Thursday 19 September 2019

John Bruton: Independence in principle was won in 1914

John Redmond had already made the political hard choices without resorting to a rising, writes John Bruton

Political campaigner John Redmond addresses the crowds. Photo: Getty
Political campaigner John Redmond addresses the crowds. Photo: Getty

John Bruton

Gene Kerrigan said on January 3 that he does not think John Redmond should have supported voluntary recruitment to the UK Army in 1914, and, from that questionable proposition, he leaps to the conclusion that the 1916 Rebellion was both necessary and right.

These are two separate questions. The killing, on the western front or at Gallipoli, did not justify the additional killing planned by the 1916 rebels, or vice-versa.

Conscription was not imposed in Ireland during the Great War, although it did apply in Britain. All the Irish who fought in the Great War were volunteers. Conscription in Ireland was threatened in 1918, but not applied, because of mass political agitation, not because of the use of violence in Dublin two years earlier.

Redmond's 1914 decision to support voluntary recruitment was made for a number of reasons, one of which was that Home Rule had just been passed into law. It was not just "promised" as Mr Kerrigan says, but passed into law and signed, after a long struggle which required Redmond to threaten to bring down the Liberal Government if it did not abolish the House of Lords' veto.

It is wrong to describe the tough parliamentary tactics Redmond adopted as mere "mediating between rulers and ruled". As did Parnell in his time, Redmond was willing to use the ultimate parliamentary weapon, precipitating a general election, to achieve his goal - the passage into law of Home Rule.

Without that threat by Redmond, the UK Parliament would not have conceded the principle of Irish self-government, when it irrevocably did so in September 1914, after three years' parliamentary struggle.

Redmond was no mere mediator. He was a tough democratic politician who made the hard choices.

Mr Kerrigan may believe that big powers have no obligation to defend the neutrality of small countries, when the latter are attacked. Redmond did not agree with that approach. He accepted in his Woodenbridge speech that France and the UK had an obligation to defend the neutrality of Belgium when it was invaded, without provocation, by Imperial Germany in 1914. Redmond believed Belgian neutrality should be protected. I wonder what course Mr Kerrigan would have advised the Belgians to adopt, if he had been around in 1914.

He is, of course, right to say that our task today is to understand "what the choices were for those who created this State". If so, the first thing one must do is accept that they did actually have a choice.

They could have chosen not to start the killing and dying in Dublin in 1916. Most Irish people, at the time, did not think they made the right choice, including this newspaper. The military commander of the Irish Volunteers, Eoin MacNeill, also thought it was the wrong choice at that time.

There are other reasons to question the choice made. Mr Kerrigan himself suggested the 1916 leaders, who went ahead against MacNeill's orders, deliberately and knowingly, sought to bring suffering on their own people, to achieve their political goals. Mr Kerrigan endorsed this calculated provocation of foreseeable, and foreseen, suffering imposed on uninvolved Irish people. As Mr Kerrigan put it, the leaders of the rebellion had what he called a "pragmatic belief" that, if they staged a rebellion, the authorities "would strike back viciously... and thereby inflame nationalist feeling".

He is not alone in this interpretation, but we should think very carefully about what it really means, before we decide how the actions of the 1916 leaders are to be treated, from now on, as the seminal event of our modern, peaceful, democracy. Mr Kerrigan's claim is, after all, that the rebel leaders, to advance their political goals, foresaw, and even sought, the sufferings that fell on the Irish people as result of their military actions. It would be difficult to reconcile that approach with any known concept of a just war.

The bulk of the suffering in Dublin in 1916 was not by the "Volunteers", but by, I would call, the "Involunteers", the civilians and unarmed police, who were just getting on with their lives, but killed anyway.

The 1916 leaders made what Mr Kerrigan praises as a "pragmatic" choice to set in train events that, with foreknowledge, led to all those deaths, then and later between 1919 and 1923. Now some will claim that Home Rule was inadequate. It was. In practice, I believe it would only have applied to a maximum of 28 counties. There would not have been a United Ireland.

But after three generations of some among our people continuing with the sort of "pragmatic" violence, we do not have a United Ireland today either!

The fact remains that, through solely parliamentary methods, the principle of Irish legislative independence had been already won in September 1914, before any rebellion, and, as Conservative leader Bonar Law subsequently admitted, there was no going back on it. The same principle of legislative independence was conceded to Canada, Australia and to the other dominions. They all proceeded to full sovereignty, without a civil war.

A Home Rule Ireland would have done the same, if that was the wish of the Irish people. After all, the Home Rule Parliament would have elected under the same wide suffrage that applied in 1918.

I believe Ireland would then have proceeded, by negotiation, to full independence on the basis of votes, not bullets. Commemoration is one of the ways by which a people defines itself, and tells itself what it regards as important now and for future generations.

I believe peaceful democratic achievements, like land reform, the enactment of Home Rule in 1914, the enactment of the 1922 and 1937 constitutions, and the declaration to the Republic in 1949, should therefore be commemorated, with equal or greater prominence than military actions.

John Bruton is former Taoiseach, former leader of Fine Gael and was European Union Ambassador to the US

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