Monday 21 October 2019

Why partition was inevitable

James Downey on a new insight into the Irish Question from Ronan Fanning

1914: British politician Edward Carson inspects a parade of armed Ulster Volunteers, the Ulster Unionist paramilitary force, organised by the Ulster Unionist Council and founded by Carson. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)
1914: British politician Edward Carson inspects a parade of armed Ulster Volunteers, the Ulster Unionist paramilitary force, organised by the Ulster Unionist Council and founded by Carson. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)
Ronan Fanning Photo: Tony Gavin

James Downey

HISTORY: Fatal Path: British Government and Irish Revolution 1910-1922 Ronan Fanning Faber and Faber, €24.50, tpbk, 422 pages Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709350

David Lloyd George, the Welsh Wizard, has always been credited with solving the Irish Question and removing the "cancer" of Ireland from British domestic policies.

But did he truly succeed where such giants as Pitt, Peel and Gladstone had all failed?

Yes, in the sense that he removed the issue from the British agenda for half a century. Yet no reader of Ronan Fanning's magnificent Fatal Path: British Government and Irish Revolution 1910-1922 can but wonder whether what he really solved was the Ulster Question.

Fanning, Emeritus Professor of Modern History at University College Dublin, has crowned his career with this lapidary work. It is beautifully written, compellingly argued, gleaming with clarity as he confidently makes his way through a story of confusion, deceit and denial lightened by rare glimpses of honest men doing their best.

And it comes to two conclusions more convincingly than any other historian, nationalist or unionist, that I have read.

First, partition was inevitable – probably throughout the entire period under review, certainly from the time of the introduction of the Third Home Rule Bill in 1914. He describes this event as a "charade", a word he applies to the actions of more than one British politician.

Secondly, violence pays. Fanning takes no moral stand on its use to achieve political ends. He calls the present work "a case study in the high politics of how physical force can prevail over democracy".

And nobody can deny that the threat of violence was crucial to the Ulster Unionists' success in thwarting a Home Rule settlement that would leave Ireland united.

In addition, he points to the Kilmichael ambush and Bloody Sunday as events which awoke a somnolent Whitehall and Dublin Castle administration to the nightmarish possibility that Ireland could become ungovernable.

In the case of Bloody Sunday, the British had to face another nightmare, that of security forces running out of control. This would repeat itself in our own time, on the other Bloody Sunday in Derry.

Behind it all loomed the indubitable fact of a treasonable conspiracy involving the Ulster Unionists, the Conservative Party and some (not all) of the military chiefs. Like other historians, Fanning gives weight to that factor. But he reserves most of his scorn for the failings of most British political leaders, and some Irish.

The unlucky John Redmond comes badly out of this account. The author accuses him of over-optimism and outright self-delusion – characteristics not unknown among Irish politicians in later times.

He deplores the clumsy handling of the 1921 Treaty negotiations by the inexperienced Irish delegation led by Arthur Griffith.

He refers only briefly to Eamon de Valera's enormous mistake in staying at home instead of going to London with the delegation. That was all the more unforgivable in view of the fact that he was relatively well briefed by Griffith. He could have chosen to make a dramatic appearance in London at some crucial point in the talks.

As to the British leaders and officials who were prominent in the various stages of the crisis, few get – and few deserve – even muted praise.

The picture of Winston Churchill here closely resembles the one that was popular among his contemporaries: brilliant but unreliable. Herbert Henry Asquith prided himself on "masterly inactivity". It was not until 1920 that a handful of clever and imaginative officials found their way into Dublin Castle.

The reasons (or excuses) are numerous. Contempt for the "stagnant pond" across "that odious Irish Channel". The maxim that Ireland destroyed British reputations. Religious prejudice. Cowardice.

Fanning explains why politicians, not just those of the British variety, behave so badly. The coolness of his analysis is one of the things that make his book a delight to read.

Another delight comes at the very beginning. Before he analyses the past, he conveys a message for the present.

On the forthcoming "decade of commemoration", he writes in his introduction that "commemoration is an entirely laudable if somewhat Utopian political objective. But it is not history. The danger is that its practitioners will propagate a bland, bloodless and bowdlerised hybrid of history, designed to offend no one."

Still, some people – including British politicians – do learn from history.

For 40 years after the Irish Question (or the Ulster Question) came back to bite them in 1969, they were motivated like Lloyd George (as Fanning writes, quoting Roy Hattersley) by neither prejudice nor principle. All they wanted was a deal. Like Lloyd George, they got one. It took a bit of bullying and a good deal of cynicism. But it was real politics. And real history.


James Downey is a political columnist for the Irish Independent.

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