special treatment”.’ Source: The Irish Times - online. See also Fanning in interview about Fatal Path (1913) at Irish Post - online ; accessed 07.10.2014.]

Ronan Fanning, ‘Why Commemorating the Home Rule Bill Would Be Unwise’, in The Irish Times (16 Aug. 2014).
History, as the teacher reminds the narrator in Julian Barnes’s novel, The Sense of an Ending, is more than “the lies of the victors .... it is also the self-delusions of the defeated”.

When I quoted that passage last year in the introduction to Fatal Path, I suggested that one consequence of the revisionist debate about the Irish revolution was the legitimation of the self-delusions of those who see themselves as the heirs to the constitutional nationalists who had been so resoundingly defeated by the republican revolutionaries.

But I did not then expect we would so soon witness such a bizarre example as John Bruton’s calling on the Government to commemorate the centenary of the enactment of the Home Rule Bill on September 18th, 1914.

Utopian exercise
Commemoration, I there wrote, is an entirely laudable if somewhat utopian political exercise. But it is not history. The danger is that its practitioners would shrink from seeking to establish a value-free history of 1912-1922, but would instead massage history into moulds designed to persuade the people of Ireland, North and South, unionist and nationalist, to prefer modes of commemoration least likely to exacerbate the latent tensions between divided communities.

Again, let me emphasise, an admirable political objective in theory. But, in practice, the propagation of a bland, bloodless, bowdlerised and inaccurate hybrid of history which, if carried to extremes, is more likely to provoke political outrage than to command intellectual respect, let alone consensus.

John Bruton’s clarion call represents just such 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.

Although the Parliament Act of 1911 destroyed the House of Lords’ permanent veto on home rule, it legitimised a two-year veto. This meant that, although the Home Rule Bill was introduced in 1912, it could not be enacted before the high summer of 1914.

Surrendered control
This diminished the authority of ministers in parliament and surrendered control of the political timetable to the Ulster unionists and their Tory allies at Westminster because the Parliament Act ensured that the crisis must suppurate until 1914.

The arch-hypocrite at the cabinet meeting of February 6th, 1912, that decided on the terms of the Bill was the Irish chief secretary, Augustine Birrell.

Birrell saw his role as keeping sweet John Redmond and the Irish Parliamentary Party that held the balance of power in the House of Commons. This meant his publicly opposing Ulster’s exclusion from the terms of the Home Rule Bill despite his personal belief – of which he had earlier but privately advised two of his most powerful cabinet colleagues, David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill – that he anticipated civil war unless at least part of Ulster was excluded from the Bill’s terms of reference.

But political expediency demanded that Birrell conceal his convictions. So when Lloyd George, backed by Churchill, formally proposed Ulster’s exclusion to the cabinet on February 6th, 1912, Birrell spoke against it, and the procrastination of Asquith and Birrell prevailed over the pragmatism of Lloyd George and Churchill.

The cabinet’s decision that the Home Rule Bill “as introduced should apply to the whole of Ireland” meant nothing because it was hedged about by two caveats. That Redmond “should from the first be given clearly to understand that the Government held themselves free to make such changes in the Bill as fresh evidence of facts, or the pressure of British opinion, may render expedient”; and that “if, in the light of such evidence or indication of public opinion, it becomes clear as the Bill proceeds that some special treatment must be provided for the Ulster counties, the government will be ready to recognise that necessity”.

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Commemorating 1916

‘Commemorating 1916: There is a risk it will degenerate into a self-indulgent exercise in whatiffery’, in The Irish Times (3 Jan. 2015), "Opinion".
Consideration of the form, nature and purpose most appropriate to the commemoration of 1916 should focus first and foremost on purpose. Why, in short, should we commemorate the 1916 Rising? Such a simple question may seem banal but there are two reasons why it is imperative. First, because the politically correct mania for inclusiveness seeks to diminish the unique historical significance of the Rising. Second, because of the danger that the froth and frenzy that have characterised this year’s essentially meaningless debate about the commemoration of the enactment of Home Rule in 1914 may have comparable consequences.

There is a real risk that the commemoration of the Rising will degenerate into a self-indulgent exercise in whatiffery: that the recognition of the importance of what happened in 1916 will be diluted by the unhistorical obsessions of the crystal-gazers with what might have happened if the Rising had not taken place.

The best point of departure is the indisputable historical fact that the 1916 Rising was the catalyst for a series of events that meant that the independent Irish state was born out of violence. Many of those who brought about that revolution – Patrick Pearse and Éamon de Valera are but two examples – were initially Home Rulers rather than advocates of physical force. But they despaired of constitutional nationalism when the British government yielded to the Ulster Unionists’ threat of force and failed to put in place a Home Rule parliament in Dublin before the Great War.
1916 centenary a time for reflection not celebration

When that war was over, the British government offered not one but two Home Rule parliaments, one in Dublin and the other in Belfast, under the terms of the Government of Ireland Act 1920; this notwithstanding the fact that the nationalist electorate had disowned the Home Rule party and given Sinn Féin a democratic mandate in the 1918 election. Nor did British ministers have any expectation that Sinn Féin would accept such a niggardly offer. So it came as no surprise when they yet again yielded to violence in the shape of the IRA’s guerilla war and conceded the larger measure of independence embodied in the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921.

This bald recital does not demand any approval, retrospective or otherwise, of the use of violence as a political instrument. But it does demand a recognition of historical reality. It also poses the fundamental question about the purpose of the commemoration of the Rising: should the blood then shed inhibit, even, perhaps, prohibit, the Irish Government from commemorating the seminal event on the path to absolute independence? Or, to put it another way, should we be ashamed of our independence because it was achieved through violence?

National revival
Garret FitzGerald posed two related questions in a compelling essay on Irish independence in his Reflections on the Irish State, published in 2003. “Without the national revival of 1916-21 would Ireland ever have become a largely self-reliant country, seeking to run its own affairs in its own way? Or would it have shrunk as, regrettably, did Northern Ireland, into a dependent, economic provincialism, myopically preoccupied about its share of British subsidies and social welfare provisions?” – an observation more apposite last month than ever before as Gerry Adams rattled his begging bowl before

David Cameron and preposterously insisted that Northern Ireland was entitled to a more generous welfare system than the rest of the UK.

Those addicted to the study of history as they would prefer it to have been rather than history as it is might care to ponder two other questions from that same essay. In the extremely unlikely event of “a single Irish Home Rule entity” eventually having emerged on the island of Ireland, “would it have been all that different from Northern Ireland, save for the switch between Orange and Green conservatives? Might there not have been the same stifling one-party rule, the same hopelessness with regard to social or political change, the same orientation towards London as the ultimate source of political power and the ever present source of natural subsidies?”

But, as the centenary of 1916 approaches, the most apposite aspect of FitzGerald’s reflections on Irish independence relate to sovereignty. Without the Irish revolution of 1916-21 the emergence of what was in effect a sovereign, independent republic in everything but name as early as 1937 was inconceivable. The independence then attained was affirmed by Ireland’s unwavering commitment to a policy of neutrality in the second World War and, in 1948, the Republic of Ireland Act, steered through the Dáil by a Fine Gael taoiseach, removed any remaining ambiguity among all parties about Irish sovereignty. Thereafter relations between the Irish and British governments have been conducted on the basis of absolute equality between sovereign states.

Irish independence
“It is not easy for a new state to concede sovereignty,” FitzGerald also observed and he remarks on the fact that Norway, the only western European state other than Ireland to achieve independence in the 20th century (in 1905), was also the only European state to vote against becoming a member of the European Community.
Ireland, on the other hand was so secure in its perception of its sovereignty that the proposal that Ireland should embrace the European enterprise was endorsed by an overwhelming 83 per cent of the electorate in the 1972 referendum.
His conclusion that Irish independence “was in fact secured almost at the latest date at which it could have been usefully achieved” is persuasive. Nor is it the least of the reasons why we should unashamedly commemorate the 1916 Rising as the catalyst without which the status of an independent, sovereign state could not have been so soon achieved.
Ronan Fanning is professor emeritus of modern history at University College Dublin and the author of Fatal Path: British Government and Irish Revolution 1910-1922. He is now writing a biography of Éamon de Valera