Paying a fitting tribute to John Redmond's role in the complex narrative of our history
Published 30/06/2014 | 02:30
Tomorrow evening, an important soiree will take place at the gilded Irish Embassy in London's Belgravia – that enchanting gift by the Guinness family to the Irish nation. We've been instructed to be in our seats promptly, as BBC TV will be filming what is an event involving historic perspectives.
For a clutter of significant speakers, including Baroness Shirley Williams, Lord Paul Bew, Professor Michael Laffan, John Bruton – introduced by minister Jimmy Deenihan – will formally mark the centenary of the Irish Home Rule Bill signed into law in the fateful summer of 1914. The BBC foreign correspondent Fergal Keane will moderate proceedings.
For most of those hundred years, many Irish schoolchildren have been taught to despise, or even hate, the steward of that bill, John Redmond, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party. CS "Todd" Andrews – one of De Valera's main lieutenants and subsequently boss of CIE – spat at John Redmond in the streets of Dublin. My colleague Liam Collins remembers how the Christian Brothers imparted a particular loathing of Redmond and his party.
Their crime was – as Daniel O'Connell's had been – to advocate the constitutional route to Irish independence, rather than the more fiery revolutionary path of physical force. Redmond stands accused, too, of bringing Ireland into World War I by pledging the Irish volunteers to the support of Britain, France and Russia – although, in truth, what moved many Irishmen was outrage at the invasion of defenceless Belgium (my uncle, Kevin J Kenny, devised an advertising slogan that touched a nerve at the time – "Fight for Catholic Belgium").
Historians will debate and discourse on whether Redmond made a grave error in that famous Woodenbridge speech: whether he would have been wiser to withhold any direct military commitment.
Yet it is evident that the tide of history has now turned more sympathetically towards Redmond. Mr Deenihan will say in his speech that we must acknowledge and re-integrate the political achievements of Redmond and John Dillon into the narrative of our history.
The Irish Parliamentary Party did what politicians are supposed to do: work consistently and steadily towards their declared aim, building, brick by brick, the political base for a consistent policy. They didn't have the glamour of a Michael Collins – a diehard Tory opponent described Redmond as "squat and ugly" – nor the impassioned romantic ardour of a Pearse or Connolly. Yeats wrote no poetry to the slow and steady spadework of parliamentary constitutionalism.
Yet Redmond, gradually, and by adroit political skills – and the ballot box, which gave him the balance of power at Westminster in 1910 – persuaded the House of Commons of Ireland's just cause for independent governance, and he successfully annulled the House of Lords' veto in frustrating the democratic will.
Even the king, George V, who was naturally a unionist, respected Redmond, and confided to his diary, repeatedly, how he felt the need to be fair to the Irish nationalists, and, as a constitutional monarch, "to obey the will of parliament".
George had little personal contact with Redmond – whereas he received letters by the bucketful from diehard Tories and unionists beseeching him not to sign the Home Rule Bill. But by 1914 he went out of his way to tell Redmond that he understood his point of view.
George was also horrified by the threat of a North-South Civil War in Ireland, which certainly seemed possible in 1912-13. (The king was so obsessed with Ireland in 1914 that he scarcely noticed the assassination of Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo.)
A hundred years on, we have arrived at more healing times, and it is remarkable to witness the growing interweaving of the Irish historical narrative. The Easter Rising and all that followed it is part of our history: but so are Redmond, Dillon and the Irish Parliamentary Party, brilliantly fashioned by Parnell, but solidly re-constructed by Redmond.
And it is an imaginative step for our London Ambassador Dan Mulhall to host what promises to be a scintillating historical evening, even if it got off to a slightly dodgy start when the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, withdrew an invitation to hold the event at the Speaker's House in Westminster.
Mr Bercow objected to the presence of Sinn Fein MPs, since, he said, they had not respected the traditions of the Commons.
But Sinn Fein, too, has changed, in that it has embraced the constitutional way – as, indeed, Collins and Dev did previously. Revolution is exciting: but constructing the governance of a state is crucial, if duller.
It is fitting that Redmond appears with Edward Carson on an Irish stamp this year. They certainly were not allies in parliament – as we know, Carson vehemently resisted Home Rule almost to the point of treason. And yet when Redmond died in 1918, Carson wrote: "I cannot recall to mind one single bitter personal word that ever passed between John Redmond and myself."
Redmond's younger brother Willie had died on the Western Front, fighting alongside the Ulster regiments. Shortly before he was killed in 1917, Willie wrote to a friend: "My men are splendid and we are pulling famously with the Ulstermen. Would to God we could bring this spirit back with us to Ireland."
And perhaps, a hundred years later, this spirit has been animated – that of seeing our history as part of a varied, complex tapestry, not just a single, partisan thread.