Saturday 17 November 2018

Barrister friends but political polar opposites

History: Redmon & Carson, Alvin Jackson, Royal Irish Academy, €30

Irish nationalist leader John Redmond
Irish nationalist leader John Redmond
Edward Carson.
Redmond & Carson

Charles Lysaght

In 1912, the Irish nationalist leader John Redmond used his position holding the balance of power in the House of Commons to force the Liberal government to introduce the Home Rule Bill. In Ireland opposition to it was led by Dubliner Edward Carson, a unionist who represented Trinity College in Parliament and was the foremost advocate at the English Bar.

By 1914, Carson and his British Conservative allies had watered down their opposition to the Bill so that they were merely demanding that most of Ulster should be excluded and remain under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Westminster parliament. There were demonstrations and threats of armed resistance in the Protestant North. The Liberal government wavered, proposing that six Northern counties should be allowed to opt out of Home Rule for six years. "A sentence of death with a stay in execution," was Carson's negative response.

No compromise had been reached when war broke out in August 1914. Under pressure from Redmond, the government had the Home Rule Bill enacted into law - but with its operation suspended until war ended.

Redmond, like Carson, called on his followers to join up to fight the Germans, whose atrocities in Catholic Belgium ensured that Redmond's stand had overwhelming support in nationalist Ireland. However, he lost the political leverage of holding the balance of power in May, 1915 when the Conservatives joined in a coalition government with Carson as Attorney General.

The executions following the 1916 rebellion swept out in a river of blood Redmond's project of reconciliation with Britain. Realising the danger posed by nationalist extremists, Lloyd George brokered an agreement between Carson and Redmond that would have allowed a Home Rule government to take office outside six counties of Ulster, leaving the issue of partition to be addressed at the end of the war.

Yielding to threats of resignation, the government reneged on the deal so discrediting Redmond, who had exposed himself to criticism for concessions he made on Ulster to reach a settlement.

Redmond never recovered politically, losing a succession of by-elections to Sinn Fein. He died quite suddenly in March 1918, a poor and brokenhearted man. He was only 61. Among those who attended the Mass for him in Westminster Cathedral was a visibly sad Edward Carson, Redmond's political nemesis; their unbroken friendship stretched back to the 1880s when they were brother barristers on the Leinster circuit.

All this makes appropriate a comparative biography of the two men. But, inappropriately, this lavishly illustrated book, issued to mark the centenary of Redmond's death, does Redmond less than justice.

It debunks him as ineffectual without specifying how he could have altered outcomes by acting differently. There is little appreciation of the skill with which he forced the liberals to resume the championship of home rule after 1910.

Adequate allowance is not made for the difficulties he faced from 1913 onwards, jammed between unionist and nationalist intransigence on partition and lacking effective leverage with a coalition government, whose repressive conduct delivered nationalist Ireland into the hands of extremists.

No credit is given to Redmond, one of the great political orators of the age, for being the most effective ever ambassador of nationalist Ireland in Britain. Typically, after a speech he gave to the Oxford Union in 1907, a local paper wrote: "It is doubtful if the Union has ever heard, or will ever hear again, a speech that will have such influence on its hearers."

By 1914 even most Conservatives were reconciled to self-government for this part of Ireland. This transformation of British opinion and the suspended Home Rule Act 1914 created the platform from which it was possible to get British agreement to a greater measure of independence, albeit not total independence and only for 26 counties, in 1921.

The author is much better on Carson who was a more colourful, troubled and complex character. Quick-tempered, impulsive, rash in speech, devil-may care in manner, obstinate, thoughtless, the unionist Carson, with his unadulterated Dublin accent, was much more the English stereotype of an Irishman than the reserved, urbane, conciliatory nationalist that was John Redmond. More barrister than politician, Carson failed in office. His metier was opposition, fighting his causes with the same deadly ferocity with which he tore apart opponents in court. The Ulster unionists, whose cause he espoused, were the only total victors in the Irish conflict. The majestic statue of Carson at Stormont bears witness to their debt to him. However, there is evidence touched upon by the author that Carson harboured regrets about the outcome, viewing with distaste the sectarianism of Ulster unionism and feeling sad that the end result of his actions was an Irish State determined to break totally the British connection in which his own unionist people were marginalised.

President Higgins will lay a wreath on Redmond's grave in Wexford this afternoon at 3 pm.

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