Thursday 22 February 2018

Book review: John Redmond: The National Leader - Dermot Meleady

The forgotten man of Irish history . . .

Height of his powers: John Redmond inspecting Irish national volunteers in 1915
Height of his powers: John Redmond inspecting Irish national volunteers in 1915
British PM: Herbert Asquith
John Redmond: The National Leader - Dermot Meleady
Height of his powers: John Redmond, left, addressing a Home Rule meeting in Dublin in 1912

Brian Murphy

History, John Redmond: The National Leader, Dermot Meleady, Merrion Books, €33.35, hbk, 500 pages. Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709350

John Redmond is the forgotten man of Irish history, but a century ago he was the most respected and most popular political leader on this island. In mid-November 1913, Redmond, at the very height of his powers, was busy bringing the case for Home Rule directly to the British public. He addressed sizeable platform meetings in Newcastle, Northampton, Birmingham and Alloa as a counter-offensive to a UK speaking tour being conducted by the unionist leader, Edward Carson.

By this stage, through a combination of his own political skills and a fortuitous turn of events, Redmond had progressed the cause of Irish self-government further than even Parnell

Two general elections in 1910 had confirmed the dependence of the Liberal Party on the Irish Parliamentary Party. In 1911, the Parliament Act removed the veto of the House of Lords ensuring that the peers could only delay Home Rule legislation for two years. In April 1912, honouring the price of Redmond's support, the British prime minister, Herbert Asquith, introduced the third Home Rule Bill into the House of Commons. Later that year, this Bill was passed by the Commons, but rejected in the House of Lords. However, Home Rule was now due to become law in 1914 and Redmond was, in effect, the Irish prime minister in waiting.

One hundred years ago, Redmond was in touching distance of nationalist Ireland's holy grail, but ultimately, his own political miscalculation and the seismic shifts in the political tectonic plates, occasioned by the eruption of World War I, meant that he would never drink from the cup of success.

Dermot Meleady's extensively researched biography documents the triumphs and failures of Redmond's tenure as leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party. Redmond was a proud Irishman, a substantive figure in our history and a leader who delivered much progressive change, yet his fate has been to become an exhibit for Enoch Powell's maxim that all political careers end in failure.

This second and final part of Meleady's full-length biography shows that it is unfair to dismiss Redmond's career in this manner. Meleady's work is full of new insight and he admirably deals with the complexities of his subject.

The starting point for this volume is Redmond's election as party leader in 1900. Redmond's immense achievement in reuniting the Irish Parliamentary Party in the aftermath of the bitter Parnellite split is, perhaps, comparable only in modern political accomplishment with Bertie Ahern's success in knitting together the warring factions that had driven Fianna Fail apart during the divisive Haughey era. Like Ahern, Redmond was a born conciliator with a strong work ethic.

Though the reconciliation in the Irish Parliamentary Party was never more than an uneasy peace and Redmond was often accused of taking conciliation too far, even to the point where one critic said he "followed where he should have led", his role in binding up the wounds of a party that had spent a decade engaged in internecine strife was a master-class in the art of political compromise.

Despite his success in rebuilding the Home Rule Party, Redmond failed to reinvigorate it. With the notable exceptions of Tom Kettle and Richard Hazleton, Redmond neglected to bring in new blood. The fact that the Irish Parliamentary Party became the preserve of aging men was a factor in it being ultimately supplanted by Sinn Féin.

Redmond was a skilled parliamentarian and his ability to work the political system in Westminster brought about significant gains for Ireland. Wyndham's Land Act was an integral element of the Conservative's policy of appeasement towards Ireland, but Redmond's attention to intricate detail at committee stage in the House of Commons ensured further concessions to accelerate the transfer of land ownership from landlords to Irish farmers.

Furthermore, the progress on university reform and public housing in Ireland in the first decade of the 20th Century were a direct result of Redmond's parliamentary advocacy and attrition rather than any conciliatory policy by the British government.

The Easter Rising is often said to be responsible for Redmond's downfall, but political miscalculation also played a key role. With the benefit of hindsight, his refusal to take a seat in Asquith's wartime cabinet was a mistake which Carson worked to exploit.

Redmond's inability to engage or even comprehend Ulster unionism was a failure that would be replicated by many more Irish political leaders over the course of the 20th Century. Redmond also underestimated the capacity of separatists to stage a credible insurrection, but in this misjudgement he was joined by the administration in Dublin Castle.

In the winds of change after the Rising, Redmond's eclipse was hastened by the claims of advanced nationalists that he had acted as a recruiting officer for the British military and that he had called for the executions of 1916 insurgents. The first charge was harsh, the second dishonest. Redmond had worked assiduously to save the lives and win amnesty for the 1916 prisoners.

Redmond did strongly empathise with the British war effort, but he also genuinely believed that a strong show of Irish loyalty would copper-fasten Home Rule. What he did not foresee was the slaughter that followed. As Meleady suggests, Redmond gambled, and lost, on the assumption of a short war. Redmond paid a high political price, but the ignominy of his final defeats should no longer obscure his many achievements.

Brian Murphy is a post-graduate student in the School of History and Archives, UCD.

Irish Independent

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