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Books: Redmond's lessons for modern Ireland


Wrong impression: The image of Redmond as a noble failure  has remained in the public mind.

Wrong impression: The image of Redmond as a noble failure has remained in the public mind.

Redmond A Life Undone

Redmond A Life Undone


Wrong impression: The image of Redmond as a noble failure has remained in the public mind.

John Bruton on a new life of the forgotten giant of recent Irish history .

Three weeks before he died at the age of 61 from complications arising from the removal of gallstones, John Redmond wrote to the then Prime Minister David Lloyd George, pleading with him to reverse the decision to close the explosives factory in Arklow with the loss of 3,000 jobs. As a good MP, he was working hard for his Co Wicklow neighbours, right to the very end.  This is one of many colourful anecdotes in a book that bring John Redmond to life as a human being.

After his death, Lloyd George said he had seen Redmond only days before, and described him as "a broken man, with death already written on his face", still "pleading for concord" between the Irish and British races.

This image of Redmond as a noble failure, is unfortunately the one that has remained in the public mind. It is wrong.

Chris Dooley's fluently written book on the last eight years of Redmond's political career goes a long way to redress the balance, and shows Redmond as a tough and effective master of parliamentary tactics, as the man who got British democracy to accept legislative independence for Ireland.

He shows how Redmond exploited the balance of power that the Irish party held after the 1910 General Election to change the constitutional structure of the UK. He had to do this to make Home Rule for Ireland possible.

The constitutional change that Redmond forced on both the Liberal and Conservative parties was the removal of the veto on legislation held, from time immemorial, by the House of Lords. As long as the veto remained, Home Rule for Ireland could never pass because of the inbuilt and permanent Unionist majority in the Lords.

It was a remarkable coup for a leader of a party that held little more that 10pc of the seats in the House of Commons.

Redmond got the Liberals to agree to the removal of the veto by threatening to withdraw his party's support and precipitate a General Election. Home Rule and the end of the Lords veto was the price he forced the Liberals to pay for the rest of their progressive legislative programme.

He then got the Conservative majority in the House of Lords itself to pass the legislation to surrender their veto by forcing both the Liberal Prime Minister Asquith, and the King George V, to agree that they would otherwise create hundreds of new peers to overwhelm the inbuilt Conservative majority in the Upper House.

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Redmond was so successful in altering the constitutional structure of the UK that he was dubbed a dictator by the Daily Mail.

Redmond could have had Home Rule for Ireland in force much earlier if he had been willing to accept, what was later accepted de facto in the Treaty of 1921, partition. Quite early on in the struggle about Home Rule, Unionists were willing to accept it, so long as "Ulster" was excluded from it.

As early as December 1912, Carson persuaded the Ulster Unionist Council to seek the exclusion of Ulster from Home Rule, thereby tacitly accepting that Home Rule would come into being for the rest of Ireland.

As Dooley puts it, the decision of the Unionists to, in effect, concede Home Rule for the rest of Ireland, "suddenly changed the rules of the game".

But this tactical change by Carson was combined with a very real threat of setting up a parallel government and of violent resistance by the Ulster Volunteers if the attempt was made to force Ulster in under Home Rule.

Meanwhile, by the summer of 1914, the Conservative Opposition was working secretly with senior British Army officers to ensure they would not act against a possible theft of army stores by the Ulster Volunteers. In this cause, British Army officers were prepared to refuse legitimate orders, something enlisted ranks would never have got away with.

In trying to respond to these illegal Unionist tactics, Redmond had to cope with the unrealistic expectations of Irish nationalists. Ulster Unionism was just not taken seriously by Irish Nationalism. Unthinkingly, Nationalists assumed that either Ulster Unionists were either bluffing when they said they would resist, or that the British would and could simply force them in under Home Rule.

For example, the Freeman's Journal naively described in the Ulster Covenant in 1912 as "a Belfast farce". Because Redmond had tried to find a compromise with Ulster Unionists, the Archbishop of Dublin publicly intervened in a by-election in Longford in 1917 to oppose Redmond's candidate on similarly naive assumptions about the reality of Ulster Unionism.

Redmond's attempts to get Home Rule into operation quickly, by considering compromises like giving some Ulster counties a right to opt out of Home Rule after a trial period, or their temporary exclusion, got nowhere.

Carson would settle for nothing less than permanent exclusion of six counties, and most Nationalists, like the Archbishop, regarded any exclusion of any counties at all, as a mutilation.

As subsequent events were to show, none of Redmond's critics had any better ideas of how to either cajole, or to coerce, Ulster Unionists into a united Ireland.

Even to this day, advocates of 32-county unity refuse to think seriously about the costs of enforcing it on a minority determined to resist.

Redmond has already been the subject of a number of excellent biographies by Dermot Meleady, Joseph Finnan and Stephen Gwynn.

This book adds something important. It brings out the personal drama of Redmond's intense political struggle. The reader begins to feel as Redmond must have felt at the time and turns the page to see how he coped with so many unforeseen obstacles. Through its extensive, but always relevant, direct quotations from Redmond's speeches and correspondence, it gives a deep insight into the workings of his mind.

It shows how he practised the art of politics - sometimes standing firm, sometimes testing the limits of compromise - but always with twin goals of Home Rule and of preserving the essential unity of Ireland clearly in his sights.

Redmond's practice of complex constitutional politics demanded sustained intellectual effort and strong nerves. It had none of the romantic simplicity of the violence of the 1916 to 1923 period.

But it has far more useful lessons to teach the Ireland of today. So I hope Dooley's book is widely read.

John Bruton is a former Taoiseach

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